For the most part, intact images are kind of boring, right? They serve a great purpose for such applications as journalism, documentation, and advertising, but I get a bit tired of quickly being able to digest the information. I’ve had countless people regurgitate the fact that the average viewing time of a piece of art is some tiny amount of seconds, as though this is okay. I’ll admit that I’m just as guilty as the next person of not giving a painting on the wall the time it deserves, or a plainly shot photo more than a passing glance. I’m aware of this, and it makes me yearn for artistic experiences that beg me to spend time with the work. A broken image, one that plucks this and/or that from its original context in order to construct something new, feels like an invitation to let my mind explore. If the index of the artist is nothing more than the resulting image, it feels boring; I want pixels to be a visible trace of the hand, the colours to bleed in organic ways, and the form to be otherworldly. Since our attention spans are ever-waning due to being subjected to an oversaturation of imagery—even now as I write, I have a second monitor playing a video podcast—I can’t help but feel that perhaps it’s not simply that we’re inundated with images at all moments, but rather that the images we are constantly exposed to don’t challenge us to look or even think about them.
David Lynch wrote, “And sometimes, in a frame, if there’s some question about what you’re seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming. If everything is crystal clear in that frame, that’s what it is—that’s all it is.”¹⁷ It’s these moments of dreaming that I seek to present to viewers. The imagery and subject matter I work with is often more abrasive and noisy. I see the dense layering of such noisy imagery and audio as an avenue for engaging viewers in a mesmeric capacity in an effort to hold the attention of viewers for longer than just a few seconds. James O. Pawelski, the director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has spoken about how he brings his students to a museum, instructing them to find a painting they enjoy and spend twenty minutes looking at it.¹⁸ He claims, “. . . if you do choose to slow down—to find a piece of art that speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds—you are more likely to connect with the art, the person with whom you’re touring the galleries, [or] maybe even yourself . . .”¹⁹ While I think this is a good exercise for viewing art, especially historical work, I do struggle with the idea that the onus falls entirely on the viewer for having difficulty spending time with a single piece of art. I believe that artwork, much like an opening sentence, ought to hook viewers in from the first moment the viewer interacts with the work. Rather than working under the assumption that my art is only going to be viewed fleetingly, I’m keen on making art that engages with viewers instantly, inviting them to stay in the space without thinking about it.
When considering how to approach making art that engages viewers for longer durations, there is little-to-no research into how long viewers spend looking at durational or media-based artworks in a gallery or museum setting. In 2001, a seminal research study, “Spending Time on Art,” was conducted by researchers, Jeffrey K. Smith and Lisa F. Smith, in an effort to determine the average viewing time of a piece of art, with the results determining that the median amount of time spent by viewers looking at the art presented was a meager 27.2 seconds.²⁰ In 2017, Smith and Smith conducted an updated study in which they claimed to “. . . expand on it by including . . . a larger number of artworks from more-diverse genres and time periods.”²¹ The initial 2001 study had viewers look at six paintings, whereas the 2017 study had viewers look at two three-dimensional works and seven paintings. I see this as being a running issue across these and similar studies conducted by other researchers between 2001-2017.²² As it stands, there is a glaring hole in research being conducted on the viewing time of art, since limiting studies to primarily paintings presents a one-dimensional understanding of viewing habits of art that leaves so much out of the picture. Primarily, what this research is lacking is the inclusion of the viewer as an active participant with/in the art. What is the average viewing time of a long-form video work in a gallery or museum like Douglas Gordon’s day-long appropriation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, 24 Hour Psycho? And further, viewing installation work is likely difficult to quantify, as the viewer is positioned as an active participant that often has to move through and/or physically engage with the work, like with BGL’s 2015 Venice Biennale installation, Canadassimo, which saw the Canadian pavilion transformed into a Canadian convenience store and artist’s studio that viewers had to navigate through. While research states that the viewing time of art in a gallery or museum is in the 20-30 second range, I have difficulty believing that this time frame holds water for durational and/or installation works that engage viewers with more senses than just their sight.
Thinking back to the countless group critiques during my undergraduate studies, I recall the constant criticism from both professors and students being, “I want there to be more or for it to be bigger.” This was repeated so much that it eventually became a running joke, but despite the humour of this criticism being ever-present, it was generally always true when it inevitably was suggested. I always found that the criticism rang true because I wanted to spend more time with whatever we were viewing—a painting, sculpture, video, or whatever else—by being presented with more surface area for my senses to engage with. This adage has unintentionally stuck with me in my practice, as I have latched onto making things bigger in an effort to envelop the viewers within the various digital spaces I create. I knew right from the initial idea for Meditation on a Potential Death that I wanted to make a room-sized video installation, as the monumentality of a projection at such a scale felt like the only way to truly embed viewers within the psychological space I hoped to convey.
The installation of Meditation on a Potential Death was conceived as a room-sized projection with loud, chaotic audio. The video component is projected on spaced out drapes of fabric that viewers have to engage with to move through the gallery to the room’s exit. Due to the scale of the projection, it’s near-impossible to not interrupt the casted light of the projector when viewing the work from the front. Once behind the drapes, the viewer is placed in a three-dimensional box projection due to the spacing between the drapes and the inherent transparency of the muslin fabric. In the corridor behind the drapes is a TV with moving image vignettes playing for thirty second intervals, which present ever-changing illumination in the space behind the drapes. The scale of the installation forces viewers to negotiate their bodies in the space: will they stand in the projection, are they comfortable enough to walk through the drapes, is the audio pushing them in or out of the space? Speaking about art installations, artist Ilya Kabikov stated, “The main actor in the total installation, the main centre toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.”²³ In my installation, I simply present viewers with a constructed space, but they are the sole actor that decides how to navigate through, around, and/or with the space.
I want my work to envelop viewers in three dimensions. I want the viewer to engage with the work with more than just their eyes. Without this engagement, how can I hope for viewers to give me any more than fifteen seconds of their time? With Meditation on a Potential Death, I seek to address these concerns by physically placing the viewer into the projection of the work as they are met with the booming audio of the video swirling around them. From this point, viewers are forced to either stay and watch the work, or further physically interact with the work by walking through the panels of projection screens that run the width of the gallery. The installation demands the viewer's attention from the second they enter the space. So rather than sitting passively, hoping viewers will engage with my work, I approach and engage them, catapulting them into my world.