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There are cities, like London, capable of grabbing your attention and maintaining it over time. Their wide range of cultural, commercial and touristic offerings converts them into focal points of attention and pilgrimage. For their scale, history and cosmopolitanism whatever you are looking for they have loads to offer, including the exceptional and highly specialised. It has to be said, you need time and money at your disposal. For paying attention is an investment that bestows value, the question is to whom and to what are you contributing value when you participate.
Attention is a perceptive quality that acts as a filter in the face of environmental stimuli. It is a rare commodity: people have a limited capacity for focus and concentration. The brain moreover automatically processes all the information it can perceive, it’s not a process that can be stopped at will. Attention is given both voluntarily and involuntarily. It is a dynamic process that varies depending on the object of attention, the mental effort required, the capacities of the subject, as well as motivation or interest.
In the art world, sophisticated devices have been developed for capturing attention, through formats and standard codes of presentation: white or black cubes, the silence and attitude of respect, the parsimonious movements, the time dedicated to the works… Artistic strategies exploring a broader scope also look for ways to grab attention: participation as a way of ensuring captive attention, guerrilla communication, playful strategies…Structures of an accumulative nature, festivals, macro-events or prizes, equally have the objective of detaining our gaze. We could consider all of them attention-seeking technologies.
During a three months stay of in London it wasn’t until the day before my return that I went to the Turner Prize 2014 exhibition. Undoubtedly the works were less sensationalist than in other editions, in fact nobody had even mentioned the exhibition to me and I had read hardly any reviews about it…so what led me like a zombie to Tate Britain was the logic of “am I really not going to go and see the Turner Prize, when I’m actually in London?” an argument that on other occasions wouldn’t have functioned (given my limited tendency for fetishism) but on this occasion it did. It is symptomatic that some critics already wonder whether the Turner Prize, after its thirty years of turbulent life, still bears any “relevance” on a social level as much as in the international art scene.
The anecdote serves to indicate the moment when you decide what to pay attention to: whether it’s to legitimated artistic figures such as Pierre Huyghe at Hauser&Wirth or to more experimental projects such as Entelechy Art at The Albany; to shows organised by large institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, medium sized production setups, such as The Showroom, or small organisations such as Kunstraum; art market spaces, such as the fair Frieze, independent galleries such as TenderPixel or organisations with hybrid financial models such as Chisenhale Gallery; shows that align themselves with city strategies such as Mirror City at the Hayward Gallery or alternative programmes such as SOS in Deptford Performance Space… Because let us not forget, paying attention is a way of participating, and by participating we help to consolidate certain models for understanding art and its relation with society.
As citizens we are increasingly conscious that our choices, of what to consume and where to do so, contribute to one type of social-economic model or another. However, it would seem that we are not so aware that what we dedicate or don’t dedicate our attention to, also favours the aggrandisement, weakening or stability of a certain order of things, be it in the art scene, the public political sphere or in personal relations.
“The artist is present” (2010) by Marina Abramovic at MOMA in New York can serve as a visual metaphor in this respect. The artist sits immobile for three months in the atrium of the museum inviting the spectators to sit down opposite her. The performance enables us to ask ourselves who is really paying attention to whom. It seems to be the artist who cedes her presence, time, energy and attention to whoever sits in front of her. But simultaneously and more significantly the opposite happens. Each one of those people who sits in front of her, observes her while waiting their turn, or causes the action to resonate across social networks and the media, by transferring their attention, causes her myth and symbolic capital to grow.
With these conjectures I got on the plane for the London-Bilbao return trip. The airhostess prepared herself to inform about all the security measures in the case of an emergency. Nobody, except a girl in the first row and I seemed to pay any attention to her. There was a general hubbub that could be considered bad mannered, or perhaps rebellious in response to the repeated and vulgar demands made on our attention? What is more not even the airhostess seemed to pay an excessive amount of attention to her own performance, given the rictus of her face and the degree of automatism in her movements. Not even the air companies seem to be particularly concerned about this lack of attention, for them it’s enough to comply with protocol.
For fortunately however much someone wants to emit a communication, it doesn’t mean that you are disposed to receive it, even if your life may depend on it. On some occasions not paying attention can be an efficient act of boycott or self-defence “there’s no greater form of contempt than to ignore something”. On the other hand we can opt for the act of support, casting an attentive gaze, “livestock fattens under the master’s gaze”. Be it what it may, “to pay attention” is an active and potentially political mechanism, regardless of whether we are conscious of it.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)