Microscope or macroscope? The viewer under the magnifying glass
Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink
September 2007 – Theatermaker
You obviously know about such a metaphor. You constantly think how you can stay away from moralism. Holding a mirror in front of someone's face can raise suspicion: you are now going to tell me what the world looks like. I find the association with a camera much more appropriate, or with the feeling you sometimes have in a movie: that you are floating above a city, and you can zoom in and out.
Because the window is one large, clear frame, it also becomes a film screen from time to time. I would have liked to have made a very nice film here, where you are completely in the story of those people in the square. But then you lose what you want to tell about, because you want to talk about how you look and not just show a beautiful story. So that what I would actually find super nice to do, I can not do it myself.
‘Welcome spectator! What are you actually doing on that stand?’
At the last summer festivals, this question is again asked in all sorts of pitches and timbres. By an absent stand for example. We took our folding chair to the waterfront ourselves, we folded ourselves in a sea container, or we lay in bed – like in U bevindt zich hier from Dries Verhoeven. The spectators themselves were also thematized: we were equipped with headphones or video glasses or looked at the public space, as in Gerucht van Lotte van den Berg. The role of the spectator has been a hot topic in recent years, and not just at summer festivals or outdoor locations. Also in the theater our perception is central – think of Ivana Müllers While we were holding it together – or our seat disappears, as in STAU by Anouk van Dijk. We are sometimes part of the show well before the premiere: we read rehearsal diaries on the internet or follow the rehearsal process via a webcam. Theater makers investigate their relationship with the public and are looking for new answers to questions such as: who is that spectator, and what is watching? Questions that have been called up by U bevindt zich hier and Gerucht. Two performances that, on closer inspection, ask many more questions and that I use here to think about what possible answers to these questions are.
To start with: how new is the interest for the spectator? Is the observer not always important? No theater without spectators, right? Of course that’s true. And certainly, we’ve seen it before. Since the introduction of the black box, there has been experimenting with audience exhibitions. We were previously on beds (Koppen, Het Zuidelijk Toneel 1996). We were previously isolated and addressed to our senses (for instance Nachtwerk, Suver Nuver 1996). We saw theater in the public space (think of Warner & Consorten). We can go back further into history, and yet: the ‘Welcome spectator!’ Also manifests itself emphatically in the present. We speak of a development that is not exclusive to contemporary theater, but which we can understand from a contemporary context. Marianne van Kerkhoven writes in The re-politicization of the gaze, her contribution to Theater moet schuren (2005): “More and more theater makers are busy developing new strategies towards the public, with new strategies regarding the way we look.” She describes this development on the one hand as a possible search for the ‘lost’ spectator, who dropped out after the reforms in the theater in the eighties and nineties (who also produced new spectators), and on the other hand as an expression of a larger social development, in which media nurture and restrict our view of the world and our thinking about the world. Steering the focus, curtailing one’s own choices, excluding what is not shown, is actually a form of depoliticisation, says Van Kerkhoven. She explains the political as (giving opportunity to) the capacity of the public to think critically and independently and to test that thinking against other spectators. She continues with the question: “Is the biggest assignment for theater today perhaps in the ‘transformation’, the re-politicization of the gaze and thus in commemorating his relationship with the spectator?”
Spectator and audience
How is this ‘recall’ of the relationship with the viewer shaped? My impression is that this transformation manifests itself primarily in the search for a balance between the public, as a (small) mass, and the individual spectator; in performances in which there is a consciousness that that group of people ‘in the stands’ consists of a collection of individuals. I think that is typically an expression of the larger social developments that Van Kerkhoven writes about. We live in an individualized society, and new media in particular give us (also) the opportunity to make our own choices, to showcase ourselves on websites such as Hyves and YouTube, to be interactive. That individuality stands in an interesting contrast with the theater, which is essentially a group event. Even in a performance where you go in one by one, you are still the one who goes before or after the other. Together you are still a group. In Theater and Public Access (2006), Kees Vuyk attributes the marginal position of contemporary theater to the fact that theater is by definition a social event. People are especially interested in themselves, he writes in his contribution. They want to delve into the psychology of the individual, not in social processes. But do we not see a reaction in the attention to the viewer, a movement in time?
In the eighties and nineties we saw the actor as ‘himself’, as a performer in the theater. Now this individuality extends to the public.
Theater makers seem to be looking for a balance between the collective and the individual. A search that, however differently, shows a parallel with broader social developments in which the individual and the collective (and the local and the global) lie side by side on the scales: we are only part of communities behind our screen; integration is more successful if you retain your own identity, as was evident from a recent survey; on the way to Europe we have the need to set up a National Museum.
With the attention for the individual spectator, in a larger audience, attention is also being paid to what is watching. Not looking at the crowd, but looking at the individual in a mass. Through their performances theater makers ask me, as spectator: who are you? What do you see, how do you look, what do you experience? And also: what do you hope to find in the theater, how do you relate to other spectators, where do you stand in the collective? Does this claim to the viewer not change the way we reflect on these kinds of performances? When individual perception determines to a large extent the content of a performance, that uniqueness can not stop at the edges of the paper. When I want to write about Gerucht and U bevindt zich hier I can not ignore my personal perception. Then the consciousness for the moment, the here-and-now that characterizes these representations, must also return to writing. I will have to bring myself into the limelight. Let me at least start with that.
Gerucht / Rumor
We sit in a large wooden cube, on a small stand and look through a transparent wall over the Janskerkhof in Utrecht. Four actors look outside with us through the window.
I see movement in the square, a colorful variation of rhythmic patterns. The longer I watch, the more that movement becomes one big breath, of cyclists who flow in and out of the corners of the square, buses that turn around the curve, come to you and remove themselves, walkers with and without purpose. The breathing of the city.
My eyes wander around the square loosely, until one of the actors opens the door in the transparent wall and walks into the square. She quietly crosses the street. One by one the actors go out the door and walk away until they disappear from the picture. With that walk I suddenly notice how different people walk on the square: fast, strolling, alone, together, behind each other. One of the actors suddenly re-entered. Hey, how did he come in so unnoticed? When an actor later passes by, I notice that my focus shifts to the cyclists in the square, and to the rhythm of all those revolving wheels. And when an actor is calling, ten other people suddenly stand in the square with a telephone in their hands.
My focus is constantly shifting, but in the meantime life on the square continues. That life is not directed, that is clear to me.
Yet I find myself in a sort of spatial poetry, in which images shift forward and backward, changing rhythms. It is actually only my gaze that is organized, or directed. But I am also being released each time. Because actors disappear from the picture. Because the square demands attention. Someone looks inside the box. A strange face, such a group of people sitting outside in a box on a square. The mutual viewing leads to some embarrassment, is solved with a smile and our viewer disappears from the picture.
A little later, looking changes into hearing. Or hearing into looking, the distinction is sometimes difficult to make. The actors wear microphones on their bodies, strengthening the sound of the actions – of each individual actor. I hear someone chewing on an apple, with keys in the back. They are far away, sometimes barely visible, but are close to sound. I move in the actor who is wearing a walkman, until I am ‘out of the picture’. I ‘sit’ in the middle of the sound of shoes that kick hard against a metal tray.
I see how sound becomes image and vice versa. The actors draw soundtracks across the square. I’m being fooled. We spectators hear the sound of rain falling from the sky and I see how the actors pull their coats over their heads and run inside. I would swear they are soaked, but it is fake. This is theater. I continue to believe my eyes and ears, while at the same time I see through the construction. That is also theater. The performance is thus a series of moments that we recognize as mechanisms from the theater, but also a succession of mechanisms in our own viewing behavior. Maybe theater and looking are the same. I also notice how cruel looking can be. Why are there so many people laughing when a somewhat fat man walks limp along slightly, or a very sour looking woman?
Because we have started to look at everything as if it were theater? Or because we want to be entertained in the theater?
Why is this theater? Because there are actors? Because we look? Because imagination takes over? When one of the actors plays a record with film music – at least that effect has the swelling sound immediately – I notice how nice it is to look through that window and to think that everything that happens on the square is one big film. Why is that actually nice? A bus drives past. I am back on the square again.
You are here / U bevindt zich hier
With some tense expectations I enter a dark warehouse. In the distance I see some lights and when I get closer I see that a hotel has been recreated here. People behind the counter ask the audience to take off their shoes. Shortly afterwards I walk on my socks through the corridors of the hotel, looking for room 11. It is a bare room with a bed. I feel a little abandoned.
Suddenly I wanted to be safe between the audience. Just look a bit anonymous and then walk out of the room without anyone knowing that I was there.
It looks like I have to do something. Do I want that?
A letter is pushed under my door. There are questions. That’s not too bad. I can answer that. I do not know what I dreamed last night, but I do know that I used to be a chef or interior designer. I slide the paper back under the door. Next to me I hear a bed cracking. Apparently that person is still trying to find his way.
Another paper slides under my door. It says: “And what have you become?” Well, I have deviated slightly from that path. Now I am curious. There are all kinds of invisible people in this hotel, and I communicate with one of them. I am a hotel guest, and who is that other person? I’m lying on the bed. I see myself through the mirror on the ceiling.
How do I actually feel today? Just when I think that my pants look a bit weird in this lying position, the mirror ceiling slowly rises. In the rooms next to me, I see people lying in bed, just like me. On the right I have eye contact. On the left is a very large man, who was still talking very loud to his friends outside, but now makes a somewhat silent impression. The ceiling rises higher and higher until I see everyone. And there in the bottom, I am there myself. It is also a solemn moment, being a silent participant in something bigger than yourself. It is a sight that continues to fascinate for a long time.
Meanwhile, a story is told in which the main character – addressed with ‘you’ – might have wanted to be a cook or interior designer. We are led one by one to the middle of the hotel, where we get a little paistry put in our mouth. We are being covered. Oddly enough, I am already so used to myself as a visible, individual viewer, that when I see that everyone is doing the same thing, it annoys me. Hey, was not I just a number? Number 11? When the mirror slowly drops down again and my room gets its own lighting again, I get another night light. With my own name on it, that’s something. When we shuffle out on our socks again, I look at the other people around me. I feel a bit related to them. Everyone has seen something different, but then again not really. And we have seen each other. Once outside I have the feeling that I have been away for a while, as if I had spent a night in a hotel and dreamed about it. I think back at the beginning, at the ‘help, do I have to do something?’. At that moment, when I was very honest with myself, I felt a kind of suspicion. Oops, that’s confronting. Approach the unknown with distrust. Is that not what underlies all forms of fanaticism, of war, of us against them-thinking? It was probably not the idea of Dries Verhoeven, but here a mirror is held up for us, and a self-image is smashed to pieces.
Gerucht is in the middle of the city. In the middle of the public space, which is formed by your own presence. As soon as you leave the performance you exchange one audience for another, observing behavior for participating in that behavior. You are part of the haste, the languor, the consuming, the free democracy. The square, which has become visible as a multitude of places (historical site, traffic junction, passage space, residence, scene), will then undisturbed to your own goal. Gerucht is not just about looking at the city and your relationship to the city. It is also a performance about perception itself. That perception is offered in many different ways. It is a continuous alternation of watching and listening, from focus to overview, a switch between far and near, distance and intimacy, imagination and reality. Because you are always let go, you also observe the way in which you perceive. Of course, the city and perception are connected. Lotte van den Berg emphasizes in an interview that the city is not an objective given; she is what you make of it yourself. This perception does not only go through looking, but is primarily a process of the brain. The city is a subjective given.
I was not the only one who looked. With me, at least thirty others looked at that square. Precisely because you are in a group, you also realize that others look at the city in a totally different way than yourself (just as the reader may have thought of the above: but I saw that very differently). That is precisely the theme that Gerucht addresses. The city is a subjective given. It would be nice to read the concept of subjectivity here as is usually defined in (theater) scientific discourse: subjectivity is not so much a personal given, but rather an intersubjective datum.
Subjectivity arises because you relate to others and your environment, whether you do that through the agreement or the difference.
Just as Gerucht tells us something about the perception itself, U bevindt zich hier talks about the experience. You only start in a room, you lie on a bed, there is a mirror above your head. Because there is nothing more than that, you become aware of that moment itself, of what you see and hear, of your own body, of your environment. U bevindt zich hier: You are here: it can not be clearer. This ‘here’ is a lot of things at the same time: the now, the hotel room, yourself, your body, the place where you are together with others. The performance is an encounter between ‘you’ and ‘here’. An encounter between yourself and your experience, and gradually a meeting between you and the others, between you and the world. The performance is also a ritual in which you participate. Sometimes it is very nice to participate in a ritual. Especially when you experience that as one of those rare moments when you are on the same wavelength with a group of people. That can even be very moving. But a ritual is also: you submit to a larger whole. We have difficulties with that, Kees Vuyk says. We do not want to be a number. Here we touch upon a paradox that characterizes many experiential representations: the lack of freedom in the experience. U bevindt zich hier tells you in many ways: you are welcome, you can experience what you want, your experience is free. But your body is not free. That body lies in a bed, in a room or sits in a ball on the water (as with Boukje Schweigman) or is connected to technological equipment (for example Eric Joris / CREW). And your own (group) behavior also does not help. Of course, you can take a look in the corridors of the hotel, but who does that?
It is noticeable how many people are guided by the instructions without a murmur, following the guide (a singing guide admittedly, but that can not be the reason). So while you’ve adjusted to your personal experience, you’re just a herd animal.
It is not pleasant to see yourself as a sheep. You prefer to be the critical viewer who knows very well that his gaze is being manipulated. You can still maintain a sense of autonomy. At least that’s what you think. In U bevindt zich hier you can not surmise that you are part of a group yourself. And whether you have no problem with that now, and find comfort in the presence of the other person, whether there is irritation, in both cases that leads to the awareness of yourself as an individual as part of a collective. And of course that is what it is all about in this performance, the questions: who are you alone and how do you relate to the collective? Not only the perception, but also the experience is ultimately (inter)subjective.
Mirror, window, camera
It is actually crystal clear, how perception and experience coincide with the core idea of these representations. Just as clear as the coincidence of thought and form. Dries Verhoeven focuses on (the experience of) the spectator and does so by literally portraying the viewer. Lotte van den Berg wants to talk about how you can relate to the city and the world, and does so by literally putting the theater in the city. How much space does all that literality actually allow for the imagination? For metaphors in the theater? It is rather the case that theater is investigated here as a metaphor itself. The metaphors of theater as a mirror of the world and theater as a window on reality; as a frame in which we traditionally see a representation of reality. Only now do we see the viewer(s) in the mirror. The spectator who is alone and yet together, part of a whole. We look through the window and see reality there. This not only leads to the observation that the world itself has become theater, but also to the realization that we make it theater because we look at it with a theater look. We have seen that perception in theater can be easily manipulated. Which leads eventually to the realization that this is of course also the case in our daily lives. We have experienced that perception and experiences are subjective. We are getting close to Van Kerkhoven’s ‘re-politicizing of the gaze’. It seems to me that these theater metaphors are not reversed and tilted for nothing. Both makers tell me in an interview that I have with them, that they always want to return to what is the essence of theater for them. For Dries Verhoeven, that is the moment when you are together in a room with a number of people, and the consciousness for that moment. For Lotte van den Berg, watching and observing is central. Actors in her performances seem to say ‘just look’, and the spectator looks. It is also striking that her viewing is practically without judgment. Both makers deliberately seek the moment when you (temporarily) become a group as an audience. When I present their thoughts about the theatrical metaphor, it is striking that the comparison with film soon arises.
Dries Verhoeven: “Of course you know about such a metaphor, you constantly think how you can stay away from moralism. Keeping a mirror in front of someone’s face can create mistrust: you’re going to tell me what the world looks like. I find the camera a lot more appropriate, or with the feeling you sometimes have in a movie: that you are floating above a city, and you can zoom in and out.”
Lotte van den Berg: “Because the window is one big, clear frame, it also becomes a film screen from time to time. I would have liked to have made a very nice film here, where you are completely in the story of those people in the square. Then you lose what you want to tell, because you want to tell about how you look and not only show a beautiful story, so that what I would really like to do, I can not do it myself.”
Zooming in and out is expressly reflected in both performances. It is the structure of U bevindt zich hier, the texture of gerucht. Also as a spectator you zoom in and out: looking and listening, head and heart, me and we.
The attention for the spectator is a recurring phenomenon in history. Looking back on the past helps you to look at the present, as Marianne van Kerkhoven shows. The world in which it has all been done before is constantly changing, she emphasizes. Verhoeven and Van den Berg are looking for what theater can mean now, and therefore go back to the basics: space, performer, spectators. That moment, that place, that group of people, and then? That is where these makers reinvent the theater. And that’s it. Theater must also be invented again and again. And I? I participate. I have consciously picked up my role as a spectator. And with that imagination it is still good. I have travelled. I have been away for a while. But I was also in the moment, am asked to relate to that moment and myself and the world.
Van den Berg: “What is looking, and what is seeing? You can also see something without putting yourself outside of it, without making yourself irresponsible. How you relate to the world lies not only in doing things, but also in being present, and you are present through your perception, or through the attention you give to it.”
Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink is a theater spectator and works as a lecturer in Theater Studies at Utrecht University.