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Let's pay attention to attention

Boréal, by Verlinde : A young wizard enjoying and taking its time

How long does a spectator stays attentive to a work of art ? In the digital art world, artits as well as curators, this issue is seldom dealt with. In spite of an artistic discourse where interaction is frequently considered as constitutive in the "new medias". Florent Aziosmanoff stands as the rare exception, when he develops, in his Living Art book, the concept of "perception motor" : the part of the work who senses the public attitude. Of which, of course, the mere presence, and of a sufficient duration, is key to develop interesting behaviours.

This "tracking and timing" (T&T)of visitors in expositions and museums has been extensively covered by such observers as Beverly Serell. He has published his last reflexions on his online paper Paying More Attention to Paying Attention (2009), a substantial writing, including a spreasheet of measurements on some 50 expositions. It would be interesting to have similar studies applied to our specifically digital field.

Without waiting for scientific data and theories, we have made some amateur observations on the time spend by a visitor in front of a work. The generalization of cell phones including a stopwatch makes it easy to operate unobtrusively. We have found that, between traditional paintings in a museum or gallery, people stay at most 20 seconds, with an average of 9 seconds.

As for digital art, la Gaïté lyrique in Paris has offered us a lot opportunities to get data. For instance, the large projection of Frequency and Volume, by Lozano-Hemmer on fall 2011retained spectators for as long as two minutes or more. Indeed, the visitors understand very rapidly that they see their shadow, and that its size depends on their position between the projector and the screen. That lets ample apportunies for playing, so more for a couple.

People playing with Lozano-Hemmer work. Note the camera adding value to the performance

More recently (June 9 and 10, 2012), La Gaîté hosted part of the Parizone&Dream festival (digital creation), and we made more measurements. The range of durations extends from 0 to 12 minutes. On 0 we find Urban Spirits a beautiful video by Judith Darmont (no website).

In spite of original graphics and a not so bad location in the expo, nobody was stopping in front of it. We think the reason to be that the audience of such an expo in such a place (and during a week-end) looks for recreational works than properly art. The same by the video Mille milliards de tableaux by Collectif anonyme. Some people remained a little longer in front of Blue Rider, by Visual systems, because the video screen stood along with the actual fluorescent motorbike of the rider (anonymous), an impressive volume in the semi-dark environment.

Still in the 10 seconds range, we find - Stetospheres, by Charlotte Charbonnel : visitors could handle transparent spheres with various objects inside, and listen to the correponding sounds - Phonofolium, by Scenocosme , with an arbust used as sensor and producing a sound when touched. It would be interesting if their other works, more complex, retain the public longer.

And why not to make comparisons with Interactive Plang Growing, by Sommerer and Mignonneau, a first on this kind of works, dated 1992, but stored in the permanent collections of Karlsruhe ZKM. Boréal, by Hugo Verlinde could have got a better score if its behaviour had been explained to the public. The spectator has to understant that the best images and moves emerge only when the spectator moves, but not to rapidly. Excessive action causes a tempestuous and chaotic "rejection". A youg girl stayed several minutes... but she is a relative to Hugo, then knew well how to behave herself.

Comparable resuls are obtained by Horloge 2067, by David Guez, a work permanently seated in La Gaïté foyer. People, children specially, may play several minutes once they have understood that the clock hands move in accord with their moves. Of course, they are also encouraged to stay longer while their friends and parents sit sipping the high quality fruit juices sold on the place.

This observation may seem out of place in observations about art... but let's not forget that the multiromm cinema complexes of today would not stay profitable without the cokes and popcorns sold in entrance hall (see [Martel]).

We got up to more than 3 minutes for the videos of Catherine Nyeki. We see two reasons : the content itself (a complex and humorous mimicking of living beings behaviour) and an appropriate use of the comportable viewing cabins borrowed from the permanent equipment of La Gaîté. Time efficient also the Let's dance by Emilie Fouilloux. Here, the visitor is first invited to choose a dance music, then enter a video recording tent, dance (a minmum of 15 seconds). The resulting video is integrated in a matrix of around 100 small projections, and the visitor-performer can appreciate him/herself amid the global show.

Much longer times, of course, are reached by explicitly gaming works, such as Olympics or Pentapong both by Djeff Regottaz (programming by Michel Davidov), the second a variant for five players, around a pentagonal table, of the famed Pong, ancestor of all the videogames. Kids remained also several minutes in the explorer tent of Allo la Base, by Donald Abad. But this game demands the presence of an adult to monitor the work's operation by the spectator.

Nabaz'Mob on first day : too difficult to get at without effort.

Our work went a little farther about Nabaz'Mob, a concert for 100 connected electronic rabbits (now known as Karotz), by Antoine Schmitt and Jean-Jacques Birgé. It is a rather impressive work, presented in a separate room, with a stage to host the rabbits and some rows of chairs facing it. On the first day, our observation led to three classes of visitors :
- less than 20 seconds : people give a look and leave rapidly
- a majority stays long enough (around 2'30") to get an idea of the work; but, as they enter at a random time in the work, they fail to get its narrative and leave ; even a couple of lovers necking, the girl on the boys knees (well the narrative they went for was probably another one);
- some remain long enough to get the full length of the score, 11 minutes ; in this case, they were apparently digital art knowers.

We said that to Schmitt and Birgé, suggesting two improvements :
- give more light, so that the audience could get a better view of the rabbits and their ear moves (a not negligible part of the work design),
- let from start the visitors kwow of the score length, possibly letting them waiting to get it from its start.

They made some changes for the second day :
- they kept on the low lights ambient, thinking it as well suited, but brought nearer the chairs lines, so that the public actually was seeing better,
- they posted at entrance at the room the work duration.

We could not come this day and make new measurement. But Schmitt mailed to me "The room was permanently fully occupied". So good.

Globally, let us add a general observation : people using cameras stay longer, since they bring out a souvenir of their visit and possibly of their performance. A kind of interaction and remix, fully in line with the digital arts mottos.

Digital art will be better understood and appreciated if the works are placed in an environment :
- informative, to help people know what there is to do, what they can expect, what is original and possibly outstanding in this work;
- artistic or relational, but anyway, wit some comfort and bonuses;
- giving them opportunity to come back home with something to keep trace of their participation, and sometimes efforts to participate.

Valérie Hasson-Benillonche (Galerie Charlot) has a favourite motto "A digital art work, you live with". She converges here with the "living art" concept of Aziosmanoff.

It would be interesting to build a typology of the life modes as related to (digital) art works, something like that :
- the permanent living-with, at home, with the work hanging on the wall, or staying upon its plinth ; that is traditional market of art ; the environment is given, the work is chosen to fit in;
- the exposition or museum visit (or even a gallery, if you are touring more than buying oriented); a rather short life sharing with the work, with recreational or cultural aims ; the environment is designed by the curator. Llet's note that this topic is not really dealt with, even by Graham and Cook in their book Rethinking Curating, Art after New Media. (MIT Press, 2010) ; - the properly interactive communication, of any length; here, the best hints should be found in (video)-games literature. As one knows, games retain players' attention... down to addiction. A sound goal for artists ? It depends in which life style they intend their works to ... live.






Paris ACM Siggraph, the French chapter of ACM Siggraph, worldwide non-profit organization of computer graphics.




Les Algoristes, an association of artists using their own algorithms in their work.





Galerie Charlot An important supporter of digital art.