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When You Build It and They Don't Come
The heartbreak and poetics of the poorly attended event.
Back in the late 90s, when I worked at the MCA in Chicago, I organized a lecture by a Spanish film director. The speaker, who I had never met before, was to arrive right before the lecture started. An hour before the event we had sold no tickets and I was contemplating the very real possibility that we would have an empty 200-seat auditorium. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I desperately ran to the galleries trying to recruit people —anyone— to come to the talk, but there were few visitors at the museum that evening. I went to the museum café, where I saw a lone couple having coffee, and I approached them. I frantically told them that we had an empty auditorium and wanted to invite them to the talk of a Spanish filmmaker. To my great shock, the person I approached was none other than that very Spanish filmmaker.
Let’s face it: we all have been there. But I likely have been there more often than most due to simple statistics: over the course of my professional life, I have organized over 2,000 public events, performances, discussions and more; some have been successes and others have been flops, such as those where I had scarce or no attendance at all.
Having poor or no attendance —be it a party, an opening, or a larger event— is not only a crushing experience, but it inevitably becomes an indicator, frivolous perhaps but an indicator nonetheless, of status. The topic comes up every now and then, and how we respond to those who live it shows how the experience is relatable. Some of the most heartbreaking stories we routinely hear about in that category are of children who have no one come to their birthday parties. This often results in huge online responses of comfort and sympathy, sometimes also resulting in a whole group of good Samaritans coming to the party at the last minute to show support, or a whole town organizing a new party for the lonely kid; in one instance of a 6 year-old boy in Arizona, whose story became viral, the Phoenix Suns invited him to a game.
Of course, when the event is of a professional nature, the experience is particularly bruising. Back in December, author Chelsea Banning posted on Twitter about how only two people showed up to her book signing, which also led to an outpouring of support and comments by major writers, including Margaret Atwood, who wrote: “ join the club. I did a signing to which Nobody came, except a guy who wanted to buy some Scotch tape and thought I was the help. :)”
Organizing an unattended event must be, I imagine, like being the maître’d of a customer-less restaurant. You stand by the door, hoping that some of the passersby will either become curious and walk in or be someone who had planned to come all along and had just been delayed by traffic. You become grateful of the randomnest of persons who might wind up in the premises.
I can recall at least two events I organized where absolutely no one, other than me, showed up. One of them was a workshop I offered years ago at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. Because I had proposed this workshop to the center out of my own initiative, they agreed for me to do it in their premises but did not bother to staff it or promote it (nor did I do a good job at it, clearly), which is partially why I ended up waiting hopelessly for anyone to show up. Then I saw a friend walk into the building and I welcomed her enthusiastically; however, she told me that he had not come to my workshop but rather to meet another friend of hers, after which she walked away (I admit I am still hurt by her indifference to my plight).
I have experienced the whole gamut of variations around event attendance, including a flash-mob. That time I had a solo exhibition opening at a gallery in Zagreb, Croatia, which I believe happened during a night of coordinated gallery events in the city. The gallery was totally empty at the time of the opening; twenty minutes later I had a crowd of about 70 people walk in; they lingered for about 30 minutes, and after that they were all gone again, leaving me to wonder whether the opening had been a success or a failure— or both.
Being one of the sole audience members in a public event is not much more comfortable. A few months ago I was invited to speak at a “major” day-long international symposium. When I arrived, the venue was empty, which made me briefly confused as to whether I had made a mistake about the time. There were only 5 people in the auditorium: the funder, the organizer, a student intern, a friend who was also a fellow speaker, and me. Because the event was being livestreamed, the organizer could maintain the fiction that we had an online audience (which I suspect was also nonexistent) and both funder and organizer, acting as if they were speaking to a packed auditorium, proceeded to introduce the event and the speakers (most of which came online only to speak and then signed off). My friend and I felt captive in that situation, obliged by solidarity and courtesy to sit there for six hours to hear all the presentations. Not once did the organizer mention the fact that no one was there except the presenters and organizers, nor did I dare to bring it up.
The experience brought me back to the preamble of my career in public programs, one that my friends know well. My aunt Elena Lizalde ran the public programs of Radio Universidad Autónoma de México in Mexico City; a very nice little auditorium with largely subsidized programming but with so many activities that attendance was sometimes lacking. My aunt often called my mom in desperation, asking to send me to attend an empty event she was organizing; so I, as a 12 or 13 year-old, often sat in that empty auditorium, watching a historic film all by myself along with the projectionist who was inside the projection booth. Events of that nature, where there are no presenters onstage, curiously revert the performative duties to the attendees.
Tim Fiori, a friend and director of the Blue Rider Theater in Chicago, where I presented my first play, once told me: “I’ve had houses with only five people that have turned out to be great audiences”. Fiori’s comment points to what seems to me the key aspect of performing: it is still a conversation, where even if the public is silent and in the dark, the performer still needs to feed from its response. This is also what made out attempts to continue connecting and performing via Zoom during the pandemic so difficult and frustrating: not having access to sensing the audience’s presence and reactions.
This in turn prompts an interesting question that has been in my mind for some time: do we ever truly perform alone?
My first book was The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style, a satirical take on the art world in the form of an etiquette manual for the profession. I was inspired in the 19th century social etiquette manual of Manuel Antonio Carreño, a Venezuelan diplomat and educator whose standards for social behavior in formal occasions are still influential in the Spanish-speaking world.
My interest in Carreño’s manual was that some of its rules around social interaction were so outdated for the 21st century that taking the same tone to describe the art world helped illustrate the unspoken but regimented and stiff interactions that govern it. But most interesting about Carreño’s book is the third chapter, titled “On our Duties Toward Ourselves”, which is a surreal disquisition about self-performance, or rather, how we should perform ethically in private and at home– that is, when we are the only audience. However, to be clear, in Carreño’s mind, this kind of privacy is never total: he stresses the “functions that our heart and our spirit need to perform in order to faithfully correspond to the eyes of our Creator.” This means that, according to Carreño, we can never truly perform alone because God is always there, sitting on first row, as our primary audience. Which for me, as a non-believer, is not a concern as I don’t have the fear of an omnipotent voyeur. But even in that total godless solitude I do wonder: can we consider ourselves our own audience?
We must also consider the audience-at-large in art making: that is, the private performance that becomes documented, which is a staple of performance art history.
As I reminisce about that flash mob in Zagreb, I am also reminded of the work of Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic, where the private act at times becomes a subversive political gesture. In 1979 she documented a series of private performances in her own balcony during Tito’s official visit to Zagreb, including a simulated masturbation, until a policeman rang her doorbell. The location the artist chose for her work, the perfect threshold of the public and the private, also becomes a portal to both intimacy and subversion. Ivekovic was alone performing in that balcony, but the piece first became visible as a criminal act, and now as an art work that is now part of our collective memory.
As a child I sometimes fantasized that everyone around me was an actor- a logic along the lines of the 1998 film The Truman Show, a film about life being a reality show where we are the sole actor and the whole world is our audience. Whether we make work intended to be viewed, and whether the public attention is not at that moment directed at what we do, might not make a difference.
I always recur to this John Cage phrase: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio- the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas- all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.” What I would add is that the act of creating is only the illusion that everyone has left the room. Even when onstage in front of an empty auditorium, even while completely alone, we still contain multitudes.
So I like to think that we all are, in a way, forever in that balcony in Zagreb in 1979 with Sanja Ivekovic. Her audience eventually arrived and came to stay; this is something useful to keep in mind the next time we find ourselves alone at an event, waiting for Godot (or Guffman).
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