Art is a distraction, or at least it can be. Not necessarily in the sense that it diverts attention from the important business of life, but that distraction can be a critical strategy on the part of the artwork, a lack or excess of information which allows for a particular quality of encounter. Whatever this strategy is, it has something to do with the way in which a piece of art holds the viewer’s attention.
Sensory perception is a fickle thing. And vision especially so. In his book Action in Perception Alva Noë shows that vision is not the primary means by which we create and maintain our high-definition, full colour picture of the world around us. Human visual perception, he suggests, is actually very poor, uneven and largely in black and white. It is also bound up with attention. Stare intently on the thing in front of you. Can you really distinguish objects in your periphery? Can you tell what colour they are? More strikingly, studies have shown that people can miss dramatic changes that occur in the centre of their vision, if their attention is focused elsewhere. A famous example is that of a study in which participants watch a video of a basketball match and are asked to count how many times the team in red take possession of the ball. After a minute or so a person in a gorilla outfit appears, walks into the centre of the screen, and does a little dance. Concentrating on the ball, participants uniformly fail to notice the gorilla even though it is large, moving and in the centre of the visual field.
What else are we missing? And how might this impact on the processes of viewing art? How would a piece of art distract, and from what?
Let’s take a concrete example in the form of a film by iconic British avant-garde filmmaker Jeff Keen Marvo Movie (1967) recently released in a DVD boxset, GASWKX the films of Jeff Keen, BFI. Marvo Movie is indicative of the style of filmmaking Keen developed throughout his career: fast paced, frenetic, a mixture of footage of action overlaid sometimes three or four times, stop-frame animation, collage and painterly effects. Watching this film is something of a visual onslaught. And it is very difficult to keep your attention fixed, because of the fast succession of imagery. There is also no fixed way in which the film invites the viewer to watch it, it is hard to tell where one’s attention should be focused at any one time, and this quality makes the film very much about the experience of watching. Writing in 1965, Raymond Durgnat maintained that his films depended ‘more on movement than photographic texture’, meaning perhaps that the depictional content of the film is secondary to the way in which this material is played with. But texture is also an important part of the work and the great varieties of surfaces and colours that scream across the screen. Whereas mainstream cinema, in most places, seeks to underplay the material qualities of the medium, preferring instead to focus attention on the interior depictional world of the film narrative, Keen’s films play heavily on the medium’s thickness and viscerality. Thus the many textures of collage and paint, the continual overlaying of material (often done in camera by winding the film back and re-shooting), the spluttery rhythms of stop-frame, all thrown together at rapid pace lend themselves, I would suggest, to a far more immediate, sensorial, experience of film itself, rather than a considered, or involved reflection upon the filmic content.
It is often acknowledged that different viewers see different things in a work, but this is usually thought of as a matter of interpretation: what people see in a work. However with Keen’s frantic paced imagery the real question arises of whether different viewers have in any way the same visual experience. One might be focused in the top corner at a patch of swirling colour and miss the large collage Superman which appears to another viewer in the opposite corner and so on. It could be that viewers have markedly different visual experiences of the work, to such an extent that one may see a film of a basketball match, another a person dancing in a gorilla costume.
What we have here is a deferral of meaning caused by the distracting up-closeness of the medium, but also a very real suggestion that what is seen may be very different from person to person and from viewing to viewing. It may in fact be possible to claim that there can be no singular viewing of this film. No completeness or wholeness to a film which cannot be taken-in in its entirety and which obstinately refuses to let our gaze settle.
Writing in relation to the sculptures of Rebecca Warren, Barry Schwabsky writes:
When the artist makes something that seems to point back to itself rather than the bull’s eye of significance that it at first seemed to be indicating, the viewer may feel frustrated by the thing’s undependability or delighted by its artful hocus pocus, but in either case will have been made more aware of his own desire at work – which just might be the work’s ulterior subject. Scwabsky B. 2009: ‘Fragments’ in Rebecca Warren, London: Serpentine Gallery /Koenig Books
This undependability then becomes a deliberate strategy on the part of the artwork, similar to a distracting of attention. Every time the viewer begins to settle on a stable interpretation the artwork presents a complication, an element that does not fit, or simply the object sits silently and refuses to be definite enough in any of its qualities to allow a stable meaning to settle over it. Rebecca Warren’s sculpture series We Are Dead I-VIII (2008) may be a good example. Like much of her work it is not figurative, but maintains a flirting relationship with the figurative. We Are Dead is made up of a number of roughly sculpted blocks of unfired clay sitting on pedestals. It is hard not to imagine this work as a group of figures, but the blobs themselves have no recognizably human (or animal) attributes. They are impassive bulks bearing the finger marks of seemingly rapid production. Up-close the swirls and marks of the sculpting lead the eye to rove endlessly over the clay surface. As Schwabsky suggests the unfired clay gives the work an unfinished quality which again points to an openness in the way the work is read. The tension in Warren’s works perhaps comes from a contradiction: that the works are simple, solid and impassive, yet they evade easy signification. Distraction becomes deflection. Or, the distracted gaze becomes the deflected interpretation.
The ‘bull’s eye of significance’ might also be related to the moving image, and in the case of Keen, by continually knocking us back to the surface of the projected image he continually reinforces the conditions of viewing and the constructed reality of the film. The Glass Parallax (2009) by sculptor and filmmaker Sam Dowd operates an almost reverse strategy. The slow pace of his film differs markedly from the frenetic pace of Keen’s oeuvre (although it perhaps bears a similarity to the silent impassivity of Warren’s work.) There is, however, a similar deferral of meaning at work.
The measured pace of The Glass Parallax, the lingering shots of modernist architecture, slow pans across crystalline, geometric objects and the odd presence of four silent figures, walking as if in a daze combine to create a calm, but unsettling feeling reminiscent of Bergman or Goddard. Dowd speaks of the film as a stimulus for daydreaming, as the attention of the viewer shifts away from the image. Installed with the objects from the film the work has a similar impassivity to Warren’s sculptures, with the inclusion of the rattling of the projector. The space of the exhibition then seems to extend the filmic space and the potential for the viewer to drift within it.
This is coupled with a feeling that something is being deliberately obscured from view. That there is some meaning which evades the camera and which sits perpetually on the periphery of one’s vision. It is as if something is left perpetually unsaid, frustrating the viewer’s attempts to make sense of the filmic content. A content which is tied as much to material considerations as Keen and Warren: Dowd is playing on the black and white widescreen film image and its power for nostalgia and dreaminess, giving the entire piece an aesthetic, rather than realistic, character. The lines of the horizon crisscrossing the lines of architecture and object make this work as much about a painterly geometry as an exploration of the photographic image. Here distraction becomes deferral becomes drifting.
Whether it be Keen’s Visual overload, Warren’s stubborn silence, or Dowd’s peripheral drift, a singular reading will not settle in, on or around these works. And this is the pleasure and beauty of them in all their differences. For every viewer there will be a difference perspective, not just of interpretation but of the very act of seeing caused by the work’s playful pointing back to itself: its material, construction, and situation of encounter.
GAZWRX the film of Jeff Keen, (DVD) BFI, 2009.
Rebecca Warren at the Serpentine Gallery until 19th April 2009
Sam Dowd The Glass Parallax in Lost Horizons at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne until 7th June 2009.
Noë, A. (2004) Action in Perception. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Durgnat, R. (2009) Flyweight Flicks in GAZWRX the Films of Jeff Keen booklet. BFI:London, pp.30-31
Scwabsky B. (2009) ‘Fragments’ in Rebecca Warren ,London: Serpentine Gallery /Koenig Books, pp. 39-49