Distraction as Opposition to Dead-End Conceptual Clever Dickery


To be distracted means to be diverted from a consensually agreed path, you should be doing a. but you are distracted and end up doing b. Etymologically, distract is made up of ‘dis’ with it’s roots in an opposite, or a separation, and ‘tract’ a strip of land, a length of time, or a short book, so it means to be separated from something recognised. Given that we are supposed to be living in an age of distraction, with our always on, always present devices, what is this thing we are being distracted from? Have we reached a point now where perfecting distraction has become an art that millions of people devote their lives to? As an artist am I an agent of distraction too?

I know that distraction was not invented with the iphone, or even Astroblaster. I have, myself, always been easily distracted and this characteristic has fed into lots of parts of my life. I have been an artist for going on 20 years now, but to look at my ‘output’ you would think it had been made by, perhaps, 20 different people. This is partly due to distraction, and it is, traditionally, not something I have been happy about. To be ‘professional’ you must have a ‘coherent’ and ‘recognisable’ practice. Why si this? Maybe it provides evidence that you have undertaken a thorough and focussed analysis of one or two particular things, materials or ideas? Or maybe it allows other artists, curators and anyone interested enough to get an handle on what it is you do, what you stand for. Whatever, I felt sufficiently aggrieved by my ongoing distraction to take the rather extreme step of applying to do a PhD, in the hope that it would allow me to pull a draw string around all of the disparate elements that make up my ‘research’ and  gather them together into a neat package. Chance would be a fine thing. All that happened, initially, is that I became distracted from ‘doing’ the PhD (not, might I add, by doing other things, like say, learning to wheelie on my bike or anything fun). But what I have come to realise is that I am not really distracted, I am just navigating through the necessary registers, gathering information, reflecting on it and moving on, in my own idiosyncratic way. ‘Doing’ a PhD, especially in the arts & humanities,  simply means you are working towards a set of defined outcomes, a word-count, a particular structure.   I operate in a mode of constant distraction, but it does not mean I am not ‘doing’ a PhD. I am trying to love being distracted, and now am curious about what it has to offer.

The most interesting thing to emerge from my recent pondering on distraction is that there must be something to be distracted from. A state of productivity, creativity, whatever. This state is consensually defined. But what if you do not understand the state you are meant to be in? Or what if it is too complex for anyone to understand? Ore what if someone is setting out to make you deliberately distracted for their own ends? What becomes apparent is that the ‘tract’ part that you are becoming separated from comes from elsewhere and is internalised. Only after this happens can you be distracted (We have to find our tract before we can be distracted).

This related to what my first PhD proposal was about. At the start if the course I liked to say it was about using Henri Bergson’s ideas around duration to look at how an artist practice can involve ‘unmaking’ work, and possible strategies to facilitate this. Unmaking felt/feels important as pretty much all the ‘made’ art I see now has no emotional resonance for me at all. It is mostly self aggrandising interior design or dead end conceptual clever dickery. The art ‘tract’ is stale. Where Bergson came became important, for me, is that he views the universe as endlessly creative; an undefinable process of expansion and contraction is happening all around us, and we can access it via intuition. One thing that became quickly became apparent in the practice portion of my research is that you cannot really force intuition, but I think you can explore distraction, and perhaps use it as a route to intuition.

So the PhD is now, kind of, about distraction. To help me not drown in more texts than I can handle I have decide to limit it to ‘distraction and the digital interface’. Several ways of understanding contemporary distraction have bobbed up that I hope will help me start to think in relation to parts of the project:

Distraction as a function of neoliberalism. If there are distinctions between the positive and negative possibilities of distraction then this, for me, comes into the negative. Here one’s creative potential is aligned with what is good for the markets. The ‘tract’ becomes an ideal life as promlugated through the neoliberal media, travel, consumption etc. Distraction through constant downward pressure (no support from state, low wages, aspirational culture with no means of fulfilment bar debt, and further pressure) operates to promote this lifestyle and curtail excessive individual awareness and social organisation. The state acts as watch-dog to warn off, and deal with, subjects who individualise to the point of not being useful to the market.  Digital media pummels us with this daily.

Distraction as a floating site of expanded learning.  If, as William E Connolly suggests, we “treat economic markets as merely type of imperfect self regulating system in a cosmos composed of innumerable, interacting open systems with differential capacities for self organisation set on different scales of time, agency, creativity, viscosity, and speed.” then our tract becomes, essentially, un-knowable. If we are floating, held aloft in a groundless space by so many forces we could not conceive of them, then is distraction not, potentially, a small window through which we can gain a tiny glimpse of at least some of these forces. Hito Steyerl, in her essay ”In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective” suggests that “A fall towards objects without reservation, embracing a world of forces and matter, which lacks any original stability and sparks the sudden shock of the open: a freedom that is terrifying, utterly deterritorialising, and always unknown.” So while distraction separated you from your ground, it also offers the opportunity to recognise and reorganise that ground as you go. There’s a Bergsonian expansion/contraction in there somewhere that needs unpacking.

The interface as a function of distraction. I recently wrote a short essay on an episode of the 80’s TV show the Twightlight Zone. Towards the end I wrote a bit about how Youtube is different from TV, or how my experience of watching the episode as a 10 year old differed from my experience of watching it now. I’d dipped my toe into Alexander R Galloway’s ‘The Interface Effect’ and Stanley Cavell’s ‘The World Viewed’ and wanted to write about them in relation to Bergson’s ‘Two Theories of Morality and Religion’. My initial conclusions were that the different interfaces were both distractions of a sort,  but their differences also have a huge bearing on the potential of the distraction. A world constructed through the touch screen, digital interface is very different from a world constructed through a TV.

In amongst all this is the practice element of the project, and I know that I said before my work over the years looks a bit schizophrenic, but there is a link that runs through it, especially over the last 5 years, and that is all the works explore making as wilful distraction to give you an opportunity to leave the ‘tract’, be that in a spatial, social or temporal way. There are obvious links to the politics of disengagement, but again disengagement is the same as distraction, it presupposes a consensual definition for engagement…

Recent work around visualisations of expansion and contraction, essentially movement, has moved across aerobics bands, looping, gradual growth or shrinking of massive online archives, and recently progress bars. Within these snippets of film some complex things intersect, how individual ‘things’ and part of bigger ‘things’, how none of these ‘things’ maintains stability individually or collectively, and that stability as an ideal is part of a narrative we construct to comfort ourselves, but that comfort comes at a price. But what if I try to get my practice to operate between movement and stability, in free fall, as Steyerl would put it, where things are both stable in relation to one another, but falling together at the same time. I think the dark space that everything is falling through could be labelled, Duration, bringing the project back to Bergson.