By Lisa M. Williamson
I enter 57251 into my phone with the message: “Send me bored.” The message I receive is: “We could not find any matches. Maybe try ‘Send me something purple’.” My inner child compels me to type: “Send me (poop emoji).” The image I receive is a small sculpture that has three legs, I think, and is painted. Are those beads? There is an elephant in the middle, and I can kind of see texture that looks like dried grass. The caption underneath reads: “David Hammons, ‘Untitled’ (dung) 1983-1985.” I am ready to send another emoji.
I scroll through my cache to see what else I can text to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the hopes of immediate gratification. There is not a real human generating the response, but as Jay Mollica, their creative technologist says, the image they send has been chosen just for me. Technology interprets the emoji and curates my viewing experience. I send more emojis, including a wave, umbrella and stiletto heel. The entire exchange occupies my mind for forty-five minutes while I am in-between tasks. And although I cannot recall the images I receive, my brain and my fingers work together to fill time and space in order to avoid boredom.
Composer John Cage says “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” He uses the experience of going to the symphony to illustrate his notion of boredom. When we are engaging in a “boring” activity and anxious to fill the space, he invites us to stay in the activity. Sit in silence, because it is in silence that the mind is free to wander and play. We are aware of our heart beating, the breathing activity of the person sitting next to us, the lifting of instruments in preparation. During the symphony, when silence is broken, we are guided by the sensuous perception of sound. There is no metaphor, there is no interpretation. There is only the creative activity of perception. The virtual accessibility of the arts today is largely seen as a positive thing, but what are the consequences of reducing the art-viewing experience to a click? And can the way we view art as a reprieve from boredom actually turn us into boring people?
By reducing the experience of art to a quick-release impression that lacks time and space, the participant is robbed of a sensuous experience. Obsessive compulsive activity replaces catharsis. Constantly compelled
to find meaning, once we grasp it, we get bored and move on. Susan Sontag argues against the activity of assigning meaning in Against Interpretation, but today we are a post-interpretative society that has yet to recover the sensuous experience. Meaning, we no longer even work for the interpretation Sontag is against, we let someone else int
erpret for us. There is no lingering indeterminacy, only a predictable outcome. There is safety in predictability and satisfaction in closure. Sontag says, “Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
The digital reproduction of a work of art serves as documentation that the work exists and is capable of activating our interest to seek more information; but, to experience art confined by the boundaries of a smartphone or computer screen in the safety of our bedroom is limiting. Virtual galleries that exist only in cyberspace have become a necessity for the young art student building their curriculum vitae, but the viewer does not engage in the creative event of perceiving. We perceive through our bodies, through our senses. An event of perception can make us feel alive, awake, anxious, compassionate, empathetic, or angry. Brian Massumi refers to this as potentiality, in that, the body feels prior to thought organization, in other words, prior to interpretation.
The aesthetic medium Sontag uses to illustrate a disruption of interpretation is film. She calls cinema “the most alive, the most exciting, the most important of all art forms right now.” Not because it is perfect, but because of its ability to remain good despite mistakes. But Sontag, like Walter Benjamin, relies heavily on the cinematic experience. The polyphony of the dialectic between characters and audience. The individual perception that participates in the collective perception. This does not translate the same way today when applied to streaming networks such as Amazon Prime and Netflix. If we consider the cinematic experience an event, streaming networks serve as yet another layer of separation between art and its intended audience. This becomes even more problematic when we consider the content created for the sole purpose of streaming that never realizes its cinematic potential. And what is streaming? A constant, consistent flow of content without disruption.
Damien Hirst’s mockumentary Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was released on Netflix after the closing of the museum exhibition in Venice. Created specifically for Netflix, it was not intended to be a cinematic event. It was not even intended to be a companion to the faux excavated artefacts that were displayed. Netflix does not choose programming based on what executives think we might like. Programming is developed in response to data collected from viewers. For the parties involved, this was not a joint artistic collaboration between an artist and a streaming site, but a financial opportunity between two corporations. Their goal? To reduce their viewer to a number, a statistic. A profile. In this instance art is the capitalist corporation that uses analytics to market to their viewer and gather data in order to create what they consider “sticky” content. Meaning, it is meant to make you stick around and keep viewing. And while you view, you are being interpreted.
Stickiness is prompted by visual stimulation; it draws your hand to click on a visual cue to guide you through a series of images. For example, rather than couch surf and brave the subway to experience Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest in New York, a Google search will take us to images of colorful, suspended orbs and video stills more than one thousand miles away. Rather than serving as a resource or post script to the show to activate memory, for most viewers the extent of experience will be relegated to a twenty-inch format and will last less than three minutes. You can shop at Target and check your email at the same time. Click open, click open, click open.
The pages fill up the bar, each page covering the next. There is no palimpsest. There is no revealing of self or information, no layering depth, only covering and hiding. What we miss is the vulnerability of sensing someone’s presence in a shared space while walking through a dark forest illuminated by jelly-like forms that glow, sway and change. We miss the intimacy of lying down on a bed next to a stranger while allowing our mind to undulate with the water on the ceiling that suspends us in the moment right before we come up for air.
If we continue through life as passive viewers, allowing our art to be delivered in a well-curated package based on someone else’s interpretation of us, how are we engaging with the world? If paintings have been reduced to a jpeg no larger than three hundred dpi, and we only see sculptures on Instagram, how do we engage in meaningful reflection? Art becomes the parasitic symptom of capitalism that harvests your interpretive data as a way to determine what to place in your field of vision. Social media has an average shelf life of two hours in a newsfeed (unless the post is sticky or goes viral), which does not allow for contemplation when it presents itself as a flash then disappears. The algorithms, or collected and interpreted data, surgically remove the incident of art that provides the unexpected experience, the incident we stumble upon accidentally. The algorithm replaces the chance happening with predictable product placement.
In a culture that situates the artist as entrepreneur, media that numbs the senses is necessary in order for the artist to engage in a dance with their audience. My plea to the viewer is this: do not let data collecting platforms be the only way you experience art. Do not participate in the cultivation of a culture of boring people. Let it be the inspiration you need to get off the couch and go to a show, learn something new, be with others, be with yourself. Do not let your compulsive need to fill space and time to avoid boredom be the determinate viewing moment.
Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition. Wesleyan Univ Press, 2013
“Cezanne’s Doubt.” Sense and Non-Sense, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Northwestern Universtiy Press, 1992.
Massumi, Brian. Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. MIT Press, 2013.
Mollica, Jay. “Send Me SFMOMA.” SFMOMA, 2018, www.sfmoma.org/send-me-sfmoma/.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Penguin Books, 2009.
Lisa M. Williamson, Institution affiliations: IDSVA and University of Memphis