‘Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost.’ So begins Dante’s Divine Comedy. 2020 is the seven hundredth anniversary of the completion of the Florentine’s epic poem. Even with the distance of centuries, one must admit, the boy could do ‘relatable content’. The current rupturing of contemporary life has sent many of us on journeys into forests dark, deep, and uncertain. Art discourse, too, has come to a very crowded crossroads where social distancing is both necessary and impossible. What does it mean to make, exhibit and consume art at a moment like this?
The focus of this year’s GI is attention in its various forms. A fraught subject even before Covid-19 had reshuffled many people’s daily routine into a struggle between the distraction and hyper-focus that can result from being holed-up at home indefinitely, attention is inherently politicised. In a preliminary talk included in the digital programme, the art historian T.J. Clark defines attention as a ‘faculty under threat’ by the forces of political domination and economic production. This threat is quite real, and in a (post-Covid) panel featuring Brian Dillon of Cabinet Magazine, Orit Gat of the White Review, the curator Stefanie Hessler and chaired by GI director, Richard Parry, the nature of the pressures exerted on (and by) attention are explored in depth. Gat sharply observes that ‘attention is the currency of the internet.’ In the monetised space of the internet, then, the trading in this currency is robust and relentless. Brian Dillon notes that ‘to pay attention is to delimit the world’, a bleak truth which those seeking to exploit scarcities in attention for political or commercial ends are well aware of.
Abandoning hope, however, is not the counsel. Hessler suggests that the construction of a western conception of ‘attention’ is flawed, expanding the bandwidth of attention to include the perspective of non-western forms of thinking; as well as the gaze of nonhuman beings, is essential. Gat, too, is optimistic about the future of the screen as a format for orienting and enhancing attention. To return to Dante’s journey, the GI discussions recalled Minos’ advice to Dante at the outer reaches of the inferno: ‘Look how thou enterest, and in whom thou trustiest;/Let not the portal’s amplitude deceive you.’ The sheer vastness of the digital portal through which the world is now connected is intrinsically deceptive: scale, information, and attention are uneasy associates, and with the guidance of GI’s panel in my mind, I turned my attention to the works.
The journey began with a sound piece by Georgina Starr from 1991 entitled ‘Yesterday’. Starr was scheduled to present a new film at GI, ironically entitled ‘Quarantine’, but that has been postponed. The visitor is met instead with Starr’s tape recording from her college years in which she stood in an empty corridor and whistled The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’. There is of course a meditative and melancholy aspect to the work, though perhaps the most interesting aspect for me was its sense of spatiality. The aural presence of ‘the room’ is something audio engineers frequently mention, how sound evokes space. Perhaps the most melancholy aspect of Starr’s work is the way that it remains forever ‘out there’, a reminder of the distance in time and space the work has traversed.
If melancholia and memory are subjects of Starr’s work, next, pieces by Yuko Mohri and Jenkin van Zyl consider space, attention and perspective. Mohri’s work, ‘Everything Flows—distance’ is made up of scenes from Yasujiro Ozu’s film ‘Tokyo Story’. The clips feature no human presence, beyond a few stray shadows—which disturbingly, for me at least, recalled descriptions of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing in which humans were reduced to shadows on buildings by the intensity of the blast. This eerie absence resonates with the narrative of Ozu’s film, but what is particularly notable in regard to the GI’s interest in attention is Mohri’s editing. Ozu’s famously lingering shots of empty interiors are defining features of his work, but Mohri roughly welds these scenes with exterior shots to create a different, pacier narrative suggestive of the flight of time itself. In the case of van Zyl, viewers get outtakes from the artist’s abortive installation ‘In Vitro’ (all the love mix) which features bondage Viking mutants in a frozen landscape awaiting some kind of revelatory Ragnarök. The video feels very much like an offcut, but van Zyl’s camera work offers a study of the ways perspective and attention can scale and manipulate emotions lending a deceptive poignance to an otherwise gnomic visual tableaux.
A much more genuine sense of urgency can be found in Alberta Whittle’s film, ‘business as usual hostile environment’. The artist channels the anxiety of 2020, with extended hand-washing tutorials, an eerie scene of CGI nurses discussing the dismissive treatment they are receiving at the hands of a government that is only too happy to carry out the will of racist tabloid editors even if it means losing crucial medical staff during the most significant public health crisis Britain has faced in more than 60 years.
‘Give us a Meow’ by the Glasgow local, Urara Tsuchiya centred on a different kind of anxiety, the anxiety of mediated sociality. Tsuchiya’s character fumbles in isolation through a series of interior and outdoor scenes. There is an affirmative exuberance to Tsuchiya’s performance that at times seems to rupture as the character makes her way through various rooms in a house, collapsing on a bed only to snap a selfie with an aspirational smile, or sitting on a toilet in a bathroom mouthing what could be either be ‘hello’ or ‘meow’ or ‘help me’. The dizzying costume changes and relentless performativity is a reminder of how exhausting the process of connecting to others can be. GI’s digital programme is a reminder that attention is both a prize and a burden, Paradiso and Inferno combined.
Glasgow International is Scotland’s largest festival for contemporary art, taking place over three weeks every two years across the city of Glasgow. Following the coronavirus outbreak, a Digital Programme was launched in lieu of the 2020 festival.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets, Ultralife, New Adventures, and the forthcoming Best Practices. He has also published the poetry collections 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists, retrodiction and Everyday Luxuries.