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19 March 2012
“Within the ambit of the arts, to remain fascinated by the concept of participation seems dangerous to me. “

Roger Bernat and his team have opened “Pendiente de voto” (Vote pending) at the Centro Nacional de Teatro in Madrid. For the duration of the function, the theatre is converted into a parliament, where the spectators become the political agents in a false current parliamentary debate. The voting directs the whole procedure. Roger Bernat is one of the most significant examples of how theatre can become a platform for investigation and experimentation, while not forgetting critique and emotion.

SAIOA OLMO: Yesterday you asked the questions and today it’s me, do you feel you are in command?

ROGER BERNAT: In every artistic project one accepts taking the floor and to take the floor is to be in command. What is more, if when I take the floor, what I do is ask questions, simply by responding you already accept that I am the one who is dominating the situation.

SO: What has been the artistic process in “Pendiente de voto”? What is your usual artistic process, does it stem from an interest, an intuition, an objective, or a hypothesis? Do you consider your artistic work as a form of research?

RB: For several years now I have been working around how we consider theatre from a terribly archaic perspective. Theatre understood as this place where a series of people come together, to ask themselves what it means to live in a community and if the concept of community is real or the fantasy that we need to build for ourselves more or less in order to survive. In this line of work, what I have been doing for a while now is this type of project, where the actor as the centre of the gaze disappears, and the spectator takes on some of the role that the actor would normally have played. Basically it is about generating a sort of situation, a spectacle, where the group of people who come to see it, formalize something. That is to say, the spectacle doesn´t take form until the spectator arrives. In the theory of the classical receiver, it is the reader that lends form to the book by reading it, but here in actual fact this book has almost disappeared and each function takes a completely different form, according to the spectators who have come and the paths they decide to take. In “Pendiente de voto” this is particularly the case, as you, the public, are faced with a hypertext and you select one of the possible routes. There must be around 1.000 possible screens and at the end of the spectacle you end up seeing a hundred or a hundred and fifty of them.

SO: Would you therefore say that what you are doing is creating a situation that you leave to unfold? Do you feel comfortable with the concept of “Theatre”? Or do you perhaps feel more comfortable with other terms, like “Performance” or “Live Arts”? Where do you situate yourself?

RB: I am a fervent defender of the word theatre and to me it seems that “Performance” and “Live Art”, are words that we have needed to adopt more than anything because theatre has become monopolised by one type of creation, one type of interpretation of what it means, rather than out of any specific need. I believe that we have to re-appropriate the word theatre, re-appropriate the tradition from which theatre comes and re-appropriate the sense of public theatre, given that in the countries where we live, public theatre still has a place, it is still important, and I am a defender of this place.

SO: However perhaps what you are offering is more of an experience than a representation to be seen… Does this generate a type of knowledge and enjoyment for people? Experience versus contemplation?

RB: Well in general to participate in things means that your relationship with them is closer, for this I wouldn´t delete it from experience because it seems to me that there is an almost magical element that I wouldn’t place in something as simple as theatre. On the other hand, the theatrical experience has always had an element of participation that went beyond the experience of the observer. I don’t know, in the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age, in the “corrales de comedias” (popular outdoor theatres), people didn’t just go to watch but to drink and to make love, given that there were prostitutes associated with the different theatres. One went to do all sorts of things. One didn´t go there for an hour and a half, you went there in the afternoon and stayed until nightfall, it was like going out on the town. And this is why intramural theatres were prohibited, as they were a real place of perdition, but in the good sense of what art ought to be, as this counter image of social life. To try to bring these ideas up to date leads me almost naturally to what you call a theatre of experience, but I wouldn’t call it that, but simply by having a certain Dionysian quality, yes, one has the sense of it being more participatory, of being more endangered. But every artistic experience should place the spectator in this situation of abyss.

SO: With regard to “The emancipated spectator” by Jacques Rancière, who proposes that it is not about making the spectator shift into an active role so much as how contemplation in itself can be an active act depending on how it is done. Would you agree with this consideration?

RB: Yes, above all because the whole idea of participation has been hijacked by public powers. I believe that the more the political classes demand participation, somehow or other the less performativity the citizen has with regard to the policies to which he is submitted. Within the ambit of the arts, to remain fascinated by the concept of participation seems to me dangerous. I wouldn’t confront participation with observation. In my performances a person can be totally passive. In the show that you saw yesterday, someone can enter and not touch the voting remote control and it won’t change anything for them. They can follow the course of the show until the end. I would put this discussion to one side.

SO: Ok. How open or directed is the effect that you aim to create in the public? Do you make a predefined design into which the spectator fits or propose a situation that unfolds on its own, the end of which is unforeseeable?

RB: It is totally directed. I try to lead the spectator to understand a series of things and I’m going to do everything possible to make it like this. Yes the spectator has many routes through which he can transit, and yes the spectator has moments during the show in which he can even talk and debate with other spectators about certain themes, but the show is going to lead in the end to a series of scenes, where a series of things are explained. What is more, based on what has happened before, I can demonstrate that the spectator is much more predictable than we often think. For example in the first part of the show a series of questions of a political nature are asked, and in the third part a few of these questions are repeated and the tendency of the votes of the spectators changes. What has changed in the first and the last part? In the first part the vote is individual and in the last part the vote has to be agreed collectively, within a political party. When one has to reach a consensus on a vote, the decision is more “progressive” than in the first part, when the spectator votes according to private convictions. And it is one of the things that the show explains. If it didn’t occur like this, the moment when I explain it, “Have you noticed how your vote has changed?” wouldn’t be there, but since we have begun the show, we go there.

SO: The reading that we make of this result is that people follow more standard patterns than we think or that the conditions or design of the show mean that everybody moves in one direction.

RB: No, I would go further than that. I would say that these two confronted scenes in the performance, demonstrate, somehow or other, that the conditions of decision making in a community change the decisions themselves, what it shows is that a representative democracy tends towards more conservative models than a democracy based on assemblies.

SO: Is your creative process with your working team more like a parliamentary, dictatorial, presidential, anarchical, or assembly system?

RB: It’s interesting. I would say, that one way or another, our working process assimilates much of the shows. We are a large group of people putting on the show and that I in some form assume the presidency of the house, in as much as I order who takes the floor, etc. and in the end we agree by consensus a specific formalization. If you want, in some way I throw the first stone, but we function in a very anarchic way.

SO: Recently I read the philosopher Reinaldo Laddaga, who said “what artists, of all types are going to devote themselves to inventing, are forms of associating the construction of images and discourses with the promotion of previously unknown forms of conversation”. Are you trying to create new forms of conversation with the public in your pieces or is that not a priority?

RB: I’m not sure if what I aim to do is elaborate forms of conversation with the public so much as forms of conversation between the public. That is to say that the spectators enter into relationship with one another, from different perspectives, from different places. In the show this occurs several times, for example the relationship that you had as the only person in command at the end of the show, there was a very curious relationship with the rest of the spectators and this seems to me to be part of the richness of the show.

SO: My attention was drawn by a screen in the show, that said “what if we stop voting? At first I interpreted it as a suggestion by the piece to abandon the game, given that “whatever you do it doesn’t matter what you vote, as the system carries much more weight than your individual vote”. Afterwards I was thinking that maybe the system was no longer going to give you the option to vote. That is to say a proposal to shatter the fictitious game, in the face of the verification of absolutist power. Do you think that art can propose alternative models? Is that its function?

RB: Yes, I believe that art continually proposes alternative models, precisely because it works with forms, and in this construction of forms new possibilities appear, more complex forms, that make it possible to imagine that another way of life for the human being is possible. That later this is transposed to civil society is what seems more doubtful to me, but simply the fact of imagining it, seems to me already to open the door to what is possible.

SO: Do you aim to distance the idea of spectacle in your pieces or not necessarily? Where do you place yourself with regard to the idea of spectacle?

RB: They are a spectacle. They are spectacles, yes, in as much as they have to be impregnated with this Dionysian element and touch of fascination of spectacle, don’t you think?

SO: Is there a reflection and at the same time an aesthetization of the game of democracy in “Pendiente de voto”? Art with a political intention or art about politics are in vogue in the art world. Is it a sign of intellect, critical spirit and/or social commitment?

RB: I believe that one simply has to look around to realise that there is a general outcry, people’s wages are being lowered and people are being evicted. If there wasn’t it would be terrible because the indignation that one experiences in the street is palpable. I imagine that, yes, it is possible to work artistically in a more introverted fashion, but as I understand it many people use art as a means of communication to denounce, to try to understand, to help.

Saioa Olmo is interested in the mysterious beings that people are: with their manias, passions, patterns of behaviour and unpredictability…and above all the way they relate to each other and the context within which they move. Her artistic practice revolves around group behaviour and through her texts she tries to establish connections between the knowledge and experiences she gains while sniffing around in this area.

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