Notes on the if-mode of the collective spectator

Collect-if by Collect-if 2003English
in Bojana Cvejic (ed.), Collect-if by Collect-if, Ljubljana/Brussels: Maska, 2003, n.p.

item doc

Asked to write some critical reflections on the concept of Collect-if, ‘regarding it as an as-if already realised and executed act’, with the aim to ‘involve the programming contexts and productional apparatuses’, I am somewhat startled at first. Where to position myself in that field? Searching for an appropriate role to write the text, I start listing up some of the roles I play in theatre and dance, and happen to be much more intricately and even institutionally ingrained than I would at first admit. Critic for several media, editor of an international platform for dance and performance criticism (, dramaturge, curator, member of the Beoordelingscommissie Dans, theoretician… sounds like my collective self! I realise that I never play all these roles at once, that it is even impossible to do so, which has to do with deontology or quantum physics or whatever. It means that my professional ‘ego’ or ‘self’ consists of a series of representations that form indeed a collective, but under certain conditions; it is so to speak subject to an ‘if-mode’. They form a collective in a latent or potential way, all under my name, but fail to form an actual collective, for the roles are never being played or actualised at the same time.

Still, there is a common interest in all these professional roles: spectatorship, and this mainly linked to the field of dance and performance. Here we touch upon a more interesting aspect of the if-mode: the gaze or perspective of the spectator is highly fragmentary, depending on its role, context, point of view and so on, a bunch of fragments that will never crystallise in an Olympian overview where perception and reality would coincide. The fiction of this collective, unified, distant and neutral gaze, has been and is nevertheless an important concept in philosophy and art, at least as an (imaginary) point of reference.

Alluding to Roland Barthes, one could speak of the ‘death of the spectator’, which brings up the question of the author, of the spectator as an author, of the spectator in service of an author. Referring to theories of visuality (which find even a new paradigm in Visual Studies), one could say schematically that every (Western) spectator is formed by a history of visual culture, reaching from Antiquity to modernism. Making use of this collective history of interlocked imagery and spectatorship, each image elicits a particular spectator, in favour of a certain view, communication, meaning and so on. In that sense, the ‘death of the spectator’ is suspended in order to create a particular view. This view doesn’t occur as a fragment, nor as an Olympian overview though; it seems that the prerequisites of the image and also the conditional character of spectatorship are consciously denied to create an idea of collectivity. Or: the necessary if-mode of the collective is appropriated and being veiled. The result is an alignment of three fictions: an author, an authoritative image and a spectator that endorses this authorship of both the image and its creator. As the spectator’s view isn’t falling apart by this focus, one can speak of forced ‘strong spectatorship’. It’s a brief and rough formulation, and evidently, this strategy has been unmasked endlessly in modern and post-modern culture, but it might still be a useful model to reflect upon strong authorship; in the artistic field, but with obvious political consequences.


In aesthetics, the link of collectivity and the if-mode was introduced by Immanuel Kant in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790). More precisely in his conceptualisation of the judgement of taste on the beautiful. It is a complicated analysis, of which two particular elements are of interest here. First, the utterance ‘This is beautiful’ is a merely subjective feeling, although we speak about beauty as if it concerns a property of the object, which thus logically brings forth a judgement that should be made by every reasoning human being. The universality of the aesthetical judgement of taste is a universality that is subjectively felt. It is the harmony of imagination and reason that makes the esthetical experience of the beautiful considered as universal and universally communicable. Second, we expect that everybody agrees with our judgement of taste, utter it as if a collectivity supports it, because our feeling for beauty is ingrained in the so-called ‘sensus communis’. This sensus communis is the feeling I have of something within myself that I share with everybody, namely that of the optimal collaboration of imagination and reason as a universal prerequisite for every universally valid and universally communicable knowledge. Indeed, Kant’s transcendental philosophy is centred around the conditions and operations of reason, around the faculties of knowledge.

More important than technical knowledge about Kant’s aesthetics is the consideration that the notions of universality and collectivity are not applicable to the aesthetics of the sublime, whose experience is not even a judgement of taste but confronts imagination with its very limits, a feeling that is not communicable. Nowadays, the aesthetics of the sublime happens to appear almost more ‘familiar’ than that of the beautiful, which has inevitably consequences for reflections on collectivity, authorship and spectatorship. A critical investigation of beauty is therefore an interesting and topical field of research.

Theatre and dance are probably the only art forms that deal with an audience as an evident collective, since spectators watching a performance share time and space during a certain amount of time. Whatever fictional collectives are awakened by the images or actions presented by the performers, they find themselves always co-present with a real collective, namely the audience. This co-presence doesn’t mean that it concerns also a congruence; on the contrary, tracing and probing the possible incongruences might reveal interesting aspects of collectivity, playing off its potentiality and its limits.

Watching television, one (assuming an everyday spectatorship) comes across numerous notions of collectivity, linked to media, politics, popular culture and so on. The elections for the federal parliament in Belgium on 18 May 2003 brought forth a new concept of collectivity which is fascinating. It was the president of the socialist party, Steve Stevaert, who has strong communication capacities, who introduced it: he speaks unceasingly about ‘de mensen’ (in Dutch). The notion is difficult to translate, it is always used in plural and means something like ‘the people’, in the sense of ‘ordinary people’. It is different than the socialist notion of ‘the people’ or the liberal notion of ‘the citizen’, but seems to encompass both individual and collectivity in a highly populist concept. To sell politics and ‘bridge the gap between politicians and citizens’, it denies the representational system of parliamentary democracy, to promote a mediatised representation of ‘the men in the street’ as point of reference in politics, beyond technocracy and for the sake of ‘transparency’. This just to say that intricate representational systems are at work in concepts of collectivity, with a highly ideological character, which is not always as obvious.


Oh, yes, there are questions to be answered, as my jottings risk to drift away from the concept proposed in Collect-if. As it is merely impossible, assuming the role of a spectator of whatever kind, to regard this concept ‘as an as-if already realised and executed act’, or even to watch a concept, I simply answer to the questions, wrapping up my interests that certainly travel through different roles.

1.      What would you suggest this project lacks and needs to further elaborate so as to address the question of collectivity in an intelligible, relevant or interesting way?

A clear address of different notions of spectatorship. Not simply regarded as an element in the system of theatre, but as an inevitable factor in all images, concepts and strategies dealing with collectivity and authorship.

2.      Do you consider collectivity a problematic which asks for artistic attention at all?

Yes. Art is a delineated field that, as a more or less parallel world, allows one to investigate and reflect upon representations. This means that artistic, social and political concepts and representations of collectivity, authorship and self-representation can be analysed in there. Of particular interest seems to me an investigation of beauty in this context, as this notion is linked to collectivity, in a strictly aesthetical, but also in a political way, it calls for critical investment.

3.      What would you advise performers to focus on in their working on Collect-if?

Focus on the focus, on the strategies rather than on the content that are conveyed in representations and concepts of collectivity. Looking at their past as dancers in a company, the collaborators can certainly find loads of material that can simply be used, but still call for analysis.