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Disordered Attention

by Claire Bishop
Articles / Article • 20.06.2024

This is an edited excerpt from the introduction to ‘Disordered Attention: How We Look at Art and Performance Today’ by Claire Bishop, published in June 2024 by Verso Books.

OS XXI, disordering attention

Two recent performances seem emblematic of how we look at art and performance today. The first, Sun and Sea (Marina) FIG.1, is an opera about climate change. When it was staged at the Venice Biennale in 2019, viewers entered a former naval building onto a raised gallery overlooking a thick blanket of sand populated with sunbathers.1 All ages, races, genders and even a dog were hanging out on this makeshift ‘beach’. For eight hours, they sang, chatted, napped FIG.2, read books FIG.3 and magazines, looked at their phones and occasionally wandered off. Only the children were conspicuously mobile – building sandcastles, running around and playing various ball games. With all the continuous low-level peripheral noise and activity, combined with an elevated viewing position that flattened the beach-stage into a horizontal plane, it was often difficult to identify which performer was singing. The libretto largely took the form of complaints that oscillated between the personal and the environmental – the sea filling with algae, needing more sunscreen, the difficulty of relaxing and species dying out. These sunbathing tourists on pastel-coloured towels seemed to occupy a suspended time at the edge of a climate abyss. They were also the audience’s mirrors, reflecting our own inaction back to itself. As disconnected from the slow violence of climate change as the languid performers beneath us, we murmured to each other and took photographs. Time passed. The beach occupants (under bright lights), like us (watching in the shadows), came and went as the hours ticked by – drifting in, staying a while and wandering out again.

The second performance, Kevin Beasley’s The Sound of Morning FIG.4, took place at a street intersection on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.2 A group of Black dancers undertook activities that were casual to the point of being barely visible: dragging a piece of metal, fixing a bicycle wheel, bouncing a deflated basketball. Each set of actions created a sound that was amplified, mixed with others and gradually came to the fore in an improvised composition. The city bled into the work not just sonically but visually: passers-by, cyclists and delivery trucks constantly wove through and bypassed the performers. The four-way intersection offered multiple lines of sight. Backdrop and foreground melted into each other. Audience members followed the performers, watched, stepped out of the way, talked to neighbours, took photographs. We tuned in, we tuned out. The action was so understated that there was not that much to watch, so we coexisted with Beasley’s abstracted material sound – a sonic collage taken from and re-layered back onto that corner of the city.

In both performances – one indoors, one outdoors – the viewer’s attention was radically dispersed, and not just because sonic and visual interference was embraced as a feature. Duration mattered, as did the free-flowing structure. At no point was it expected that the audience would watch each performance in reverent silence. Our conversations and observations took place in and alongside the work, as did our photography. This relaxed distribution of focus goes beyond previous strands of art, performance and dance since the 1960s – work characterised by an all-over compositional de-hierarchisation, often using site-specificity (allowing the work to be permeated by its context) or duration (straining our capacity for sustained attention). The most important difference, though, lies in the photographic condition of contemporary spectatorship. Initially and hesitantly with digital cameras in the 2000s, and then rapidly with networked camera phones in the 2010s, we have come to document as we look. This reflex documentation has become collective, real-time and distributed. We are physically present in the performance but also networked to multiple elsewheres. Looking is hybrid, occupying multiple spaces and times simultaneously: we are in the present with the work, interacting with those in our immediate vicinity, but also relaying this to others watching remotely, in real time or (more often) with a slight delay.

Today, documentation is in the hands of every viewer, not just the professional hired photographer. As a result, the hierarchies of distribution have been scrambled. This has changed the dynamic of looking at art and especially performance. The work is less self-important, less total; it grants us the space to be mobile and social, to react, chat, share and archive as we watch. After both Sun and Sea (Marina) and The Sound of Morning, I was curious to check Instagram to see if other people had looked at the performance in ways that corresponded to my experience. Perhaps I would even be visible in their footage.

Much has been written about the impact of the internet, smartphones and social media upon our attention spans – and most of it has been negative. But these debates do not adequately broach the new conditions of spectatorship that characterise contemporary culture. How has our attention been reorganised? How are artists processing, reacting to or rejecting these developments – and how can we understand these shifts? Disordered Attention is an attempt to answer these questions by engaging with two concerns. The first is the idea of ‘contemporary art history’, the field within which my research is situated. There is a tendency to treat this field, commonly understood as the period since 1989, as one historically unified unit: an era that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and synchronised with economic globalisation and widespread access to the internet. Yet there have been tectonic shifts in both the production and consumption of art in the decades between the pre-internet world of the early 1990s and the post-pandemic 2020s. Contemporary art and how we look at it exists not just in tandem with the uneven development of globalisation but alongside unimaginable developments in technology. The rise of an attention economy and its flipside, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), form the contextual horizon for the book.

The second engagement is with naming and historicising certain genres of making art since the early 1990s. Part of the work of historicisation is mapping how these strategies have shifted in conjunction with the rise of digital technology. Disordered Attention charts four ways of making art that can be found more or less globally – although my examples reflect my context, which is Europe and North America. These strategies manifest a range of responses to new technologies of information and image circulation – responses that can be unconscious, oblique, internalised or ambivalent. One of my arguments is that the effects of digital technology upon spectatorship are best seen in art that, at first glance, seems to reject digital technology most forcefully – for example, in performances that emphasise live presence, or installations that harness obsolete technology.

How we define attention is inextricably connected to how we conceive of ourselves as human subjects. In Disordered Attention, it is understood not as a universal, deep-rooted faculty of the human mind, but as a capacity that is mutable – through technology, medication and the presence of others. Further, how we define attention undergirds our idea of what constitutes an important cultural artefact and how it should be consumed. Modern Western culture has long cherished its esteemed cultural objects (‘masterpieces’) for the way they seem to elicit inexhaustible attention. Scholars in the humanities spend long hours writing about such objects. Over decades, and even centuries, these writings add layers of meaning and help to sediment a canon. I want to push back against this association between meaning and profundity, or what I call a depth model of culture. While some cultural objects have longevity and seem timeless, others are slight but have the virtue of being timely and provoking intense debate. This book tries to make space for a range of work, some of which has been neglected by art history – particularly those practices considered too ephemeral, recent or unbounded to enter the canon.3

The depth model of culture has been rocked by the rise of digital technology. Memes and the viral have put a new model of engaged looking into circulation, predicated on quantity and speed rather than narrowness and depth. Modern spectatorship, premised on fully focused presence and deep attention, no longer seems appropriate or necessary.4 This is not to say that we should abandon contemplation and automatically celebrate the fast feed. My point is that today’s ways of seeing are not just so much dispersed and distributed as incessantly hybrid: both present and mediated, live and online, fleeting and profound, individual and collective – a condition that has only been compounded and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the 2010s, there were already flashpoints: tensions over the use of camera phones in theatres, grumbling about works of art that seemed designed to look better on screen than in real life, complaints about exhibitions too large to see in their entirety and artists’ frustrations over video clips of their works being circulated on social media. Even before the lockdowns of 2020 we were being edged into hybridised spectatorship, and traditionalists were not happy. The rest of us, perhaps reluctantly, developed new habits – I felt that using my phone in a performance was somehow ‘wrong’, but could not resist taking a photo nonetheless. Faced with huge exhibitions, I learned to expedite and triage my time. Today I switch rapidly between different modes of attention. In a typical visit to an exhibition, I will get lost in long periods of focus and presence. But I will also scan the QR code to read the exhibition booklet later. I wonder if I can ask the curator for a link to stream the video at home. I take installation shots and a few close-ups. I respond to my partner’s texts about childcare. I photograph the labels. I send an image to a friend and tell them they were right, this is (or is not) a good show. This perpetual oscillation between here and elsewhere, consuming and commenting, is central to how we look at art and performance today.

There are two more methodological assumptions underlying Disordered Attention. The first is that technology (including digital technology) is not a discrete unit that ‘impacts’ the work of art, the artist or the viewer. Technology as exteriority would presume a pure and essential concept of human nature. Instead, we are entwined with our technological objects as prostheses.5 Bronze Age axe heads, the printing press, pens, libraries, cars, books, iPhones – all are prosthetic technologies, both material and phenomenological. They are not fully interior or exterior to the subject, because technology is constitutive of human consciousness and an object of sensual engagement; it shapes the mind, but only because the mind is already embodied and social, biological and cultural, dependent upon and responsive to others.

The second assumption of this book is that works of art construct particular ways of seeing. Attention is not a volitional state of focus that exists in opposition to distraction, but is a collective phenomenon. It is structured for us by a situation and a set of external conditions (the work of art, performance, exhibition, concert, webpage, social environment), which in turn encounter our internal predispositions and desires. We can therefore analyse how any given work of art attempts to steer and structure our attention – but this success is never guaranteed, and is contingent upon the audience (who may have competing impulses) and the context (poor acoustics, humidity, crowds). As a result, there is no ‘ideal viewer’, only a flow of possible approximations. We might feel obligated to be ‘good’ viewers and make a fair stab at looking at or watching everything in an exhibition, but equally feel overwhelmed and alienated by the amount of material it contains. We might want to be fully present for a performance and at the same time take a few photographs and a short video, and send them to our friends and respond to their comments. The artist’s desires and intentions continually come into conflict with the contingencies of staging and circulation and the audience’s own orientations and needs. When I refer to ‘attention’, it denotes this collision of artistic strategies, spectatorial conventions, individual inclinations and unforeseen contextual eventualities.

Disordered Attention aims to move beyond the moralising binary of attention/distraction, to dispense with attention’s economic framing, to jettison plenitudinous modern attention as an impossible ideal and to rethink contemporary spectatorship as neither good nor bad but perpetually hybrid and collective. As the art historian Jonathan Crary suggests, ‘the internet complex’ is environmentally ecocidal.6 Yet digital technology and the modes of contemporary attention it has engendered are not going away. New habits are forming, and new protocols are being established. Contemporary art and performance wrestle with these, and try to guide our attention in new ways – not always successfully – but they present challenges whose reactions and effects tell us about our ongoing adaptation to, and imbrication with, networked technology in the twenty-first century. Our task is to understand these emergent patterns of cultural production and consumption, rather than to fantasise their disappearance. Whether we like it or not, hybrid attention is ‘OS XXI’, the operating system of spectatorship in the twenty-first century.


About this book

Disordered Attention: How We Look at Art and Performance Today

By Claire Bishop

Verso Books, London, 2024

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About the author

Claire Bishop

is Presidential Professor in the PhD programme in art history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her books include Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012), Radical Museology, or, What’s Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (2013) and a book of conversations with the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera (2020). Her book Merce Cunningham’s Events: Key Concepts is forthcoming with Koenig books (2024). She is a 2024 Guggenheim Fellow, a Contributing Editor of Artforum and her essays and books have been translated into twenty languages.


  • Sun and Sea (Marina), a collaboration between the director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, the writer Vaiva Grainytė and the composer Lina Lapelytė, won Lithuania a Golden Lion for best national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019. It was first staged in Vilnius in 2017 as a one-hour theatre piece. For Venice, it was looped to fill eight hours. It continues to tour internationally, usually in theatres, with variable duration. footnote 1
  • The Sound of Morning was a ninety-minute performance presented at the intersection of Orchard and Rivington Streets as part of the Performa Biennial, 14th–16th October 2021. It has not been reperformed. footnote 2
  • Performance studies and queer studies, by contrast, have been particularly diligent at bestowing attention on practices considered minor and fleeting by art historians. footnote 3
  • Close looking has even entered a conservative phase in the ‘slow’ movement, which has emerged as a direct reaction to digital image saturation. See A. Reed: Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell, Berkeley 2019. For a sociological critique of the ‘slow’ lifestyle movement (e.g. slow food, staycations and slow living), see S. Sharma: In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics, Durham NC 2014. footnote 4
  • Here I follow Bernard Stiegler’s approach to technology as prosthesis but more closely Donna Haraway’s claim that ‘machines can be prosthetic devices, intimate components, friendly selves […] The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment’, D.J. Haraway: ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in idem: Manifestly Haraway, Minneapolis 2016, p.61–65. footnote 5
  • See J. Crary: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London 2013; and idem: Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, London 2022. footnote 6

See also

Aftermath performance: mourning in the work of Jelili Atiku
Aftermath performance: mourning in the work of Jelili Atiku

Aftermath performance: mourning in the work of Jelili Atiku

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35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts
35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts

35th Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts

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