From edition

Review: Modes of Spectating

Alison Oddey and Christine White

Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2009

By Joke Beyl

Modes Of Spectating offers the reader a refreshing look on the way art and research can converge. Given the fact that most of the contributions originate from, on the one side, researchers who are also artistically active and, on the other side, artists who interweave research within their creative endeavours, this book allows the reader to gain an unusual insight into the way art and audience interact today. More specific, the focus is on the way this interaction can be understood in our present, digital and participative society. Hence, the book opens up intriguing ways of reasoning about current artistic practices and about the way expression and communication manifest in creating and spectating art today.

In the introduction of the book, editors Alison Oddey and Christine White induce this type of reflection by questioning what is radically different about how we spectate today. According to them spectatorship has changed since now “the spectator wants to engage in a more active way, to play a significant part or role in the reception of the work.” (9[1]). Notwithstanding that this particular point of view can be questioned – is the spectator really eager to be active? – they highlight that the book intends to examine what spectatorship can be, “presenting an interdisciplinary snap-shot” (9). The book succeeds in attaining this objective for it does indeed try to offer insight in current artistic and aesthetic experiences by elaborating on actual artistic practices and artists’ experiences. In this context several authors relate to theoretical frameworks and concepts as an inspiration for reflection (e.g. the Internet as a ‘pull’ medium (67), virtuality-actuality-reality (84), digital flâneur (139), identity (147), haptic visuality (171), body perceptions (198), agency (221), …).

The book is divided in four main parts. The first part focuses on interactive media and youth culture. Here the focus is on the users and the viewers of games, film and digital arts and on the way being a member of the audience today means being confronted with discovery, associative thought, in other words with a less conscious art (20). Christine White states that new media technologies offer the possibility of gathering enhanced knowledge since spectators become more engaged and are stimulated to understand how reality is constructed. “It breaks the illusion of truth,” rather than merely representing reality (23). “The ideal is an ethically informed public”, she says (26). Such is the impact of technology on society today. However, it can be asked whether this development is really new and, secondly, whether there is a change for the better. For example, when considering 3D technology Saint John Walker (33) elaborates on how too much technological perfection can fail to engage and can even disturb the viewer. Therefore, he underlines the importance of artistic and creative imagination and expression. Only then the interactive aesthetic experience will thrive and will lead towards knowledge transfer and social change (43). Hence, it can be acknowledged that the authors hold a positive stance by fawning on the possibility offered by new media technologies for young people to see themselves as creative and communicative artists (44-47). It is all about imagination, creativity, expression, sharing, communicating and empowering, it is said (54). This focus will reappear throughout the distinct chapters of the book.

Part two ‘Imaginative Escape’ is about transcending boundaries. More specific, the focus is on the way the traditional distinction between the producer and the consumer can be overcome and what this implies. Gregory Sporton, for instance, elaborates on how YouTube users engaged with a video of his artistic work in a multitude of unexpected creative approaches. This made him realize that the web today presents a new sphere of cultural production (65). Although reflections in distinct works of art constitutes the book’s original stance, the actual perceptions of the actors involved, being the artists and their audience, remain under-studied. Of course, several of the authors themselves are artists. However, they rarely question how artists working within the context of more classic and less interactive arts experience the interactive opportunities offered by the Internet. Is this type of artist also interested in sharing thoughts and, what is more, even the creative process with the audience? Moreover, it is interesting to find out how Chris Hales – an interactive movie artist himself – is surprised by the fact that even “most artists working with interactive video sequences, or with interactive art in general, do not seem concerned with observing and documenting the quality of the user’s experience.” (99). In other words, the authors do not completely ignore critical reflections such as the fact that technologically enhanced performances are not always progressive and can even reinforce the old media relations between the artist and the spectator, as Sporton notices:

“Rather than democratizing, this approach to the technology risks creating closed circles of self-referential discourse, using the low costs of production and distribution as a means of empowering the self without creating anything like a new way of encountering ideas, experiences or art, exploiting new technology to do more than resolve a longstanding difference with the old ones.” (69).

Nevertheless, throughout the book slumbers an overtly optimistic stance concerning these new technologies and the creative possibilities they offer. Sporton even mentions a “Kuhnian-style paradigm shift” in which “the Internet is unique in granting the opportunity to participate in a creative enterprise simply by being interested in it” (71). Once again, it can be regretted that the editors did not integrate some more critical studies concerning the audience’s perceptions. Are they really as interested as assumed and, if they are, what is it that the audience is interested in? This is, of course, not an easy task and, consequently, the book should be recognized for stimulating this type of questions. As Dan Zellner states, in the artistic field as well “there seems to be considerable experimentation and no established approaches.” (73). As a result, it seems that the question whether the spectator is also an actor cannot be fully answered at this stage. Hence, the importance of learning and reflecting through doing and exploring seems to be one of the messages the editors intend to communicate by means of this book. This is acknowledged in the chapter written by Iryna Kuksa: “Undoubtedly, new media have already become an integral part of our culture; however, the ethical, aesthetical, psychological and overall societal implications of this recent marriage remain to be explored.” (83).

What the various authors of the book agree about is the observation that interaction in experiencing art is no new development. Yet, the potential to further enhance the process of exchanging meanings is what distinguishes new media from old media (87). This, then, raises another intriguing question. How does the artist employ this exchange of meanings? Is he really prepared to give control over the creative process in hands of the user or is he looking for, what seems to be the driving motive for Hales, the audience reacting to the work “in the way that I intend” (108). This type of reasoning can be found in other chapters as well. For instance, Jeremy Mulvey states that in the twenty-first century gathering feedback and gauging how his practice might be adjusted to achieve desired results should be a vital part of the artist’s practice (160).

Between part two and part three a change of focus appears in the book. In part three attention is given to a specific type of interactivity, i.e. the spectator interacting with the self and, in part four, the spotlight is on how bodily immersion into a work of art can be understood. In other words, the focus is more on the spectator than on the technology. This does not always make it easy to disclose connections between the various chapters of the book since the link with interactive digital technologies is not always clearly marked in the last two parts. This is, for example, the case in the writings of Valerie Thomas on the way “spectating theory has the capacity to disclose previously hidden aspects of therapeutic practice” (119). Yet, the authors of the chapters in part three as well underline the current shift in audience perceptions and perspectives. It is interesting to read how they accentuate the link between local, individual modes of spectating and global media technologies. This puts in mind the ideas of John Dewey (1958), expressed as early as the 1930s, about art as experience. Like Dewey, who emphasized the connection between everyday and aesthetic experiences, Oddey for one states that “the serendipity of everyday life and the personal experiences of the spectator’s unexpected encounters or views, actively create and produce unfolding narratives and a new aesthetic practice.” (142). As a result, it is agreed upon that in this day and age the traditional distinctions between the artist and the spectator collapse and that the viewer experiences an “embodied awareness” (171).

In part four, the focus is on the fact that “the significance of the art event more and more frequently thrives on the encountering of the work and the participating visitor.” (199). In this context the viewer’s body is acknowledged as the most important ‘perceiver’. Consequently, perceiving and experiencing art nowadays is regarded as a dynamic and immersive process of exchange between the viewer and the viewed or between the performer and the beholder in which tactility and perspective dominate. Although this is an interesting reflection, it is unfortunate that there is little comparison made with the Internet’s interactive opportunities. When reading about the numerous artistic endeavours the authors created or experienced, one could question what the Internet could mean in this context. Could the Internet enhance this dynamic, immersive process of exchange between the artist and the audience? Or might this be hampered by what Gareth White refers to as the “learnt habits – and the habitus – of theatre culture” (225). In other words, will both the artist and the audience accept audience participation via the Internet and how will this impact existing power relations and artistic conventions?

In conclusion, Modes of Spectating offers an original reading experience since it grounds reflection on contemporary modes of spectating in the artistic practice itself by combining art and research. This approach, however, seems to leave the reader with the feeling that the authors succeeded in tackling a very interesting issue, i.e. the social impact of new media technologies on the relation between the artist, the work of art and the audience, yet left the answers unfinished. Several questions – some of which were raised by the authors – come to the reader’s mind. How do these new modes of spectating influence the authority of the artist? Are artists interested in understanding the audience’s experience? Is the spectator always willing to engage in a more active, direct way and, if so, why? What does this imply in terms of power relations? Is what is happening today completely different compared to the way ‘old’ media are used by both creators and audience? How do the artist and the audience perceive this more interactive, expressive and communicative way of spectating? Given the fact that these questions are merely touched upon rather than theoretically and empirically developed in depth, the reader is left with a longing for more. Therefore, although it should be acknowledged that there is a need for more profound research in this field to be able to answer these questions, it is regrettable that the editors did not complete the book by means of an overall conclusion bringing together the most important reflections and wider questions, cited throughout the book. Nonetheless, it is this arousing of reflection, combined with its focus on tangible and specific cases, that can be acknowledged as the most significant contribution offered by the book.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Dewey, J. (1958) Art as Experience (16th ed.). New York: Capricorn Books.

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