Christopher Balme*


The resurgence of interest in the public sphere across the social sciences and the humanities is a clear indication that this sometimes ill-defined realm has become a focal point of attention. Academic and artistic interest in something is usually a sure sign that matters are unclear, conceptual boundaries are blurred and that old certainties are anything but that. There is also little doubt that the major challenges we face: the media revolution, globalization and migration, climate change, the erosion of public finances and services (to name just a few) – have all in some way a bearing on the public sphere, the realm where issues are debated and where citizens are free to enter and engage in discourse. As this incomplete list suggests, any discussion of the public sphere within the context of theatre and performance immediately locates us in the field of politics in a fairly narrow and conventional sense of the word. As the public sphere is primarily a discursive arena located outside and between state bureaucracy on the one hand and economics and business on the other, it occupies a crucial role in the functioning of so-called free societies. The question to be explored here is what role theatre and performance in practice play in this realm and how performance and theatre theory can contribute to the debates.

But what public sphere are we talking about? Any academic discussion of the term must begin with the seminal book by Jürgen Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, first published in German in 1962, but not translated into English until 1989. Habermas divides the public sphere into two historical iterations: a representative form typical of feudal and absolutist political regimes, where most political action is ruled by the dictates of secrecy, arcana imperii, on the one hand, and carefully staged forms of publicness in the context of absolutistic rule on the other. The second form that comes to replace the representative one he terms bourgeois. Its main characteristics are almost universal access, autonomy (participants are free of coercion) and equality of status (social rank is subordinated to quality of argument). The bourgeois public sphere emerges within feudal society, initially in the ‘nonpolitical’ arenas of the theatre, literature and the arts, where the discursive patterns and practices are trained as it were before entering the political arena proper. The defining feature of the bourgeois public sphere is reasoned discourse by private persons on questions of public interest with the aim of achieving rational consensus.

Since its original definition by Habermas the semantic field of the term public sphere has been extended considerably, especially in the wake of the English translation of Habermas’s book in 1989. The English translation of the German term Öffentlichkeit as ‘public sphere’ is somewhat problematic because it does not adequately cover the semantic flexibility of the original. Öffentlichkeit connotes in the first instance, depending on the context, persons, not a space, albeit in a collectivized and abstract sense. In this rendering it is closer to the term ‘public’ or in a conceptual sense ‘publicness.’ Öffentlichkeit does not have a clear spatial orientation suggested by the word ‘sphere.’[1] The spatiality of the term is not, however, just a chance residue of translation. In Habermas’s definition of the concept and particularly in the context of its historical emergence, it can be thought of concretely in terms of a particular space. Central to the concept is the distinction between public and private spheres. As bourgeois society placed ever more emphasis and value on privacy and the private realm, particularly on the conjugal family in contrast to the theatrical openness of aristocratic intercourse, so too did it define and emphasize the importance of public discourse. This took place either through media, such as journals, newspapers, books, or, as Habermas famously argues, in new socially sanctioned spaces of communication, such as salons and coffee houses. Here meanings were made, opinions formed and debated, and the seeds of democratic processes sown. In a recent, autobiographical note Habermas emphasizes two types of Öffentlichkeit. The first kind refers to the public exposure demanded by a media society linked to staging practices of celebrities with a concomitant erasure of the borders between private and public spheres. The second type, more narrowly the public sphere in the theoretical sense, refers to participation in political, scientific, or literary debates where communication and understanding about a topic replace self-fashioning. In this case, Habermas writes, ‘the audience does not constitute a space for spectators and listeners but a space for speakers and addresses who engage in debate.’ (2005: 15)

Beyond its spatial connotations, the public sphere has become a concept sui generis. The public sphere does not just exist as a specific place of communication, it is also a conceptual entity with a history and discrete semantic dimensions. Since this identity has a diachronic dimension it changes over time. It is also subject to social differentiation on the synchronic plane. An important part of Habermas’s argument focuses on the multiple semantic dimensions of the term ‘public.’ It must be seen not just in contradistinction to the idea of the ‘private’ but also in the terms and sense of public service—that is, the emergence of bureaucratic institutions developed as a counter-balance to the ‘representative’ publicness of feudal rule.[2] While the diachronic dimension lies at the heart of Habermas’s argument—the structural transformation and ultimately degeneration of the public sphere in its ideal-typical form—its social and functional differentiation is less apparent in the original formulation. A focus on differentiation is however one of the major contributions of recent studies of the idea of the public sphere. Today it is more usual to speak of public spheres in the plural rather than as one single entity. Recent research has identified the formation of public spheres along class, racial, and gender lines, to name only some of the possibilities.[3]

For a theatre-historical perspective it is important to understand the public sphere in relational terms. Certainly the public, and perhaps also the public sphere in its spatial sense, come to be regarded as something that can be acted on, appealed to, influenced and even manipulated. This conception of a somewhat passive entity provides ultimately the precondition for the emergence of the practices of publicity, public opinion, and public relations. All institutions highly dependent on public participation (e.g., museums, concert houses or theatres), expend considerable energy in assessing the nature of the public and the public sphere. What are their spatial and quantitative limits? How can the public be reached, exploited, or nurtured?

In summary we can say that the theatrical public sphere must be understood as the interaction of these three mutually dependent categories. The spatial concept of a realm of theatrical interaction primarily outside the building merges into a conceptual entity that becomes ultimately so palpable that it functions as an extension of the institution.

A key component of any discussion of the public sphere in the context of theatre must take cognizance of institutional and medial questions. The adjective ‘theatrical’ implies an institutional component. If we take the classical formulation of the public sphere as a point of departure, then it becomes immediately clear that the creation and existence of a public sphere is predicated on the emergence of particular institutions. To cite just one of countless definitions of the Habermasian model:

The term modern or “bourgeois” public sphere refers generally to those institutions open to the public and to those practices, which any member of the public may engage in, that are characteristic of modern societies – it refers, thus, to museums, theaters, libraries, galleries, schools, and universities; cafés, stores, stock exchanges (and, in general, markets); courts, legislatures, town halls; the print and, more recently, electronic media. The distinctive feature of the public sphere is that any member of the public enters, in principle, on equal terms and that communication and deliberation take place. (Reddy 1992: 136)

Theatre features as just one institution in the long list of domains where individuals may enter “on equal terms.” As usual the term ‘institution’ is used rather loosely and as a closer examination of institutional theory would show, one must differentiate when a theatre is an institution and when it is probably not. There are of course many forms of theatre of a programmatically subversive and oppositional nature for which the term institution is not appropriate. Nevertheless there are some forms of theatre that do meet such criteria and these forms usually enjoy considerable cultural prestige, are often the beneficiaries of relatively large sums of public funds, and whose employees in some cases enjoy the legal status of being quasi civil servants.

In terms of the public sphere, we can state that theatrical institutions sustain a public sphere of debate, interest and attendance, although the latter is not necessary for all participants. Because some theatres are institutionalized, they engender a strong public sphere; their very institutional status is in other words predicated on the existence of a public sphere.

A second feature of the public sphere is its imbrication with the media. This holds true in the 17th or 18th centuries as well as today. In his argument Habermas places special emphasis on the rise of the press as a precondition for the emergence of a bourgeois public sphere. The increasing commercialization of the press in the 19th and the dominating role of mass media in the 20th century contribute to the attrition of the classical public sphere that his book charts. More important for the discussion of the public sphere in relation to theatre and performance is the observation that participation in the public sphere requires mediation in the literal sense of the term. Although pre-modernist theatre could itself be regarded as a potential arena of and participant in the public sphere – and the history of theatrical censorship would certainly suggest that state authorities have regarded theatre in this way – theatre is today most potent when it links into other, mainly mass media. This may be in the form of debates surrounding controversial productions – theatre scandals – but it may just be the new forms of public discourse that are now emerging in the context of the internet. Even the smallest and most informally organized theatres and performance groups have an internet presence and an increasing number provide blogs and other forms of interactive interfaces for the public. In this sense performance is becoming more pluralized and democratic in comparison to former reliance on institutionalized theatre criticism as a benchmark for explicitly articulated public response.

The third form of the public sphere that I would like to discuss in conclusion concerns the new trend towards performative intervention. If theatre risks becoming, in Dennis Kennedy’s words ‘a cul-de-sac off the Infobahn’ (2009: 154), a problem that not just scholars have noticed, then it is not surprising that performance artists and activists have sought new ways to engage with the public sphere. These activities lead almost invariably out of specialized performance spaces and into public spaces, both real and virtual. Two examples must suffice to delineate how the relationship between performance and the public is being redefined and re-energized. The first concerns the a famous intervention by Christoph Schlingensief Please Love Austria: Foreigners Out, staged in Vienna in 2000 during the Festwochen, Vienna’s premier arts festival. The second discusses briefly a recent performance by Marina Abramović –The Artist is Present (2010) where the traditional form of co-present performance is extended outside the here and now of performative encounter into a public sphere on the Web.

In 2000 the German performance artist Christoph Schlingensief staged a performance in which containers with asylum seekers facing deportation were placed in the middle of Vienna. Entitled Please Love Austria: Foreigners Out, the putative ‘object’ of the performance was to ‘vote out’ individuals who would then be immediately deported. The contextual background was the formation of a coalition government in Austria between the conservative party Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) and Jörg Haider’s rightwing, xenophobic Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ).[4] Because the FPÖ espoused some extreme right-wing positions, especially regarding the treatment of foreigners, the coalition generated a massive political backlash, and leading to a partial boycott on the part of the other EU states. From 11th to 17 June 2000 Christoph Schlingensief and his team organized a political intervention as part of the European protests against the new coalition government.

Twelve asylum seekers (it remained unclear whether they were real or actors) were to live twenty-four hours a day in a container ‘camp’ placed next to State Opera House. In cooperation with eight to ten cameras were to broadcast non-stop on the Internet. On so-called voting pages and with the help of TED telephone numbers two asylum seekers per day were to be ‘selected’ to leave the country and deported on the same evening. Parallel to the voting procedures and live broadcasts, Schlingensief organized a programme of discussions and debates with prominent intellectuals, writers and politicians inside the container camp.[5] In addition he took part in interviews and talkshows for the mainstream media.

Situated in the middle of Vienna, beside the State Opera during the Festwochen, Vienna’s premiere arts festival, the installation functioned on a number of levels. If the political function was to draw international media attention to the new centre-right coalition then it was successful. The political forum was not just the Herbert von Karajan-Platz where the container was located but the media as well. The performance was omnipresent on television, radio, internet, newsprint as the performance proceeded. If the old adage – all publicity is good publicity – is true, then Schlingensief had an excess of good publicity. The live performance clearly ‘fed off’ a television format, Big Brother, but its liveness provoked numerous interventions and attracted large crowds. It also placed one particular newspaper, Die Kronenzeitung, a particularly conservative Austrian daily that backed Jörg Haider, in the centre of focus.

Schlingensief’s performance needs to be analyzed on at least two levels. Firstly, in terms its staging we can observe a radical rearranging of the conventional devices of theatre that can be summarized as a substitution of the normal metaphorical mode of theatrical representation by metonymy. Secondly, we need to examine how these staging devices functioned to create a public sphere. Very roughly, we can say that, with a few exceptions, there was less an audience at this performance than a public sphere, or at least, the public sphere of political debate and mass-media attention was the more important dimension.

Generically, we can say that Schlingensief’s ‘action’ was framed in the mode of ironic ‘overidentification.’ Adapted by Slavoj Žižek from a Lacanian term, overidentification refers to forms of political intervention and resistance where an idea or issue is not opposed but embraced and given form in a hypertrophic version. Although clearly related to parody, satire and pastiche, it differs from these more traditional devices by blurring the borders between reality and critique or, in Žižek’s formulation by taking the system more seriously than it takes itself. Himself a practitioner of overidentification he sees it as one way of engaging with the aporetic dilemmas of power absorbing all forms of resistance:

[I]n so far as power relies on its ‘inherent transgression,’ then, sometimes, at least – overidentifying with the explicit power discourse – ignoring this inherent obscene underside and simply taking the power discourse at its (public) word, acting as if it really means what it explicitly says (and promises) – can be the most effective way of disturbing its smooth functioning[6].

By quite literally expelling asylum seekers, albeit in a theatrical and thereby fictional mode, Schlingensief took the political programme of Jörg Haider and the Austrian Freedom Party ‘at its (public) word.’ Overidentification can be extremely disquieting as the instance under attack finds it difficult to formulate an unequivocal response without betraying its own standpoint. This is due to the appropriation of its own discourse and to the uncanny obscuring of ideological positions. Overidentification is reliant on an ironic gaze, a recognition of and ability to distinguish between the critiqued and the critique although they may be almost indistinguishable: ‘can we critique a system which relies on irony without ourselves being ironic?’[7] Or perhaps even more worrying: what happens if the irony is not understood as such?

This kind of installation makes it difficult to even define spectatorship, as we can distinguish live bystanders, interested and disinterested, media viewers who watch the performance on the internet and possibility vote; the wider media audience who followed the five days from the relative comfort of their living rooms by newspaper, radio and television. In a sense all participated but their functions are quite different. Most crucially, the mixture of tropes made the ethical questions revolving around a Western country’s treatment of foreigners all the more focused. The refugees were apparently real and therefore metonymically connected to the larger group. They were also individuals with their own particular histories and in that sense beyond tropes.

In terms of the second level of analysis, the creation of public sphere, one could argue that Schlingensief’s installation-performance created a public sphere in order to treat the chosen topic of asylum seekers in a politically effective way. The global traffic of people seeking new homes for economic or political reasons, or any combination thereof, is clearly a key issue in the wider multicultural debate. Because asylum seekers have few legal rights – in comparison to long-term immigrants – they seem to attract a far larger degree of xenophobic aggression than ‘normal’ immigrants. Ultimately, this xenophobia is applied to other groups as well. Schlingensief’s achievement was to move the debate from the aesthetic realm of theatre and performance into the wider public sphere of political debate. For one week the performance was ubiquitous in all main media with extensive newspaper coverage in many European countries, television debates and of the voting process itself. By unsettling the rules of both political discourse and theatrical reception, Schlingensief managed to shift the debate outside the normal situation of theatrical reception where spectators decode theatrical signs, and occupy instead the more contested public sphere of political and media debate – at least for one week.

If Schlingensief’s understanding of the relationship between performance and the public sphere could be considered in some sense classical, Marina Abramović, is better known as a pioneer of performance art performed more often than not in the confines of galleries for small groups. Here we would speak of an audience rather than a public sphere. For this reason it is not surprising that CAE has criticized this kind of performance art enacted before a ‘passive audience’ in hushed silence as having become ‘defanged’ in order ‘to better serve the culture market’ (Critical Art Ensemble 2000: 158). While Abramović’s most recent performance The Artist is Present staged in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010 took place largely in hushed silence and certainly served the culture market, it also challenged some of the older tenets of performance art and extended the range of response beyond the audience in a conventional sense to include a realm that could be interpreted in terms of a public sphere.

From March 2010 Abramović sat in silence at a table in the Museum’s Marron Atrium, passively inviting visitors to take the seat across from her for as long as they chose within the timeframe of the Museum’s hours of operation. The only contact permitted was eye contact, which visitors could maintain for however long they wished. The performance lasted a total of 77 days and over 700 hours. Abramović permitted herself no breaks, not even to visit the toilet while she was “present.” What appears at first glance to be a durational performance of the kind she herself pioneered and which is predicated on an intense one-on-one corporeal encounter in a confined, usually gallery space – albeit of a very large kind – was in fact framed in much more complex ways. Although Abramović sat alone at a table opposite individual participants, the performance was videotaped live and this footage was streamed on the internet. In addition, the facial expressions of the participants were photographed and placed as “portraits” on the net so that by the end of the three months a large archive of faces had been assembled. These were posted on a special site on the social networking site as a fotostream. Both video- and fotostreams in turn generated a commentary in the form of both short remarks and extended disquisitions. Some of the commentators had evidently been to the MOMA, others had not.

The performance created new kinds of spatial and discursive framing. If we look at the spatial arrangement, we can see that a kind of concentric framing was constructed. In the centre of the concentric circles was located the table at which the artist sat opposite the individual visitor staring at her. Around the table stood groups of visitors to the museum who observed the performance for as long as they wished, while opposite the table were also located video cameras, lighting, and a photographer. The atrium also permitted spectators to observe proceedings from above. The whole setting resembled as much a film or photographic studio as it did a museum auditorium. For this reason we can observe that the immediate corporeal encounter of performance art was mediatized at all stages. Because the performance was streamed over the internet as both video and digital photography, and because this information generated public comment, some of it of a highly complex nature, we can say that a discursive public sphere was created and sustained over the 77 days of the performance.

When we consider the spatial and discursive aspects of the performance, the title becomes itself complex and almost self-reflexive. While the artist was certainly present in a spatial and temporal sense–and in this respect she obeyed the laws of performance aesthetics – she was also present outside the coordinates of the here and now. The performance demonstrated that the concept of presence as enumerated in the work of performance theorists from Peggy Phelan to Erika Fischer-Lichte, must now be revised to take into account new media configurations. In the age of internet the performance is both here and there, now and then. Such performances demonstrate that the public sphere will become a much more important and dynamic arena in the future.


[1] In the German original Habermas refers continually to Öffentlichkeit as a Sphäre so that the English rendering of the term as ‘public sphere,’ while emphasizing spatiality more than the German, is very close to Habermas’s elaboration in some respects.
[2] Habermas’s historical argument hinges on two transformations: from a feudal ‘representative’ public sphere to a bourgeois rational-critical one during the eighteenth century, and then to the degeneration of the latter in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries under the influence of mass media and the commodification of culture.
[3] The reception of Habermas’s book in the English-speaking world only really begins in the 1990s in the wake of its translation in 1989. The first critical stock-taking can be found in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992; see especially his ‘Introduction.’ A review of post-1992 research and criticism of the concept within historical studies is provided by Andreas Gestrich, “The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate.” German History Vol. 24 No. 3 (2006): 413-430.
[4] The following analysis draws mainly on the film documentation by Paul Poet, Ausländer Raus!: Schlingensiefs Container (2002) and the documentation by Matthias Lilienthal and Philipp (2000).
[5] They included Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Sloterdijk, Gregor Gysi and Peter Sellars.
[6] Žižek (2000) 220.
[7] This is one of questions asked on the website ‘The political currency of art’:

Works Cited

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (2005). Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion : philosophische Aufsätze. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Suhrkamp.

Kennedy, D. (2009). The spectator and the spectacle : audiences in modernity and postmodernity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Reddy, W. M. (1992). “Postmodernism and the Public Sphere: Implications for an Historical Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 7(2): 135-168.

Žižek Slavoj (2000). ‘Da Capo senza Fine’ in Butler, J., E. Laclau, et al. Contingency, hegemony, universality : contemporary dialogues on the left. London ; New York, Verso.


*Christopher Balme holds the chair in theatre studies at the University of Munich. His current research interests focus on the legacy of modernism in the globalization of the arts and theatre and the public sphere.

Copyright © 2012 Christopher Balme
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Public Sphere and Contemporary Performance