Looking at theatre through the lens of theatre (?!)

woman with binoculars

In the Introduction to Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship¹, author Claire Bishop is working through defining the terms of her landmark study of interactive, relational, socially-turned art. What I want to offer here is a close reading of a couple of sentences that set up her field of interest of participatory artworks in relation to theatre and performance. After rejecting several other terms for this kind of work, Bishop settles on “participatory art,” asserting that interpersonal participation is the key common factor. Then she says, “This book is therefore organised around a definition of participation in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theatre and performance” (2). “Theatre and performance are crucial to many of these case studies, since participatory engagement tends to be expressed most forcefully in the live encounter between embodied actors in particular contexts” (3). A bit later she challenges her art world constituent readers to rethink the history of twentieth-century art through the lens of theatre rather than painting or the ready-made (3). This turn to theatre and performance is actually very provocative and stimulating for thinking about theatre in general and participatory theatre specifically.

The first point of interest is Bishop’s location of the “medium and material” of the work in people. This fractures into two directions. First, the nature of the artistic encounter is changed from an interaction between the spectator and an object to between the spectator and the “people” who now constitute the “medium and material of the work.” What was a uni-directional effect becomes a bi-directional flow of energy as liveness is multiplied. More than this, the location (if one can sensibly talk about the where of an art work) of the “work” of art changes. Bishop doesn’t say this exactly but when she asserts the “medium and material” of the work to be people, this is more than simply noting that the formerly inanimate painting or sculpture has been replaced by live bodies of actors. Via participation, those live actor bodies are the same bodies who were formerly spectators. The embodied cognition of the participant is the new site of the work of art. The work is not “over there,” but it is “in here.” Of course, art always has an internal affective, emotional, psychological, spiritual effect generated by the aesthetic object, but in participatory art that effect is itself the point of aesthetic interest. The balance shifts. Among other shifts encompassed by participatory art as it turns to theatre and performance are correlative moves from being dominantly a spatial product to being dominantly a temporal process and with that a move from closed fixity to open fluidity. These qualities are easily recognizable as aligned with theatre and performance events. It is easy to follow where Bishop is going and to see what she sees. Reading and nodding.

BUT . . . arguably during the same post-1990s/millennial period in which Bishop is tracking a performative turn to participation in visual arts, there is a similar turn in theatre and performance. Interactive one-to-one encounters. Free range, choose-your-own-adventure explorations of immersive environments. D-I-Y delegated performance works and plays that are crafted from the audience’s personal data. With all this burgeoning participation, if we apply Bishop’s thinking to theatre, performance is getting more performative. Huh. Interesting. Participatory performance doesn’t seem redundant on the surface but Bishop’s locating the participatory part of participatory art solidly in the realm of performance, makes one think twice.

So what is performance when it is not being performative? What does performance look like with those participatory (performative) qualities reduced? A theatre event that is dominantly ocular rather than embodied/somatic. A theatre event that is a closed product rather than an open process. A theatre event where the main point of aesthetic interest is “over there,” rather than “in here.” A theatre event that is detached and autonomous; cool like a painting. Obviously this is a spectrum. Any live event can never be entirely freeze dried. Even the encounter with inanimate visual art is warmed by the live spectator. But, as a thought experiment it is still worth asking, what does theatre look like with its participatory temperature cooled. Rather than identifying a rare bird, I am going to take a wild leap and claim that this is a not inaccurate description of the mainstream European-rooted theatre we see everywhere. Structures like the darkened theatre, fixed seats in rows, the proscenium, the protective museum glass case of fourth wall conventions all contribute to the suppression of theatre’s essential interactive liveness, that restricts participation. Performance like a painting complete with a decorative frame. Hmmm.

Stepping out the genre confines of theatre theory to look at performance through the idea of a visual art theorist productively shifts the terms of engagement. Ultimately Bishop identifies three key shifts as visual art becomes more performative. 1) The artist is not an individual producer of objects but a producer and a collaborator of situations. 2) The work is not a finite, portable, commodifiable product but an ongoing project. 3) The audience is no longer a viewer or beholder but a co-producer or participant. Is this an accurate portrait of what performance consists of at the far end of the spectrum? Is this how we would (pace Bishop) define theatre and performance?


I like this image of participatory performance that returns to performance as a turning up of the heat. It may indeed be an artificial hell but participatory performance (terrifying as it may be) warms me. (I have perennially cold toes.)

The next question, I suppose, is what value accrues to performative warmness or coolness? Do we need to be warmed? What political or sociological features of millennial life make this participatory warming desirable, or necessary even?



¹Just have to say that Artificial Hells is the best title ever for a book about participatory performance. This is exactly how I feel about the scenarios of audience participation. Bishop has borrowed the phrase from André Breton’s eponymous post-mortem of the Grande Saison Dada of 1921 (Bishop 6). Anyhow, it’s awesome.


Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso, 2012.


One response to “Looking at theatre through the lens of theatre (?!)

  1. Thanks for this, Jenn! Valuable food for thought.

    I can’t help thinking so much of what Bishop tracks is a political shift: the 1990s saw a rise in PA in the UK especially under Cool Britannia because it’s a visible, public, often accessible way to frame art as not all that elitist and not boring. This tracks the turn away from robust socialist realism for a time too (though both “away” and “for a time” are quite relative here – socialist realism is the UK theatre’s bread and butter). Hence her critique of the stuff as not inherently liberating: PA is often the tool of a neoliberal funding agenda. Still is, though obvs it can do much more. But it poses the question for me: when we turn away from staid old boring prosc theatre and its mimetic modes, what political agendas are we actually supporting?

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