Theatre, dance, performance art, stand-up comedy; the majority of these live creative endeavours are incredibly noxious affairs. Not necessarily because of any lack of skill or craft on the part of the artist. They are noxious because inherent in the artistic form of the constructed situation a hierarchical structure of power and status is perpetuated. Because of this, they are noxious in spite of the virtuosity, skill and intellect of the artist, which only increases a stultification of the work because it increases the gulf between them and us, the audience.
The artist in these cases typically has some form of demarcation separating them from their audience. That demarcation could be lighting, a microphone, proscenium arch, physical elevation or cordoning. The artist is the centre of attention. They have something that is desired by their audience. The audience, typically, have nothing. Nothing except for an interest in being inspired by other views of our world. In this passive longing for inspiration the audience has no name, no face, no identity, no voice. That is until, sometimes – whether inebriated, excitable, frustrated, antagonistic, forgetful or naive of the assumed contract – someone engages in a heckle.
“Do the flipper” is a heckle heard shouted at stand up comedy and live music gigs in Sydney, much to the bemusement of everyone present and with no one having a clue what it means. Another heckle witnessed was the answering of rhetorical questions posed by Ewan Leslie playing the titular role in Hamlet at Belvoir St. Theatre. Then there is taking up the call to participate in other performances, but somehow going ‘too far’ or participating in the ‘wrong way’. “Get your tits out!” has also unfortunately been heard shouted at female performers more times than never.
Let us suspend for a moment the widely held, and perfectly reasonable, belief that heckling such as this is abusive or a nuisance. Let us try not to pass judgment on those who engage in it. Let us instead look at what heckling represents as a cultural action, and what it represents as an aesthetic strategy that empowers spectators in their relationship to performance. Doing this means making some gross generalizations, and is not done to condone or encourage heckling. Rather, it is done to consider the heckler as a kind of emancipated spectator.
The Emancipated Spectator (2009) is the fashionable (and fanciful) proposition from philosopher Jacques Rancière towards rethinking the relationship of the spectator. It is generalized, focusing specifically on the relationship between spectators and the “theatre”, but taking a very terse view of what constitutes theatre practice and ignoring the existing methodologies of theatre that are interested in what he terms “emancipation”.
Whilst it is the rhetoric of Rancière that informs this view of what heckling might be doing, let us not simply defer to philosophical and intellectual superiority to make that case. Such academic stink is too often used to justify opinions within arts writing, which can be as noxious and tedious as their subjects. Let us be as provocatively anti-intellectual and disinterested in this power structure as a heckler would.
To establish what we are talking about let us crudely paraphrase Rancière’s articulation of the us-them politics of spectatorship, which can be said to be true across the board: if you are a spectator then you are looking at a spectacle. If you are looking then you are not knowing or acting. Consequently, as the spectator you are inherently disempowered and subordinate to what you are looking at. You are contemplating instead of living. This follows the rules of uniform transmission whereby there is a ‘something’ on the side of the artist, and it must pass to the other side, to you as the spectator. You can only see and feel what is communicated to you. Rancière calls for such stultification to be overthrown by artists establishing strategies for the emancipation of their audience in order to escape from this problem of binary oppositions.
A heckler though is one who cannot wait for the artist. The heckler feels that if the artist takes this incisive lead it only perpetuates what it seeks to overthrow. They feel it is futile for the artist to do so in the first place. Instead they have their own strategy for emancipation and take on their own agency in using it. Contemporary artists can be observed becoming increasingly interested in this idea of ‘agency’ for their audiences. Interested, in theory at least, because in practice true audience agency is a fallacy. It always takes place within the mediation of the framework implemented by the artist. It is only when the audience starts to heckle that the audience are truly expressing their own agency.
The heckler’s strategy for emancipation is to begin to actively play with the artist, which the artist may or may not care for. The artist tends to say “it’s all about the audience”, but usually that is a lie or a delusion. By taking the liberty of playing with the artist and their work, the heckler is rupturing the ego of the artist and the established form of their work through transgression. The heckler inserts themself into the format, making it actually all about the audience (however momentarily). In so doing, they have transparently augmented the social and political configurations of the event, and made palpable the problematic realms of the binaries therein.
Heckling creates an access point for the audience directly into the work by actively privileging themselves and their embodied experience in relation to it. In the wake of heckling, the work is no longer just for an audience but also with them and between them. The audience is no longer passive and secondary to the work. They are in the work, and in a way that was not planned they have become co-artist/co-author/collaborator. The heckle has popped the self-involved bubble of the artist and made the process of creating and performing the work overtly about an audience. It has opened up the space created by the artist to include the audience (on their terms), and by including them the space is now being questioned, being coaxed, being pushed, being re-made, being democratized, and is in flux. The space is now live with new potential and new narrative possibilities.
To describe heckling as a strategy to emancipate oneself from a dominant artistic form might be a bit rich. Should it not require politicized intent? Well, not necessarily. They know not what they do, yet they do it nonetheless. Heckling, whatever it’s purpose (or lack of), is still a revolutionary tool. It is inscribed within the relations of potential power afforded but not necessarily utilized by an audience.
Heckling is based on a capitalising upon the latent potentiality of the spectator, and consequently an overthrowing of a status quo. In so doing, the heckling spectator transforms their role and establishes an alternate identity and narrative to that being produced by the artist and the established conventions and infrastructure around the artist. Together the artist and the conventions and infrastructure around them normally act as an ensemble that mediates the spectators as their subjects. Because the heckler is stepping outside of mediation by the artist they are dissociating themselves as a mere spectator and asserting themself equal to the artist. A heckler is blowing up the uniform transmission system and offering his or her own communication, opening a dialogue against the grain of the artist and beyond their desire and/or expectation. When this happens, heckling audience members are engaging in a form of pre-rational play that is free from the straightjacketed subjectivity of artist-as-master. What is inside and outside the work is collapsing into everyday life. The work is opening up to individual experiences acting of their own accord, and with that the work is now in competition with living forces.
Heckling in this way is a tactic that draws out experience rather than representation. It raises and reveals the latent in the everyday. It is an (anti)social interaction that triggers unexpected consequences and constructs narratives that implicitly embody social and cultural attitudes and feelings, produced by a community that is now taking the power back. It is both constructive and deconstructive. The results cannot be predicted or defined in advance, and they can be “good” and “bad”.
Michael Richards’ response to perceived heckling during his stand-up gig at The Laugh Factory in West Hollywood in 2006 exposed latent racism: Richards’ own as well as those deeply embedded in a society that continues to struggles with language and its affects.
Over forty years earlier Martin Luther King Jr. gave a response to being heckled that positively shaped modern America. It wasn’t until supporter Mahalia Jackson interrupted King’s prepared speech to shout “Tell them about the dream, Martin” that King’s improvisation occurred to produce one of the most quoted monologues of all time. It seems fitting that a call for empowerment came through the empowerment of a heckle.
Most often heckling is abusive or facetious. The man who shouts “get your tits out!” is being a misogynist dickhead. This expression bursts forth from him because his privilege of patriarchy is suddenly out of place, with a female performer under the spotlight in front of him. He heckles her to objectify her and reclaim that place.
Sometimes, though, heckling does the opposite of objectifying the artist; sometimes heckling can be lifesaving. Let’s take a quick series of examples from the history of performance art, where the visual art lineage fancies itself as being so repudiating of a ‘traditional’ theatre polemic of spectatorship, but which still suffers from the same issues. In this case, too, heckling can still be an effective means for audience emancipation.
When Marina Abramovic passed out in her work Rhythm 5 (1974), it was hecklers who dragged her from the burning star. It was a heckler too who intervened when a gun was infamously put to Amramovic’s head in the work Rhythm 0 (1974). The dominant school of thought on these mythologized occasions is that these individuals are heroes. However, no artist places anything in their conceit if they don’t want it to play a part in the unfolding narrative of the work. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun, which can be applied in relation to Rhythm 0. By placing the loaded gun on the table of objects, and using a sign to allow their use, Abramovic was asking for it to be used by placing it in the frame and testing the societal objectification of her body. It was all her own doing, but nevertheless still horrifying for it to go as far as it did.
The difference between theatre and performance art might be the knife being real for Abramovic, but there is still an artifice in the nature of these being constructed situations. It is certainly not real life and works of this nature are not the mirror onto society that many believe them to be; not until someone acts out. We did not go beyond artistic representation of Abramovic’s conceit until a spectator, on each of these occasions, takes charge of their own agency to go against the grain of the artist’s desires and actions, by removing her from the burning star in one and by ceasing the action involving the gun in the second. Going against the grain in Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2010) meant being ejected if you didn’t play by her prescribed participatory rules. One by one, as a spectator, you were supposed to casually walk up and sit down in a chair opposite Abramovic and look her in the eyes. Any deviation or affectation and you were considered a heckler and ejected by security, as can observed in the documentary on the work and the retrospective it was part of at MOMA. The artist is present and that is a gift to you, but one that you can’t have because it is retained by the artist together with their empowered position.
This is all still stultifying theatre, just like the long running current show Sleep No More by Punchdrunk in New York. Audiences are told in the work to do what they like, and through phrases like “…fortune favors the bold…” they are encouraged to interact and explore a set of some 100 rooms of a hotel in which an abstracted story of Macbeth unfolds. Fortune does not favor the bold though. The behavior wanted from the audience is as rigidly specific and as disempowered as your most traditional Shakespeare production. Deviation (heckling) will not be tolerated.
What is a ‘traditional’ Shakespeare production though? The modern reverence given to such performances is only a contemporary manifestation of the artist’s rise to power over the audience, and it would be interesting to muse on the cause of this. Shakespearean productions were originally performed in ruckus bastions of relentless heckling (where defecation in the corner and fellatio in the front row were also typical). Where have those heckling days gone? There was something to be gained from heckling for the artist, too. A sharpening of craft and a greater appreciation of the performance taking place outside of themselves and their personal subjectivities, in a live and responsive moment that affords a kind of democracy.
There is no performance without the gaze of the spectator. Without the spectator, performance is just a tree falling in the woods, unnecessarily making sound. In each spectator is a heckler, capable of expression and the creation of new narratives and vibrant meaning. They are the unknown-as-yet and unheard element that charges the work with the liveness of that moment. Through heckling a collective creation is undertaken, and new discoveries are made through unlocking the high-horsed ivory tower of the artist and inviting the community inside. That, in theory at least, is a good thing and far from noxious.
 Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2009
MALCOLM WHITTAKER is a young-ish man from Sydney who works as an interdisciplinary artist, writer, researcher and performer. He does this in solo pursuits, as...