Short Attention Span Theater


Early vaudeville photo from the collection of Bob Bragman, as featured in the San Francisco Chronicle

by Peggy Nelson

Short attention span theater is hardly the new kid on the block. In the vaudeville era, an act was viable if it could manage to keep the audience’s attention for three minutes. Three minutes! That’s a span we understand — approximately the length of the average YouTube video, or a popular song. And if three minutes seems too long, that’s OK. We have Twitter.

People have been complaining about the speed of modern life since well before there was a “modern” to complain about. And now that we’ve become modern, or even post-, it’s faster and more fragmentary than anyone anticipated. And it’s speeding up. Is the acceleration edging out meaning, and meaningful art?

Art literally occupies special spaces in society, areas dedicated to contemplation or luxury. But even large, public sculptures, from Spiral Jetty to the Statue of Liberty, maintain “white gallery walls” around them; they are set apart from the everyday flow. Physical space needs to be assigned for art. But, so does mental space, and for that, one needs time. Time to get to where it is. Time to walk up to and around it. Time for contemplation, for absorption. Time we don’t necessarily have these days.

It’s ok. We don’t need time when we’re all about profit. We’re speeding along until we either multiply or disintegrate into a thousand tiny fragments; enriched, or impoverished, depending.

Or… we’re not. This is not reality, after all; this is the metaphor of the road. Fragmentation and absorption are not ethical stances, they are models of interaction. And like all models they invite other perspectives.

So what happens if we make art for the time we’re in?

The World’s biggest ‘IF’, Jeremy Wood, 2002
. The letters for the ‘IF’ are 70 miles tall.
The font size for the word is equivalent to approximately 319,334,400 points.

As with so many aspects of our sufficiently advanced technologies, science fiction got there first. In 2007’s Spook Country, William Gibson described locative art, a trend that maps digital objects and animations onto physical locations, such as a hologram of River Phoenix at the spot where he died, or a 90-foot Architeuthis as tentacled supermarket spectacle. Like most new media, its powers could be used for either art, or advertising.

Outside fiction’s pages, while holograms are not yet an everyday occurrence, locative art has indeed arrived. Recent projects involve digital maps, motion sensors, QR codes, RFID tags, and smartphones. Standout examples include Jeremy Wood’s GPS drawings, in which a GPS satellite system and a vehicle (including one’s own two feet) are used to “draw” giant pictures through journeys, outlines of which can then be viewed on Google Earth; 2011’s Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, whose work involves ethereal recordings of herself singing folk songs over public address systems, which are then installed in various unexpected places, like under city bridges; Aram Bartholl’s Dead Drops, in which USB drives are cemented into walls and curbs in public spaces, inviting people to contribute or consume files in a kind of digital stone soup; and Mudlark’s Chromaroma, a game played with the token cards for the London Underground, in which commuters are invited to modify their commute to form “more beautiful” patterns, and earn digital rewards. And QR codes are becoming regular occupants of the lower-right corner of everything from bus-stop shelters to magazines to, possibly, your next tattoo.

 LOWLANDS, Susan Philipsz, 2008 / 2010, Clyde Walkway, Glasgow. (Image: The artist, courtesy Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Photo: Eoghan McTigue)

Consider: what may be absorption and focus from one angle could be irresponsible escapism from another: surfing the web versus gazing at a Van Gogh looks much the same from the point of view of the object. And the converse may also apply. What may be fragmentary and distracted frittering might also be a way of integrating the experience of art into everyday life. Because as much as we crave continuity, we also crave interruption; and in the space of those breaks, art can surface.

In my work, I’ve used various media, including randomized audio files (The Audio Tour, 2006), 2D barcodes (Web021…, 2007), Twitter (In Search of Adele H, 2010; Shackleton, 2012), traffic cones (The Cones Project, 2009), and eBay (Selling the Number One (1), 2005), to insert small, short fragments of artworks into the everyday. The Audio Tour was created to accompany a psychogeographical dérive of randomness; Web021… is a walking tour of real and fictional Bostons. The Cones Project invites people to “reserve their parking spaces” in locations as diverse as a bus stop, the couch, and online; Selling the Number One (1) was an eBay auction in which I made $11.11; and In Search of Adele H and Shackleton are months-long novel/reenactments on Twitter, in increments of a few seconds a day.

In Search of Adele H, Peggy Nelson, 2010

The Audio Tour, Peggy Nelson, 2006

Shackleton, Peggy Nelson, 2012

The trend encompasses more than locations; it turns as much on time as it does in space. An expanded definition of locative into time as well as space can allow art to escape its special orbit and permeate the quotidian world, giving it potentially greater accessibility. These hybrid incursions live, like graffiti, largely outside the galleries, but inside one’s everyday trajectories, whether on sidewalks or online. You don’t need to make a special trip somewhere, or set aside a few hours. It’s not only that there’s street art, or public installations, or software mapping mashups — it’s that they can be and are inserted into the micromoments in between multitasking, clocked between errands, heard in a snippet on the train. Size and duration are crucial to delivery; if the message is too large, it will not be delivered. Or received. In its flexibility, small is not only beautiful, it succeeds in becoming signal.

Small need not be insignificant, however. Small may increment, and herein lies its secret power. Fragments need enough internal consistency so that they might seem to go together, and enough external differentiation so that we notice their signal winking out from the general flow. But they don’t need much. We’re pattern-sensing (and pattern-making) animals, we need very little to spark a story.

Farmville, Zynga

Think of FarmVille: you check in every day for weeks, or months, as you tend your virtual 2.5D farm with your friends. It’s not a narrative but in its persistence, it can grow towards relationship. Or consider a Twitter novel: your relationship with the characters can grow over time, despite being comprised only of bursts of sentences, or less. In other words, small increments, doled out consistently over long periods of time can accumulate to — in some cases — significance. There are gaps. But we fill them in ourselves. As we do with everything.

And sometimes mere repetition is the message. Like so much in new media art, the original impulse might be traced to the military: Sputnik’s A-flat beep is the poster child for the pulse. Calibrated to be detected by American ham radio operators, repetition said, “We are here, we are here! — and you are not.” Occupying its abandoned orbit in media space is none other than the lowly animated gif. Recently revived after news of its premature death, gifs blink along in the eternal now, tesseracts of time in a low-res repeat.

Discontinuous accumulation is the key; the gap is what leads us into this art. Messages arrive to be read or listened to at your leisure. Streams update and can be stepped in more than once. Personal expression fills peripheral spaces along your regular path. You need stop nothing you’re doing for these signals to start seeping in. And if the proto-narrative, or triggered sounds, or visual collation is compelling enough, you may even start seeking them out.

I’m not claiming, with Pangloss, that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” nor am I advocating an overall replacement of long with short, or slow with fast. But I am saying that these are models of interaction, and there’s often more than one way to model an event. And more than one way to look at a model.


But this isn’t just new media art for techies and hipsters. It isn’t just new. It isn’t just art. These spaces had been mapped for messaging long before GPS. I’m talking, of course, about advertising.

In advertising, our craving for novelty and interruption, and our drive to find patterns and make sense of it all, are lassoed together in the Costco corral. Billboards interrupt our landscapes, exhortations interrupt our songs, short videos interrupt longer videos. Shopping even interrupts shopping, as your activity is tracked through your credit cards, and targeted ads appear on your Facebook page. Phrases, fonts, songs, colors, memes — all these and more have been copyrighted, trademarked, branded, stamped with association. Soon claims will not even need to be staked, as we discover and deploy the exact frequency of yellow that makes you buy. Everywhere these signals invert their surroundings into noise, and capture our attention, even if only for a moment. But those moments accumulate, and we sequence the chaos into patterns and narratives.

But why leave the outfield to the ads?

Advertising only moved into these edgelands because they were what was available; they were peripheral to the existing narratives, the ones about you, me, others, our lives, history, nature, the future, imagination. Ads were necessarily fragmentary, intermittent. But here is where the paradox of fragments comes into play. Out of edges we have constructed a new master narrative; the outfield has become not the outlier, but the frame. The metaphors of the marketplace permeate all our societal institutions, all our speech, all our interactions. You may try to resist but they are still there, persistent, relentless. We have invented own personal Moriarty.

Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady

But Moriarty is an ambiguous signifier. He might easily be détourned, from Professor, to Dean:

Dean walked off in the long red dusk. Locomotives smoked and reeled above him. His shadow followed him, it aped his walk and thoughts and very being. He turned and waved coyly, bashfully. He gave me the boomer’s highball, he jumped up and down, he yelled something I didn’t catch. He ran around in a circle. All the time he came closer to the concrete corner of the railroad overpass. He made one last signal. I waved back. Suddenly he bent to his life and walked quickly out of sight. (Jack Kerouac, On The Road)

There’s precedent for interruptant art in culture-jamming. We can take existing messages and alter them, for art or anarchy. But we can do more that that; there’s plenty of “there” there. Every minute brings more of it. We can seed our own messages, our own forms, our own voices, hesitant and partial though they may be, into the cultural space. In accumulation, small signals may form, if not a presence, than a pressure in the day, a direction, a bent to one’s life.

You’ve been the servant of signals. Be their source.

About the Author:

Peggy Nelson is a new media artist and writer whose work includes locative art, Twitter novels, merit badges, performance, and internet addiction. She is Arts Editor at, where she blogs about art and the virtual life. Peggy’s work has been featured in Boston CyberArts, The Boston Globe’s Brainiac column, Ladyfest, San Francisco’s ATA Gallery, and the Nieman Storyboard at Harvard University. Her films have shown at SXSW, the Santa Cruz Film Festival, the Dallas Video Festival, and on TV. Peggy is a member of IADAS, the International Association of Digital Arts and Sciences, and has been a judge for the Webby Awards since 2001.