When is a Relationship Not a Relationship?

When is a relationship not a relationship?

In response to a question from an audience member that started with the premise that art is a form of communication, a mildly agitated Rafael Lozano-Hemmer rejected that idea, saying during IdeaFestival 2013 that "art is not about communication.

"It’s about communion."

Having just mounted a powerful and eloquent defense of public art because it offers meaning rather than information, he leaned into the thought once again, pressing the case that his interactive works were shared experiences and that art, like meaning, was an incomplete and open-ended process. It wasn't solely about the artist.

His vexation leapt to mind when I read The Attention Economy by Tom Chatfield, which was posted recently at Aeon Magazine. Like Lozano-Hemmer, I think Chatfield might ask that those who measure, map, sell or otherwise insist on surrender when it comes to our online relationships think about a set of shared experiences rather than communication. Because right now the exchange is woefully one-sided. Chatfield:

Attention... ‘comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera. An army sergeant ordering troops doesn’t want the kind of attention Madonna seeks. And neither desires the sort I do as I write this.’

However, when it comes to automated systems for garnering attention, there’s more at play than one person listening to another; and the processes of measurement and persuasion have some uncannily totalising tendencies. As far as getting the world to pay attention to me online, either I play by the rules of the system — likes, links, comments, clicks, shares, retweets — or I become ineligible for any of its glittering prizes. As the American writer and software engineer David Auerbach put it in n+1 magazine, in a piece pointedly titled ‘The Stupidity of Computers’ (2012), what is on screen demands nothing so much as my complicity in its assumptions:

Because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can ‘understand’. Their dumbness will become ours.

....Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

Chatfield's defense of "attention" in distinctly human terms was so refreshing, and I marveled, having heard Lozano-Hemmer, at how poor we still are at understanding the emotional content, much less the emotional potential, of what it means to be with each other. The pity we seem so willing to attend to our stupid machines, unable as they are to tolerate our silence.

Stay curious.


Video: "Under Scan" (2005) by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.