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On the days he showed up, I watched him.
Never his face; only his naked back, with its phantasmagoric tattoo: a Madonna in prayer, flanked by swallows and bats; a Mexican Day of the Dead skull and roses, above; Chinese babies riding carps, below.
As the world economy and travel ground to a halt in a pandemic, Tim sat – a human artwork – in the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia. When he dies, the tattoo on his back, by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, will be removed and preserved for the German collector who bought it. Until then, you could tune in – every November through May – to a live feed of him on a plinth in a dim gallery.
Tim sitting is an exercise in meditation. Watching Tim sit: also an act of concentration. I tuned in daily, casting the live feed on my television. It was like being in the same room, but at a respectful distance. Perhaps, if I were actually there, I could see more: the texture and sheen of skin; minute tattoo details. Instead, I studied his figure, taking assiduous notes, recording my thoughts about his discipline.
Once, looking up from my notebook, I caught him twitching his shoulder blade. It seemed momentous.
Glutted on Netflix binge-worthy shows and Chinese drama serials, as the country obeyed stay-home instructions, I yearned for fresher, more demanding visual experiences. In the midst of self-isolating,
I felt the urge to participate in art which required the beholder to make meaning for themselves.
Before the present COVID-19 crisis, I’d promised myself I’d one day make it in person to MONA. There, I might have stared at Tim for a couple of hours, tops.
With the likelihood of travelling to Tasmania suddenly remote in this present climate, and free time on my hands, I watched Tim as one dips in and out of a long novel, or ducked in and out of an eight-hour performance of kunqu.
Like the spectator at an all-night kathakali dance, who slips outside to doze, then returns refreshed for the rest of the show, one’s commitment to audience-member status expands and flows like water around everyday life.
What has the recent pandemic done to our ability to pay attention?
Earlier this year, as disquieting news of death tolls and lockdowns dominated the news cycle, people around the world began complaining of an inability to concentrate.
An article in The New Statesman notes a 300 per cent increase, between February and May 2020, in people searching on the Internet “how to get your brain to focus”. It cites Yale neuroscience and psychology professor Amy Arnsten on how our primal fight-or-flight responses have been triggered by the invisible threat of the coronavirus outbreak as well as inadequate governmental responses. In effect: short-circuiting our brains’ critical thinking and focusing functions.
A film-maker I meet at a public discussion online, tells me he has been so anxious in the past few weeks that he is unable to watch any long movies. Instead, he “snacks” on content instead.
Strangely enough, I am now the opposite.
As cities continue being locked down – and theatres, concert halls, museums and galleries remain closed – I trawl the Internet for longer and longer artworks to immerse myself in.
Eschewing real neighbourhood walks, I watch hours of “ambient walking” videos on YouTube – footage of urban strolls shot by enthusiasts armed with 4K cameras – around Ulaanbaatar, Detroit and Singapore’s own Depot Road. I watch another MONA live stream, a 12-hour run of Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda’s spectra light installation, in its entirety (“You’re weird,” said my 10-year-old son, as he left the room).
To tamp down the wanderlust, I tune into virtual tours of the Forbidden City, the Vatican Museums, and sit through Apple’s five-hour film – shot in one continuous take, on a single charge of its iPhone 11 Pro – showcasing the interior and art of Russia’s Hermitage. Whole afternoons are devoted to recordings of lengthy, no-subtitles bunraku puppetry and kabuki performances from the National Theatre of Tokyo’s archives (it’s fun comparing the bunraku version of, say, Chushingura, or The 47 Loyal Retainers, with its kabuki live-action replica).
In quarantine, “flight” has been taken out of the fight-or-flight equation. Sheltering in place, our “fight” impulse decays into “freeze”. Post-anxiety, I deal with my scattered consciousness by seeking a meditative state. What used to bore me now fascinates because of their subtle alterations; their sustained pace and endurance.
“Why could we hear something, while the people who screamed, ‘The needle is stuck!’ could not?” wrote Philip Glass, of critics who complained of the ‘monotony’ of his music. “Because we were paying attention to the changes. The mechanics of perception and attention tied you to the flow of music in a way that was compelling and that made the story irrelevant.”
“When you get to that level of attention,” the composer adds, “the listener experiences an emotional buoyancy.”
In other words, when no immediate danger is detected but the senses remain in high alert, the only course of action is to focus even more on a thing of choice. The act of attention becomes psychological release. A sort of salvation.
Here’s another way of looking at it:
Until 1984, scientists had assumed that attention was controlled solely by our brains’ surface grey matter – the cerebral cortex. Then British biologist Francis Crick came along and proposed that our attentions originated and flexed deep in the thalamus, a small structure just above the brain stem – between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. Crick’s theory was that the thalamus acted as a gatekeeper: letting in some sensory data, and keeping out others.
Of late, neuroscientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have identified a thin layer of inhibitory neurons, the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which wraps around the rest of the thalamus like a shell and filters sensory input. It allows stimuli through, but also suppresses them if need be. Turning on and off the neurons in the TRN – in experiments involving mice trained to run according to light and sound cues – interfered with the way the brain performed.
Attention, ironically, is predicated upon how well the brain can ignore.
Stripped of the daily noise of work and social interaction, the self-isolating human doesn’t need to work as hard to filter distractions. Collective retreat in this fraught period allows us to pay heed to the complex interplay of what we find interesting and boring; the ebb and flow of absorption.
We are free to find our own particular rhythm in appreciating what is worth our time.
Going forward, how will making and experiencing art change?
Gone, it seems, for the foreseeable future, would be the days of packed museum blockbuster shows and festivals. But the digital age and attention economy – in which we trade more and more of our passive attention for free content on social media and the Internet; the jostling for eyeballs among so much information – have always meant that things morph.
“360-degree panoramas of exhibitions, which transport the white cube online, are great for extending shows that got cancelled,” says Rachel Loh, founder of The Starving Artists, a local creative platform which recently ran a video-conferencing discussion on “Art in the New Normal”.
“But more can be done to take advantage of what the digital world offers us in exploring new forms.”
She cites examples such as Singapore art collective PURE EVER, which lets audiences mingle with artists and their works in avatar chatroom hangouts; UK-based art critics The White Pube, who hosted an experimental game design Q&A within the popular Animal Crossing social simulation video game; and Barcelona-based graphic designer Raúl Goñi, whose “Public Protest Poster” project not only projects bespoke poster designs from all over the world on buildings, but also has a web app that allows anyone to design their own typography poster and share it online.
“If we expect art to always be polished, it cannot survive the digital world,” adds Loh. “What many want is a chance to connect, to see art relatable in their everyday lives, even if it is work in progress.”
The pandemic and social distancing offer a chance to redefine art for ourselves: what we want to see, how to find it and how long we want to look at it. Gone, too, perhaps, will be the traditional hierarchies, of institutions and intellectuals, deciding how we ready ourselves for and signal our attention to serious art.
To make When I am among trees (2019), Singapore artist-photographer Ernest Wu set up a video camera before a white backdrop under some trees, in the hopes of capturing a leaf in the moment of falling.
I watch Wu’s video on, of all places, Instagram – that bottomless well of distraction. For 10 minutes, I scrutinise the blankness of the white background; listen to bird calls and muted human voices carrying on a conversation nearby, too faint and garbled to make out. I count four leaves falling – passing before the lens so swiftly that they could be anything: an operator’s fat thumb, a chartreuse apparition, a suicidal caterpillar.
When it is over, I feel compelled to seek Wu out to tell him how hypnotic and calming I found it, and ask him questions.
He replies to my e-mail: “I’m glad someone sat through the entire thing.”
The idea for the work had come to Wu at a 2018 silent meditation in Thailand.
“While I was there, I did walking and standing meditation,” he writes. “I started to notice leaves falling. It was this simple act of watching that I started to pay closer attention.” The falling leaf, to him, became a metaphor for the way so much of life and its process escape our notice – we only recognise the leaf when it’s on the ground.
I ask him what he thinks will happen to our attention to art in future. He says it’s hard to quantify, given that everyone has a different relationship to digital art – with a divide along socio-economic and generational lines.
“The whole world needs to slow down,” he adds. “We are consuming too much too quickly without a true understanding of what consequences our actions entails. We think, ‘This is how it’s always been’.”
“The pandemic has given us this time to reconsider this assumed normality. Digital art has a responsibility to not only entertain but create experiences where we become aware of our fleeting attention spans.”
Meta-works on attention, that demand and hold your attention? I’ll hone in on that.
Clara Chow is the author of short-story collections Dream Storeys and Modern Myths.