Guest Blog by Erica Gomez: The Spectacle in I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law

“Revolutionary artists are those who call for intervention; and who have themselves intervened in the spectacle to disrupt and destroy it.” — Guy Debord

It never fails. It could be weeks after I’ve been to an exhibition when I find myself exploring the cookie-crumb trail of visual stimuli my brain has conveniently left behind for me to try and piece together the details I undoubtedly missed the first time around. While some may call it visual hypnosis, I refer to it as sensory overload, and understandably so, when we’re surrounded by flashing lights, televisions galore, and LSD covered walls.  Luckily, with a closer examination of I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law, I stumbled upon the spectacle.

Although the term spectacle is frequently used in conjunction with the theater, and perhaps more recently in association with reality television, the term is deeply rooted in social theories originated by Guy Debord.  According to Debord, the spectacle is representative of a mass-collective view.  For example, Debord discusses mass consumerism as a shared worldview initiated by capitalistic society.

If we apply this concept to the U.S. legal system, we see a dominant structure that supports normative social values within society, setting standards and expectations.  This means that anything that deviates from normative culture, i.e., the undocumented, the queer, the criminal, becomes alienated. In Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, art historian Jonathan Crary explains, “…spectacular culture is not founded on the necessity of making a subject see, but rather on strategies in which individuals are isolated, separated, and…disempowered.”

Justin Hoover, curator of I Am Crime, is successful in creating a “spectacular culture.” Many of the exhibiting artists in I Am Crime have seized the role of the spectacle to disarm, disempower and create disorder in the hegemonic structure we know as the legal system.


Artist Guy Overfelt ingeniously hired two high profile courtroom sketch artists and invited the public to his 1998 legal proceedings. Overfelt was charged with a criminal misdemeanor of “spinning his wheels” during a performance involving a ’77 Trans Am in front of a gallery in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco. By employing such tactics, he positioned himself as the spectacle, forcing the legal system to take up the role of the spectator, thereby disempowering the legal system, earning him a “get out of jail free card.” The series of seven “Untitled” courtroom illustrations document the spectacle.

Other instances of the spectacle are visible in Julio Salgado’s “I Am Undocu-Queer” and “Undocumented and Awkward” by Dreamers Adrift, which have given a voice for undocumented people.  They have become the spectacle because they will not stand down.  Instead, they seek to challenge the standards set forth by the legal system that are responsible for the stigmatization of a group of people  and the perpetuation of such pejorative terminology as “illegal alien” in association with criminal.

About the author of this post:
Erica Gomez is currently a Curatorial Intern at SOMArts Cultural Center and has a B.A. from Metropolitan State University, Denver, Colorado, in Art History, Theory and Criticism. She has been accepted into the California College of the Arts Visual and Critical Studies Graduate Program and will begin in the Fall of 2012.

For more information about internships at SOMArts, please click here.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999): 3.
Debord, Guy.”Writings from the Situationist International.” Art in Theory: 1900 to 2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003): 706.

Pictured: “Judge View” commissioned by Guy Overfelt,  “I Am Undocu-Queer” by Julio Salgado