‘Disordered Attention’: How to Rethink Contemporary Spectatorship

Claire Bishop’s new book explores the impact of digital culture on post-1990s contemporary art – do we still have the patience?

‘Attention’, in art historian Claire Bishop’s deft examination of post-1990s contemporary art, is in all kinds of trouble. That’s the result, in large part, of digital networks and the new culture of mediation, in which the space between reality, experience and image is collapsed via social media. This ‘disorder’ shouldn’t be taken too negatively though, Bishop argues, pushing back against the trend for anxious denunciations of growing inattention among audiences of net-natives who can’t look at a painting, a theatrical performance or a music concert unless through their smartphones. Instead, this book wants to ‘move beyond the binary of attention/distraction… to jettison plenitudinous modern attention as an impossible ideal, and to rethink contemporary spectatorship as neither good nor bad but perpetually hybrid and collective’. The book’s four chapters cover how, over the last three decades, shifting forms of audience attention have shaped contemporary art. Most closely tied to the promise of the book’s title is the second chapter, on ‘performance exhibitions’, in which Bishop traces how artists have come to interject time-based, body-focused choreographic work into the otherwise static environment of the museum. In doing so she gathers a millennial history of works by the likes of Tino Sehgal, Anne Imhof and Maria Hassabi, and their final merger of theatre and gallery modes of attention – the shift from ‘event time to exhibition time’, as Bishop puts it.

Bishop welcomes the emergence of what she styles the ‘grey zone’ – neither gallery ‘white cube’ nor theatrical ‘black box’ – since, she argues, it disrupts ‘normative attention’, which ‘conforms to the Enlightenment conception of the modern subject as conscious, rational, and disciplined’. This opposition to the ‘bourgeois’, individual subject frames Bishop’s celebration of a more ‘sociable spectatorship’, in which the old class-based rules and etiquettes of looking at art dissolve into something more fluid, interpersonal and collective – less regimented by the expectation of genre, more causal, deskilled and popular.

Yet this more networked and contingent state has produced different tensions in other forms of art. The opening chapter on ‘research-based art’ considers how the trend for information-overloaded archival and document-driven work, welcome during the 1990s for its potential to enable counter-histories and the use of fiction (here, for example, in the work of Renée Green and Walid Raad) has been overtaken by the internet’s calamitous blurring of fact and fiction, leading to a more brittle, activist form of research-fetishising art – such as in that of Forensic Architecture – and a more anxious need to reclaim a verifiable truth from the glut of information (or disinformation).

That art has drifted further into a form of quasi-political activism occupies a chapter on ‘interventions’, where Bishop offers a fast and illuminating retelling of the ‘artistic intervention’, from Dada via Latin American protest-art to Black Lives Matter, considering the political contradictions between local and global activism in the actions of Cuban Tania Bruguera and Russian group Pussy Riot. A final chapter on the noughties trend for evoking the art and architecture of modernism is less convincing, largely minimising the bigger debate of why ‘contemporary’ art happens also to be the art of the post-Cold War ‘end of history’. Underlying Bishop’s erudite and informed art-historical polemic, though, is a much bigger question about how (or whether) we might still be masters of our attention, or whether spectatorship will always be shaped by the power of capital and technology. After all, it takes attention to write (and read) such a book. TL;DR?

Disordered Attention: How We Look at Art and Performance Today by Claire Bishop. Verso, £18.99 (hardcover)

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