BY Anthony Huberman in Features | 01 JUN 15
Featured in
Issue 172

Pay Attention

In an age of perpetual distraction, how might institutions slow down and refocus the way we look at art?

BY Anthony Huberman in Features | 01 JUN 15

A few years ago, the artist Matteo Callegari told me about Andy Kaufman’s performance on Saturday Night Live on 11 March 1978. After informing the audience that he had been given the remaining 20 minutes of the live tv show to do whatever he wanted, Kaufman began reading from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925). ‘Chapter one,’ he began, and cleared his throat. ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,’ he continued, and kept reading until the audience became restless and started to heckle him. After a few minutes and a few more interruptions, Lorne Michaels, the show’s producer, walked up and told Kaufman to stop. Before leaving the stage, the comedian proposed playing a record instead, eliciting cheers from the audience. Once the record began, they heard Kaufman’s voice reading The Great Gatsby, beginning right from when he had left off. Everyone laughed – fade to commercial.

The reason this is funny, of course, is because it doesn’t cohere with the way culture often gets consumed – people prefer the short-and-sweet over the long-and-dry, especially when it comes to their tv comedy shows. Yet, Kaufman’s performance hints at how disruptive it would actually be for someone to intervene within a medium usually dedicated to quick consumption, and ask an audience to pay attention to a single thing for an extended period of time.

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The art historian Jeremiah McCarthy once made a related proposition to me when he suggested putting 15 chairs in front of Replace Me (2011), a photograph by Rosemarie Trockel, and inviting people to come and sit and look at it. A conversation might or might not happen; it was about spending time with a single work of art and paying close attention to it.

Except that ‘paying attention’ is far too vague a phrase. In what contemporary economists call our ‘attention economy’, it applies to almost everything we do. We pay attention to fashion trends, stock-market fluctuations or the sound of a child’s cough while, at the same time, the local chainstore wants us to pay attention to its lowered prices, the car dashboard wants us to pay attention to its engine light and Twitter wants us to pay attention to something different every few seconds.

The Kaufman and Trockel examples, on the other hand, strip attention down to its basic unit: a single book or a single photograph. In Tony Conrad’s music or Michael Snow’s films, for example, a single note or a single shot can make up the entire piece, and it’s the extreme nature of the commitment to a specific choice that gives the work its power – on a conceptual, visual and experiential level.

David Hammons, KoolAid Drawing, 2004, Kool-Aid and pencil on paper, curtain, 109 × 73 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, Mnuchin Gallery and James Cohan Gallery, New York

Artists use a range of methods to concentrate attention on a single chosen subject. The examples mentioned so far make use of duration – the artistic incarnation of the political filibuster – where audiences can only watch and wait. Another method is repetition: in 1963, Andy Warhol got us to think about Elvis Presley simply by filling the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles with nothing but dozens of images of Elvis. A third is distance, in the sense of physically placing an audience in a location that is isolated from anything else, such as sitting on a secluded beach to watch a Joan Jonas performance. Perhaps the most obvious strategy is isolation: many artists install a single object or image in a gallery, dislocating it from anything else – an experience that focuses the audience’s attention in a way made all the more dramatic when the object is small and the space is large. Yet another, however paradoxical, is setting up obstacles: the curtains that covered David Hammons’s ‘Kool-Aid’ drawings (2003), when shown at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, could only be lifted by visitors who made an appointment and entered through a different entrance. This ritual guaranteed an especially attentive experience for viewers who had made it past the barriers that prevented them from seeing the work.

If artists value this mixture of restraint, withdrawal, specificity and commitment, what would it mean for arts institutions to do the same? Traditionally, museums and galleries prefer the opposite: competing for funding, artists, press and audience, many look to be as visible, diverse, popular, large and active as possible. New York’s MoMA PS1, for example, often has a dozen different exhibitions on view at any given time, while ICA London’s current ‘fig-2’ series involves a new exhibition every week for 50 weeks. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the New Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art are all currently expanding their activities into new buildings.

Clearly, each of these institutions is offering invaluable opportunities to countless artists who deserve to have their work shown. But what would it mean for an art centre to say that visibility, scale or productivity do not count among their criteria for success? A different set of priorities, or a certain code of conduct, begins to emerge: slowing down, staying small, repeating, making long-term commitments. In what many might consider a perversion of commonly held values, a new breed of institution today appears to be scaling back in all senses of the term: in audience, in activity, in visibility, in online presence, in physical size – all in the hope of generating a scaling-up of rigour and focus. Instead of producing more content for more customers, they are demanding an attentive experience from an engaged audience.

In 2010, with the support of Hunter College in New York, I founded a small art space and research centre, The Artist’s Institute, where the Kaufman clip was shown and where people sat and looked at the Trockel photograph. I hoped it could become an intimate place where people could step off the endless conveyer-belt of the city’s art exhibitions and spend time thinking about a single artist for an extended period of time. The concept was simple: each year would be divided into two six-month seasons, with each dedicated to a single artist. I would show one work at a time, changing it once per month. The goal was for this to be generative and for the exhibited artist’s work to open up discussions of other artists, writers, musicians, thinkers and subjects. The space I found for it was ideal: it was too small to be an exhibition gallery and, while it was at street-level, its facade looked almost private, and would probably attract only those who were actively looking for it. While the space and the budget were limited, I could offer artists a committed group of people who were going to spend six months paying close attention to their work.

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I am now developing this structure and these ideas at The Wattis Institute in San Francisco, and I am considering the ways in which an ‘institute’ might offer a possible alternative to today’s existing models – or, at least, suggest a specificity of approach that is in tune with the concerns of many artists, especially in a time of attention deficits. Of course, many museums keep the same works on view for years at a time, in the context of their permanent collection, but few demand the same attention for their temporary exhibitions. However, a range of other organizations are placing an emphasis on sustained attention, although they differ in size, mission and location. For decades, the Dia Art Foundation in New York has had the habit of keeping its temporary shows on view for approximately eight months and encouraging repeated visits – it once even presented three consecutive Thomas Schütte shows. BAK in Utrecht and If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution in Amsterdam both dedicate several years to investigating a single theme via exhibitions, conferences, publications, performances, reading groups, workshops and other itinerant events. Mamco, in Geneva, often returns to the same artists to show their work a second, or even a third, time over the course of several years. Yale Union in Portland always puts the demands of the work first and, should an exhibition not make sense in its own galleries but in another location instead, they simply close their space and leave it empty. Praxes in Berlin has also adopted the six-month episodic model and applies it to two artists at a time, while The Artist’s Institute, now running under the leadership of Jenny Jaskey, is no longer showing just a single work at a time, but is commissioning several successive and distinct installations by the same artist over the course of each six-month season, making its commitment to their work even more pronounced. Other non-profit, alternative spaces in New York, such as cage or the Emily Harvey Foundation, embrace the productive nature of the semi-private, keep no regular hours and choose to be open only to an engaged audience who make appointments.

This range of large and small, rich and not-so-rich organizations doesn’t fit into what is usually considered to be an ‘alternative’ model. That term, which has lost many of the teeth it once had in the 1970s, could benefit from a new set of parameters. How do we begin to redefine and rearticulate what it means to occupy an alternative position today, or to identify a role that commercial galleries and larger museums either can’t or won’t play? When the terms ‘experimental’, ‘innovative’, ‘emerging’ and ‘challenging the status quo’ now appear on nearly every billboard between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, their status as indicators of an alternative has become problematic. Perhaps what these institutions are doing is constructing specific models of attention, narrowing their focus and demanding more from their audience. ‘Chapter one. In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since […].’

Anthony Huberman is Director and Chief Curator of The Wattis Institute in San Francisco, USA, and was Founding Director of The Artist’s Institute in New York, USA.

Joan Jonas, Nova Scotia Beach Dance, 1971, performance documentation by Richard Serra. Courtesy: the artist and Wilkinson Gallery, London

Anthony Huberman spoke to a cross section of institutional directors about slowness, attention and privacy in curating.

Lynne Cooke, Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA

I’m struck by how, throughout your career, you have tended to work with the same artists time and again. Rather than always expanding your reach, you also narrow your focus. What, for you, are the virtues of working more slowly and producing less?

‘Pay Attention Motherfuckers’: Bruce Nauman’s curt command brooks no argument. But to what are we curators supposed to direct our attention? To the work? (‘Art is what an artist does: just sitting around in the studio,’ Nauman declared.) Or to the intentions, theories and desires that inform it? (‘Art is a means of acquiring an investigative attitude,’ to quote Nauman again.) Weighing carefully these competing claims, the curator enters the fray. Trust and respect are fundamental to the ensuing dialogue between the artist and the curator. The considerable investment required from both players for this relationship to function optimally occasionally climaxes neatly at the opening of the show/project. More probably, the opening feels like an enforced ending – arbitrary rather than timely. How much better would it be to continue with additional projects that, over the years, expand on and exploit the foundations now solidly laid? In the rare cases that do mature and deepen into a series of ventures, the curator increasingly shares in the recognition that comes with those projects’ success. At this point, the challenges may start to come more from within than from without – that is, from a shift in their professional relationship rather than from external pressures and demands. On assuming the mantle of official gatekeeper, on becoming the anointed authority on the artist’s work, the curator effectively sabotages their future. To those who seek to inhabit vicariously an artist’s subjectivity or to collaborate in the creative process, Nauman offers characteristically forthright advice: ‘Get out of my mind, Get out of this room.’

Frédérique Bergholtz, Director, If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

At If I Can’t Dance, you identify a theme that lasts for several years, which is made manifest in a wide range of formats. In discussing the project, you have evoked the idea of contemplation. What does that mean for you today?

The reference to contemplation comes from Hanne Darboven’s description of her work as ‘contemplation interrupted by action’, which has informed If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’s practice of long-term collaborations with artists. When I spoke to the artist Jon Mikel Euba, he associated contemplation with retirement, with the mood of reflection that belongs to this phase of your life. It reminded me of Seneca’s essay ‘On the Shortness of Life’ (c.49 CE), in which the Stoic philosopher advises readers not to wait until retirement before starting to live their lives. I think we aim for something similar with contemplation: to weave it into the texture of our working mode and ethos and, like Darboven, to have it present in the ‘active life’. Contemplation, as a state of being that implies a certain detachment from material life, belongs to our organization’s aspiration to ‘travel light’ (we refrain from having a permanent space so we can focus on the artist’s individual productions) and to remain flexible (we consider ‘time’ to be our house). Contemplation keeps us moving; it is, in fact, action.

Guy de Cointet, Five Sisters, 1982 (restaged 2011), performance documentation, at Frascati WG, Amsterdam. Courtesy: the estate of the artist, and If I Can’t Dance, Amsterdam; photograph: Nicolas Burrough

Rhea Dall & Kristine Siegel, Co-Directors, PRAXES, Berlin, Germany

The six-month model plays an important role at PRAXES. With this emphasis on duration, how do you see your work relating to the notion of time more generally?

At PRAXES, we focus on two unassociated artistic practices for half a year each. These are serial investigations – ‘Cycles’ – in which the timing, duration and sequence of each exhibition module, live event and companion publication are moulded to the questions raised by the work. This ongoing negotiation of rhythm and pace is radically different from typical exhibition turnovers; instead, it hinges on parallel trajectories of accumulation, intensity and repetition. This approach creates a combined alertness carried by the artist, PRAXES and its audience. Importantly, this model precludes any notion of a privileged access point (including the artist’s own) or the illusion of the panoramic retrospective. The attention is an invitation and a dedication. Yet, far from being a slow process, this is an intense, intimate, action-packed and, at times, arduous endeavour, the value of which increases according to how much it allows for diversity, digression and contradiction over time. The ‘Cycles’ are timed actions and exhibited experiments calibrated to processes beyond PRAXES: the histories of the works as well as exposure to, and resonance with, surrounding figures. This approach is about weaving a kind of genealogy of attention paid to and around a practice.

Jenny Jaskey, Director and Curator, The Artist’s Institute, New York, USA

In defining your vision for The Artist’s Institute, you have spoken of ‘institutional priorities’. Why is ‘paying attention’ one such priority for you?

Paying attention is not virtuous in itself. It’s what we’re paying attention to as artists, curators and critics that matters. How could being mindful of our institutional priorities – thinking strategically, even, about attention – generate profound shifts in the field of art? Here’s a start: might we pay attention to the structural inequalities that persist for women artists, artists of colour and artists without financial means? If that’s a priority, then curating won’t necessarily consist of paying attention to the latest name whizzing through the existing circuits of value production. Might we pay attention to the precarious conditions that often accompany making art, thoughtful criticism and experimental exhibitions? If that’s a priority then, as institutions, we must justly, even generously, compensate the artists and thinkers we work with and serve.

Karin Schneider, Artist and Co-Founder, CAGE, New York, USA

We’ve had a few conversations, over the years, about the relationship between public and private audiences. What, for you, is so productive about privacy?

I think privacy interrupts the flow of information as an apparatus for appropriation/consumerism/dissemination. It is just a different game. We are all together in this machine we call the ‘art system’. Each one of us does the work we think is important. There is no place or work better than the other; it is pure multiplicity. Privacy is an anti-display mechanism that generates other kinds of questions. We know we need to create another way of feeling and thinking, another sensibility. It is difficult because art is also about social interaction. I think to establish a balance between the ‘we’ that allows us to communicate while detaching ourselves from the maladies of the information panopticon, smart consumerisms, abstract appropriations, hyper productions and social media, is part of our task. We need to detach ourselves from these forms of capital production to encounter another way to resist social disparity, surveillance, deprivation of freedom and the militarization of our exchanges that transforms us into either prisoners or guards. Perhaps art should be considered as an experience that still permits privacy.

Anthony Huberman is Director and Chief Curator of The Wattis Institute in San Francisco, USA, and was Founding Director of The Artist’s Institute in New York, USA.