Mathilde Walker-Billaud

In her philosophy book Homo Spectator, Marie José Mondzain connects the birth of subjectivity to the advent of spectatorship. When prehistoric men left traces of their hands on the walls on their caves they built a relationship with their environment. These first handprints are a tentative response to the human incapacity for seeing oneself. What moves us in these signs on the walls, Marie-José Mondzain says, are not the people, the subjects of the representation, but the meaning of the gesture, the signal transmitted to us. Homo Spectator was born from the distance from himself, and, at the same time, from his gestures toward others. There is no spectatorship without a dialogue, without circulation and exchanges between the performer and the public, creator and audience.

The act of spectatorship requires otherness which echoes Jean-Luc Godard’s statement: “In order to see an image, you need two persons.” This is the guiding idea for my program “What You Get Is What You See.” In this series, I invite artists to share their personal impressions as watchers, listeners, viewers, readers, etc, with the UnionDocs community.

For the first season, writer Luc Sante, musician Jace Clayton, choreographer nora chipaumire, artist David Levine, playwright Ant Hampton, Internet enthusiast Kenyatta Cheese and writer Geoff Manaugh kindly accepted my invitation to move beyond their positions as creators and take the seat of the spectators, the other side of art practice.


When you think about spectators, you imagine a crowd, a community that is bound together by the experience.

Jace Clayton points out the construction of a unity during live shows. This became clear to him clubbing in the 90’s, when he listened to jungle music at the Loft Club in Boston. It made him discover the conduits of feedback that exist between the crowd and the DJ. In a club, the listeners are actually part of the performance, responding to the music with their bodies and energy… Listening to music is about the “us,” he said. A social unit emerges from a collective moment.

Luc Sante recalls a time when you had to leave your house to see the news of the day. When he was a kid, front pages of tabloids invaded the streets of New York and distracted the attention of the passerby. Reading was a collective experience then.

Luc Sante at UnionDocs

Today, the experience is more individual. People read on private devices in an individual space, at home, at the office… This privatization has radically transformed the way we spectate.

Jace Clayton believes that spectatorship requires involvement and sometimes endurance.

At the Woodstock festival in 1969, in the middle of his set Jimi Hendrix played a long and distorted version of the U.S. National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. He disrupted the unity between the spectators and the spectacle to force the audience to question the performance — and the festival. In the act of spectating, there is always a fragile balance between enjoyment and resistance, unity and individuality.

Jace Clayton at UnionDocs


David Levine has noticed the appearance of a very relaxed spectator. In the theater, you pay a ticket, you sit down in the dark and you stay in the theater until the end of the performance. The audience feels an obligation toward the actors to watch their complete work, whether they enjoy the performance or not.

In a gallery, the visitors come and go whenever they wish, they look at their phones during the show, sometimes they speak to their fellow spectators. The audience doesn’t seem to care much about the performers anymore.

In response to his observation, David Levine strove to generate that type of spectators with his art-theater installation Habit.

Geoff Manaugh also came across these lazy and blasé spectators. In his research for his book on surveillance in the city, he realized that guards are not as focused as we assumed. We are all afraid to be surveilled by video cameras, but in fact no one is really watching. Geoff Manaugh shared the story of a guard who used the cameras in the parking lot to watch his own car.

You can read more stories about spectatorship and city surveillance in Geoff Manaugh’s new book A Burglar’s Guide to the City


Another question David raised is, “What happens when there are no more spectators?”

In American science-fiction movies from the 70s, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, the characters navigate in a world of simulation, where their human acquaintances (friends, colleagues, street encounters…) are slowly replaced by aliens who look the same but aren’t human anymore.

The humans who witness the slow transformation of their peers are terrorized. Spectatorship is synonymous with alertness, distress and fear. It is work.

David Levine at UnionDocs

In the films, as soon as a human being transforms into the invader, (s)he is relieved of all forms of self-consciousness and emotion. When there is no one watching, when there are no spectators (neither actors), nobody cares about the world anymore. Without separation, there is nothing left to share.


We navigate in a world where the spectacle has melted into the real, where we can no longer distinguish the fake from the genuine, the lie from the truth.

In this new order, spectators are an endangered species.

For some artists, it’s no longer important to draw the line between the spectators and the actors. Ant Hampton is fascinated by a genre of theater called “live documentary” or “live archive” in which the audience watches a fluid and elegant improvisation inspired by true facts. The final form is not a recorded piece but a documentary actively rehearsed and improvised on stage. In Cozarinsky y su médico (“Cozarinsky and his doctor”) a theater play by Vivi Tellas, the audience witnesses real medical checks up of the main actor, the explosive and volatile writer Cozarinsky.

At the end of this piece, Cozarinsky, as both a person and a character, asks the public a favor, establishing a new type of contract with his spectators. He asks them to keep the news about his sickness secret outside the theater. This request plunges the audience into the real. They now have an active role in Cozarinsky’ play and his life.

Ant Hampton at UnionDocs

Kenyatta Cheese believes in the new role of the spectators-actors. Goodbye to Godlike POV, adios authorship. We have entered into a system in which the spectators have become part of art making. Thanks to the web, social networks and online communities, each of us responds to what we see and enters into a dialogue with the creators and other participants. Spectators can have an active role in the process.

Kenyatta Cheese at UnionDocs

In these confused times, artists would be foolish to ignore their audience, thinks Kenyatta Cheese. He has studied this huge social change. With his company Everybody at Once, he now helps media and entertainment companies better engage with their fans.

Some artists don’t want to embrace this Duchampian revolution, and just want to destroy the concept of spectatorship.

This is the case of nora chipaumire who considers the spectators as expatriates; the foreigners look from a distance, without real interest or commitment in what they spectate. Chipaumire hopes to awaken this zombie by calling for action, by destroying the boundary that outlines the spectacle.

Through her research at BAC for her recent dance piece portrait of myself as my father, she reframed the traditional western position of the spectators.

The spectators-actors-authors are still changing and we will continue our investigation in the second installment of the series WYGIWYS, starting on May 9th, 2016 at UnionDocs, with artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan.