To Mike Stubbs

25 February 2015

Mike Stubbs
Liverpool, UK

San Francisco, USA
25 February 2015

Hi Mike

Looking back at my notes from The Resident last October, it’s striking how much the topic of ‘spectacle’ came up. You, for one, raised it more than a few times.

From the group that you were in with Francesca Bertolotti, Maria Hlavajova, Kevin Hunt and others came these questions: is it still possible to bring together a significant scale of a festival with a degree of criticality? Or similarly, can we create an ‘intelligent spectacle with criticality’? Is it possible to reconcile a cathartic ‘big moment’ with the work of research? And simply: what constitutes a ‘spectacle’? For me, both ‘spectacle’ and ‘criticality’ are, by now, blunt tools. They’re treacherous, too. But I get the sense of the questions.

Questions of scale are tricky too. I remember, years ago (around 2003), talking with a London gallerist about Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, which was installed in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall at that time. He was sceptical. I said, lamely, ‘The public likes it.’ ‘The public is a size queen’, he said.

Reading the notes, I see you advocating for the value of spectacle, almost in moral terms. Is that fair to say? That idea is strange to me, but I’m open to it. Where I live, the epitome of art spectacle is Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights (2013): 25,000 white LED lights running up and down each cable across the two-mile western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. They’re a pretty ornament for a pretty city. They cost $8 million, but to get spectacular art, typically you need spectacular funding. A further $4 million has been raised to install them permanently. I don’t have a problem with that.

Funny story: the night Bay Lights was first turned on, a friend of mine was teaching a class nearby at the San Francisco Art Institute. The class was, by coincidence, scheduled to discuss Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. So my friend — his name is Frank — marches them, Pied Piper-like, down to Embarcadero, in the light rain, while reading aloud from Debord. As they turn a corner, and the bridge comes into view, and the lights come on, he finds himself reading the lines: The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.

You don’t need ‘cultural theory 101’ from me, Mike.

I came across a new use of ‘spectacle’ (new to me) recently in the writings of Njabulo S. Ndebele (who’s now the Dean, I think, at the University of Johannesburg). In the 1980s, during the end game of apartheid, Ndebele produced a series of essays that were collected and published in 1991 under the title Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Ndebele argued that many writers of the struggle era, out of a necessary opposition to the monstrosity of apartheid, had created art of impossible moral clarity, of good versus evil, of grand and simple histories — ‘spectacular’ art. ‘The spectacular documents’, he wrote, ‘it indicts implicitly; it is demonstrative, preferring exteriority to interiority; it keeps the larger issue of society in our minds, obliterating the details; ... it establishes a vast sense of presence without offering intimate knowledge; it confirms without necessarily offering a challenge.’ He called for an alternative; a rediscovery of the ordinary; a sober, unromantic attention to details, to interiority, to the challenge posed by intimate knowledge.

Both the French and South African notions of spectacle put it on the wrong side of a moral divide. What struck me about your comments during the week of The Resident was that you gave spectacle something of a therapeutic value, a healing value. Specifically, more than once you refer to the cathartic power of spectacle. From what I’ve heard you talk about since, I expect you might have in mind something to do with the experience of military veterans and the collective memory of conflict.

But I sense that, for you, the therapeutic sense of spectacle could extend further.