Salon 2: Focus vs. Distraction addressed the current popular obsession with attention and the coveted commodity of focus. Almost daily, a new article, book, or opinion piece laments the loss of focus and the distracting onslaught of digitally delivered and enhanced information. Rather than fall in with the mourners, we examined this issue obliquely, from the various perspectives of four speakers–an artist, an educator, a neuroscientist, and an illusionist–and our salon audience.

Museums can be experienced both with laser focus on a limited number of works, or as rabbit holes down which one may wander, stray, and get lost. Today, museum visitors may enter spaces at both ends of the spectrum–galleries so packed with visitors as to prevent any possibility for focus, or spaces that still allow pause, contemplation, concentration, or escape. During the Q&A portion of the Salon (beginning at 1:10:00) an interesting tension arose between the perceived need to allow museum-goers to access artworks on their own terms, and the desire to add interpretive information whenever possible.

These are some of the questions we asked our speakers and audience to consider:

  • Are we experiencing a crisis in terms of ability to focus, or just an evolution of our natural skill sets needed for the contemporary world?
  • Must focus be jump-started from the outside in the contemporary museum experience?
  • How can the viewer retain a sense of agency and freedom in their approach to a work of art?

Reading Resources

Speakers

Vija Celmins

Brilliant visual artist whose works are created with superhuman concentration

Wendy Woon

Edward John Noble Deputy Director for Education at The Museum of Modern Art (@wendywoon)

Seth Horowitz

Neuroscientist and author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (@SethSHorowitz)

Marco Tempest

Techno-illusionist and magician (@virtualmagician)