Time Well Spent – Kyle Chayka

It is often said that we live in an economy of attention. Technology and media companies, like Instagram, HBO, Spotify, and Twitter, are in a never-ending battle for our attention, with Netflix’s CEO claiming that their primary competition is with sleep.

However, these companies are far from the first to recognize the value of our attention. Artists have long been aware of how to capture and keep people’s attention, as well as how to draw them away.

Attention is a tool we use to help us comprehend new, unexpected, or difficult concepts. Our attention may be captivated by a catchy melody or a vibrant painting, but it’s also what we need to endure through a complex piece of music or a lengthy movie.

We might be inclined to give our attention to the things we find pleasurable, yet we don’t limit ourselves to only that; we give our attention to understanding, asking questions, and being curious.

The phrase attention economy portrays attention as a valuable resource to be divided and sold, usually on the internet. However, maybe attention is better understood as a state of mind, similar to pleasure or frustration, instead of a currency.

It is an alertness that we can choose to experience, with the purpose of collecting data without making hasty opinions.

The most skilled artists can guide us into this state, and then manipulate our focus. John Cage, who composed music that pushes the boundaries of our attention–like the renowned “4 ’33″”–was aware that sustained focus over time can modify and enhance our perception.

He once said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If it’s still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”

For most of us, 32 minutes of uninterrupted concentration on a single task would be a major accomplishment. Nowadays, it seems like we can’t resist the temptation to switch back and forth between our phones and the TV at the same time.

When I find myself in this position, I try to remember that technology can also be used to cultivate prolonged focus. Artists such as Cage, Nam June Paik and Christian Marclay have been at the forefront of this movement, aiming to evoke ambivalence rather than dependency.

The nine works listed below explore the potential of attention-grabbing techniques, each requiring a certain degree of fixation, but always done with intent.

An animated GIF of a vexation is presented here.

The perplexing nature of this subject is conveyed by the graphic.

Satie is credited as a pioneer of ambient music and referred to it as “furniture music”. This genre of music was meant to be heard in the background, such as when guests at the theater he debuted in were scolded to stop talking.

His composition, “Vexations”, was found after his death and contains a discordant, plodding melody. The inscription of the piece reads to prepare oneself with serious immobility and play the theme 840 times in succession.

In 1963, John Cage began this task which took eighteen hours. I experienced a live performance at the Guggenheim in New York City, where musicians rotated every fifteen minutes. With this music, whenever you tried to pay attention to it, the melody would fade away.

Warhol revolutionized the concept of film in terms of entertainment with his work Empire. The eight-hour-long single shot of the Empire State Building was meant to showcase the passing of time, with its black-and-white film capturing a static image of the architecture.

Apart from the view of the building, the only thing that changes is the night sky and the viewer’s own awareness of their act of perception. When it premiered, the audience was so unimpressed that they demanded their money back.

They had watched history being made, but found it yawn-inducing.

The “TV Buddha” artwork by Nam June Paik, created in 1974, is held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and is courtesy of the estate of Nam June Paik.

In 1974, a sculpture predicted our current connectivity with screens. A Buddha is placed on an unadorned white platform and is looking at a television at the other end. A camera is situated behind the TV, projecting the Buddha’s image onto the TV’s curved screen.

The Buddha is observing a broadcast of himself, stuck in an ongoing, mediated cycle of self and image. Is the sculpture real or is the image genuine? Maybe reality lies in the middle, within the camera lens which takes in the light and the electrons translating the image onto the screen.

Immersed in the contradictions of the question, Paik’s TV Buddha seeks to evoke a state of transcendence in contrast to the often alienating experience of watching screens.

The artist himself once proclaimed that his mission was to discover “new, imaginative and humanistic ways of using our technology”.

A notion that comes alive in the sculpture’s playfulness, which is a Zen koan in itself, as well as in his admiration for analog materials, bulky televisions, and layered screens. This playful attitude is an element that is completely absent from today’s sophisticated media space.

Penn and Teller’s Desert Bus was never released, and it is easy to see why. It requires an incredible amount of focus and dedication; the player must drive a truck for eight hours straight, from Tucson to Las Vegas and back again.

The truck has a slight misalignment and must be constantly steered back on the road. If the player’s attention slips, they are back at the beginning. One fan described it as a Zen-like experience, saying they can get into it as long as they don’t think about it.

Some have even taken up the challenge to raise money for charities, similar to a marathon. It is a unique game that does not offer the player any reward or entertainment, but does test their mental and physical strength.

Mark Traceur’s work is covered under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License which can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

When I was in elementary school, I became addicted to my first piece of tech, a yellow plastic ovoid that could fit into my pocket like a phone. I would constantly check its LCD screen, just like I now scan Twitter.

This device was based off of Tamagotchis, digital pets that required regular feeding and cleaning of their waste, or they would perish. However, my Pocket Pikachu was adorned with the famous electric Pokemon, making me feel a much greater connection to it.

I wanted to keep my Pikachu alive!

The Pocket Pikachu had rewards that would give me a feeling of joy, much like getting a Facebook like. As my Pikachu got bigger, I was able to give it watts that I acquired from playing a slot-machine game.

I was never able to turn off the device as it ran continuously as long as the battery lasted, which made me get used to having a constant link to the internet. Much like how I once did with the Pocket Pikachu, I now bring the distractions of the internet with me wherever I go.

The terms “durational artwork” and “time-based media” are peculiar art world terms used to refer to pieces of work that evolve before an observer and change over the course of time.

These could range from video art to video games to experiences that can be experienced in a web browser.

When we split time into minuscule segments and spread our concentration across various sources of data, what exactly is time? Consequently, it is essential to reorganize these portions and give them a new context and interpretation.

Art is able to take on the mission of restructuring our multimedia domain.

The Clock, by Marclay, is a renowned work of the twenty-first century. It is a montage of movie clips that symbolize the passage of time, including ticking second hands, people glancing at their wristwatches, and church bells ringing.

The clips create a cinematic version of twenty-four hours that actually lasts twenty-four hours. Watching it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was a captivating experience–I was drawn in suspense from one clip to the next, eagerly anticipating the arrival of each minute.

A few brave souls even stayed to watch the entire piece at the Tate Modern in London and in New York.

TikTok has taken the classic cinematic montage and made it an ongoing flow of brief, captivating user-generated video clips from around the globe. In the app, rapid changes in the images keep the viewer’s attention; most clips are visible only for a few seconds, or even less.

There is no chance of becoming bored. As the stream of visuals is constantly being replenished, if one video does not interest the user, they can just swipe up to go to the next one.

The application achieved a breakthrough by shifting its feed to a mostly algorithmic basis. Consequently, it dictates what the user should focus on rather than expecting them to pick their own content.

Attention is the primary calculation that the algorithm makes; the longer a video is viewed the more related videos will appear. It is a manifestation of the unconscious, with the user’s hidden wishes surfacing in the feed.

The name of this YouTube channel perfectly sums up its content. It is a constantly streaming selection of calming tunes, with gentle drum beats, hazy synths, and the occasional sound of rain in the background.

This channel was the originator of a whole new genre of music, and now there are teaching lessons and classes available to learn how to make lo-fi hip-hop beats.

The second part of the name reveals the purpose of this music: to provide a gentle soundtrack for when you need to relax or focus, as a way of keeping boredom at bay.

It is like the modern equivalent of elevator music, a continuous soundscape to accompany us through our digital lives.

The musician Brian Eno, who coined the expression ambient music , expresses the genre this way: “It must be as inconspicuous as it is captivating.” Low-fidelity beats tend to the inconspicuous side–the drums sound in a uniform beat and the rhythm remains constant.

But the beats do hold attraction in the play of textures: the different kinds of digital interference, the slight variations in emotion, whether elated or subdued.

Even more fascinating might be the other listeners: On the sidebar of the YouTube channel is a chat stream where people comment on doing schoolwork or beating a time limit. You are never isolated in your neutral monotony.

A picture of a flight simulator can be seen, which can be used for a variety of purposes related to aviation. The simulator provides an experience that is close to the real thing, and is a great way to learn the basics of flight.

Air travel has long provided a break from the internet. When the plane is aloft, all mobile phones lose service, although it is possible to buy spotty in-flight wi-fi. Seize the opportunity to read a book or magazine, do a crossword, gaze at the clouds, or even take a nap.

This is a rare chance to enjoy a respite from the web.

Flight Simulator, a digital design toy, provides an effective way to replicate the joy of detaching from the world. All you need to do is pick a destination, switch your phone to airplane mode, and keep it there for the duration of the flight.

The app’s algorithmic gradient simulates the view you’d see out of the window. Within these few hours, your mind can be free from the stress of actual travel. But, if you break the mood and turn airplane mode off, the flight will end abruptly.

Another Option to Consider

It is evident that the use of technology has become increasingly widespread in the modern world. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find technology used in virtually all areas of life, from communication to education and entertainment.

This phenomenon has been made possible by the advances that have been made in the field of technology and the ever-increasing accessibility of such devices. As technology continues to evolve, its influence and ubiquity in our lives is only set to increase.


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