Week 4: Ethical Spectacles

Much like in advertisement or propaganda, sometimes activists also need to use persuasive techniques in order to make an audience join their cause. To ‘sell’ an idea successfully, it is important that spectators rethink their own assumptions by themselves or rather that they believe they have come to a premise or change of perspective on their own. No one wants to be told what to do, hence the key lying in making people believe it was their idea in the first place.

“The goal is to make the intervention as realistic as possible so that it provokes spontaneous responses. (…) Bystanders can and will engage with the scene as if it were real life because for them it is real life.” (Mitchell, 2012)

Ethical spectacles will thus achieve a sense of cooperation that other protests or manifestations can’t, removing the limits between performers and spectators, and “creating very accessible conflictual situations in which people can rethink their assumptions and engage with sensitive issues they might otherwise avoid.” (Mitchell, 2012)

Even though the aim is to create spontaneous reactions, a certain amount of direction is always needed. Performers won’t have any lines or cues but guidelines must set so that everyone has an idea of how their performances should unfold. “If spectacles are to be politically useful, they have to be directed towards a political goal. If they are to communicate a strong message, they need to be fashioned into a coherent brand.” (Duncombe, 2007)

Open spectacles emerge then as a solution to this dilemma – a way to organize an effective manifestation, while still remaining open to the participation of the audience. The open spectacle, similarly to the open works in modern art, and as its name suggests, is left open, unfinished. It has no definite closure; the spectacle keeps changing its form and meaning, with the performers, the audience and the ‘stage’. Open spectacles are indeed planned, but not regimented, allowing space for transformation, organic growth and a wide range of possibilities.

“This, however, does not mean chaos. No matter how open to the public, not matter how much form and meaning are in motion, there is still a generative text, and this text sets some guidelines.” (Duncombe, 2007)

Another interesting aspect of open spectacles is that they are also open to a variety of meanings. As a reflection of the convincingly spontaneous, unplanned act and the diversity of participants, the performance will be open to interpretation. “(…) with a spectacle committed to openness, it is sometimes unclear that there is a message at all.” (Duncombe, 2007)

An ethical spectacle, as an open work, “never arrives at one answer. Open to the noisy diversity of participants, observers, and settings to create the completed work, it ends (or rather, rests) in a field of possibilities.” (Duncombe, 2007)


  • Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. 1st ed. New York: New Press, pp.124-142.
  • Mitchell, T. (2012). Invisible Theatre. [online] Beautiful Trouble: a toolbox for revolution. Available at: http://bit.ly/2lXPMUu [Accessed 31 Jan. 2017].

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