2016: THE PARADOX OF THE SPECTATOR
Tuesday 22 March
Brussels has just been attacked; the images and stories about it are coming in as I write. What concerns me most is that I seem to be getting used to it. A few months ago, after the attacks in Paris, I was terribly upset. Now I seem to already know it. The reactions, the measures being taken, they’re already kind of familiar. Today’s attacks scare me less and that’s precisely what really scares me.
Kasia Torz, dramaturg for the Malta Festival in Poznan, asked me to work with her on a section of the programme for the 2016 edition called ‘Idiom’. The starting point of our discussion was the relation between the actor, the witness and the spectator. Is it important to differentiate between these roles, these different ways of engaging? To be honest, at this moment I don’t know.
As a spectator, you occupy a safe place; a spectator does not fear for his or her life. Your connection to the action is indirect, hypothetical; it goes through your mind and emotions. As a witness, you are in the midst of the action, look at it from the epicentre, where you can be hit, devoured. As an actor, the one who acts, you cannot be separated from the action and are responsible for it. In Brussels today, nobody in the metro station was a spectator. Here in Amsterdam, am I a spectator or a witness? And does it matter?
In my experience it is better to be where the action is, because there things are more clear. One night I got a phone call: my younger brother had just had an emergency operation and they had found a tumour in his belly that most likely was cancerous. My mother was there, my sister was there. I was at home and had to stay at home. I couldn’t get to the hospital until the morning. The nerves, the nausea, the absolute helplessness I felt that night – all of that was gone as soon as I walked into the hospital room and saw him, could sit next to his bed, embrace him. Coping, dealing with something from afar is hard for me, my thoughts keep spinning around. When a good friend of mine died, I was in his house with his wife and kids. We peeled vegetables, boiled water, made soup. The fact that we could do something, literally do something, helped.
When we are not where the action is, we do our best to create an overall picture. Radio, television, the Internet. The live blogs intensify, experts are flown in. We speculate, know for certain. Politicians act as if they have the situation under control, but they don’t. Nobody really knows what to do next. Everybody is caught up in the moment, in the midst of the confusion. We let ourselves be caught up in the idea that we know what’s actually going on, that we have an overview of the situation, but everything is complete chaos.
In the theatre, too, we create the illusion of an overall picture. The stage is built so that everybody can see everything, seemingly to put us at ease. The illusion of a watchtower. We give ourselves an elevated place and watch from the dark. For me, today, the notion of this place off the ground, close to the stage, in the dark, has lost its credibility. Right now I don’t believe there is a place to which we can withdraw, a place where we can watch in peace and quiet. At the same time I long for it more than ever. For silence all around me. To focus, zoom in and forget about the rest.
Is it conceivable to watch from a safe place in the full awareness of being in the midst of the world? This touches upon Brecht’s epic desire, the breathing mechanism of knowing and not knowing, of belief and unbelief, of forgetting, remembering and forgetting again. As a spectator, forgetting yourself, becoming absorbed in what you are observing on stage and then suddenly becoming aware again that you exist and are sitting on your chair in the dark, that the action is not only taking place on stage but that you yourself are also undertaking action while you watch and together with hundreds of others are creating the stage.
Looking is an action. By looking, I am connecting myself with the world around me. It feels like I am touching it with my eyes. My gaze wanders around the room; I look at the chairs, the floor, the window. I feel connected with the cold glass in the window frame, and then beyond that, with the garden, the trees outside. It seems like I am exploring from a distance the things I am looking at, my eyes glide over them, touching them lightly and carefully. I’m still sitting here on my chair at the kitchen table, yet I have connected with the brick wall on the other side of the street, far away from me. My eyes linger on the redness of the bricks and the grooves between them. I imagine what it must be like to be there, to be a wall.
The videos, photos, words stream in through Facebook and news sites. A photo of a woman, enervated, slumped on the ground, catches my eye and won’t let me go. Her clothes are in shreds, breasts exposed. Do I want to see this? Should I be seeing this?
Han, a contemporary philosopher, compares the modern person with a wild animal. We are not safe anywhere. We are like the hyenas that consume their prey in the middle of the prairie, always alert, always on their guard, constantly aware of the possibility of being attacked and eaten up themselves.
Spectators absolve themselves of the obligation to respond directly. They can totally wallow in watching and do not feel any obligation to change or influence what they see. At least, not while they are watching. We can lay that role aside, walk out of the theatre and start taking action, knock down walls, build bridges. But when we are sitting in our seats in the dark, we can watch and give our complete attention to what we are seeing. In that sense, giving yourself the role of a spectator, or perhaps even permitting yourself that role, is purposely not taking action. We step off the roller coaster of ongoing potential.
Today, however, is different. I won’t allow myself to be a spectator. I feel I am a witness and am obliged to go into action. Right away, I share what I have seen, send it on, take a position, show myself (look at me, I saw this). Watching the sunset, and while I’m doing that being distracted by potatoes boiling over on the stove, the telephone ringing, children needing to pee and in the meantime looking at images of the devastation in Brussels. Don’t try to impose order on this sorry mess. Take a picture of the sunset. Put it on Facebook. Claim that you watched it.
Again I’m reminded of the night my brother was in the hospital diagnosed with cancer and I was at home and could not go to him. I’ll never forget how the nerves wracked my body. I wanted to do something, couldn’t do anything. This is precisely the feeling in which we trap ourselves. We are apathetic witnesses, passively involved, present in a state of paralysis. We are like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights when we know and see something from afar.
Actor, witness, spectator. We play all of these roles at the same time. The problem, I now understand, is our inability to differentiate between them. It has a paralyzing effect: not daring to choose a role with regard to the action, not making any clear statement about your engagement. It’s understandable, but also shows a lack of self-discipline. You let yourself be carried away by the issues of the day.
You are your own refuge. I read that when I was 18 in a booklet about Buddhism while doing research for an essay I had to write for history class. It has stayed with me ever since. You are your own refuge. I can find repose in watching. I can find repose in acting. I can find repose in acting through watching. Doing everything at the same time tires me. But if I dare to choose, if I dare to put myself at the epicentre of my own actions, I can find repose in whatever I’m doing.
The paradox of the spectator
The paradox of the spectator is being far away and close by at the same time. The paradox of separating yourself from the objects, people and situations you are watching and at the same time connecting yourself to them. The movement of distancing yourself and coming closer happens similarly. You differentiate yourself from the other and at the same time you become part of a new one-ness through watching. We try to establish order by creating an overall picture, positioning ourselves as observers of the world in front our eyes, and at the same time we cannot help but realize that things are constantly happening all around us, that we’ll never get the full picture and that control is impossible. We are in and out of the situation at the same time. The challenge is not to solve this paradoxical situation, this field of confusion, but to go through it, to experience and explore it. Together with the Malta Team of dramaturges, production managers, educators, communicators and technicians, I have built for you a program that gives you the possibility to do just that. To hang around in this field of confusion, walk around in this place of not knowing. We present you theatre spaces that offer the possibility to experience both the exhausting chaos of today’s world and a challenging refuge within it.