Blog post

The Disordering of Attention

Claire Bishop examines the way we look at art and performance today.

Claire Bishop26 June 2024

The Disordering of Attention

Two recent performances seem emblematic of how we look at art and performance today. The first, Sun and Sea (Marina) (2019), is an opera about climate change. When it was staged at the Venice Biennale in 2019, viewers entered a former naval building onto a raised gallery overlooking a thick blanket of sand populated with sunbathers. All ages, races, genders, and even a dog were hanging out on this makeshift ‘beach’. For eight hours, they sang, chatted, napped, read books and magazines, looked at their phones, and occasionally wandered off. Only the children were conspicuously mobile – building sandcastles, running around, and playing various ball games. With all the continuous low-level peripheral noise and activity, combined with an elevated viewing position that flattened the beach-stage into a horizontal plane, it was often difficult to identify which performer was singing. 

The libretto largely took the form of complaints that oscillated between the personal and the environmental – the sea filling with algae, needing more sunscreen, the difficulty of relaxing, and species dying out. These sunbathing tourists on pastel-coloured towels seemed to occupy a suspended time at the edge of a climate abyss. They were also the audience’s mirrors, reflecting our own inaction back to itself. As disconnected from the slow violence of climate change as the languid performers beneath us, we murmured to each other and took photographs. Time passed. The beach occupants (under bright lights), like us (watching in the shadows), came and went as the hours ticked by – drifting in, staying a while, and wandering out again. 

The second performance, Kevin Beasley’s The Sound of Morning (2021), took place at a street intersection on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A group of Black dancers undertook activities that were casual to the point of being barely visible: dragging a piece of metal, fixing a bicycle wheel, bouncing a deflated basketball. Each set of actions created a sound that was amplified, mixed with others, and gradually came to the fore in an improvised composition. The city bled into the work not just sonically but visually: passers-by, cyclists, and delivery trucks constantly wove through and bypassed the performers. The four-way intersection offered multiple lines of sight. Backdrop and foreground melted into each other. Audience members followed the performers, watched, stepped out of the way, talked to neighbours, took photographs. We tuned in, we tuned out. The action was so understated that there wasn’t that much to watch, so we coexisted with Beasley’s abstracted material sound – a sonic collage taken from and re-layered back onto that corner of the city. 

In both performances – one indoors, one outdoors – the viewer’s attention was radically dispersed, and not just because sonic and visual interference was embraced as a feature. Duration mattered, as did the free-flowing structure. At no point was it expected that the audience would watch each performance in reverent silence. Our conversations and observations took place in and alongside the work, as did our photography. This relaxed distribution of focus goes beyond previous strands of art, performance, and dance since the 1960s – work characterized by an all-over compositional dehierarchization, often using site-specificity (allowing the work to be permeated by its context) or duration (straining our capacity for sustained attention). The most important difference, though, lies in the photographic condition of contemporary spectatorship. Initially and hesitantly with digital cameras in the 2000s, and then rapidly with networked camera phones in the 2010s, we have come to document as we look.

This reflex documentation has become collective, real-time, and distributed. We are physically present in the performance but also networked to multiple elsewheres. Looking is hybrid, occupying multiple spaces and times simultaneously: we are in the present with the work, interacting with those in our immediate vicinity, but also relaying this to others watching remotely, in real time or (more often) with a slight delay.

Today, documentation is in the hands of every viewer, not just the professional hired photographer. As a result, the hierarchies of distribution have been scrambled. This has changed the dynamic of looking at art and especially performance. The work is less self-important, less total; it grants us the space to be mobile and social, to react, chat, share, and archive as we watch. After both Sun and Sea (Marina) and The Sound of Morning, I was curious to check Instagram to see if other people had looked at the performance in ways that corresponded to my experience. Perhaps I would even be visible in their footage.

— An edited excerpt from Disordered Attention: How We Look at Art and Performance Today by Claire Bishop.

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