Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center,
Troy NY

or to Share the Collapse of the Possibility of Sharing

Max Hernández-Calvo

It is unclear what will be made of all this: of this text, of this catalog, of this exhibition, or of this whole enterprise entitled Uncertain Spectator. Uncertainty is integral to art. One of the profoundly democratic aspects of art is that no interpretative prescription, ordering or imposition can be upheld—much less guaranteed—with regard to what a spectator makes of a given art experience, or of any “aesthetic proposition” whatsoever. The audience is always a wager, and always an uncertain one.

According to Jacques Rancière, who has carefully reflected on these matters, the spectator “connects what he observes with many other things he has observed on other stages, in other kinds of spaces.”1 An irreducibly personal space for reflection, opinion, and dissent is thus framed, enabling the possibility of challenging a certain order of things, of knowledge; perhaps even of questioning a distribution of power.

This personal experience is socialized through speech, in commentary, discussion or criticism. In such speech, what’s addressed goes one step beyond: it is not just the “content” of an artwork that is at stake, for the very communicational capacities of that very artwork implicitly become a subject of commentary—of communication.

But what about an art that revolves around anxiety? What about an art which thematizes the distressing feeling of uncertainty that is anxiety—notably theorized in terms of emptiness, of lack—positing it as a space for interaction, mediating its aesthetic outreach?


The feeling of anxiety is usually described as a sense of “uneasiness,” for lack of a better word. And perhaps just so because, in a sense, it feels like a wholesale lack of better or worse words. Not in vain, Christian existentialist Paul Tillich considered that the twentieth century could be characterized as an “age of anxiety” on account of the prevailing sense of meaninglessness.2 This “existential void” of sorts warranted philosophy’s and theology’s concern with anxiety; its privileged status within the psychological sciences being “naturally” granted—with psychoanalysis significantly weighing in on the matter.

For Sigmund Freud, lack is what sets off anxiety, terming it “a reaction to the felt loss of the object,” and pointing out that “the earliest anxiety of all—the ‘primal anxiety’ of birth—is brought about on the occasion of a separation from the mother.”3 This “primal anxiety” indicates that this said reaction relates to the danger and uncertainty provoked by such loss.

Intensely somatic as it can be, anxiety defies narrative. Commonly lacking a discernible trigger, it resists the structure of cause-and-effect scripted sequences. There is no relationship of that kind in anxiety, and within it there may barely be any clearly structured one, given that ambiguity characterizes the relation between anxiety and its object. Not surprisingly, Søren Kierkegaard, who famously theorized about the concept, said of the relation between anxiety and its object: “it is something that is nothing.”4

Nothingness underpins Freud’s understanding of the concept, considering the centrality of lack in his writings on anxiety. It is precisely this relation to nothing which distinguishes it from fear, where fear—and phobias—are attached to an object, rather than to its absence.5 However, Jacques Lacan did consider that anxiety does have an object, but one of a different kind, one that, in a way, embodies lack: the objet petit a.6 According to Slavoj Žižek, the objet petit a “is the original lost object which in a way coincides with its own loss.” In other words, it is “the embodiment of this void.”7

It is because of this relation to this void that anxiety is not of the order of communication, of speech, of symbolization. Rather than a case of ceasing to have an object, it is a case of having a lost object (hence its non-symbolic character; its absence cannot leave an “imprint,” as happens in melancholia, where the shadow of the lost object is cast upon the subject). In order to evoke this drama-without-drama, consider that to occupy the place of the objet petit ais to occupy the place of “somebody undergoing radical subjective destitution. He enacts no ritual, he conjures nothing, he just persists in his inert presence.”8 In other words—non- communication. In that regard, anxiety is related to the Lacanian concept of the Real, “the essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.”9 As Žižek puts it, “the Real itself, in its positivity, is nothing but an embodiment of a certain void, lack, radical negativity. It cannot be negated because it is already in itself, in its positivity, nothing but an embodiment of a pure negativity, emptiness.”10

This aspect acquires particular relevance when considering the realm of art, given that the activity of the spectator is predicated on his/her establishing a relationship with the artwork, albeit an open-ended one. In terms of reception, it is the artwork’s “communicative indeterminacy” that thrusts the spectator’s interpretive role.11 The gap between the work’s loose ends defines the space where the artwork’s different possibilities of “realization” are put into play: a discursive space to be filled in interpretation.

But how can there be any tying of loose ends? How can one intervene in an indeterminate communicative structure when all words cease and all categories fail, when anxiety in itself constitutes a communicational destructuring of sorts? How to tell one’s own story about the story that is in front of oneself, as Rancière would say about spectatorship,12 when anxiety may well embody an impossibility of saying (and of knowing)?


A cursory view of the countless online forums and blogs addressing anxiety evidences the recurring hardship brought upon so many by their own attempts to recount this feeling of malaise. That may be why a sensation of “don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself” appears to be a common motif among those suffering from anxiety, and trying to talk about it. The hint that such a motif offers is that this affliction can be thought of as an anguish-ridden feeling of cluelessness.

To that extent, anxiety can be regarded as a quasi-model of epistemological instability, being that, in anxiety, to be in one’s surroundings and to relate to those very surroundings become affectively disjoined. Self-awareness of one’s own angst triggers obsessive self-reflexivity (Why am I anxious? Why now? Why here?), along with the efforts to cope with it in the midst of the unfolding of quotidian life and its social situations: uncertainty emerges as the anticipated response to being addressed.

From this perspective, the feeling of anxiety can be deemed akin to a sense of disconcertedness that has become agonizingly physical and psychically self-aware. Such heightened awareness seems echoed in Lacan’s assertion that anxiety is an affect beyond all doubt.13

With Lacan in mind, it can be noted that the nexus between anxiety and the objet petit a denotes it is a non-symbolic affect, one which takes the form of acting out—where mental conflict is channelled through action rather than verbalization. However, in anxiety there is no silence. After all, affect is its own noise: heartbeats as syncopated words, unbefitting to be uttered. So there is no silence, but there is little conversation, either.

And yet, the non-discursive aspect of anxiety may be what can be addressed in discourse. In that regard, as John Forrester has it, “the very existence of psychoanalysis is a permanent testimony to the failure of communication.”14 Perhaps a similar aspect constitutes the thematic thread of the artworks in Uncertain Spectator.

Therefore, it could be said that these works point to a particular mode of affective and social functioning. From the perspective of psychoanalysis, art is generally understood as a compromise between the Reality Principle and the Pleasure Principle—the work of art is considered a fantasized satisfaction of unconscious desires (Phantasiebefriedigung). Such articulation of the “social contract” (à la Freud, rather than Hobbes) and our psychic drives is at the core of the emblematic concept of sublimation.

The Freudian model establishes the diversion of ends (mostly sexual) and the transformation of the object to obtain cultural achievement.15 However, the manifest content of these artworks intimate that the prevailing social pact is underwritten by fear, uncertainty, and paranoia.

Of course, this comes as no surprise in a world where the geography of “safeness” changed long ago. At the beginning of our century, 9/11 signalled the emergence of an era of a globally generalized sense of vulnerability. And with it has come the ubiquitous sense of being watched—or, actually, the conscience of it, considering the ideologies, policies, and technologies of surveillance in place, and all over the place.

Psychologically speaking, paranoia seems to have become socially commendable, with the normalization of a constant state of alert through the collective outsourcing of surveillance— epitomized by New York City’s campaign “If You See Something, Say Something.” Not just seeing, but actively looking for.

Recently, the global financial crisis has disrupted countless modes of sustenance, affecting social provisions and even basic services around the world, furthering the sense of imminent threat beyond apocalyptic scenarios of terrorist attacks (complete with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction), shattering the sense of well-being. The attempts to cope with the vertigo of our fears through chain scapegoating (variously covering the spectrum of political, social, national, ethnic, and religious affiliations) has only managed to accentuate the prevailing climate of social mistrust: think Arizona’s immigration law or consider the debates on the burqa ban in the EU. But then again, fear is a political commodity with its own rules of trade.

This geo-political and economic situation has angst for its emotional outcome, with particular modes of distress that can be aptly described recurring to Paul Tillich’s conception of two types of nightmare in anxiety.16 On one hand, that of the impossibility of escape, which would correspond to the supposedly omnipresent danger of an attack (absolute vulnerability). On the other, that of an annihilating openness, a bottomless pit, but without the pit—pure bottomlessness: no place to fall upon (absolute helplessness). A graphic notion to apply to the mortgage crisis at the origins of the economic collapse, and an apt metaphor for the sudden vanishing of the grounds on which ways of life were built (and of so many social safety nets) that the financial crisis has triggered.


The political and economic landscape of this decade, dramatically landmarked by Ground Zero, war torn Afghanistan and Iraq, the legal limbo and all around hell of Guantanamo, and ultimately, the collapse of Wall Street, tacitly informs the works presented in Uncertain Spectator; all but two date between 2001 and 2010. This decade has signaled, if not escorted, radical shifts in the way we live, reshaping our perceptions and conceptions of the world. From travel, where all the talk about greater mobility stumbles upon multiple security checks, visa clearances, and even walk-through X-ray scans, to privacy, ever shrinking due to ubiquitous techno-surveillance, increased policing, and unabashed online self-disclosure.

This historical context isn’t merely a conjectural backdrop to the works exhibited (or, in the case of the collective SUPERFLEX, an explicit concern literalized in their video The Financial Crisis, 2009) but, rather, the storyline behind an affective thread that runs through the whole show: punctuated, punctured, and threaded by history’s needle. To a certain degree, that anguish plays a structuring role of sorts, for it marks the “void” addressed in these works.

Take for instance those artworks which, rather than symbolically hinting at such anguished scenarios, take an openly “informational” stance. This is the case with the works of Anthony Discenza and of Susanna Hertrich. Both artists address, quite overtly, the socialization of fear, and even its consumption. Both treat paranoia as a contemporary social and identitarian “marker.”

Discenza has installed for the exhibition a series of “street signs” around the Rensselaer campus that announce—literally—diverse degrees of adversity (such as END IN TEARS or GREATER HORRORS, both pieces from 2008), imposing a call for the collective acknowledgment of the inevitability of misfortune. Given the normative function of these types of signs, Discenza presents a model of social regulation organized around mishap, where being in a constant state of alert constitutes a feature of ordinary social functioning.

Hertrich’s Reality Checking Device (2008) is an interactive machine which offers, on its mirrored surface, statistical information on the current trends of paranoid concern: plane crashes, terrorist attacks, gun crime, bird flu, etc. The work presents a surface where (physical) reflexion, (psychical) reflection, and (statistical) projection converge: the outline of our self- image is one traced by unfounded fears.

In these instances, the informational clarity regarding expressions of fear and paranoia can be seen as the flip side of the anxious void regarding the emergence of fear and paranoia. Put differently, the overt literalness employed in these pieces is precisely what signals the abstraction of the obvious.

A brief excursion is necessary here. For G.W.F. Hegel, the distinction between the abstract and the concrete is based on the degree of contextualization and interconnectedness of the various definitions of a given problem. A material presentation, for instance, could thus be considered not concrete, but an abstraction. Hegel summarizes this idea in Shorter Logic when he writes that the “sense-consciousness is usually considered to be the most concrete and therefore at the same time the richest; but this is the case only with regards to its materials, whereas in respect of its thought content, on the other hand, it is in fact the poorest and most abstract.”17

Both Discenza and Hertrich engage in their respective works the way in which the expectation of calamity has become normalized and integrated into everyday living, even intimating that death wishing is the mode in which collective fantasy and desire are being channelled these days. Their clear articulation of what is right “under our noses” highlights the unclear and unspoken circumstances that have lead to our present situation: the complex conditions that have socially enabled and sustained our current state of fear and paranoia.

Some aspects of this history of the present are well-known, such as the marshalling of terror as a core political and military tool (think “war on terror” and Abu Ghraib). However, the “political psychology” that buttresses such implementation is yet to be publicly analyzed and addressed. In that regard, the affective and ideological conjunction (an ideologized anxiety?) can perhaps be probed by means of a geographical dislocation: how is fear to be socialized, for instance, in Baghdad?


A particular kind of wager regarding the spectator singles out this curatorial project. Its stakes have been raised by the risks it asks its audience to take. This show invites us to partake in the demanding exploration of the intimate experiences of discomfort, doubt, fear, and angst. And by doing so within the context of art, it implicitly asks us to dare to socialize such experiences through discussion, commentary, analysis, and critique—the main discursive forms such socializing takes. In that regard, Uncertain Spectator dares its audience to share that sense of disquieted isolation that is anxiety: to share the feeling of being beyond the possibility of sharing.

This exhibition is underwritten by a profoundly sociological concern. The show is, in many ways, an apt reflection on our times, and an invitation to ponder the subject. But further, a philosophical enquiry is put forward through the demands that these artists place on the public. As Diogenes of Sinope wondered more than two thousand years ago, “Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”18

Uncertain Spectator brings together a series of artists who prompt us to go beyond our comfort zones and to reflectively engage their works; to “wrestle” with them, even. These artworks present us with “dreams that can overturn life’s orderly patterns and stir up all your fortunes with fear,” as Lucretius, the Latin poet versed in anxiety, would say (De rerum natura). In that regard, this exhibition acknowledges and asserts how certain uncertainty is potentially downplaying the anxiety it willfully triggers. After all, “once brought forth into the light... the hidden, unavowed, and unspeakable dread loses some of its terror.”19

By means of the diverse strategies employed by these artists, the artworks on display aim to experientially lodge in the spectator, at times as if almost flirting with the traumatic. It is worth remembering that trauma is closely related to the Real (the Lacanian Real presents itself in the form of trauma that cannot be assimilated),20 which Lacan associates to anxiety. The underlying “aggressiveness” that the artworks deploy may be a means of enforcing their “aesthetic accessibility,” seeking to captivate—or overtake—the spectator.

Hence, despite that anxiety, unease, discomfort and other similar responses are irreducibly personal in nature, a quest for communicational universality might be at stake all the while. Anxiety may well name a kind of communicational destructuring—defying our ability to explain it—but, nevertheless, the concept of communication also encompasses non-semantic movements, for “a tremor... a shock, a displacement of force can be communicated—that is, propagated, transmitted.”21 Communication beyond communication: to communicate a failure in communication would be its paradoxical formulation.


Entailing a challenge and a confrontation, the works assembled in Uncertain Spectator situate us at a juncture between symbolism (implicitly upheld as inherent to artistic discourse), and a crude reality being portrayed, displayed, and fleshed out. Anxiety signals the limits of representation. It is the affect that signals when “the order of symbolization (substitution and displacement) is at risk of disappearing.”22 Framed by uncertainty, wouldn’t the affective trajectory of spectatorship relay between overlooking (as in a traumatic block) and staring (as in voyeuristic fixation)?

But, if that were so, how could that relationship between work and audience where the spectator “makes his poem with the poem that is performed in front of him” happen?23 In other words, could there be such thing as spectatorship in this context?

To echo Rancière’s words, to make a poem with a poem (and after the poet), involves not only critical/analytical capacities, but also emotional ones: the capacity to affectively relate to an emotionally invested structure—namely, the artwork. This connection would enable a series of signs, symbols, and references to constitute a partial model for self-recognition. In that way, the spectator would “rewrite” the poem with an eye to his/her own history, as if rehearsing its rewriting. Potentially, one’s past or, more exactly, a sentiment associated to the past, would become displaced, maybe even retroactively transfigured?

This idea of a temporal intervention relies on anxiety’s temporal character. Anxiety “is rather a mode of waiting or distressed anticipation, a form of ‘anxious expectation’—as though the threat were impending from the future;” its temporal structure is “a matter of memory (both repetition and anticipation) which may well shape the time of anxiety in a distinctive way (in contrast, for example, to the time of desire).”24 Doesn’t a space of possibility open up between anxiety’s cessation of a previous state of being, and an uncertain future where that previous state will be no more?

That potentiality may possibly be the ultimate wager of Uncertain Spectator. Outlining an aesthetic itinerary to be mapped out perceptively, conceptually, affectively, and reflectively, the exhibition challenges us to adopt a more vulnerable position, one that might enable us to critically examine our own defensiveness and anxieties, vis-à-vis those of the society we are part of. And in doing so, the echo of unheeded warnings resounds belatedly, such as those of Erich Maria Remarque’s Paul Bäumer, somehow still addressing us after all these years; still pertinently, after all these years.

  • 1 Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum, March 2007, 275-280.
  • 2 Paul Tillich, The Courage To Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952).
  • 3 Sigmund Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety,” vol. 20 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-1973), 13.
  • 4 Søren Kierkegaard, El concepto de la angustia (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1982), 60.
  • 5 Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety.”
  • 6 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), 103.
  • 7 Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 158.
  • 8 Ibid., 116.
  • 9 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1988), 164.
  • 10 Žižek, The Sublime Object, 170. Italics in the original.
  • 11 Rainer Warning, “La estética de la recepción en cuanto pragmática en las ciencias de la literatura,” in Rainer Warning, ed., Estética de la recepción (Madrid: Visor, 1989), 13-34.
  • 12 Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator.”
  • 13 Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.
  • 14 John Forrester, Seducciones del psicoanálisis: Freud, Lacan y Derrida (México D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), 184.
  • 15 According to Freud, “powerful components are acquired for every kind of cultural achievement by this diversion of sexual instinctual forces from sexual aims and their direction towards new ones—a process which deserves the name of ‘sublimation.’” Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” vol. 7 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-1973), 178.
  • 16 Tillich, The Courage To Be.
  • 17 G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, trans. T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, H.S. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991), 136.
  • 18 Herakleitos & Diogenes, trans. Guy Davenport (Bolinas, California: Grey Fox Press, 2001), 40.
  • 19 Charles Segal, Lucretius on Death and Anxiety: Poetry and Philosophy in “De Rerum Natura” (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), 19.
  • 20 Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 55.
  • 21 Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Limited Inc, trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (Evanston IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 1.
  • 22 Charles Shepherdson, foreword to Lacan's Seminar on Anxiety. An Introduction, by Roberto Harari. (New York: Other Press, 2001), xxxii.
  • 23 Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator.”
  • 24 Shepherdson, in Lacan's Seminar on Anxiety, xxviii.