By Floyd Scott Tiogangco
In 2001, Belgian-born and Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs stood in the middle of Plaza Santo Domingo in Mexico City, looking up wide-eyed as if observing something. Once a group of passersby was intrigued by his gazing and gathered around him, he immediately left the scene, ending the performance titled Looking Up, a 3-minute video experimenting with the very mundane and day-to-day behavior of the public. The work challenged how a person can easily persuade a group of strangers to follow suit by simply looking up to something that may or may not have existed.
In performance art, the artist’s body is the medium. The performance would only have existed with the artist doing it. But there is a crucial aspect to the success of a performance: other people. While it is the artist’s body that does the performance, it is the audience that completes the work. The audience is every performance artist’s social capital. Without an audience, it will be difficult for the material to get its message across; otherwise, it would have been the artist’s discretion to perform only for themselves.
But as artists whose practice tends to integrate concepts of human rights, we don’t want that. With a specific audience in mind, it is very apparent with performance art to speak directly to the audience, urging them to act a certain way and participate in the work. And what better way to show this than a change in our audience’s behavior?
Recently, I was introduced to a concept called Social and Behavior Change. Social and Behavior Change, or SBC, is a strategic, systematic, and targeted approach to Human Rights advocacy that uses theory, data-driven design, and evidence-based measurement. One of its key frameworks is what we call the Engagement Pyramid.
In the context of our advocacy work, the Engagement Pyramid framework is a tool that enables us to map how people can engage at different levels of “depth” in our campaign — and recognize that more people are likely to engage when the level of commitment required is lower. There are six levels of engagement: starting from the bottom Observing, Following, Endorsing, Contributing, Owning, and Leading. Like performance, the Engagement Pyramid is very keen on audience participation, always interested in how the audience may be engaged, leading them to act towards the success of our material or campaign, for that matter.
While most of my performances tackle the inevitability of violence around us, I would rather the audience stay until the end and do something about it. In 2015, when I did my first performance, called Malady Series performed at the Teatro Papet Museo, I stood in front of the lobby holding a red lipstick with a sign near me that said, “If you think I am HIV-positive, put a positive mark on my body using the lipstick.” The work was to confront the audience’s perception of me as a queer person and reflect on the widening stigma around the issue of HIV in the country. As the audience came in, watching the performance, my body was immediately left with many positive marks, seemingly judging me by how I presented myself but ultimately proving the performance’s point.
Almost a decade after my first performance, this time, the audience literally completed and ended it. I sat on a chair in a gallery hallway during a long-duration work titled At Our Expense. In this material, I wrote my daily, weekly, and monthly expenses on thermal paper used for receipts for purchasing goods, while a man kept interrupting my writing over and over. With the audience getting uncomfortable with the sheer violence they were witnessing, the performance abruptly ended with an audience member stepping on the pen and intervening.
Going back to the Engagement Pyramid, if we look at these levels of engagement, Observing being the lowest request and Leading the highest, we can say that Francis Alÿs met all of these engagements in Looking Up. It started with the audience observing what he was doing, following his gesture, endorsing it to others to do the same, contributing to the work, owning it by having too many of them looking up, and leading the whole performance, prompting Francis to end it. While I doubt that Francis knew about the Engagement Pyramid when he did Looking Up, it is important to note how this SBC framework fits perfectly with Francis’ intention with the work.
Neither did I know about SBC until recently, but in retrospect, all of my works required the audience to participate and engage. I only had a vague intention of what I wanted the audience to do with it, like undressing or carrying me for a while. In the Malady Series, I wanted the audience to observe first, but eventually, when one person made a positive mark on my body, more people did the same. Then they endorsed the act, filling my body with red stains. Meanwhile, in At Our Expense, the lady who halted the performance decided to own it by stepping on the pen, rooted in her discomfort with the violence happening before her eyes. Had I known about SBC a few years back, it would have been a great help in my art-making, giving me a tool to go back to whenever I feel lost during the process.
With art-making, you have to be constantly open to many different choices. Once these choices are laid out in front of you, whether as conceptual as the truth or meaning or as fixed as a framework, the artist will inevitably decide to take everything that works to improve the material. As artists, we want our audience, in turn, to bring something from the work, be it a change of mind or a behavior change. We want the audience to complete the work because it is not just the artist’s job to show and tell; art requires everyone’s participation if we’re going to drive collective change through a human rights lens.
In the end, no matter how it’s done or what it’s made, art always has something to change about the world. And that’s enough power for us to make as artists.
COMMUNE is a dynamic program which aims to strengthen the human rights community by providing a safe and collaborative environment anchored on social behavioral change-making.
COMMUNE also seeks to build a resilient force of human rights workers dedicated to advancing the Human Rights Sector as a whole.