April 29, 2009

Quick Moving, Slow Seeing

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Barbara Maria Stafford, a professor of Art History at the University of Chicago, has been instrumental in bridging ideas from the sciences and social thought into the humanities: Her work focuses on how neuroscience and other recent developments in cognitive theory can help explain the unique visual knowledge we gain through artworks. Such is her far-ranging, trans-disciplinary appeal that she attracted an audience of students and scholars from fields as diverse as fine arts, literature, political science, philosophy and biology to her lecture in Goldwin Smith’s Lewis Auditorium yesterday entitled Slow Looking, co-sponsored by the departments of art history, architecture, art, urban and regional planning and chemical biology.
Stafford’s lecture presented a rudimentary typology of looking, which was partly based on neurological research. As an art historian, her interest dwelled on the state of attentive visual awareness that she described using a quote by W.H. Auden: “To pray is to pay attention… so completely [one] forgets [one’s] own ego and desires.” She contrasted this “adoration, or wonder,” as she termed it, with other kinds of visual processing such as the rapid-fire data-collecting that players of “first-person shooter” video games experience: Users of such video games show signs of being held captive as much as being captivated, often experiencing an exhaustion that resembles the patterns of relapse established by the “neuropharmacology of addiction.”
While admitting that her examples were selective, she nonetheless made the cultural claim that not only are “we transferring our intelligence into machines,” as Nicolas Carr has stated, but, in fact, “we model our in-most structures” of thinking on computers. Speed and utility — that is, what advertisers and semioticians call “salience” — become set at a premium, to the detriment of the slower, spontaneous and more meditative forms of vision.
She further differentiated other modes of envisioning with both the inner and the outer eye. Pondering often involves a downward gaze, for example, in which one works toward a weighty decision that does not involve binary solutions while the voyeur’s gaze displays a frenzied gait with a “decoupling” of motor and visual systems. On the other hand, the “sweet looking” ascribed to the courtly lover in The Romance of the Rose, which makes him burn and melt with erotic softness, becomes an addictive passion to gaze more, yet bears a greater likeness to wonder than the video-gamers’ mechanized ingestion of information because it activates affective memory centers.
Inattention can even be discriminated from mere distraction; inattention acts like the distributed processing networks proposed by cognitive scientists, wherein awareness is “not necessarily between the ears.” Distraction, though, is a state in which focus is divided between different goals, the classic case being multitasking with a beer in one hand and an iPod in the other while engaged in a conversation at an art opening.
Stafford proposed that while we appear to live in a “visual era,” the social changes brought about by technology have ironically de-emphasized attending behaviors in favor of solipsistic filters that allow one to quickly sort representational data. She implored neuroscientists and others in the field of social cognition to explore visual and other sensory modalities of consciousness rather than focusing almost exclusively on linguistic models.
Metaphors from cybernetics and linguistics have so dominated the field of cognitive studies as to obscure the complex phenomenology of how we see and experience the world, whether with a rapt gaze or with rapid gawking. Stafford’s implicit cri de coeur was that society needs to slow down and review its practices of viewing; in a culture of passive consumption, the intricate “presence” of artworks, our environment and even a lover’s face may be overlooked.
Throughout the lecture, Stafford avoided charts and numbers in favor of a series of images to help demonstrate her claims. She juxtaposed black-and-white photographs of adolescent boys playing video games, in one instance, to a saturated color photo of the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima taken by Annie Liebovitz. The boys’ faces gnarl into stark, grimacing contortions while Sejima’s calm, contemplative focus on her miniaturized architectural model is accented by a strand of hair that floats above her head, as if her windborne wisp of hair symbolized the lightness and purity of her Cartesian meditations.
A photo of one of Sejima’s buildings likewise displays what Stafford called a “marvelously meditative space [where] inside is out; a haunting iteration of the Modernist glass box” wherein “the exterior hovers above your head because of curves and arcs — the eye constantly lingers in spaces that appear at first blush transparent.” The tantalizingly transitory snow-devils captured by a Judy Chicago photo or a still from Peter Hutton’s film that registers the minutia of atmospheric shifts among the cloudbanks in a smog-choked skyline were shown as evidence of a lyrically dilatory eyescape similar to the erotic vapor that etherealizes above the languorous, tilted face in Corregio’s Jupiter and Io. One’s scientific inclinations may make one skeptical of using the soft, inspirited impressions given by artworks in place of hard numbers; nonetheless, there was irony in the fact that Stafford’s quickly clicked bevy of images were frequently displayed as salient evidence for her claims rather than as a meditative objects to dwell upon.