'Personally I agree with the pessimists that all these things, especially the overproduction of magazines and newspapers filled with trivial and cheap contents, injure the book business. Human beings have only a certain maximum of leisure, and if they spend an evening reading a sex magazine and listening to the radio there is no time left for a good book' (in Priscilla Murphy’s 'Books are Dead, Long Live Books').
That was a book publisher writing in 1925, worrying that all those newfangled forms of media would be the death of the book (and more importantly for the writer, one imagines, the death of book publishing).
It wasn't the first time we'd become alarmed about our limited attention resources. I mean, take a look at Plato bitching about the invention of writing in The Phaedrus circa 370 BCE.
'…you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.'
With each new competitor – writing, books, cinema, radio, TV, VHS, video games, PCs, internet, social media – there comes a chorus of concern about the impact that all this content will have on our brains. How can we possibly take it all in? Won’t we become distracted, frazzled and over-stimulated? And underlying it all - won’t this new thing take away from the (inherently superior, possibly more profitable) previous thing?
It’s all based on the assumption that humans have a finite ability to pay attention. According to this logic, attention is a scarce and valuable thing. This history - of rarefying attention and pathologising the lack of it - is one of the first things you learn as a media scholar (along with how to spot someone lifting from Wikipedia).
These are some of the themes at play in Idle Resources, the latest exhibition by Melbourne artists Greatest Hits (Gavin Bell, Jarrah de Kuijer, and Simon McGlinn) which is on until 5 March at Tristian Koenig's Collingwood gallery.
The exhibition consists of three series of work, each exploring how we value attention - intrinsically and economically - in an era of distraction.
In two videos, quirky characters - originally used to market ADD drug Ritalin - gaze in a state of quiet contemplation. On the walls hang three (rather beautiful) acoustic dampening blankets; used in heavy industry to soften the distracting sounds of a noisy work site. Finally there are three glass works which transform traditional 'Scholars' stones' (small rock formations valued as visual meditation aides) into iPad-sized 'Scholars' screens'. A bit like a mindfullness app for the busy professional on the go ... oh wait
Can you tell me how you formed Greatest Hits? How did you all meet? Was it love at first sight?
Greatest Hits: We met while studying at art school over the course of five years but didn’t start working seriously together until we graduated in 2008. We’ve known each other for ten years. It’s a love that endures.
Your work - to my eye at least - doesn't seem like the work of three individuals. It has a very singular voice. So how does the collaboration work? Would you say it's democratic, or you each play to your different strengths, or is it a kind of hive mentality and the three think as one?
GH: It’s pretty democratic. We follow interests, either through ideas or materials and work through them together in a variety of ways but the main one would be discussion, we do a lot of talking. So, the three think as one or at least aim for a unified result.
Now to the works at Tristian Koenig. Can you tell me, in broad strokes, what the exhibition is about? What's meant by 'attention economics'?
GH: Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Within this theorization, 'attention' is defined as focused mental engagement on a particular aggregate of information and the subsequent decision of whether to act on this information or not. As content has grown increasingly abundant, and aggregates of information are now readily and immediately available, gaining ‘attention’ has now become the defining and limiting factor in all areas of contemporary consumption.
The show uses this idea as a point of reference for works that respond to an environment which is highly connected and mediatised. The work centres around the premise of a climate cultivated by information saturation and how those environments are thought to alter cognitive and behavioural patterns. The show takes its title from a term used to describe people’s capacity for thought unrelated to their engaged activity.
I read somewhere a long time ago that the notion of an 'attention span' is an entirely un-scientific concept. A lay theory. It developed in the very early 20th century in response to a growing fear that modernity was characterised by chaos and distraction (Cars! Electricity! Soviet Montage! Coney Island!). Were you aware of this history?
GH: An ‘attention span’ is probably better seen as a descriptive term rather than a definitive theory. A short hand way of describing an amount of concentrated time directed towards a task without becoming distracted. Not aware of the Coney Island! threat specifically, but it’s a good point to make that these kinds of concerns have a history. Perhaps the idea of a diminishing ‘attention span’ became popularised in the early 20th cent but it seems that this kind of reaction goes back further. When working on the show we spoke about similar responses to big changes, particularly in regards to major shifts in information technology. Developments such as the popular uptake of written language (reaching its apotheosis around 400BC) and the development of the printing press are good examples of events that brought about similar concerns. In each era, there were worries that the excesses of information would lead to distraction, while also a loss of complexity and nuance found in established communication forms would lead to a shallowing of culture. It seems that in times when the ways in which people communicate with one another change irrevocably, fears relating to ‘attention’ closely follow.
What's your take on the idea of an 'attention span' - do we have one or not? Is it getting shorter or longer? Does it even matter?
GH: Attention spans would seem to be a way to quantify a focus, before you leave one set of material to another. There is a base idea running, that due to an over stimulating environment through various means of communication that people tend to move between forms of information at a greater rate. People's focus is thought to be shallowing for a greater intake of media and interaction, which seems to divide opinion as to the effects of the media rich tools and environments we inhabit. Whether it matters or not would be a question for how someone wants to navigate the current conditions available, and also where they find value in things.
Do you have any experience of ADD / ADHD?
GH: Beyond friends having it and being aware of it growing up, not really. The show features imagery of 60’s / 70’s promotional figurines used by pharmaceutical companies to promote Ritalin. We were interested in the marketing qualities of the product and the idea of what the drug is designed to do, namely to medicate focus for individuals. We saw the imagery as components of an ongoing argument, visual realisations that embody a particular agenda regarding these issues.
How do the works in the show respond to our contemporary age of distraction? [Perhaps you could take me through the three main bodies of work - the videos, acoustic panelling and 'scholars window'].
GH: The works respond to a change in the ways that people are encountering and engaging with information. Distraction can be seen as resulting from this environment but isn’t necessarily the sole defining feature. There are three main bodies of work in the show. Two video works, Untitled (Viewer Abandonment) - I & II ; three monochrome ‘paintings', Untitled (Acoustic Monochrome) – I, II, III ; and a set of three framed glass works, Untitled (Scholars’ Window) – I, II, III.
GH: The video works are digital animations based on marketing figurines used by pharmaceutical companies to promote the drug Ritalin. The videos recreate two incarnations of promotional figurines made by pharmaceutical company CIBA used throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Both videos feature a single character set within a black void in idle motion. The duration of these video works are centred on viewing statistics that present a current phenomenon in watching online material called 'viewer abandonment'.
This phenomenon is said to describe the thinning of attention span via online interactions. Basically how long people spend focused on content online. The idea demonstrates a vast terrain of stimuli presented to the viewer, empowered by the ability to participate through choice. It also shows that this viewer has developed an ability to move vast quantities of information and pick up relevant components of information or disregard material just as easily
GH: Untitled (Acoustic Monochrome) is a series of industrial acoustic dampening blankets hung on the wall. Used within production and construction industries, these objects are designed to decrease the amount of noise within a given space, creating a safer and more conducive working environment.
We were interested in making a work that would be held in the same way as a painting but also carried ideas of information management. The idea of acoustic space is something that we have been aware of through media theory, and is quite a poetic way of thinking about the current climate of information saturation. Acoustic space described by Marshall McLuhan repositions the linear progressions of the eye for the echoing and resonating qualities of the ear. The saying goes: an eye for an ear. There is a transformation from a position of viewing material and the world through a linear perspective, seeing a progression of start middle and end to a more circular and resonating perspective. A change from the eye to the ear, is reflective of the transformation that new media, greater connectivity and information consumption has effected perspective. In contrast with the linear biases of visual space, acoustic space is analogous to the natural environment. Acoustic space surrounds us; it approaches from 360 degrees. It is a simultaneous process of 'centres everywhere and margins nowhere.'
Carrying those ideas into the tradition of viewing a painting on the wall, we wanted to align this sensibility of a media/acoustic space with looking at a monochrome or thinking of the monochrome as a by-product of acoustic space. The Monochrome engages a different kind of attention, as opposed to more pictorial images: It both invites and disperses a viewer’s attention, engendering a 'stare' rather than a 'look'. Which is a nice Segway to the next series.
GH: The glass works, Untitled (Scholars’ Window) - I, II, III is a series of small, framed pieces of tinted artisan glass hung on the wall. The specialised glass has been made by milling down Scholars’ stones or viewing stones; small naturally formed rocks which are traditionally appreciated by Chinese scholars since the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). A customised concoction of silica and flux are then added to the stone powder to create subtly colour tinted glass sheets the size of an A4 piece of paper.
A consideration and appreciation of time is intrinsically connected to scholars’ rocks. Thinking of this, the breaking down and reforming can be read as a re time coding of the material. The make-up of the rock, having formed over hundreds of thousands of years, is transformed within a blink of an eye (relatively speaking) into a surface based form. For this reason, an appreciation of time vs an urgency can be seen as a background for this. There is a similarity here to a broader current experience of faster shifts and increased immediacy.
Our interest in scholars’ rocks had much to do with the approaches of looking and seeing associated with them; their use as viewing apparatus for purposes of reflection and contemplation regarding one's relationship to time and the natural world. They can be regarded as a device for projection, a place for a wondering mind and vicarious excursion. The final form of the work brings the material into a conversation with a proliferation of screen-mediated experience and extended periods of time spent gazing through glass screens. The works appear something like empty picture frames, but their materiality hold a legacy of a poetic and expansive way of viewing.
>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 21 February 2014