During some performances, some witnesses identify with a sense of risk or pain they suppose me to feel –regardless of what is actually going on. Sometimes, they come to thank me and then express empathy and even sympathy and compassion for myself. This is most often because the nature of the action that has been undertaken cannot be easily conceptualized or somehow resists commonsense rationale.
After Europa, an action whose motivation I declared from the beginning as being related to the widely uninformed willingness to welcome Syrian refugees at European homes, several people showed commotion for my bare analogy between bodily and national borders, and even concern for my voluntary exposure. I am not sure whether they had grasped the fact that the action was aimed at our own lack of empathy, hospitality, awareness and humanity whatsoever, and that the body is not as much a material for an artistic expression as it is the very locus of speech and the center of a politics that takes actual subjects into account. Instead, I guess some of them felt reassured in the classical, rather neutral position of the spectator because a group of them identified my action with Marina Abramović’s Rhythm O.
Such identification is not striking in itself: hers is one of the most famous and quoted performances; but it draws my attention that witnesses quote it in order to get rid of the power they, as witnesses, have to appropriate themselves of my action and replicate it in so many ways, such as reinterpreting it, repeating it for the sake of pleasure (as to revisit a trauma), changing their minds about migration policies or any other policy that affects them, or making a decision of not to change at all. You may say such power is a burden. I would agree with you. You may say such power bears similarities with the power of a slave, without whom the master’s supremacy loses its object and efficiency. I would say that the power of the witnesses –which they won’t confess or will keep for themselves– has the exciting quality of being masochistic voyeurs in the double sense that they believe that what they are witnessing is primarily someone suffering (a negative jouissance), and that they are allowed an identification with that ideal pain thanks to the participation of their gaze in a space made safe by the artistic speech frame.
This is, in my opinion, the reason for such widespread misunderstanding of physically borderline performances –seemingly or actually– such as Abramović’s famous Rhythm O, as shown in a recent article published in the Smithsonian.
The burden of the performer’s subjective narrative is an important part of his material because it informs the structure of thought that belies the intended action and it conditions the way in which she deals with the unpredictable. To misinterpret one’s own feelings towards an action and the emotions and associations it may trigger for the performer’s own experience is the kind of empiricist misconception that supports the predominating model of observation. This model is the ground for the old scientific model that still prevails, and the cognitive paradigm that prevents each one of us from suspending the things we have been taught. We do not know; instead, we believe we know.
Masochism is to believe that we know while ignoring it is a belief.