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On intimacy, and breaking free of the circular exploitation of spectacle
A musing on the potential of non-performative ways of public engagement
The spectacle has entered our personal space and cannot be turned off. How do we scale down from the superhuman to the intimately human? How do we mitigate the information overload so that we can then turn inward to take care of ourselves, and find the reserves and the energy to then reach outward towards each other? We must, in effect, not just opt out but wholly reject the spectacle in order to reconnect ourselves to the less monumental, the quiet, the intimate; that which provokes a sense of the tangible and that which can be affected.
Last week, I left us with these thoughts and questions and I’ve been ruminating on them ever since. I suppose I’m reaching towards something like intimacy; an opposite to the flash, pomp, glamor, and magnitude of the spectacle—an “anti-spectacle”. The world we live in has provoked us into creating events of our lives, our quietest moments, our relationships with each other and with place, even the ordinary articles of our day such as what we eat or wear, how we work out, or which errands we’re running become an important presentation of prestige. We’re steered every day to make our lives, passions, hobbies, pleasure, and work much bigger than ourselves, more important than they actually are. This isn’t to say that various parts of our lives don't have importance, but that perhaps we shouldn’t equate importance with exhibition, performance, marvel, pageantry, or grandeur. Maybe we should be asking ourselves why we believe we owe the world any part of our lives at all, and even more to the point, why our lives should require an audience.*
I know a lot of people who have become well-indoctrinated into the culture of app-based social media and the internet have few qualms about being a brand, as a human, with an audience for whom they’re producing. I shouldn’t, either; after all, I’ve been marketing myself and my work online—as inseparable entities—to people beyond my immediate social circle since I started writing about art in 2008. And I had a rich online life, interacting with strangers, long before that. Yet at the same time, I feel there is something much different now, in the way that there was a choice to do this before, and today there is not. Think about the dystopian premise of Black Mirror’s episode, Nosedive, in which a person’s life must be entertaining enough, they must be nice and accommodating enough, a good citizen connected to other good and dazzling citizens in order to be rated highly and gain privileges in society. Or the way competition, penalty, or punishment becomes public entertainment such as in The Hunger Games and another Black Mirror episode, White Bear. The horror is effective because the future is now, this spectacle of the personal is already upon us. We don’t just see it happening, we feel it in our bones, it's becoming muscle memory.
So what’s the counterbalance? What I imagine, what I want, or what I feel is that it’s not just a shift towards authenticity but a demand for it, as well as an insistence upon creating and experiencing meaningful connections, and genuine human experiences. It involves turning away from the dominant culture of a producer/consumer binary in which some parties produce consumables, and some parties passively receive them; of moving away from superficiality, and instead focusing on creating things that foster depth and connectivity. To me this also implies that we must embrace co-authorship, collaboration, or at the very least cross-conversation and cross-referencing one another more often, to show how we're related to one another, and how our multitudes are interwoven parts of our creative efforts and society. As co-authors, we could share more experiences and ideas through dialogue, interaction, and even disagreement to explicitly move away from passivity through engagement of a broad array of perspectives, worldviews, and modalities. We could encourage a sense of community care and mutual support among creators through sharing resources, collaborating, and uplifting each other's work. Not only would this bring us closer together but it is part of the work towards a more inclusive and equitable creative landscape.
I think what we ultimately may have to contend with is that the objective isn’t to acquire an "audience" at all, and that even for those of us who are in the business of presenting materials—art, music, writing, film, dance, music, services, goods, and so on—we may begin to address how we provide our offerings in ways that foster actual exchanges. The scope and scale of our projects may need to come down to something more relatable, approachable, and accessible, where quantity is not the end goal but sustained quality and connectivity is an ongoing process. We may find we need to focus more locally, and create offerings that meet the intersection of our strengths, talents, and skills with the needs and interests of our immediate communities. In turn, rather than simply being consumers, those with whom we’re engaging our offerings are ultimately given the space and the opportunity to discover, experiment, and explore the talents, strengths, and skills they have, themselves. The producer/consumer binary collapses as we all come forward in our work, pleasure, hobbies, interests, and passions.
I know we’re probably growing weary of these phrases, but technology will not save us. Politicians will not save us. The federal and state governments and city councils will not save us. Corporations will definitely not save us. These entities, and all other institutions and entities like and adjacent to or dependent on them depend on the spectacle to drive us into the ground, to cultivate a pressurized infrastructure in which we feel the compulsion to conform and keep up. And of course we do—there are bills to pay, we have to take care of our concrete needs and it’s getting harder to, every day. But wherever we can, I propose that we opt out as much as we can, and re-invest our time, attention, care, support, love, and enthusiasm in each other, to build the world we want to live in even as the overarching structures around us buckle under the weight of their own imposition and add buttresses and bolsters to hold themselves up. I'm thinking about the way the sun pours through the spaces between overpasses to nurture the small forests and greenspaces that thrive below them, creating small but verdant ecosystems full of life, eventually breaking the concrete to grow free.
Everything I write feels like a manifesto these days. I suppose these words are what I say to myself as I attempt to push through the obstacles of my life and keep my eyes and my vision and my heart on what I know to be most important to me, what I truly believe to be possible even in the face of everything. I just know that when some of the suggestions I mentioned above work, they really really work, and it’s beautiful to see. Nothing we do has to be large, spotlight-worthy, better than something somebody else did. Small impacts can have large effects. I guess we just start with us. Always.
*There's an aside to acknowledge here on how intimacy is shared in spite of these spectacle spaces, where the ordinary and uneventful become critical pieces of sharing our lives with each other more genuinely. For example, close friends filters reveal us walking to the corner store in our pajamas to share a thought or a moment with our friends in a protected space or unfiltered no-makeup faces and bad hair days; direct messages between friends reveal background noises such as washing dishes, cooking a meal, opening and closing drawers, and other intimate background sounds that make us feel closer and present to each other. Sometimes these appear "on main" in authentic, non-performative ways but that is more rare. The development of the closed, filtered space is what interests me as a movement towards the anti-spectacle.