On 23 March, 2014, Catherine and Amy, with choreographer Ashley Dyer, presented a development showing of Nothing to See Here (Dispersal), a stylised performance about the maintenance of public order in our society, as part of Arts House’s Festival of Live Art program. There were two performances, the first at North Melbourne Town Hall’s Main Hall and the second at the Meat Market’s Oven space.
Dispersal was a choreography of crowd dispersal in which a team of twenty-two performers employed the techniques of crowd controllers, security guards, ushers and police to circulate, maneuver and divide the audience. Over approximately 45 minutes, the audience was denied the possibility of assembling, and through a number of means its members were progressively delayed, detained, herded and removed from the performance. What was left behind were cleared-out spaces and voids, demarcated with barrier tape, in which it was declared there was ‘nothing to see’. The final few audience members left in the room were grouped together and ‘kettled’ in temporary fencing.
For this work we commissioned the philosophy researcher and poet, Gene Flenady, to reflect on the political capacity of the work. Copies of this essay, which was accompanied by an absurd feedback form, were made available to Dispersal’s audience members as they exited the work. The essay is below.
READ THE FINE PRINT
There is nothing to see here but the operation that makes sure there is nothing to see, especially our own political capacity. This work makes a spectacle of an otherwise invisible division, and makes this practice of organised invisibility the only object of sight. It does so that we might figure out how this operation works, and who or what is produced from the divide. Allow me to explain, knowing that nobody reads the fine print anyway.
The title of Spiers and Ryan’s ongoing collaborative project is taken from “Ten Theses on Politics” by contemporary French philosopher Jacques Rancière, our political theorist, aesthetician, soixante-huitard and cultural studies pinup du jour. Here I want to outline certain convergences between Rancière’s politics and Spiers and Ryan’s Nothing to See Here (Dispersal)—not or not simply to regulate or police the artwork by referring it to the authority of (the latest and therefore greatest) “French theory,” but also to register that which in the artwork exceeds and extends Rancière’s theoretical operation. Dispersal in an important sense out-Rancières Rancière himself, and even directs a new reading of his work.
The value of Dispersal is its production of a tiny division or fold from which to view or re-view both the contemporary Australian political situation and the political discourses surrounding contemporary participatory art, Rancière’s included. This division or fold is produced precisely by introducing the theme of division. While Spiers and Ryan’s previous works in the series have circled visibility and invisibility, in Dispersal the invisibility rendered visible is the practice and production of division itself.
One cannot fail to see this work’s immediate political reference: after Occupy, after the Manus riot, after Victoria’s latest anti-protest legislation, the State and its coercive violence again need to be thought (and fought, and not necessarily in that order). That “one cannot fail to see” state violence is only half the story: as Dispersal shows us, the visibility of force always effaces itself in the production of invisibility. State power is not, as Walter Benjamin suggests, an “aestheticisation” of politics; it is rather, as Rancière argues, the calculated dispersal of spectacles, returning us to the smooth running of capitalist exchange (there is nothing to do but move along—preferably to the next shop). Rancière calls the agent of this dispersion the “police.”
Rancière’s theory of the police extends our common sense understanding of the term in two directions. Firstly, Rancière’s “police” is not or not only the literal “police force,” but all operations, discursive or otherwise, that organise and maintain a division in society between those who are authorised to act in and on the public and public space, and those who must passively accept the role assigned them. One cannot fail to see a similar division organising Dispersal: the participants are divided into two groups: one active and one—at least in principle—passive. The passive half of the community is folded and re-folded, funnelled, kettled, dispersed and ultimately walled or taped out of the public space—as if that space contained a secret that was or could be more than themselves, their own latent capacity to be political actors. The invisibility produced here is the invisibility of our own dormant political capacity, alienated by the police and taped up as a reified nothing.
Secondly, against presentations of the police or policing as merely repressive, Rancière attempts a dialectical retrieval of societal division. For Rancière, the hierarchical, inegalitarian distribution of the community activated and maintained by police power is itself the condition of equality—equality emerges from within the relation of domination. To take Rancière’s most insistent example, the fact that orders are understood speaks to a primary linguistic equality between those who command and those who obey. Put differently: the space of policing, of good bourgeois citizens “moving along,” is also the space of the emergence of a new, egalitarian kind of subjectivity.
But unlike much of the classical Marxist tradition, Rancière’s egalitarian subject is not given in advance to a “future history,” a teleology that would provide both the subject type (worker) and its destiny (full communism). We might say that Rancière’s political philosophy, against Marxism’s historical narrative but still within a Marxian dialectics, attempts to stage a fully immanent dialectical production of political subjectivity—for Rancière, the resistant subject emerges in the absence of any narrative outside the frame of oppression itself.
Of course, Rancière as philosopher can’t help but provide a schema for political subjectivities—presenting a politics of “subjectivisation” along with its operative egalitarian subject, minimally defined as “the part without part” ready to universalise its claims. One virtue of Dispersal is that it divides Rancière’s work down the middle, and provides no representation of effective egalitarian subjectivity. We are presented only with the police operation and whatever activities and actants it may produce.
Most importantly—and here Dispersal out-Rancières Rancière’s own attempt to move past the classical Marxist narrative—there is nothing in this work to tell us what “resistance” would or should look like, what kind of subject would or should resist, what an instituted egalitarian political community would or should look like. Perhaps most importantly, there is nothing in this work to tell us what resistance should feel like—the jouissance or pleasure (or otherwise) of bodies moving with and against each other in space is left to its own principle (which is not to say this principle cannot be thought, just not thought in advance, not exhausted by our exhausted imagery of resistance). At its conclusion we have only the empty result of the police operation: the void there where the community should be. The utopian and teleological elements of both classical Marxism and last generation’s libertarian leftism are shorn off, and we are left staring at an empty space—the only register of our recent shocks; City Square after Occupy was “moved on.”
If there is nothing in this work to tell us what resistance should look like, that is because there is nothing in our contemporary situation to tell us either. In each direction the left’s traditional narratives (reformist and revolutionary) appear as blocked or empty. In this, Dispersal is true to our political moment: it literally blocks off the empty space of our political capacity, calls us to the gap where our narratives used to be. Put differently: the artwork stages the necessity of another, non-police organisation of the community; nevertheless it resists, as a kind of first principle or originary conceit, the understandable desire to invent a figure to satisfy that need symbolically. The work presents a truth of our situation, a truth which would be undone by the addition of a false solution—something that art of the beautiful kind has always excelled at providing.
And here this artwork’s intervention into the contemporary political discourse around participatory art makes itself felt. By focussing purely on the police division of the collective body, the artists avoid the promotion of “community” and “inclusion” that accompanies much participatory art practice. Dispersal in fact points to the deficiencies of these political approaches: in a society divided by class and power, inclusion would only be inclusion into a police order, into one’s allotted place on the passive side of things. The social body is a divided one, and the politics of art that wants to insist on our collective creativity and participatory power skip a very real roadblock: the capitalist state and the divisions it maintains.
All this emerges by the presentation of a simple truth buried by political and aesthetic discourses on both the left and right: the social body is divided, and the properly critical artwork (at this time, at least) can stage nothing beyond it. Beyond or beneath our old narratives, there appears no pre-constituted, political subject capable of overcoming this division, except that which emerges from the activity of division itself.