Performance and Ethics: Mimetics, Distance and Spectating Suffering

About this event

This CREATURE event explores the ethics of spectating, specifically in relation to the depiction of suffering in performance. Following a presentation from performance scholar Dr John Keefe on his paper Boltanski's Dilemma, the event will feature special guests, including Dr Richard Cuming (University of Winchester), Dr Chiara D'Anna (performer and practitioner) and Natalie Katsou (theatre director and playwright) who will 'talk-to' the themes of the paper before leading into an open discussion of the issues and ideas raised, moderated by Dr Jacek Ludwig Scarso (Reader in Art and performance at London Metropolitan University). 

An overview of Boltanski's Dilemma

Working from the Crucifixion episode or pageant from the York Corpus Christi Play, two questions are asked of the spectator:

  • How do they look at such a theatre (scene) from their own time and culture and experiences?
  • How do we look at such a theatre (scene) from our own time and culture and experiences?

A third question may now be asked by following what we may call Boltanski's Dilemma:

  • What sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage?

"...what sort of pity can we feel for an imaginary scene on stage... the spectacle is a cause of the spectator's pleasure...viewing suffering is especially problematic when the object of suffering is presumed to be real..."

The paper draws on archive (re-visits) and new material to develop key themes now encapsulated by Boltanski’s question and challenge. The paper draws on current neurocognitive research that challenges and re-grounds our understanding of empathy and projection of self in the embodied mind. This informs the spectatorial experience, the spectator’s ability to see and accept the ‘double reality’ of the theatre and other visual (mimetic) experience, and the issues of ‘moral distance’ represented by Boltanski, Bandura and others. Boltanski's dilemma confronts us as knowing spectators with the inherent ethical paradox of any and all representations of suffering in any given cultural and social context.

The paper draws on case studies from theatre(s), film, and art to illustrate and exemplify the position of the spectator: in the spirit of ethos, a series of musings, of questions and signposts as well as arguments.

Etching of a male figure pierced by arrows and swords


Date/time Wednesday 17 November 2021, from 5:30pm to 7pm GMT
Book ticket Performance and Ethics
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