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[ Backstage ]

2. The Invisible Backstage II

In our present capitalist society, people are habitually living in a system of pre-designed instructions, which precedes our use of them. These instructions are embedded in a substrate, which is the infrastructure space or programme that runs the city. Easterling states that, ‘Far from hidden, infrastructure is now the overt point of contact and access between us all – the rules governing the space of everyday life.’[1] The infrastructure is the ground that controls the system in action, which dominates users to follow the pre-designed path. As the system covers up or masks its operations through the stories that it tells, the dominion of infrastructure is directed away from the user. Unless the user is conscious of the actual governing behind the marketing narratives that are delivered to us, then the dominion of power will always be hidden behind the mask (backstage). Therefore, I consider this infrastructural substrate as correlating with my concept of the backstage in exhibition practice. If we take the theatre’s architecture as a point of departure, then from the audiences’ point of view we are restricted by the seating plan so we can only look toward the front where the stage is located. We can also not see behind the scenes; we have to wait for the curtain to be drawn for the stage to appear, the lighting rig is hidden from view and we do not get to see the crew managing the stage or the actors waiting in the wings. Therefore, in order for some things to be made visible others are rendered invisible in order to construct the narrative of the director. As a result, the backstage is usually hidden from the auditorium. Although it is invisible from the auditorium, we cannot erase the power of the backstage as it is the controller who operates the entire theater.

The auditorium directing the audience’s engagement in theatre, can be likened to the way in which a visitor is directed to look in traditional art gallery spaces; through the distinct architecture (white cube) and the plinth/wall/frame directing their vision (the art gallery’s equivalent of a front stage). Artwork and exhibition become the symbolic theme that continues the brand of the gallery to the public; this is dictated by the curatorial and programming decisions, the gallery’s marketing, and general art world trends (often informed by the funder’s imperatives). Therefore, the visitor will only receive the information that the gallery has decided to put out (frontstage) for the public to view. The theatre’s backstage is equated with the other private spaces and processes (not open or presented to the public) in the art gallery. The gallery’s backstage or private spaces (office, storage, meeting room) are places that house (and to some extent dictate) anything from the lighting and display decisions to fundraising and spending calculations. These invisible operations and processes that are not made public, can be compared to Black Box Architecture. In Daryl Cressman’s study of Bruno Latour’s, Actor Network Theory, in his A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory (2009) stated that:

[...] from this perspective, Actor Network Theory attempts to “open the black box” of science and technology by tracing the complex relationships that exist between governments, technologies, knowledge, texts, money and people. It is these connections that result in science and technology, and by examining them it becomes easier to describe why and how we have the science and technology that we do.[2]

An artwork, as it is framed by these systems and structures, can also include elements of this invisible Black Box (backstage) within its processes and wider practice/context. The making process of an artwork is usually covered up and is hidden behind it’s final and ‘original’ form. In traditional artwork, the art making process has been wiped out by either the artist or the institution(s) in which it circulates. This then adds a mysterious and intriguing value to the artwork, due to its unique passage into existence.

Following this routine of looking, choreographed by galleries, can lead the public to be trapped in Ahmed’s notion of the ‘well-used path’. It creates an illusion that it is necessary to fit in with or follow the well-used path, in order to receive knowledge or the correct experience. With this lies the assumption that the path is made for a good purpose, so that it is not necessary to question how the path has been made. Not being able to access the Black Box of the exhibition you are viewing, is like driving without a sense of direction. If you rely on systems such as GPS (Global Positioning System) then your route toward the destination is programmed. The driver believes that the GPS’s algorithms can bring them to the destination, but they do not exactly know how this process works and whether there is a more interesting or scenic route that they could follow. In a gallery, the end-product of knowledge is privileged over learning about the systems that choose and produce this knowledge. This means that we, as the public, are following well-used paths of which we do not necessarily know the intentions.

[1] Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London, New York: Verso, 2016), 11.

[2] Daryl Cressman, A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory: Punctualization, Heterogeneous Engineering & Translation (Columbia, Canada: Simon Fraser University, 2009) <> (accessed on 23. March. 2021)


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