Drift: An Introduction
Entering into Drift is akin to entering—or becoming ensnared by—a hum. Projected across one wall, the work uses abstract visual forms to draw visitors into its meditational folds. Quadraphonic sound circulates in smooth, heavy pulses, like the steady rumble of a train running over deep-set tracks. A succession of vibrating lines occupy the screen, much like the horizontal static of a poorly-tuned television. Gradually, the ambient timbre darkens, the hum becomes more persistent and atmospheric undulations more frequent, until room and body expand with intensity. Throbbing vibrations connect ground to feet, roll along skin, finding their way into deep interiors until organs and sinew become subsumed by Drift’s thick, heart-gripping drone. The installation’s tight, affective grasp only becomes apparent upon the sudden release of this tension; the room lightens and hum eases as the screen whitens with faint patterns, like a window opening from a darkened room.
Drift, by German artist Ulf Langheinrich, appeared in White Noise, an exhibition dedicated to abstract moving image art at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne (ACMI). At the time of this exhibition in 2005, I was undertaking a seven month study of ACMI’s Screen Gallery, also documenting the preceding exhibition, World without End. My research used the Gallery as a site to examine the shifting relationship between visitor experience, digital art and museums, as the space compelled unusual modalities of visitor interaction. Most notable were states of complete stillness. I aimed to investigate how art and technology might mediate visitor agency through such experiences; not only to understand how museum visitation is transforming in new and significant ways, but to also extrapolate a substantial account of an individual’s agency within this era of what Beck, Giddens and Lash have termed ‘reflexive modernisation’. However, existing studies of museum visitation are rarely informed by the subjective modalities of visitor encounter, but rather, detail how experiences are shaped by institutional practices (Bourdieu; Luhmann; Silverman; Falk; Falk and Dierking) or governmental agendas (Bennett; Hooper-Greenhill). A notable exception is Megan Hick’s phenomenological study of Sydney’s Powerhouse museum. Following this example, I developed a phenomenology of museum visitation that could privilege the visitor’s enunciation of experience, whilst also exploring how expressions of agency may be highly subjective, multifarious and nuanced.
I used qualitative ethnographic techniques to gather phenomenological material. Firstly, I attended the Gallery on a fortnightly basis to conduct longitudinal participant observations. However, as observation offered no means to interpret quiet faces and still bodies I also undertook visitor interviews. I approached visitors immediately after their visitation, and attempted to capture a wide cross-sample of responses by recruiting on the basis of age, gender and reason for visitation. I undertook ten 45 minute interviews, enquiring into the factors influencing impressions of the Gallery, prior familiarity with museums, and opinions about media art and technology. This ethnographic material was central to my study, as the voices of visitors guided its thematic direction and ensuing analysis. As the first in-depth, qualitative analysis of visitation to the Screen Gallery, my study therefore makes an empirical contribution to existing visitor research by offering an original means of exploring issues of museum visitation and agency, and movement and stillness.
For example, visitors often received Drift with complete stillness, lulled into a focused state of attention by the shiftings of light and sound. As interviewee Colleen reveals, this concentration arose because Drift resonated intimately, akin to a meditative encounter:
There wasn’t any other emotion or feeling behind it other than feeling relieved and comfortable, and relaxed. It was almost meditative … I was actually trying not to think about anything! … I didn’t want it to be influenced by the morning’s happenings … I just thought ‘this is relaxing’.
Colleen has described how stillness and movement are therefore modalities within a broad vocabulary of interaction. While theorists have long noted how the transition from painting to film marked a shift from still to more ‘active’ forms of contemplation (Benjamin), an unanticipated finding of my study reasserted stillness as a dominant modality of active reception. In this article I therefore ask how agency finds expression within states of stillness.
I propose that stillness mediates a distinctive form of agency as it is laden with what Brian Massumi calls ‘potential movement.’ I explore this concept with reference to visitors’ experiences of History of a Day, a work in World Without End. I then draw upon Henri Lefebvre’s description of ‘eurrhythmic’ congruence to describe how stillness is characterised by a focused state of attention, reflecting a highly subjective form of agency. I conclude by describing how this spatial awareness enables individuals to realise their own creativity, and inspire new praxes for daily living.
1. Stillness: A State of Potential Movement
By dedicating its exhibition space to time-based art, ACMI’s Screen Gallery has cultivated a new temporal paradigm for visitor participation. It mediates both stillness and movement. Visitors described how the task of negotiating multiple time-based screens in a singular space loosened the temporal boundaries of engagement. Visitors were frequently compelled to pause and wait, as there was an absence of ‘entry’ or ‘exit’ points for viewing a piece. This raises questions as to how slower, or ‘still’, forms of participation in the Gallery may elicit agency. If considering stillness as a state that exists as an inverse of movement, rather than a state lacking in movement, it becomes possible to locate agency within the process of maintaining stillness, and as a result, engender what Brian Massumi describes as ‘potential movement’.
In his account of architect Lars Spuybroek’s wetGRID design, Massumi describes how Spuybroek compares the experience of viewing images with the spatial experience of moving through buildings. Spuybroek drew from the premise that while movement can be understood as “the actual content of architecture” (322), it is more difficult to draw correlations between the properties of movement and perception of still images. He developed the idea of potential movement to breach a commonality between the two, as paraphrased by Massumi: “potentials for movement are extracted from actual movement, then fed back into it via architecture. We normally think of abstraction as a distancing from the actual, but here potentials are being ‘abstracted into it’” (323). Spuybroek therefore inscribed the idea of ‘tendency’ in his work, an ‘affordance’ that manifests as “a possibility of convergence that unconsciously exerts a pull, drawing the body forward into a movement the body already feels itself performing before it actually stirs” (Gibson in Massumi 324). This idea suggests that the act of sitting and viewing an image, can be reconceived as a state laden with potential movement. As Massumi describes, “sitting still is the performance of a tendency towards movement … It is the pre-performance, in potential, of the movement and its function … It is in intensity” (324).
Sitting can therefore be regarded an 'active' state, where 'tendency'—indeed intensity—charges stillness with a potential for movement, actualisation and change. Conventions that invite still forms of participation in an interactive museum are an opportunity to express one’s agency, as one cannot feel the full momentum of tendency if not having at first remained still. At one level, the process of waiting for a work to begin or end generates a potential for movement, as visitors must decide when they will move towards another work. However, the potential for agency is also articulated within a less performative, ‘internal’ shift that arises within stillness, when visitors eschew reflexive forms of interaction to maintain a focused state of attention.
2. Focusing Attention in Stillness
Visitors’ interaction with Simon Carrol and Martin Friedel's History of a Day (2004) demonstrated how such a focused attention arises. This work comprises five screens arranged in a pentagonal shape. Visitors engage with this work whilst moving or still, seating themselves on an ottoman set within the pentagon or viewing the work while walking around its outside perimeter. The work came to mediate a number of different types of still and playful encounters, as described by Sean:
I was aware that there was other stuff going on around the gallery … could see that out the corner of your eye because there’s spaces in-between screens, but at the same time I wasn’t hurried … And Luke who was with me, he sat down and watched one particular screen, whereas I sort of moved around. When I got to the edge I could see two or three screens at once, so I was just trying to work out what the story was.
On one hand, the ‘gaps’ between these screens could fragment visitors’ attention and mediate reflexive forms of perception. Sean described how he “moved around”, as he was drawn to these ‘gaps’ as he exchanged peripheries and centres of focus. However, the close arrangement of the five screens also created a veiled, intimate space that confined visitors’ attention within the spatial parameters of the work. Unlike Sean, Luke remained seated. His experience was conditioned by stillness. He sat observing a single screen and maintained a focused state of attention. By focusing their attention in this way, visitors become more receptive towards the affective experience of viewing art.
For example, History of a Day flutters with time-lapse images, a soothing rhythm of night turning to day and to night again. On one hand, each screen has been allocated its own narrative, a temporal illustration of a day’s passing within natural and human-made landscapes. A fairground, for example, was shot at night and showed crowds arriving, swarming, alighting rides and departing. However, it is possible to yield to the projection’s visual and aural rhythm, and in doing so abstract the figurative signifier of each scene. Narrative logic recedes as the senses become flooded, and in turn slows the pace of reflexive perception. Without the imposition of a linear narrative the work’s images begin to unfold with a new slowness. The main ride comes to resemble the slowly beating wings of a moth in lamplight, arms lifting, rotating and dropping in the fairground floodlights. People, rides and the dark sky blend into a meditation on colour, rhythm and sound, a palette comprising the many moments that emerge and pass at a night carnival.
This form of perception elicits an agency of complex, affective awareness. Sound artist Brian Eno’s account of the role of silence in ambient music provides a close analogy as to how experiences of stillness in the Screen Gallery become dynamic with enhanced affective awareness. He describes how silences—a ‘stillness’ in sound—actually draw attention to the aural experience that preceded it, as the “‘rests’ are invariably filled in by ‘echoes’ of previously heard fragments” (in Tamm 134). In other words, the experience of listening is heightened by silences, for they create a space of reflection that resonates with the impressions of sound passed. The Gallery is an ambient chamber that echoes with affective forms of experiential encounter rather than echoes of sound. The echoes of visitors’ encounters are also intensified by stillness. Stillness focuses attention, so visitors garner an affective awareness of their spatial environment. This awareness constitutes a distinctive form of agency within the museum, for it enables visitors to locate what Henri Lefebvre describes as a ‘rhythmic’ congruence between their subjective experience and conditions of external environment.
3. Awareness of Rhythmic Congruence
In his theory of rhythmnanalysis, Henri Lefebvre (16) describes how an awareness of ‘rhythmic’ congruity and incongruity can be used to inform a politics in daily life. He argues that practices of self-observation and spatial awareness can reveal how our internal and environmental rhythms are a part of a rhythmic landscape, and can be used as a political means for change. Lefebvre (20) delineates between ‘eurhythmia’ and ‘arrhythmia’ as the forms of rhythmic logic that describe states of congruity:
What is certain is that harmony sometimes (often) exists: eurhythmia. The eu-rhythmic body, composed of diverse rhythms – each organ, each function, having its own – keeps them in a metastable equilibrium, which is always understood and often recovered, with the exception of disturbances (arrhythmia) that sooner of later becomes illness (the pathological state). But the surroundings of bodies, be they in nature or a social setting, are also bundles, bouquets, garlands of rhythms, to which it is necessary to listen in order to grasp the natural or produced ensembles.
While Lefebvre uses these definitions to develop a Marxist critique of modernity, they also show how within the flexible temporal boundaries of stillness, visitors can express a form of agency by using their heightened affective awareness to locate eurhythmic and arrhythmic experiences. By becoming aware of the way we are conditioned by rhythms, we can begin to imprint new rhythms upon the patterns that govern cultural and social practices. Within the Screen Gallery, this rhythmic observation manifests as an attentiveness towards the temporal relationship between internal sensation and external environment.
Congruence between internal and external rhythms was often described by visitors as a feeling of relaxation, even meditation. For example, Sean drew comparisons between still encounters with time-based art and his impression of quiet environments: “It’s like having background music while you’re falling asleep, or you turn the radio on so you haven’t caught the start of a song but you catch the end of it”. These associations imply a close environmental relationship between sound and body, where the rich aesthetic presence of art overrides the expectation of narrative continuity. Perhaps most telling is Sean’s analogy of falling asleep to background music, as it suggests that time-based art can maintain an ambient presence while not intruding upon natural bodily ‘rhythms’. It seems that a harmony between body and art environment allows a pull towards a state of relaxation akin to the drift of sleep, which, notably, is a point where both internal and external rhythms synchronise. Falling asleep is a crossing of thresholds into a space dominated by the activities of the unconscious. Occupying the Gallery and surrendering to a state of relaxation can therefore also be understood as crossing a threshold into a deeper, more internal realm of interaction with art.
Affective awareness therefore enables visitors to cultivate a greater sensitivity towards their sensory responses. This is a highly-subjective agency, as it arises when visitors develop a keen awareness of the eurrhythmic alignment between the rhythm of external space, and their own, internal rhythm. Stillness therefore draws attention to the complexity of our own subjective experience, and the different ways we are conditioned by our environments. Yet most importantly, these experiences also generated self-reflection and a desire to creatively transform their circumstances. Matthew described how his encounter with art aroused creative inspiration: “I go there to experience something new. I would love to be able to do something like that… Maybe it’s something for me, where I wish I was doing something else in terms of my occupation.” Paul noted how expressive potential could be expanded by considering oneself an artist: “you can do it yourself as well, and I suppose that’s what draws people in to the whole thing”. Katrina suggested that aesthetic forms of interaction can challenge the conventional ways of thinking about and responding to our environment: “if it gets somebody to do something different, or, gets someone to do something in a different way maybe, expand their minds in that way, maybe that’s a use for it as well … give them something to think about, and they can see it again in a different light”. These comments show how stillness can enable a realisation of one’s own subjective, creative potential by countering the reflexive speed of the everyday.
My study of ACMI’s Screen Gallery has shown how agency finds expression in stillness. The temporal elasticity created by artwork and institution allows visitors to appropriate time and space in a way that slows the pace of movement and focuses attention, in turn enhancing a visitor’s awareness of their presence and spatial environment. Stillness therefore heightens visitors’ awareness of sensation, sentience, the body’s occupation of time and space. This form of encounter elicits a feeling of congruence and awakens the spirit. This transformation was the mainstay of the political project set by Lefebvre, a statement on mobilising individuals to affect change by becoming more attentive towards incongruities between self and environment. In the Gallery it became possible, through immersion in an aesthetic, ambient space, for visitors to cultivate an intuition towards their own rhythms and those of surrounding environments.
An important claim is to be staked on creating spaces for stillness in daily life, as opportunities for stillness are becoming increasingly scarce within the dynamics of spatial and temporal compression that characterise this era of globalisation and informationalisation. As Heidi describes, these moments given to daydreaming and reflection can become powerful conduits for realising one’s own potential:
[It] gives you a new lease on life. And all the dreams you have – it’s possible … Sometimes you think ‘it’s all a bit out of reach, it’s too difficult,’ whereas you go and see something like that, and … it makes everything clear. And makes everything possible.
Beck, Ulrich, Anthony Giddens, and Scott Lash. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1994.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Great Britain: Fontana/Collins, 1977. 219-253.
Bennett, Tony. “Museums and 'the People'.” The Museum Time-Machine: Putting Cultures on Display. London: Routledge, 1988. 63-85.
———. “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies. London: Routledge. 1992, 23-37.
———. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London: Routledge, 1995.
———. “Consuming Culture, Measuring Access and Audience Development”. Culture and Policy 8.1 (1997): 89-113.
———. “Culture and Policy” Culture:a Reformer's Science, St. Leonard's, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998. 189-213.
———. “Culture and Governmentality.” In J.Z. Bratich, J. Packer & C. McCarthy, eds. Foucault, Cultural Studies and Governmentality. Albany: State U of New York P, 2003. 47-64.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Economy of Practices.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1984. 97-256.
———. The Love of Art, Stanford: Stanford U P, 1991.
Falk, John. “Museum Recollections.” Visitor Studies - 1988: Theory, Research and Practice. Jacksonville: Center for Social Design, 1988. 60-65.
Falk, John, and Lynn Dierking. The Museum Experience. Washington, D.C.: Whalebooks, 1992.
Hicks, Megan. "'A Whole New World': The Young Person's Experience of Visiting the Sydney Technological Museum." Museum and Society 3.2 (2005): 66-80.
Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. Museum and Gallery Education. London: Leicester U P, 1991.
Lefebvre, Henri. “The Critique of the Thing.” Rhythmnanalysis: Space Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum, 2004. 5-18.
———. “The Rhythmanalyst: A Previsionary Project.” Rhythmanalysis: Space Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum, 2004. 19-26.
Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System, Trans. Eva Knodt. Stanford: U of Stanford P, 2000.
Massumi, Brian. “Building Experience: The Architecture of Perception.” NOX: Machining Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004. 322-331.
Silverman, Lois. “Visitor Meaning Making in Museums for a New Age.” Curator 38 (1995): 161-170.
Tamm, Eric. “The Ambient Sound.” Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989. 131-150.