Splay Attention

photo by Ryan McNamara

The best of a recent performance art festival takes seriously contemporary ways of looking at art

1. Materials for a review of Performa 13

An art critic of the connoisseur kind extols the rewards of hours spent in contemplation of a single work of art. As his gaze probes a painting, the time that the artist spent on it comes back again, revealing the subtle pleasures of the work’s crafting. His attention does something to it. The prolonged spotlight of his gaze is what cognitive scientists call “direct executive focus”, which sounds so significant, so brawny—executive! direct! Yet this kind of attention is also the most vulnerable. It’s an easy target for the lesser stimuli that would interrupt it. This is why (according to the connoisseurs who run them) museums should be quiet, why their walls should be white, why the furnishings should be demure. It should be as if life pauses there, or isn’t there at all.

Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot is about eighteenth-century critics who praised artists’ depictions of total engrossment. The rapt attention on faces in paintings became a model for the viewer’s own gaze. “It is rare that a being who is not totally engrossed in his action is not mannered,” Diderot wrote of his favor for attentive figures. Only when painting freed itself from the falseness of theater could it achieve Diderot’s ideal of art as “a street, a public square, a temple,” places where—unlike in the theater—action is not calculated to capture the attention of others. “[I]t was only by negating the beholder’s presence that this could be achieved,” summarizes Fried, “only by establishing the fiction of his absence or nonexistence could his actual placement before and enthrallment by the painting be secured.” The connoisseur wants coquetry from painting. To earn his attention, art has to play hard to get.

When it pretends that viewers don’t exist, art creates an air of timelessness—a fictive space, purified of real life’s demands, where hours are free to be spent looking at art. Maybe for some people—scholars or curators of narrow specializations—this fictive space is a real one. But for me, ten seconds can feel like an excruciatingly long time to look at a painting or a photograph. If I’m writing about a work, maybe I’ll suppress my impatience and give it a full sixty seconds. Looking at an image for fifteen minutes—even five!—is hard to fathom. Hours is the amount of time I spent watching television daily as a child, a habit that trained my eyes to parse images that appeared for a fraction of a second and relate them to the ones that rapidly followed. The specter of theater doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers Fried, who made his name in the 1960s as a defender of bourgeois aesthetic values in a time when pop and minimalism were tainting art with theatricality and kitsch. In the introduction to Absorption and Theatricality, Fried writes that the best contemporary work “treated the beholder as if he were not there,” and names some color-field painters who were big when the book was published, in 1980, but have since become obscure: Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski. Unlike Fried, I don’t think it’s bad when artists treat me as if I’m there. In fact, I’m more sympathetic to those who do. Because I am.

Eighteenth-century acting was far more mannered and declamatory than what you see in theaters now, when the fourth wall and method acting are the rule. But “theater” persists as a pejorative term for art. Performance art is a young genre whose practitioners work hard to extricate themselves from theatricality. The artists’ beholders are there, sharing time and space with them. A painting has an easier time conjuring a nonexistent beholder because it doesn’t need one to exist. It can spend years in a warehouse or a musty attic or another beholderless place. But performance art has to be in public, and it has to sustain its audience’s direct executive focus on movements and gestures that aren’t mannered or showy. (You know the Marina Abramovic and Ulay piece where they stood in a doorway and didn’t acknowledge the viewers who passed between their naked bodies? And how, when it was included in Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, one of the men who reperformed Ulay’s part had to leave the gallery because he got a hard-on? His hard-on was the embodiment of theater.)

I respect performance art, but I don’t think I love it. I think it’s healthy for artists—performance artists included—to acknowledge that direct executive focus is not the only way that people process art and other stimuli. “The workings of attention resemble a series of gateways and building blocks more than they do a spotlight,” Malcolm McCullough, a theorist of architecture, writes in Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information. “Although your gaze usually indicates where your deliberate attention has been directed, it tells us nothing about how your attention has been assembled, or its aspects of orientation and habit.” The multiplicity of attention’s orientations and habits its keenly felt in the present, when people behold so many stimuli at once. Linda Stone, who consults big tech companies on the psychology of attention, coined the term “continuous partial awareness” to designate this condition. “It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network,” Stone writes on her website. “Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. […]To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.” You may object to Stone’s use of “we” but I do want this, and I want it as a viewer of art. I suspect that other viewers do, too.


2. A review of Performa 13

Since 2005, New York has had a biennial of contemporary art called Performa, which is, in the words of its organizers, “dedicated to commissioning, presenting, and exploring new visual art performance across disciplines.” Note that they don’t say “performance art”—they say “visual art performance,” an ungainly bit of artspeak that basically means “a live event conceived by the kind of artist who often shows things in galleries.” Performa commissions artists to produce evening-length events, and sometimes these artists haven’t had much experience working with that kind of duration. These artists often turn to narrative and spectacle and other devices that they know can hold an audience’s attention for an evening. In short, they make theater. Partisans of performance art have complained that Performa commissions too much theater from visual artists and not enough performance art from performance artists. I don’t have skin in the genre game—I can like anything. The most egregious (and delightful) instance of art theater at Performa 13 was Alexandre Singh’s The Humans, a lavishly produced three-hour musical comedy. It imagined our species originating from a series of sculpted automata who only acquired passions when a mischievous spirit taught them how to shit. I loved it.

This is not to say that “real” performance art has no place at Performa. It was there, among the 85 events that Performa put on from November 1 to 24. One such piece was Dave MacKenzie’s All the King’s Horses and None of his Men, presented at Third Streaming, a young gallery on a creaky SoHo second floor. MacKenzie paced a narrow strip by the south wall, repeating dance steps, counting and chanting. Now and then a recording of a sitcom punchline punctuated his action. (It was a black father belittling his child: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out,” followed by a laugh track.) MacKenzie banged blocks of chalk together and, lying prone, rubbed them in broad arcs on the floor. White powder flaked on dark floor, dark hair, dark skin, dark clothes. Later he read bits of a book while pacing, repeating quotes like this: “True or False: Black people can make snow angels.” I didn’t know where the quotes came from, and his gestures and his body became their new referents, even as they nudged my memory toward the remote world beyond the gallery. For the most part it was good, but toward the end MacKenzie kept piling on more quotes from more sources. It made me think that his focus had frayed as he made it, and so did mine as I watched.

Maria Hassabi’s Premiere at the Kitchen was a piece for five dancers, arranged in an acid-washed rainbow of denim outfits. Their movements were slow. They were so inexorable, so carefully controlled. The woman in pink was a master of turning her whole still body just by twitching her clenched glutes. It was hard to keep track of the action—whenever I widened my gaze to take in the configuration of the bodies I realized I couldn’t picture where they had been a minute earlier, or five minutes earlier. Toward the end, though, the trajectory of the movement swung into clarity. Premiere was a grand, astronomical spectacle of bodies rotating on an axis. The dancers finished in a mirror image of their original positions.

Direct executive focus was what the audience was supposed to exercise while viewing MacKenzie’s and Hassabi’s pieces. But it never accounts for all of an audience’s attention. Hassabi, I think, realizes this, and showed it by reversing the Kitchen’s usual configuration of seating and stage, and constellating the lights in uneven grids on each wall, with many tilted at the audience. Under their glow I felt too nervous to pull my notebook out of my bag and take notes—wouldn’t everyone look at me?—and I pitied my neighbor, whose growling stomach drew the awkward attention of those of us around him. But while the dispersion of attention was a slight gesture for Hassabi, it was a starting point for other artists, who created participatory works where performance was not the object of attention but its texture. Ed Fornieles’ NY NY HP HP took the form of a gala benefit for Rhizome, held in the New Museum’s sky room. Each guest was assigned a role. Mine was “sociopath,” which I think this was the default; Fornieles wanted his audience to feel like the cast of a reality show. The responsibility of having a role, light as it was, sharpened my alertness. I plotted my interactions, and felt like I lived each one twice. Fornieles peppered the party with a series of attractions—a parody of non-profit speechifying, cold cuts served on models’ bodies, a mob that ripped off a man’s black garments and replaced them with white ones—where he deployed dancers, strippers, clarinetists, and MFA-certified performance artists to the same ends: to lower guests’ inhibitions. He wanted sociopaths to have fun, and we did.

“Art is most useful when it allows for a certain group dynamic to exist that couldn’t in a different context,” Pedro Reyes said in an interview with Artforum about his project The People’s United Nations (pUN). He invited 195 delegates, New York residents born in the countries represented in the UN, to the Queens Museum for a weekend of social games based on improv comedy, therapy sessions, and team-building exercises. pUN was about humor as an alternative to politicking, another means of conflict resolution. To me the participants seemed earnest—I didn’t hear laughter. But my perspective was limited. As a museum visitor, not a participant, I would only catch sidelong glances of the meetings in the museum's central hall as I viewed the exhibitions in perimeter’s enfilade. Yet even that seemed to somehow enrich my experience of the museum. Just as the naked flesh at NY NY HP HP made me want to have fun, the buzz of the delegates’ dialogues disposed me to a genial communion with art.

Ryan McNamara’s ME3M: A Story Ballet about the Internet, was the best thing at Performa, and I’m not the only one who thought so—McNamara won the Malcolm McLaren Award, Performa’s $10,000 prize for an artist under 40 who has “demonstrated the most innovative and thought-provoking performance during the three-week biennial.” ME3M was a collection of dance pieces set to a motley soundtrack—“Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” by Dolly Parton, “Mesmerizing” by Liz Phair, John Carpenter’s theme from Escape from New York. Dances took place in various zones, marked with gaffing tape and distinctive lighting, around a school theater in the East Village—on the stage, in the auditorium’s wings and in the lobby. There was even a solo number in a broom closet. No two viewers had an identical experience of ME3M, and while this is a truism for all art McNamara literalized it in the extreme. A few minutes into the piece, “people movers” began to approach viewers from behind, lifting their seats with manual forklifts and carting them from one zone to the next.

The choreography was collaborative. McNamara asked his dancers to send him their favorite dance videos they’d found online, and worked with them to develop dances from the movements in them. (Submissions featured Martha Graham, Beyoncé fans, a calisthenics program for the elderly—“not a history of dance, but a history of people dancing,” MacNamara said in a talk about the piece at the Performa Hub.) MacNamara’s title invoked the nineteenth-century genre of the “story ballet,” but because of the distributed process there was no singular coherent narrative. So the “about the internet” part had me seeking little allegories. The zones of dance are like browser windows, I thought—no, tabs! Because one is in front of you and, with a slight shift of attention, you know what’s in the next one. But the lobby is a different window! When I see my friend getting carted past me between zones and she waves, it’s like social media. The title is ME and ME backwards—because this piece (like the internet!) mirrors my presence and continually reminds me that I’m present with other people. It’s like when a newspaper’s Facebook app tells me what my friends are reading, and I read it. It’s like a retweet.

These stupid similes kept coming to mind, and I hated them because they sounded so cheesy—a poor fit for ME3M, which made the complexity of the ideas behind its conception seem so easy and unforced. And yet they weren’t entirely inappropriate, because they were true to how my life online organizes my attention, and to how my attention was organized by ME3M. ME3M was performance art, as much as any dance piece can be: a study of movement, a kaleidoscopic history of people dancing. But it was theater, too, in Diderot’s sense. More than most performance artists, McNamara is concerned with not boring his audience. He treated us as if we were there—even planning the movement of our bodies, the specific close-up encounters of them with his dancers. McNamara made attention's forking paths both the blueprint and the target of his work, and made everyone happy. ME3M redeemed continuous partial awareness for art—and maybe for life, too.