The Participatory Act of Giving up Control

Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998) courtesy of Blast Theory

For the upcoming Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium (March 29-31), we are presenting Matt Adams in a keynote speech entitled: The Here, the Now, the Audience and the Spectator. Co-founder of the UK artist collective Blast Theory, Matt Adams is a pioneer in pushing performance art and interactive media to the outer edge of theater experimentation and beyond. Here we take a look at one of Blast Theory’s most controversial works from the late 1990s, Kidnap, in which spectators paid £10 to enter a lottery in the hope of being kidnapped: a classic exposé on the participatory act of giving up control.

In the age of super-participatory socially mediated sharing of information, we are willingly, lovingly, sometimes desperately ready to give up our data to Big Data in order to engage with friends, colleagues, and family. But perhaps more pertinently, this form of super-participation may spring from the desire of “being in the world,” to gain proof of one’s existence, to receive affirmation, acceptance, and recognition from others, even complete strangers.

In the late 1990s, before the rise of social media, Blast Theory staged the interactive work Kidnap (1998), in which they issued a call to the public to sign up and be kidnapped. From the list of registrants, two of the volunteers were, unbeknownst, grabbed by the kidnap team consisting of a driver and three kidnappers and taken to a secret location. The so-called “winners” were then held under Webcam surveillance for two days, where they were fed and cared for by the kidnappers and monitored by a psychologist.

Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998) courtesy of Blast Theory

The work has since been dissected by performance theorists, including Maria Chatzichristodoulou (Symposium Keynote speaker), who interviewed Matt Adams in her paper, “How to Kidnap your Audiences,” as well as Steve Dixon (Symposium Moderator and co-host), the prolific author of the 800 page canonic treatise, Digital Performance. In Dixon’s paper, “Cybernetic-existentialism in interactive performance: strangers, being-for-others and autopoiesis,” he explains the control mechanisms used in Kidnap according to his current research in “cybernetic existentialism.”

Dixon examines the motivation behind why people would actually be drawn to give up control, to yield to a greater force outside of themselves. Despite the fact, as he points out, that the victims were traumatized by the “emotional intensity of the experience, not knowing what might happen and what the limits were” Dixon claims that Blast Theory had in fact powerfully tapped into what happens when we trust a stranger and allow ourselves to be held in captivity.

Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998) courtesy of Blast Theory

Yielding to the stranger, or the “other,” according to Dixon, plays into one of the essential aspects of existentialism: human freedom. He describes how Jean Paul Sartre had considered Nazi control the ultimate experience of freedom, because when subjected to the life and death situation of facing one’s extermination, we are faced, ultimately, with the most powerful realization of what it means to be free.

In Blast Theory’s Kidnap, the existential crisis of being held in captivity, while subjected to the cybernetic control of Webcam surveillance and the demands of the kidnappers, according to Dixon, “went way beyond all the normal expectations of an artwork… a telling indicator of the powerful and uncompromising impulses underlying artistic manifestations of Cybernetic-Existentialism.”

The idea of the artwork engaging the viewer, existentially, in a potentially dangerous real life situation, is further elaborated in Maria Chatzichristodoulou’s interview with Matt Adams, where the artist further elaborates on the blurring of art and life and the mechanisms of control:

“Our projects are not hollow intellectual and aesthetic experiments, they are pieces of work that look to engage with, and ask particular questions about, the culture in which we live. If you take Kidnap as an example, the question we set ourselves was: why do so many of us give up control so readily to others and what is the pleasure in that?”

Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998) courtesy of Blast Theory

We can’t help but wonder about the parallel political ramifications of yielding control, why we allow ourselves to be subjected to a greater authority. Systems of control as exposed in Blast Theory’s Kidnap powerfully illuminate the techniques of demagoguery and the manipulation of the innate human desire to be drawn into the forces of a greater power, only to be horrified by the reality of its realization.

Matt Adams has also foreseen the potentially manipulative dangers of online disinformation, which most recently through the weaponization of social media, has been used to infiltrate fake news into the public discourse. Adams explains in his interview with Chatzichristodoulou:

Through social networking sites, for example, we all represent different slices of our personality. How can we make sense of the world when we are overwhelmed with different sources of information, when there is such a fluid boundary between fact and fiction?

And finally, at the conclusion of Chatzichristodoulou’s interview she quotes Gabriella Giannachi, another scholar of Blast Theory, who says:

I present Blast Theory’s work as political. This is not only because the company create spaces which are aesthetically and socially transformative, but also because they problematize the very ways by which we use technology as a lens and language to experience everyday life… Kidnap is about ‘giving up control’, but also being controlled. It is about looking and being looked at. It is about trust and endurance.

Blast Theory, Kidnap (1998) courtesy of Blast Theory

These are prescient words in contemporary media culture, as we find ourselves increasingly submitting to cybernetic systems of control that mediate our experiences. In the work of Blast Theory, they situate the viewer in complex, socially dynamic situations to ask the hard, problematic questions: what kind of existential trap have we entered into in terms of our acceptance, reliance, and desire for technological engagement that permeates all aspects of our personal, political, social and emotional lives?

Visit the Symposium Website for more information and to register online.

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4 responses to “The Participatory Act of Giving up Control

  1. one probably needs to question some of the assumptions that go into the
    argument here (and to a growing number of people i know, immersive and ‘participatory” performances have become
    repulsive on occasion, and certainly coercive and hardly foreboding of current social/political conditions (where?) or surveillance systems);
    i wonder how others will read this somewhat perplexing idea (and the Sartre reference I found rather uncompelling and misleading) that giving up control, as a polite description of the traumatising/brutalising act of kidnapping (surrendering to being controlled and manipulated?), could conceivably be pleasurable or desirable
    (in a art/aesthetic context? where, one might agree, there is of course no real kidnapping, and thus also no real existential crisis,is there?).

    1. Johannes, no one is saying that giving up control is necessarily pleasurable, at least at the outset, but I would refer you to Steve Dixon’s original essay for greater context and explanation.

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