Some Thoughts on Attention, Language and Demand

Andy Ascends – photo by Andrew Federman ©2012

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with a curator/producer for a television show that creates documentaries on visual artists for PBS. It was an interesting discussion, as usual, wherein the gap between our worlds became eminently clear. First off, I was talking about writing, dramaturgy, etc. – and he said that in the visual arts world they have dramaturges, they’re called curators. He said it in a really dick-y, condescending way (natch) – and of course, the point I was trying to make was that, yes, visual arts curators are more likely to write contextual materials about an artist’s work than performing arts curators, but STILL visual arts curators, generally, don’t know fuck-all about performance. They just don’t have any knowledge whatsoever about theater, dance or the history of performance theory from Aristotle to Hans-Thies Lehmann to Ranciere. So they are, unfortunately, inadequately equipped to meaningfully advise their artists on how to engage with the aesthetic, formal, presentational and logistical challenges of making live performance.

He then went on to say that visual artists making performance, like performing artists, think about audience. And once again I had to point out that perhaps they do, but not in the same way. Visual artists – and of course this is a vast generalization – don’t actually think about audience experience because they have very little expectation of attention. Visual art is often experienced in a very casual way, in a gallery setting, and this expectation of brief, transitory engagement carries over to performance. I have had numerous visual arts curators (and artists) tell me that the main thing they hate about theater and dance is having to sit still and watch something that takes more than 10 minutes. Even Marina Abramovic doesn’t expect you to pay attention. She – or her re-enactors – may stay in position for hours at a time -body-as-object- but you  are free to come and go as you please, to look or not look, to mosey around as if you are shopping, inspecting merchandise, and then move on to the next thing. Maybe I’m biased. I’m not a visual person and I have been told that there are people who will gaze at a painting or sculpture for hours on end, meditating on its meaning and appreciating its qualities. I’m not one of them and I’ve never seen anybody doing it, so I’m going to stick with the passive, casual, observer theory of engaging with visual art.

I’m not suggesting that this kind of passive, fleeting engagement is necessarily lesser than the experience of sustained attention, only that it is different. Personally, however, I prefer an artistic practice that demands a mode of engagement counter to the frameworks of commodity and mass entertainment. We exist in a world that abjures interiority or reflection while it  glorifies surface over substance, vaunts spectacle over subtlety, demands immediate judgement (thumbs up/thumbs down), engenders distractibility  and enforces expectations of immediate gratification. The world we live in prefers that we not think about why, or how, or who we are, unless it is in a self-help context that can be marketed to, packaged and sold. But I digress – the point being that I’ve been thinking a lot about attention, the nature and value of it, ever since that meeting. Fortunately I’ve seen a lot of work that resonates with that over the past few weeks.

On Saturday June 16th I went to experience Yehuda Duenyas’ project The Ascent out in Sunset Park. I didn’t get up to EMPAC to check it out there, so I was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to try it out. Ariel Kaminer’s article in the NY Times does a great job of describing it. (I wanted to write about The Ascent sooner but was embargoed b/c of the Times! It is so frustrating to be in this quasi-journalist half-blogger, half-legit media outlet space!!!) ANYWAY – the basic premise is that you get hooked up with this headband that reads your EEG waves. Then you get put into a harness that attaches to this rig and the quieter you make your mind, the higher you go. The higher you go, the more stimulus (lights, fog, music) you get, so you have to maintain your Quiet Mind in an increasingly chaotic environment. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. I went in with high expectations and they were totally exceeded. I told Yehuda afterwards that I felt like it was some kind of a Jedi training exercise. The experience was like meditation but very different – it was as if you had to send your mind out into space and be open to registering all the stimuli and events and “facts” of reality, while maintaining an “uncarved block” state of non-attachment. Oh, and of course, all this while you’re suspended 20 feet or so in the air and you’re not quite sure how you got up there in the first place. Pretty freakin’ cool!

I think the most exciting thing about The Ascent is not necessarily the tech aspect but the radical proposition that this performance happens entirely in your head, and that you control your experience with your thoughts. For the first time ever the performer and the audience and the performance are all one. That’s, like, the future, man.

There is so much to say about this – but in terms of the idea of “attention” – this is really a profound project, because the more attention you pay, the deeper and better your experience is, in immediately tangible terms. It is all about practicing attention, which is a much-needed exercise in our society and completely counter to the prevailing inducements to splinter attention and try and apprehend as much stimuli as possible.

Then, on Sunday June 17th I went to the Bang On A Can Marathon at the World Financial Center as part of the River To River Festival (full-disclosure, R2R is a big part of my day job). The 12 hour marathon was amazing with far too much music to go into here, but two sequences in particular struck me. One was a composition by Thurston Moore called “Stroking Piece” performed by the Bang On A Can All-Stars which was amazing. I found a version of it online here:

It was hypnotic and profound, starting from a very simple repeated note/figure and expanding on that simple figure to explore a range of dynamics, tones and sonic environments. Of course it sounded like Sonic Youth and all the other bands that followed in their wake, and I’ll be honest, I’m a big fan of shoe-gazing from My Bloody Valentine to the lesser-known Jessamine and their brethren. I find the experience of deep listening very pleasurable.

Speaking of deep listening, later on that evening Pauline Oliveiros and the Deep Listening Band performed an incredible set using conch shells, one of those huge Tibetan mountain horns and some interesting vocal techniques. Oliveiros is, in fact, the founder of the Deep Listening Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting this mode of engagement and supporting artists and projects that explore the framework. From their website:

Deep Listening® is a philosophy and practice developed by Pauline Oliveros that distinguishes the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening. The result of the practice cultivates appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one’s environment, technology and performance with others in music and related arts.

The practice of Deep Listening provides a framework for artistic collaboration and musical improvisation and gives composers, performers, artists of other disciplines, and audiences new tools to explore and interact with environmental and instrumental sounds.

I will unabashedly admit that my appreciation for meditative arts experience stems from an adolescent passion for spirituality and transcendence that led to reading way too much Hermann Hesse, taking LSD and listening to the Grateful Dead. But those explorations subsequently led to much more serious and thoughtful investigations of being and nothingness, Zen, the nature of attention, embodiment and presence, and trying to cultivate a way of being in the world that is not predicated too much on attachment and desiring. That being said, I think that the “spiritual” impulse may lead someone to certain investigations, but it is a pre-condition to those investigations, not a result. And some people, like myself, have always enjoyed the experience of thinking (or “not-thinking” I guess) that art can provide. A great dance, music or theatrical performance/experience can bring us into a place of pure engagement that is, to varying degrees, comprised of observation, emotional stimulation, meditation and intellectual provocation.

So here I was in the WFC Winter Garden going deep with Pauline Oliveiros and her band. Apparently, from what I’m told, she’s been working with a laptop/programmer guy and they’ve developed software that processes the sound to create the experience of being at the bottom of a 20,000 gallon cistern. It was completely immersive and transportive, I just sat there with my eyes closed, gently nodding my head and going farther and farther out (in?). Truly wonderful.

When I first start writing this article (a few weeks ago) I was going to write at some length about how this form of engagement should influence critical writing. But that ended up taking the form of an entirely separate article, that I encourage you to read here. As distracting as reading on the internet can be, for a writer it allows a certain flexibility in terms of word count and form. It allows us to integrate media, to hyperlink, to create a text-based experiential response to a performance that, hopefully, amplifies the ideas and conveys the feeling of the event itself.

In the article linked to above, I discuss the difference between consumer-oriented reviewing and embedded “criticism” that comes from within the world of the artist and seeks to foster engagement with audiences, building and empowering communities to actively engage in the arts. There is a linkage between the idea of cultivating attention and changing the way we write about performance. Because the aesthetic proposition of much of contemporary performance is about paying attention, it implicitly defies consumerism. It is not easily commodified or passively consumed and as much as some people complain about the “90 minutes, no intermission” structure that seems to be the default for so much work, those 90 minutes require more thought, usually, than 120 minutes of a blockbuster movie. So as “publishers” we are tasked with developing platforms that sustain engagement with artist’s projects over time, providing audience/observers access to the ideas, investigations and influences that go into a given performance. And arts writers are tasked with developing a language that is somewhere between the hyper-academic and the panderingly populist, that leverages the strengths of the internet as a medium while resisting its negative temptations.

And in a way this leads to a discussion I’ve been hearing about “building demand for dance”. Across the board, for as long as I’ve been on the administrative side of the arts sector, I have heard venues and funders alike lamenting audience attrition. The older audiences that have traditionally supported Big Culture with their subscriptions and donations are declining and aren’t being replaced by new audiences. Subscription models, ticket prices, consumer behavior, priorities, entertainment options, access to the arts, etc. etc.  And to my mind, most of the people trying to come up with solutions are so deeply invested in the models of Big Culture that they just aren’t interested in adapting and changing. So they convene a bunch of “little culture” orgs and give them training programs predicated on the methodologies of Big Culture. (From what I understand). Surprisingly, it actually seems as if the NEA gets it, with their Art Place initiative and their various other new innovation programs. They’re trying to make this cultural transition as gentle as possible for Big Culture and Little Culture alike.

But going back to this issue of “demand”. I’m reluctant to even use that word because it is predicated on an economic model of supply and demand that treats art as commodity. Look, I’m a producer and I spend a lot of time with Excel spreadsheets dealing with dollars as they relate to the arts, I know that there is an economy involved here. However, the commodity based framework of supply and demand is not necessarily the most effective framework for building audiences. It is not about creating a more fertile environment for selling arts products. It is about building transparency, porousness and openness, about re-positioning the role of the arts in communities.

I was talking to a possible revenue source who said their giving was transitioning from arts to education and I felt compelled to respond that the arts – especially performance, but all arts – IS education. The best art engages with all kinds of ideas, we can look at performance as a “space-time object” – a nexus of information. A good teacher can unpack art to lead into all kinds of fields of knowledge from neuroscience to history to economics to reading/writing/arithmetic.  For experiential learners the arts can provide a way into information that books may not.

Building demand is about re-positioning the role of the arts in our culture. Administrators and funders need to start looking at institutions, venues and festivals as ways to bring people together in dialogue and community. Artists need to think of their work not solely in regard to what happens in the moment of performance but as an investigative arc, one which they can share with others and invite people into. And writers need to start thinking of themselves not merely as critics but as facilitators. We must work closer with artists to understand their investigations and then we must be able to face outward as expositors to the general community. While there will probably always be a role for “reviewers” in the MSM and there will probably always be a demand for theoreticians and academics, what is really required at this moment is an army of “new critics”, writers who are also advocates,  sharers, inviters, organizers and “framers”, who are passionate about how the arts have informed and transformed their lives and feel called to share that passion with the world.

That’s why Culturebot is here and we hope to be here for years to come, sharing this  long, strange trip and amazing journey with you, our fellow travelers on the golden road to the miraculous.

5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Attention, Language and Demand”

  1. Yelena Gluzman says:

    Nice.

  2. Jody Oberfelder says:

    I've been considering what is 'installation' and what is 'live art', especially the time factor. Lingering, drive by, or durational set time. Embodying an experience has many facets. Great article.

  3. Mallory Catlett says:

    great article Andy.

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