Petra Lange-Berndt

Reclaiming Spectacle: An Introduction

A spectacle is a remarkable event or display, often loud, in actual and metaphorical terms, using for instance bright colours, flashing lights, excessive decoration, and sounds that create strong emotions. The Congress for Curious People, co-organised by Joanna Ebenstein, myself, and Mark Pilkington with the help of Mary Addyman, Jamie Sutcliffe, and Sarah Wade in 2013, took place in multiple venues in London, and explored relationships between spectacle, zoology, anatomy, pathology, and spiritualism in contemporary society, as well as drawing attention to related collections that deserve more attention. During ten days of lectures, performances, site visits, and guided tours it was our aim to discuss, as well as to experience, spectacle, mixing the academic with popular spheres. We walked around Blackpool with two local guides, and invited Vanessa Toulmin to speak, as she has a circus background as well as being a scholar of the history of entertainment (fig. 1 & 2). During the symposium, which brought together academics, artists, and rogue scholars, we continued to discuss these issues in sessions on the Fair, Extraordinary Bodies, Nonhuman Spectacles as well as Religion and Ritual, in order to reflect on our experiences. However, we above all were Reclaiming Spectacle as a critical tool to escape the norms of society.

I am from the Hanseatic city state of Hamburg, Germany, famous for its large port and surrounding maritime culture where around  the year 1400, the pirate Klaus Störtebeker famously walked ten meters without his head, having been decapitated, thus saving his crew from the same fate (fig. 3). There was also Harry Rosenberg’s Hafenbasar, the best curiosity shop I have ever encountered, with its maze of countless claustrophobic cellar spaces filled to the ceiling with curious things that ships had brought to the Hansestadt from around the world, guarded by countless cats (fig. 4). And of course Hamburg is infamous for the red light district of St. Pauli (fig. 5). I grew up with this very vibrant mix of a miniature Las Vegas with its varied subcultures and outsider art in the form of paintings advertising strip shows: Erwin Ross, a former poster worker of the SED (governing party of the GDR) and the ‘Rubens of St. Pauli’, significantly shaped the appearance of the ‘Kiez’ as did the sex and street worker Domenica Niehoff, who fought publicly and successfully for prostitutes’ rights (fig. 6 & 7). And just around the corner, four times per year, the city hosts a large fun fair called the Dom, including wonderful and curious spectacles such as a travelling mouse circus, with a side show where one could throw dice in order to win smoked eel (fig. 8-10).

Therefore, as an art historian coming from the home town of private scholar Aby Warburg, who at the beginning of the twentieth century was interested not only in the survival of antiquity in Western culture but also in anthropological research, for instance the Hemis-Katchina dances of the Hopi in Arizona (fig. 11), as well as psychic energies, rituals or cosmologies, I feel that it is high time to question the strange abyss between academic reflection and spectacular practices.

Fig. 11: Aby Warburg wearing a Hemis-Katchina mask, Oraibi, Arizona, May 1896, The Warburg Institute, London

Fig. 11: Aby Warburg wearing a Hemis-Katchina mask, Oraibi, Arizona, May 1896, The Warburg Institute, London

Generally, the word spectacle refers to an event that is memorable for the appearance it creates; a specially prepared or arranged display to be looked at. And, in nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholarship – for instance Karl Marx, Das Kapital (1867), Adorno / Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung (1944), Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (1967) – such happenings were frequently described as simultaneously enticing, deceptive and superficial. However, above all, they were described as the domination by a consumption and commodity culture, mass media, and surveillance, which reduces citizens to spectators by political neutralisation. As much as this might be true for some forms of casino culture that we witnessed in Blackpool (fig. 12), why did I never feel like this, walking St. Pauli and the Dom? Why do I love these spectacles so much? So the question arises: What kind of different spectacular cultures and practices can we differentiate? Are they really all about consumption and a specific hierarchical regime of looking and being looked at and according stereotypes of race and gender (fig. 13)?

What is the role of the audience? The question is if our thoughts and actions do actually morph these apparently overwhelming set ups into something different; an empowering experience, a culture of attractions and effects that can inform criticality as well as offer pleasure. One could also argue that from the indicated bird’s-eye view the audiences watching spectacles have been described as passive consumers, while the agency of those creating and producing these events is not addressed – and of course, this is a class issue: Some academic comrades look quite bourgeois from this angle. Historian Vanessa Schwartz has recently coined this under-researched field Spectacular Realities (1998). Criticising established Marxist approaches, she argues that commercial mass cultures such as fun fairs provide modern individuals with a basis for the reconfiguration of social identity rather than alienation. As one of many possible more recent examples, I refer to the gender-bending world of 1970’s glam, trash and camp such as one can enjoy in John Waters’ films, Judy Chicago’s Cock and Cunt Play at Womenhouse, or Katharina Sieverding’s performance with female knife thrower Kaka Lemoine during the artists’ circus Salto arte at the Musée d’Ixelles (fig. 14-17).

In these examples, spectacular cultures are used to protest and revolt against normality and normalisation, employing performative techniques that upset traditional orders and result in bodies that matter. Commercial spectacular cultures are distilled into anarchic forces, where the low is unapologetically embraced, nothing is sublimated and the labels that society attaches to those on its margins are proudly appropriated. More recently, neo-Marxist philosopher Jacques Rancière in the Emancipated Spectator (2008), challenged the mentioned opposition between viewing or writing about and acting, e.g. the problematic distinction between activity and passivity, or theory and practice. Following these ongoing discussions, we went on to ask during the Congress for Curious People, how one can actively translate and interpret spectacles such as fun fairs, film, bodies on display, swarming insects, or occult phenomena, and how can the boundaries between looking and doing be blurred: What can we learn from an encounter with performers, objects and spaces that create spectacles? Is spectacle only related to capital or can counter-spaces and interventionist critiques and strategies be created?

Some answers or processes of enquiry might be found in the papers and pictorial essays assembled on this internet platform documenting the Congress.

Fig. 17: Judy Chicago, Cock and Cunt Play from Womanhouse, performed by Faith Wilding (left) and Janice Lester (right), Los Angeles 1972, photograph by Lloyd Hamrol (© Judy Chicago, photo Courtesy of Though the Flower Archives housed at the Penn State University Archives)

Fig. 17: Judy Chicago, Cock and Cunt Play from Womanhouse, performed by Faith Wilding (left) and Janice Lester (right), Los Angeles 1972, photograph by Lloyd Hamrol (© Judy Chicago, photo Courtesy of Though the Flower Archives housed at the Penn State University Archives)