Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center,
Troy NY


Emily Berçir Zimmerman

Anxiety is ahead; it discovers its consequence before it comes, as one feels in one’s bones that a storm is approaching. The consequence comes closer; the individual trembles like a horse that gasps as it comes to a halt at a place where once it had been frightened.
—Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety

Anxiety’s hold on our cultural moment is deep and resounding; its ever-swelling presence calls for continual adaptation, entangled with a market that publishes scores of books on the subject, as well as drugs and therapeutic practices that seek to mitigate its effects. Panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, claustrophobia, somatic hysteria, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, separation anxiety, and performance anxiety: the conditions associated with this affect have multiplied and mutated over the past hundred years like a newly formed branch on a phylogenetic tree. Many have speculated as to why anxiety may be budding in our cultural climate, citing the news media, capitalism, globalization, and even the Western episteme itself as the cause.1

Uncertain Spectator takes up the prevalence of anxiety within our culture, finds the traces of its inflection within contemporary artistic practice, and articulates a sense of angst that arises in the experience of artworks. It asks individuals to cross a boundary, to place themselves within vexing situations, to confront deeply charged emotional content, and to grapple with feelings of apprehension. Each of the pieces tests one’s willingness to place oneself in the artist’s hands.

As the parameters of artistic practices continue to shift, the viewer is increasingly asked to enter into an undefined field where codes of behavior are yet to be established. As artworks depend with greater frequency upon the participation of the spectator in order to function, the act of viewing becomes fraught with anxiety.2 In this unstable terrain the viewer must hold a high degree of trust for the intentions of the artist and for the value of the experience to be yielded. The overriding feeling of the exhibition might be captured in the image of a hesitant step over a threshold where one questions what may be waiting on the other side. The uncertainty that stands as the key term in this exhibition resides in an exchange between physical and emotional realities both of the artworks included and the subjective experience of those works.

What is this anxious condition that seems to have gripped the current psychological state of affairs? And what is to be gained from the experience of these pieces in a time of overbearing anxiety? How does our experience of anxiety shift after encountering these artworks? Can we walk away from the exhibition with a more nuanced understanding of the conditions that anxiety places on our experience—or, with a sense of the advantages that the state of not knowing, of openness in the confrontation of possibility, may offer us? Some of these questions are addressed in Uncertain Spectator while others are to be left unanswered, as is appropriate to the mood.

Anxiety is said to arise in the face of freedom. This understanding of anxiety originates in a lineage of thought that began with Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, originally published in 1844. In this seminal treatise, Kierkegaard defined anxiety as “freedom’s disclosure to itself in possibility.”3 An individual experiences anxiety by coming to terms with possibility, at the precise moment such possibility is felt, and before it is turned into action: “The possibility is to be able. In a logical system it is convenient to say that possibility passes over into actuality. However, in actuality it is not so convenient, and an intermediate term is required. The intermediate term is anxiety.... Anxiety is neither a category of necessity nor a category of freedom; it is entangled in freedom.” Unlike fear, which responds to present dangers, anxiety responds to threats that are absent; it is an objectless construction that corresponds to the act of envisioning the future.4 Anxiety is a deeply personal emotion which is only known by the individual, and that arises out of the particularities of the self. In anxious moments we are weighing the options, confronting the potentiality of a situation and of ourselves.

Kierkegaard’s understanding of anxiety was highly influential among the existentialists, who seized upon the extreme image of a man standing at a precipice, terrified by the possibility that he could choose to throw himself over it. Martin Heidegger held that anxiety is the fundamental state in which Dasein (being-in-the-world, or the fundamental condition of being human) can be understood. Rüdiger Safranski, reflecting on Heidegger’s Being and Time, elucidates the relationship between Dasein and anxiety, which he refers to as “a shadowy queen among moods,” in the following manner: “Anxiety confronts Dasein with the naked ‘That’ of the world and of its own self. But what remains when Dasein has passed through the cold fire of anxiety is not nothing. That which anxiety consumes also lays bare the hot kernel of ‘Dasein’—the Being—free for the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself.” 5

Uncertain Spectator mobilizes this conception of anxiety to open itself up to the realm of possibility within the frame of an exhibition. Our daily lives often are structured by particular prohibitions geared toward limiting choices for action: we are told to banish doubt, to be suspicious of unfamiliar sensations, and to seek meaning in resolved narratives. Anthony Discenza takes up the support for these types of daily prohibitions with street signs (a method for controlling behavior in public space), and uses them as vehicles for poetic reflections on doubt and terrifying doomsday predictions. These signs punctuate the everyday with assertions of radical potential, and often make reference to the overly mediated nature of our culture. For instance, with one entitled, MORE IN A SERIES OF POSSIBILITIES, he creates a serialized list of absurdist predictions, beginning with “There May Be Some Slight Discomfort,” and ending with “There May Be A Last Minute Intervention By Beings Wiser and More Powerful Than Ourselves.” These statements draw from and evoke the ways in which anxiety finds expression in our culture via the pharmaceutical industry, Hollywood productions, politics, and speculations on the occult.

Without a doubt these are unsettling times. Economically, world markets have undergone more turmoil in the last two years than in decades. Politicians seize upon social pressure points to manufacture consent. And the news media sensationalizes world events so as to be panic inducing. Susanna Hertrich’s Reality Checking Device critiques this cultural obsession with anxiety and attempts to act as a balancing device for such apprehension by creating a chart that compares the amount of public outrage about a given topic to the degree that it is a true threat. The graphic is displayed on a mirrored surface, conjugating statistical data with the viewer’s own image standing before the device. As such, the piece references Greek oracles and the age-old dictum to “know thyself.”

Several pieces in Uncertain Spectator ask the viewer not to look within, but evoke anxiety through empathy with the artworks’ main subjects. Kate Gilmore’s Main Squeeze elicits a strong visceral response to the image of the artist’s scraped body clad in a skirt and high heels as she forces herself through a claustrophobic, roughly hewn wooden tunnel. As the artist pulls herself along, the viewer’s skin crawls.

Marie Sester’s FEAR is a seating area with a table that pulses with a warm beckoning light, inviting viewers with the promise of rest. However, as the viewer approaches, the furniture begins to emit a chorus of abrasive howls and the table’s light changes its emotional cadence to one of alarm. This responsive environment sets up an interaction paradigm in which viewers are given conflicting messages about their status in relation to this grouping of furniture. Once the viewer retreats, the furniture resumes its peaceful existence.

This exhibition follows the spirit of experimental gallery-based practices from the 1960s, in particular, Graciela Carnevale’s contribution to the Experimental Art Cycle in Rosario, Argentina, in which individuals were invited to an opening where they were then unknowingly locked into the gallery. Taken hostage for just over an hour, the content of the work was the intense anxiety of imprisonment, followed by the freedom of escape (made possible with the assistance of a passerby who smashed the gallery’s window). After escaping from the gallery, the viewers were handed a statement by Carnevale about the moral implications of the piece. Such experiments opened up the conceptualization of gallery exhibitions, orienting them toward actions rather than objects, inverting expectation, and insisting even violently on the participation of the audience.

Anxious thoughts enumerate possibility and arrest action, pulling the past and future into dramatic conjunction with one another as an approaching storm brushes against a fearful memory. This exhibition illuminates anxiety’s highly discordant nature: its simultaneous openness and immobility, its assurance in knowing and uncertainty about what precisely it knows, its dual status as a psychic and embodied phenomenon, and its interaction with both the past and the future.

We spend billions of dollars and many hours of time to avoid anxiety, yet ultimately, there is a great deal to be learned from the purposeful confrontation of this emotion. The artworks in Uncertain Spectator ask us to undo rigid forms of behavior, to dwell in possibility, to rigorously explore all the options, and to come to terms with the positive dimensions of anxiety. 6

  • 1 Donald Kuspit points to the shift away from the myths based system and toward analytic logic during the Renaissance as shepherding in the age of anxiety: “Myths are systematically sustained narratives that give coherence to the world they deal with, thus functioning as emotional safety nets.... analytic knowledge eventually destroys its object, disintegrating it into a composite of facts and ideas that are accorded more credibility than the object itself.” Donald Kuspit, Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 7.
  • 2 Umberto Eco notes that “Pousseur has observed that the poetics of the ‘open’ work tends to encourage ‘acts of conscious freedom’ on the part of the performer and place him at the focal point of a network of limitless interrelations…” Umberto Eco, “The Poetics of the Open Work,” in Claire Bishop, ed. Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 4.
  • 3 Søren Kierkegaard, in Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson, eds. The Concept of Anxiety: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 42.
  • 4 “Therefore I must point out that it is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite. Whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.” Ibid.
  • 5 Rüdiger Safranski, “Being and Time: What Being? What Meaning?” Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 152.
  • 6 Avital Ronell argues for the key role anxiety plays in an ethical life in the film. She says, “Precisely where there isn’t guarantee or palpable meaning, you have to do a lot of work and you have to be mega-ethical. Because it’s much easier to live life and to say, ‘that you shouldn’t do and that you should do because someone said so.’ If we’re not anxious, if we’re okay with things we’re not trying to explore or figure anything out. So anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity, I think.” “Interview with Avital Ronell,” in Astra Taylor, dir. Examined Life (Zeitgeist Films. February 23, 2010. 88 min.)