Open Eyes

Online or in person? The different ways of paying attention today

To ‘think on your feet’ suggests a nice symbiosis between body and mind; a kind of mobile, dynamic cognition. But what about ‘thinking with your eyes’? To think with your eyes you must be still – your body doesn’t come into it. Thinking with your eyes ‘is about paying attention’, said artist Charline von Heyl in a recent interview in the catalogue accompanying her current show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. ‘To be able to give a work of art the time to unfold on its own terms. It also means to see through intuitive association the connections between art works of different times and backgrounds, and to be able to read them on different levels. It is to not only look, but to look again, and again, until one sees.’

A large exhibition of Von Heyl’s paintings is currently on view at Tate Liverpool. I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen it, in a short film on the Guardian website. I have a sense of the bold abstract paintings holding their own in the airy, light-filled space. But what kind of seeing is this? The visual material the Internet makes available through museum websites, media platforms, YouTube clips or artists’ own web pages allows instant access to practically any number of exhibitions. But does this screen-bound experience, with its dissolution of place and encounter, allow for paying attention?

The question of the Internet’s effect on our attention has become a hot topic, with phrases like ‘Internet Attention Deficit Disorder’ or even ‘Academic Distraction Disorder’ floating around (on the web, naturally). How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? (2012) collects essays and opinions from more than 150 luminaries from different fields, themselves originally published on editor John Brockman’s influential website, an ‘online salon’ of intellectuals. Does the Internet really change the way we think? Does an absorption of art works and exhibitions by means of jpegs, slideshows or video clips have a detrimental effect on attention? Does it even require attention? Unquestionably, the simultaneity and immediacy that the Internet affords has a profound effect on the ‘here and now’ that is essential for the kind of static paying attention Von Heyl describes.

Perhaps artificial means are necessary to slow down today’s ‘here and now’ into a kind of everyday version of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), itself recently revisited in fiction form by the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010): ‘The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw.’ Filmmaker James Benning tautly stretches attention over an attenuated real-time span. In his 2011 film Nightfall, a fixed shot of a forest plots the minute gradations of light over the 90 minutes from late afternoon until darkness descends, distending an unexpectedly dramatic narrative climax. The barely changing image of trees and undergrowth elicits attention; it seems even to be made of attention. The film exemplifies not the kind of directed concentration that attempts to seek something out, but rather a state of alertness, of highly receptive looking.

Rather than tackling the ‘now’, however, you could also attempt to isolate the ‘here’, as Benning himself did when he moved to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Von Heyl, similarly, has spent several months a year since the mid-2000s working in a studio in Marfa, Texas, as an antidote to her adopted home of New York. Agnes Martin, who forty years earlier had turned her back on New York and its distractions in 1967 and moved to the New Mexico desert, described the effect this had on her work in the inspiring text ‘The Untroubled Mind’ (1972): ‘When your eyes are open / You see beauty in anything / Blake’s right about there’s no difference between the whole thing / and one thing.’

But if you cannot go to the desert, or spend hours a day watching night fall, it may be enough to focus on the ordinary. Georges Perec, who spent his short career looking at the stuff of the everyday and dissecting it in words, coined the term ‘infra-ordinary’ to describe this irrefutable matter. ‘The daily papers talk of everything except the daily,’ he complained in ‘Approaches to What?’ (1973). ‘What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? […] To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us.’

Cathy Wilkes’s installations, with their accumulations of the ‘infra-ordinary’ all around us, do question the daily, the habitual and ‘all the rest’. Dirty dishes, tools, baby toys, supermarket conveyor belts and mannequins perform in narrative tableaux that elide any singular, fixed interpretation. They demand the same kind of attention that Wilkes recently described as going into their making: ‘Looking outwards, I won’t allow myself to observe, but rather I regard everything beyond my own emptiness as active agents which will make themselves known.’

Wilkes has had exhibitions in Aspen, Pittsburgh, Munich, Bremen and Chicago over the last year. I saw her shows at the Kunstverein Munich and at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, not in person but on, the online journal of international art exhibitions in which images of a new show appear every day; I know what works were included and how they were installed, but I did not encounter them in a physical sense. I did see her exhibition at gak in Bremen in person, however. On a pink-painted table was a small constellation of objects familiar from previous works. An upright block of wood with schematic, child-like markings, a tangle of thin wire daubed with dry porridge, some pots and a clay object. This fragment, I learned, belongs to the artist, and travels like a signature from one installation to the another. Its title? Pay Attention.

Kirsty Bell is a writer living in Berlin, Germany. She is a contributing editor of frieze. 

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer and contributing editor of frieze. She is author of The Artist’s House published in 2013 by Sternberg Press.

Issue 147

First published in Issue 147

May 2012

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