FEELING
DIFFERENCE
Vika Kirchenbauer, essay, 2019


FOR THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHERS: WORK AS PERFORMANCE

Cook authentic Portuguese recipes with the drag queens of Lisbon! Explore Paris’s African fashion scene with knowledgeable designers! Eat like a Russian! Discover Berlin’s unique techno underground! Learn dance moves from urban hip hop artists in the South Bronx! Play football with local street players in Barcelona!

Airbnb introduced its Experiences programme in 2016. In addition to its ongoing service of brokering lodging and homestays, it is now trying to meet travellers’ demand for “authentic, experientially oriented opportunities with more meaningful interactions with locals.” (Paulauskaite, 2017, 619-628) People’s casual realities are turned into marketable experiences for visitors to dip in to, while those rebranding their lives as experiences become dependent on positive reviews and ratings from their paying guests. Providing access to worlds that would otherwise remain closed to the standard traveller has become a lucrative endeavour.

Given their leap from gig economy platform to immersive activities broker, Airbnb serves as a prime example in observing the transition from the service economy to the experience economy, the latter considered to be the natural successor of the former by economists B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore in their 1999 book The Experience Economy. With the slogan of “Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage” their theory suggests that goods will be used as props and services as a stage to create experiences that engage customers – or: “guests” – in an inherently personal way. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sees an “Amazon-sized opportunity” in selling people experiences. (interview with Brian Chesky, Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, 26 Feb 2018) By aiming to create lifelong memories the experience economy surpasses the mere comfort and convenience provided by the service industry, it seeks to orchestrate experiences beyond entertainment, to instead immerse the customers. Customers are understood to pay for an activity in hopes that their future selves will look back happily at what they once experienced. Pine and Gilmore’s verdict is that any experience people are not willing to spend money on is plainly not good enough, concluding that “the history of economic progress consists of charging a fee for what once was free." (Pine/Gilmore, 1999)

The organisation of labour within the experience economy divides into “off-stage” and “on-stage” work. When “on stage” the experience providers perform under the eye of customers (and potentially coworkers), only while “off stage” would they be allowed to leave their role without risking the collapse of the previously crafted sense of authenticity and realness. The performance mode demanded from people in order to deliver those memorable and monetisable experiences requires the worker-as-actor to use her affective capacities to enhance the richness and detail turning someone’s regular life (or a service, or a product) into someone else’s unique experience. While work was previously understood as the execution of a particular professional skill set that could be acquired through training and study, the experience providers now exploit the totality of their emotional selves as soft skills in order to evoke authentic feelings.

 

OWNING EMOTIONS: ECONOMIC SHIFTS IN THE SHAPES ART TAKES

Through the increasing inclusion of audience engaging durational, multi-performer performance art in museums, biennials and quinquennials artists in addition to museum and gallery personnel have become actors and providers of experiences. The experiences offered to their audiences trigger affects and create value within the spectator’s memory of having been there and the personal feelings lived through it. These subjective feelings being exactly that which cannot be shared, which belong only to oneself. This is an important economic shift: economic value, rather than being related to tradable objects, is now created through the untradeability of the inherently personal experience. If evidenced through social media, preferably in real time, the value of the personal experience is only heightened, since the lifelong memory is only considered to derive from the pre-mediated event. Against widespread suspicion, social media does not necessarily bar people from being present in a given moment, quite to the contrary image sharing platforms especially rely on physical presence and exclamations of being-in-the-moment as their raw material. They depend on first idealising and then mediatising the now. Social images and live videos are meant to be ephemeral, they are means of communication, an extension of language, rather than items in an old-fashioned photo book or home video archive where memories were meant to be stabilised and kept forever. (Jurgenson, 2019) Social media platforms are therefore not in competition with an experiential turn in art, but are rather the medium buttressing that shift through widening an event’s reach and through securing those physically present an online audience’s envy or praise.

So, after the production of goods (unique objects like paintings, etc.) and the offering of services (site-specific installations, i.e.), we are now entering an era where artists again mirror economic developments, in terms of the forms their art takes. After commodified images, objects and actions, we now have commodified experiences. Thus, it can be stated that not only in politics and economy, but also in art, affects have become the most promising currency that stakeholders deal in.

Coinciding with museums’ shift towards the visitor’s experience as their main value is the relatively recent inclusion of art made from minoritised social positions within larger, more professionalised and institutionalised contexts. While this development is owed in large part to dedicated and longstanding activism, the marginalised body and the way it is institutionally displayed remain a question of concern especially when considering modes of observation and reception that cannot be discussed independently from commercialised culture and socio-political hierarchies. While some institutions may have made certain progress in the sense of representation, the deeper structural imbalance of who is looking at whom remains largely untouched. If within an experiential shift in economy and culture the experience provider inhibits a minoritised position, a set of troublesome circumstances emerge that need to be taken into consideration.

The state of being constantly looked at is already a familiar day to day experience for people differing from cultural norms – in terms of gender expression, race, ability, etc. To be visibly “different” in this society is to never be “off guard”, to never be “off stage”, if you will. Hence within an exhibition space, a doubling of that mechanism occurs. I have previously suggested that within hegemonic spaces value can be created by an ostensibly immersive presentation of difference out of context: institutions providing safe positions from where to cast unmet gazes that are lastly directed inwards with self-satisfactory fulfilment. This ethnographic principle of exhibiting and making legible, of stabilising the fantasy of a unidirectional gaze, runs through the centuries. Yet when regarded in terms of affect, the experiential value of encounters with the other might in fact even transgress closeness and the clear distinction between the observer and the observed. Those encounters might provide stage to the fantasy of crawling into someone’s skin without the risk of getting stuck in it. When artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst exhibited their photographic series “Relationship” at Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles 2014, the LA Times tellingly stated in their review:

Further complicating ‘Relationship’ is its status as a record of a transgender couple. Their bodies are transitioning in opposite directions (for Drucker from male to female, and for Ernst from female to male). The relationship triples. It encompasses each person's physical interaction with him- and herself; the one between the protagonists; and, finally, the relationship of the photographs to a viewer. (…) There is something almost Pre-Raphaelite about the tone and feeling of the Drucker-Ernst display. Both noble and, in the best sense, moralizing, it offers the self-reflective pleasures of a secret society unveiled.(Christopher Knight, LA Times, 10 Oct 2014)

The review’s final sentence stays with me: “It offers the self-reflective pleasures of a secret society unveiled...” The – connotatively violent – unveiling of a previously “unseen” group apparently gives cause for “self-reflective pleasures” to those spectators enjoying this newly unobstructed vista.



CRITICAL FEELINGS AND THE SYMBOLIC FIELD OF ART

Having grown up not just with sports but very much within them, I have gained understanding of arenas and stadiums to be disorienting places where people – mostly straight men – find access to and outlets for emotions they struggle to encounter or express in regular life. Otherwise emotionally detached family fathers cry in each other’s arms as their team gets relegated. We lost! Even if in a more individualised manner and within different class customs concerning the publicness of feeling, similarly in art spaces audiences find access to otherwise covered emotions triggered by watching actions carried out by others, accessing parts of themselves without having to live (or be able to live) the totality of that other “experience.” The presence of potential interactivity with the other provides a space for passivity, for delegated actions. While witnessing critical approaches towards social injustices on a video screen, affects within the spectator might be plentiful, but there rarely follow actions outside the symbolic field that art represents to many.

Particularly the affect world of critique itself is frequently bargained as a currency between different players on art’s competitive pitch. To stay within the context of sports analogies: one could look at “critique” in art as “the ball” in team sports, as an object that instigates movement from different players playing different positions – as artists, curators, funders, donors etc. – while remaining in agreement not to leave the shared field and to loosely follow a certain set of rules. If like during the 2019 Whitney Biennial critique does in fact materialise outside the symbolic and teargas manufacturer and Whitney Museum board member Warren B. Kanders is sent off the field after artists and activists’ dedicated organising, it marks a resounding success that at the same time underlines how rarely this usually happens. And perhaps more importantly even, one must note that Kanders was merely suspended from the art field, as he returns home he will still be on his way to become a billionaire.

In her 2015 book Artist at Work Bojana Kunst asserts that even the rich and powerful seem to expect or even enjoy being critiqued and shamed. This makes it possible to understand art as a playing field of actions relatively devoid of real consequences. It could be that the (relatively) powerful simply learn that they do not die from shame, since only their symbolic double is shamed without affecting the remaining social order and, within it, their positioning.

But what happens with capitalists who donate their wealth to art and receive tickets to the performance art pieces of the rich, in which they not only participate, but are also critically addressed? Their pleasure lies in the critical attitude towards them; it is in the co-existence of their status as the rich and a parodic critique of their role. (…) these patrons are well aware that art will reveal this uneasiness without consequences. (Kunst, 2015: 47)
Beyond the trade of symbolic shame, there are many more emotions on offer for any art spectator in possession of a critical amount of relative privilege. Particularly within socially engaged art, after gaining access to the other’s experiences of social oppression, exclusion and difference, that spectator – perhaps having even been confronted with her unaffectedness – leaves the gallery knowing that her life will likely continue the way it was going to before she entered the art space. To be sure, it would be grossly reductive to primarily measure art in regards to its effects on the outside world, and that is beneath the point. Social issues must be subjects of art, and communicating beyond differences is obviously essential, yet the self-centralising affective aspects of spectatorship allude to a relational dimension of these encounters that demands further thought.

 

MAPPING DIFFERENCE: COMPASSION AND EMPATHY

So how to consider the display of othered bodies within contemporary economies of affective and experiential gain? I propose to address all forms of identity not as stable but relational and to approach empathy and compassion – as exemplary emotions of profound historic entanglements with the arts – as affects involved in shaping a Western hegemonic constitution of the world as such.

Philosopher Édouard Glissant notes that encounters of humanities are marked by a very foundational, yet secret demand… to place the recognition of difference as the prime element of any relation. (Glissant, 2009) This becomes important when thinking about the relational nature of spectatorship. Following Glissant’s thought, we understand and recognise the other by mapping her difference from ourselves. We measure the other against ourselves. I look at you and grasp you through what’s different from me, rendering you same and other simultaneously… I split you into bits that I consider same and those that I declare different. I must feel and understand you in order to relate to your difference and troubles. There are of course those who reject the other for being other, for not being fully same, those who cannot come to terms with the impossibility of fully grasping the other. Yet then, there are also those overstating sameness, wanting to experience the other’s sadness and rage led by an urge to discover, to encompass and to feel good about oneself. That compassionate spectator says “I feel you!” yet wouldn’t hear “No, you don’t.”
What is important is that these two groups – for simplicity’s sake I will call them the compassionate spectators and the non-empathic spectators – operate on shared assumptions and symptoms deriving from the same culture of transparency. Both are deeply connected to the idea of understanding or grasping, of making the other transparent and legible. Both make it their principal condition to understand the other in order to accept them and admit them to existence (or not), both measure the other against themselves… just with different, yet no less complicated, results of judgment.

Now it is difficult to approach empathy and compassion – which are both required for any kind of relation – without falling under the suspicion of seeking to befoul one’s object. (Berlant, 2004: 5) While I don’t regard empathy and compassion to be altogether bad, I consider it necessary nonetheless to complicate the relational dynamics of such affects within the socio-political hierarchies they are bound to. Compassion assumes a social relation between those experiencing difficulty and those regarding that suffering. (Sontag, 2003) The emphasis lies on the spectator’s experience of feeling compassion – or when speaking about art made from a minoritised experience in particular, on the spectator to relate to displays of more or less abstracted trauma. We have learned from Susan Sontag’s theory of photography that empathic feelings do not guarantee any action to alleviate the other’s suffering nor do these feelings necessarily signify the willingness to do so. For oneself to continue rendering empathic feelings, the other must not leave their position of suffering. Compassion relies on maintaining the other as a normative construct. Compassion might therefore be too dependent on hierarchies as are all types of relations that place transparency and understanding at their root.
Compassion is successor to judgment and thus also comes with awareness of the power to be cruel… the awareness that compassion is a generosity, possible to be withheld at any time. Empathy and sadism as well as compassion and coldness, after all, might not be oppositional “but two sides of a bargain that the subjects of modernity have struck with structural inequality.” (Berlant, 2004: 10)
What if compassion did not rely on recognising or overstating partial sameness as a pre-condition for its own becoming? What if mapping the other’s difference from ourselves was not the principal requirement for relation? And speaking with Glissant again: what if the other had the right not to be understood?

 

POLITICS OF SPECTATORSHIP AND THE CODED MATERIALITY OF VIDEO

Tying these thoughts and questions back to the politics of spectatorship, I want to consider an analogy within the immaterial aspects of video production and exhibition that might help illustrate people’s habitual efficiency of mapping difference and desire for centred subjectivity. Looking at the most widely used video codec for compression of large files, the H.264 video stream, whilst keeping in the back of one’s mind cultural ideas of dominance and relation…

The H.264 codec is a form of video compression that reduces the amount of data in a stream significantly compared to full frame codecs such as Apple ProRes. While H.264 deploys a system of key frames and inter frames, in ProRes each video frame is rendered as a separate, self-contained image. The H.264 codec reduces the amount of data by rendering only the key frames as full frames, whilst the frames lying in between the first key frame and the next key frame are encoded (and later decoded) only via their difference from the key frames. It uses prediction models to determine where a certain colour pixel will move within the following image, how its shade of colour will change etc., by relating it to a similar pixel in the key frames, also called reference frames. Therefore, if there exist very few changes in a video, the amount of data is reduced significantly because only difference from the reference frame needs to be coded. In such a case when there is much similarity between the individual pictures in a video, the risk of prediction error is much lower than in streams that show very diverse pictures.

Trying to relate that to the idea of relation and spectatorship: who or what is that reference frame that all difference and motion needs to be tied back to? We might imagine the reference frame as that compassionate spectator or institution noticing only what difference they perceive whilst declaring all the remaining bits as “same.” And who are the inter frames encoded and decoded via their difference from that reference frame? We might imagine the inter frames as those reduced through the idea of transparency, those only understood through the reference system of normative measuring.
Metaphorically speaking: Would it be worth returning to the pursuit of the idea of full frames that need to be captured as full independent subjects, even at the risk of a higher, more overwhelming data rate to process? Or: what would it look like if the idea of a reference frame was abandoned altogether and all frames were understood only through their relation to each other, even at the risk of perhaps not being able to fully decode, reduce and display all of the structure’s individual components?
This would be an instance when dissolving the distinction between regarding subject and objectified subject would no longer be a temporary immersive thrill for the safe spectator, when relationality would become de-hierarchised, mutual projections acknowledged and intensified, yet simultaneously destabilised. It might lead to a less fluid stream, but a disturbance both worth and necessary to be experimented with.


REFERENCES

Lauren Berlant. Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion. Routledge, New York and London, 2004

Édouard Glissant. Philosophie de la Relation: Poésie en étendue. Gallimard, Paris, 2009

Édouard Glissant. Poétique de la Relation: Poétique III. Gallimard, Paris, 1990

Nathan Jurgenson. The Social Image: On Photography and Social Media. Verso, London, 2019

Bojana Kunst. Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism. Zero Books, Winchester, 2015

Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2003

Paulauskaite et al. Living like a local: Authentic tourism experiences and the sharing economy. International Journal of Tourism Research 19, 2017

B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1999