Post image for Pull Focus

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

I am trying to pay attention to attention. Art is increasingly (and valuably)  just that; an unimpeachable excuse to pay attention, to disregard distractions so as not to feel one is operating at a deficit. Art is not a notion;  Art is an abstract action one commits to, yet unless you are the actor or are in it for the money (as collector, creator, producer) there has to be some further justification for the people staring through the window or hunched over their devices, tempting other webs to further ensnare them.

Artists pay attention. And so we must figure out new ways to get others to reward us for guiding them into our system of attentiveness. How much to pay, and to whom, and how? And how not to get distracted by the system of payment, an octopus tendering our attention even as the tentacles touch places we haven’t paid enough attention to. We know what we want to do BUT we are distracted, even while finding new distractions to distract them (the audience yet really ourselves) from those distractions to our distractions.

What distracts me now might well have bored you then or will later. What was clever on the page fades like off-market ink on the stage. What started as an arresting sound in the back of my throat dribbles out as the same old note held onto too long, a note not currently recognized as currency. So abandon the stage to a more fascinating projection, a screen that enlarges, edits who we are, mashed us into media. That might persuade someone of our powers.

But does it? I rig up a screen, project an image and amplified voice to slap you into attention, but once I have it, should I then lose the media? Is the mediating tendency we trend toward merely a tactic for getting you to pay attention to the fundamentals of my story, my POV, my unique way of telling? Or is it because a blank sits where the story should be, and I am distracted by bells and whistles  (there’s the door!) even as I am trying to whistle louder? What might have been a new sound, a new look, too soon becomes the expected. And if it is expected, our expectant hope curdles into contempt; oh, that old thing again…

We want things small and portable, but with big effects. We crank the controls like an addict ups the dosage, and fiddle with the controls such that our frequencies never settle on a single clear channel. If only we didn’t have to make such a spectacle. I know you would pay me the attention I deserve, if only I could plug you into my p.o.v.  I fear you might be exhausted by the language required, so here’s a series of choices you need not read too far into. We’ll call it interactive, but the strategy is all mine.

Sure we must go to Moscow, we must find new forms, we must re-form and reload (without tea-party references) and jettison the jetpacks right after we break through the gravity barrier and speak normal to each other, but in the new normal not a paranormal that can never quite focus on a line, on one tone,  one figure, open-mouthed, telling us something we hadn’t quite thought of. We might hear it just fine, see it plain as day in front of us, find our way in without all the… innovations.

We have gotten good at firing gamma rays at our audience, electronically grabbing them by the eyeballs, pulsing our darting visions out to them in the hope of athletically aesthetic entrainment. Movies move this way (though only in 2D), as it’s in their form, but theatre took a while to pick up the gait. But now that we are all firing our neurons at the same time, can we change the picture? Can we use the same old new tools to get our audience to open that attention to contemplative, philosophic work, thick with layers and meaning? Can we still deliver our art chunky, weighted, wordy, uncompressed?

Guest teaching in a colleague’s class on Narrative, I felt myself oscillating between wanting to rip narrative asunder, yet wanting so much for a story to be told. I ask tales to surprise me, not only narratively but aesthetically, formally. I snap to attention when something about the language of the work, the form of it, contains a subtle codex, a key, telling me how to figure it. That’s the story, inseparable as our senses are from our bodies and brains. The Big Secret: it’s very hard to tell a story, any story, without other strains contaminating and distracting and pulling focus. But now we are so hopped up on hyperlinks that we can no longer follow the very linearity the avant-gardists pulled us out of.

Perhaps the innovation is to turn around and look, press rewind, not face forward. Visual artist James Nares says this about his riveting hour-long video installation, STREET, shot in 2011 and currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“My intention was to give the dreamlike impression of floating through a city full of people frozen in time, caught Pompeii-like, at a particular moment of thought, expression, or activity…a film to be viewed 100 years from now.”

I experienced this work after seeing several portraits by the Italian quattrocento artist Piero della Francesca, at the Frick Museum just down the street from the Met. Nares’ stunningly contemporary work communicated with Piero through the complex technology of this one viewer’s eyes and brain, committing to a mental/aesthetic re-curation, constantly mixing. Daily, we do and have this done to us digitally, but the original innovations in seeing (I am thinking of John Berger’s analysis of looking and seeing) is that we humans bring so much into that sense. It’s a busy street.

Both Piero and Nares stare at a subject, unlocking and yet re-arranging and staging what they are causing us to notice;  Piero through paint and Nares through high-def, highspeed video. His camera, designed to capture actions so rapid that our eye cannot (a fired bullet, a hummingbird’s wings), is pointed outward from a vehicle traveling the streets of Manhattan. He moves laterally, tracking the sidewalk, but when the film is projected, riding on and around the guitar-based score of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Nares slows his subjects down, so slow that the banal gesture, the everyday movement of crowds in streets, transforms and is transforming. He sits us down so that we can pay attention to our individuality and unity in the chaotic yet choral choreography of the city. Our shared gestures, which we did not know we shared, we see because we are looking. In the Nares work, the movement, and the overall direction, follows a pointing hand, a running child, a floating bubble, as the car holding the camera moves inexorably forward on a track that cannot make adjustments. You more fully see what and who is there, through this retarding of the “real.”

The accompanying exhibition, works selected by Nares from the Met’s permanent collection, shares art and artists who arrested his attention. The present communicates with the past, acknowledges the hand-over, the flow of ideas and sensation. This visual installation innovates for our eyes and not for commodity value or uniqueness, causing us to look back at ourselves while time pushes us forward. Focus, being a prime component of the very apparatus of media, is a given in a film, but how to achieve this in an exhibit, a piece of live theatre? The innovation of media has matured, allowing us to move both backwards and forwards, cradling our attention. In most theatre such a mediating element remains somewhat external. For now.

Innovation does not only lunge forward but hops side to side and backwards, engaging us in a multidirectional dialogue. Do we in theatre achieve this as we focus on the action on our street, our subjects? Have we fully integrated, critically, the word with the gesture, the action with the reflection, the apparatus with the action? Are we sharing the street with media, or have we repaved it with good intentions, burying our liveness?


JEFF MCMAHON is a writer and performer presented since 1980 by numerous venues in the Americas and Europe. Fellowships from the NEA, the NY Foundation for the Arts, and funding from the NY State Council on the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. MFA from the Writing Program, School of the Arts, Columbia University, and BA in Interdisciplinary Art from SUNY/Empire State College. Since 2001, he has taught in the School of Theatre and Film, Arizona State University, where he is Associate Professor. Lives in Arizona and New York. Scripts at http://www.indietheaternow.com and videos archived at http://vimeo.com/jeffmcmahon.

  • oscar

    To widen the field of things/people to whom we can give attention…the power of attention increases as it is used. Most of us believe we are already giving enough attention, so there is no effort, can we really be bothered…just remembering to give ‘room’ you are giving attention…there has to be ‘space’ between you and the other, space between. When I don’t give ‘space’ I am asking for something to change, I am asking questions, making requirements, expecting things to be a certain way…