DENIAL OF APPLAUSE
by Diego Castro
Talk held at CCC, Geneva, Spring of 2013
Night-time, somewhere in Kreuzberg. While an overt- cool audience of youngGoth-Hipsters1 gathered to see a concert by three bands of the same genre, I was most stunned by the mutual neglect between artists and audience. When the music began, everybody stayed in place, continued their conversations and turned their back on the artists. Not a single song was seconded by applause. I was wondering about this particular audience, celebrating New Wave retro, but being rather ignorant of the intrinsic subculture and its cultural techniques. It has been argued many times, that hipsters buy themselves into authenticity, instead of trying to create something somewhat authentic. The key to why this audience acted that way, could partly be found in a hopeless attempt at achieving authenticity. The immanent codes I was familiar with from back in the hey-days of Cold Wave seemed corrupt.
I can reconstruct, why it would be classified as totally uncool to clap your hands at a New Wave concert in the 1980ies. To explain this, I think you need to recall the holistic concepts of counter-cultures at the time. After Punk Rock, came this music with a very cold feel to it. The “coldness” -yes you might want to associate Marshall McLuhan here- was total. Also, it was a matter of celebration. It was staged, without necessarily being fake. You would have to feel it, in order to be able to express it. These negative expressions were imbedded in a dramatic geopolitical and cultural situation, at the height of cold war and existential trauma of a nuclear deadlock between the USSR and the US, where nobody could make a move. Simultaneously Rock 'n' Roll had come to a grinding halt. The sensuality of rock music found itself reversed to paralysis. After punk rock had blown up the the positivist sense of community of an antagonistic youth culture, now come mainstream, New Wave came to celebrate an emotional, under-cooled and introvert attitude. It seemed like the total antipode of rock 'n' roll hysteria. Yet, it is not to be confused with a lack of emotionality.
The withdrawal to the inner psyche and the staging of one's own perishableness, mirrored the dismantling of the welfare state in Margret Thatcher's and Helmut Kohl's Europe. The threat of a nuclear “Theatre Europe”, the galloping destruction of the environment and ever increasing unemployment rates together with the beginning of neoliberal hyper-individualisation, provoked a scenario, in which positivism and vitality seemed out of place. They might have seemed even more morbid than any kind of grim gothic chique. The early eighties in this sense were probably more about a memento mori in singular togetherness, in a community destroyed by consumerist culture. Clapping your hands, back then, by some would be looked upon as an impossible expression of positivity. If there's someone on stage whaling death and mourning the senselessness of human existence, why give him a positive feed-back? Applause? Uncool! That would have been a commitment to not understanding the totality of the cultural concept. But crossing you arms and just gazing at the musicians could have been very cool. It would have been an act of affirmation of the all-encompassing act.
But what's the use of clapping your hands anyway? Applause, as we know, means positive feed-back. It is an expression of taking pleasure in an artistic rendition and a sign of respect. Applause knows many forms, from academic table rapping to standing ovations. From people shouting bravos and encores to the uniformed applause at the congress of the Communist Party of China. The absence of applause could be interpreted as rude or disapproving. Nevertheless, spontaneous emotional demonstrations have not always been part of the etiquette.
In the 19th century, as sociologist Richard Sennett2 reports, a change in relation to public expression happened. It was very well to be spotted at theatres. Spontaneous emotional outbursts were still a pretty normal thing back then. But it wouldn't take long, until it was considered gross and ungentlemanly. The more reservation became accepted as an expression of sophistication, the more it would distinguish city-gent from country-yokel, upper-class from working-class. In the beginning, even in city-theatres, later only in country-side theatres without class separation, it wasn't unusual, to interrupt the play's flux by shouting, spontaneous applause or encores. They were normally granted with repetitions. Not before long this became an sign of “barbarianism”.
What followed was a polarisation of the audiences. Soon theatre would be reserved to the upper classes and proles were to frequent the terraces of football stadiums. The interesting part of this is: How active participation of the audience came to disappear -for such a long time, that it had to be “reinvented”. With the taboo of public expressivity, enjoying culture now was associated with a contemplative inwardness and the conoisseur would have to inhabit his own, secret repertoire of sensuality to project himself into the artwork. This sort of sophistication was partly owed to the Wagnerian concept of the total work of art, demanding outright submission to the synthesis of the arts. At the same time, the ability to such humble devotion would be a sign of very distinguished taste. Leaving behind the undercooled, mask-like appearance, sharpened in the victorian age, easily could have meant a commitment to lower social rank. This standard is still present today and stays one of the standard codes within the techniques of social distinction, as described by Pierre Bourideu3, Thorstein Veblen4 or Norbert Elias 5. [...]
So, even where emotional expressions are allowed, they'll have to follow codes and rules. Cheering, hissing, booing, chant -all this has its place, say, in a rock concert. At the opera, you wouldn't probably make a good impression.
So coming back to the neo-goth concert mentioned above, the ostentatious non-applause seems to be more of a cultural reference. Still, it works as a rather harsh mechanism of inclusion and exclusion. And, paradoxically, a sense of community here is expressed by radical individualism, mutual exclusion and deliberate ignorance of each other. This is what you can say about the social bonds between the members of the audience. But what about the particular relation between audience and performer?
As we have seen, mutual ignorance is part of the game, intending to show a high rank of individualism as social status. The community likes to share this expression of independence. But they don't they need the artists, nor their art, nor anyone in the crowd. Also, nobody wants to submit to the hierarchy of orator and receptor. In this, again, they show independence. Now, we all now, that this is staged. But this is how the community creates a common value, that everybody can relate to.
Communication, based on apparent non-communication, as absurd as it seems, quite powerfully resets the mentioned hierarchy between artist and audience. The artists carry out their act, but are fully ignored. Invisibility despite physical presence, has in our cultural history always been an expression of depreciation, as Frankfurt School Philosopher Axel Honneth writes in his book on “Invisibility”6.
The master “looking through” the servant is one classic example of how class hierarchies were installed mischievously. The master didn't hesitate to take his clothes off in front of his servant. Pudency, a monolithic value of puritanism, was to be disabled, in a means to subtly put the servant into place: He is not attributed with basic human qualities.
Now, with our Goth-Hipsters, we have a rather absurd situation: mutual ignorance. The audience shows it's independence from the artist and the musicians stubbornly do their act, as if they don't care. Nobody gathers in front of the stage, everybody is independent. But is this freedom from the rituality and the two-way denial of hierarchies a factual representation of autonomy? Are those hipster-kids not just simply unable to cope with the activation of the individual that has become de rigeur with neoliberalism? After all, they are facing a situation (if we follow Richard Sennett's concept of the City as a theatre7) in which self-realisation has become extremely performative and a competitive act within an economy of attention. The spacial relation between people, once maybe submit to other criteria for classification, now has hit economical character in a struggle for space. What we have found here, is a culmination of something that Sennett already coined in the 1970ies as “Tyranny of intimacy”.8 If you will, a blend of narcissistic self-absorbation and social disintegration.
The present combination of goth morbidity, consumerism and autistic behaviour possibly sheds light on the difficulties of a whole generation, to interact with a regime of manifold, yet prefab emotions, that they are submitted to by consumerist culture.[...]
However, in a world of hyper-sexualised shower-gels, terminal refreshment or lascivious online-banking, paradoxically pessimism is no longer a refuge from the horror of inexpensive pleasures. Just as good feelings, bad feelings have been commodified by cultural industry: The colonisation of the body thus does not catapult those, who actively submit themselves to it, into victimhood or passivity: If you are fully consumed with consumerist culture, you'll compliantly invest yourself into it. So the hostility of the gesture of ignoring the other is a negative expression of an economy of attention. By seemingly denying expressive acts, I increase my market-value. Recognizing the other's ostentation in the act of neglect could thus lead to an inflation of this market-value.
As Honneth puts it: “The thought, that expressive acts of approval figure a meta-act, allows us to read the manifested motivation as follows: The actor expresses with a benevolent Gesture, that he is willing to grant to the addressee only such impulses, that are of benevolent character. So the tonality of the gesture anticipates, of which kind the benevolent action might be.”
In other words: Taking your part in the audience and signalising affirmation, grants the actor with an aura of positive feed-back about to happen, that he can rely on. The whole communication and range of possibilities to be explored within the dramaturgy is set by affirming the given roles in one way or another. The set of possibilities of any performative act, thus, is predefined in this manner. It is a matter of confidence.
In the reversal of the hierarchy between performer and audience, the benevolence also is reversed and the confidence is disturbed. Denying applause, hints at the performer's debt in front of the paying audience, that now shows it's financial independence by despising the purchased good. The whole set of possibilities is suddenly straitened. Once the reversion has happened, it is impenetrable. Face to an inverted benevolence, the only possibility to survive in this situation is to mutually ignore each others. If the band would stop playing, it would be an affirmation of the reversed economy already set in place. With respect to the social economy set in place here, maybe you can say that the trade-value exchanged here is suffering from hyper-inflation.
What we have here, is a poly-centric heteronomy, meaning we have an egotistic community, focussed on an economic trade of personal values, all set in place by debited benevolence. The sense of community is -as sinister and fatalistic as it seems- carried out by its denial.
What's that spell? FUCK!
What if the connection between orator and listener is not quite as hierarchic, as insinuated here? The austrian Philosopher Robert Pfaller raises the question in his writing on the aesthetics of interpassivity, by referencing Marshall MacLuhan9: If that hierarchy between sender and receiver is barely existant, the dissolution of it can hardly represent democratisation. Moreover, the dissolution can be an integral part of a hierarchy, set by any of the two parties.
Clip: Country-Joe Mac Donald, dialogue with audience at Woodstock.
This is an ironic comment on a pre-existant rock 'n' roll cliché. Country Joe needs the audience for the joke to happen. The joke will be on the audience's account, as they are forced to carry out a joke on the affirmative logics of a rock 'n' roll performance, and hence they will have to make a joke on themselves. So here again, in a humorous way, the benevolence of the audience is not only taken for granted, it is being pushed to the limit. Quite rude, if you will -but: who cares? Everybody can have a jolly good laugh.
But the set for situations like these is not so spontaneous or casual as it might seem. It's rather complex and has to do with a beforehand subscription into certain logics of performativity. For example, standing in the queue and buying a ticket at the box office, already signalises the will to commit an immersive act. Once in front of the spectacle, immersion is demanded, but from an audience that has partly already given into it. Now, there is a funny momentum, where certain cultural techniques have to be set in place in order to let the immersive act happen. There is a whole language of signs and signals of the kind in rock spectacle. If these ritualised acts are carried out, they might help to intensify immersion. Head-banging is such a ritual, aiming at an ecstatic effect. Very often these acts are quite sexualized. However, it is all about overcoming inhibition and experiencing community. Having Dan Graham's “Rock my religion in mind” it is very interesting to think of the duality of self-liberation and submission to a group dynamics and ideologies. The conversion of riddance into an expression of bondage is a central figure in the cultural techniques of many religions. Freedom and relief are finally found in submission to godhood. Subjective feelings of freedom are thus reversed into submission. I don't want to expand on this, but I'd like to say, that this is a very important mechanism, that can also happen in participation.
The reversion of immersive acts have widely become accepted as another figure in the repertoire. The times when there was something new about it are long time over. So when punk-singer Jello Biafra jumps off stage, in attempt to democratise stage logics, it is something that not only has become very difficult to symbolise today. Also, you simply have to ask yourself if actually a battle is won, when a naked sweaty guy jumps into your face? And: does the dispersion of control and delegation of authorship really mean democratisation, when it is not based on the same distribution of skills? The gradient of power between artist and audience is based on skills and hence is hard to overcome.
Jürgen Habermas describes how the act of emancipation of the individual from the violence of the generality leads to the subsumption of the individual under the regime of the generality, where everything falls into place. Now, all kinds of acts of disobedience, subversion and so on are imaginable here. The reference system though is a post-materialist context, in which a perfidious violence is exercised upon resistance: it is tolerated but has no escape from a given conformity of the unconventional. Of course you can always subvert the hierarchy of the performance. A performer can only master the situation for as long as somebody doesn't steal the show. But if you want to do so, please consider: what kind of gratification are you going to expect?
First you might want to think of what it's like to be in that role. What's the good of being on stage and being gazed at by a crowd. More liberties seem to be granted to the performer. But then again: no! The audience's awaiting of the spectacular is a heavy burden. The first freedom you won't be able to dispose of, is the freedom to be passive. The crowd won't let you sit down and have a cup of tea. We all know this. Basic knowledge of the spectacle.
So once you're out there, just ask yourself: is it nice to take your clothes off and stage dive? Maybe. But what about rolling in broken glass and being whipped by men in SS-uniforms, like Iggy Pop and the Stooges? Or being slapped on stage, while others watch? Or just the mere fact of standing on stage and having to say something. Well, I guess we all have experienced stage-fright at one point. If you've got a mike in front of you, but feel, like you've got nothing to say or even worse: the awareness about your lack of talent closes in on you, it can be pretty tough. So, as we learn, passivity is not a bad thing per se. I personally think, that the activation of the public inherent in participative art is not only a reproduction of neo-liberal work-ethics (de-hierarchisation, flexibilisation, pressure to perform), it sometimes also is a very violent act as such.
If you participate in one of Carsten Höller's works, slipping down a slide in a museum, or doing all kinds of childish things, you might look like a clown. I personally always thought that I wouldn't want to trade my dignity for some silly art experience, that I am asked to blindly follow. Höller promises the participant the experience of infantile joy as some form of liberation, in total ignorance of the negative experience of being pierced by the looks of other visitors, while you turn into a guinea pig. I am convinced, that going naked on the tubeway during the rush-hour possibly is just as much fun.
[…] Does the impetus to act in relational art follow an urge or a desire to enjoy artistic experience? To cut a long story short, there is more of an urge to the homo ludens to submission, especially if art is to be seen as an expression of a higher morality. The bourgeois convention of art as a higher state of mind and moral is quite questionable, especially when you ask yourselves, what kind of deficit it aims to compensate?
WOLFGANG FLATZ Clip from performance
In 1979 the austrian performer Wolfgang Flatz offered 500,-DM to anyone who would throw darts at him, acting as a naked, living target. With this he inverted the bourgeois stereotype of the artist being of a higher moral integrity or acting out morality, while the viewer enjoys the edification of his soul. Flatz delegated the moral act to the spectator, so he would be under pressure to carry out an act of moral integrity, or else find the lack of it mirrored in a passive artist.
This coercion of liability upon the passive viewer is an activation quite different from the ones I have spoken about before. Also, it is an open artwork, where several outcomes are possible. I tend to see participation as also a delegation of authorship. Well, you can ask yourselves, everytime you see a participative artwork if this is actually the case. Anyhow, Wolfgang Flatz has, since the 1960ies more than just played with this inversion of authorship and judgement. He would always put himself into very violent situations, where the public had the choice to help him or to injure him, just for the fun of it. But funnily enough, an invocation of ethics can bring about the worst in men. And talking about this kind of performative participation as an image, the depiction of human suffering does not necessarily provoke empathy. If the image originally is designed to hold up a mirror to the spectator, at times the reflection might just look like in the final scene of Bob Fosse's “Cabaret”, when the camera is panning over a reflection of the audience in a copper wainscoting: What you see is an image of an audience having turned into Nazis. Or like in an another scene from Fritz Lang's “Metropolis”, where the gentlemen watching the dancing humanoid Maria have turned into a drooling pack of wolves. [...] The audience wants Flatz to get slapped in the face, it wants Iggy Pop to cut himself in broken glass or that Ian Curtis to break down on stage with an epileptic seizure.
In Ian Curtis' own words:
”In the shadowplay,
acting out your own death,
As the assassins all grouped in four lines,
dancing on the floor,
And with cold steel, odour on their bodies,
made a move to connect
I could only stare in disbelief
as the crowds all left”10
dancing on the floor,
And with cold steel, odour on their bodies,
made a move to connect
I could only stare in disbelief
as the crowds all left”10
1“A hipster goth, at the core, is a watered down simplified version of Goth. As with the nature of Hipster fashion in general, they simply take bits and pieces of goth fashion and pair it together. Typically, without any regard to real Goth or the Gothic lifestyle. Even going as far as disrespecting the Goth lifestyle. They are also obsessed with black and white: clothes, hair, photos etc.”, gloomnation,blogspot.com, Sunday, December 18, 2011
2Richard Sennett, “Flesh and Stone: The body and the city in western civilisation”, W W Norton & Co , 1994
3Pierre Bourdieu: La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement. Paris 1979
4Thorstein Veblen: The theory of the leisure class, 1899
5Norbert Elias, John L. Scotson: Etablierte und Außenseiter. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/M. 2002
6Axel Honneth, “Unsichtbarkeit. Stationen einer Theorie der Intersubjektivität” Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/ Main, 2003
7Richard Sennett: Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, W W Norton & Co, 1994
8Richard Sennett: The Fall of Public Man, Knob, NYC, 1977
9Robert Pfaller (Hg.): Interpassivität. Studien über delegiertes Genießen, Berlin/New York: Springer 2000
10Ian Curtis/ Joy Division: Shadowplan, on: Unknown Pleasures, Factory Records, 1979