joanne lee

 

forms of distraction

'Distractions' was an exhibition realised by Rachel Fox, Gisli Bergmann, Samuel Mercer and myself at the Castle, a busy pub in Walthamstow, London. The term ‘distraction’ is loaded with associations: it is complex and confusing, at times contradictory. 'Distractions' saw artists and writers engaged in a conversation about the nature of distractions...  Two illustrated publications, designed by Hannah Ellis of Dust were available free of charge, for people to browse within the pub and to take home. My essay ‘Forms of distraction’ follows below.




We might come to a pub to be distracted: to forget our sorrows for a while when we’re experiencing a difficult time in our life; to shift our mood with good company and a glass or two of something nice; we might hope to wind down after the demands and stress of work; to catch up on the sports news; discover the latest events in a friend’s life; might talk to a stranger encountered at the bar and make a relationship that sustains for an evening, or endures for life.

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Distraction is positive. It takes our mind off our troubles, takes us out of ourselves, opens us to others and to the world around us.

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Distraction is negative, too. We come out to talk to a friend and the loud voices of a rowdy group nearby mean we can’t hear ourselves think; we hope to have a heart-to-heart with our significant other about some matter of import, but they keep gazing at the television screen beyond; we drink too much rather than dealing with the problem that’s making us anxious, and tomorrow starts with the same old situation, now worsened with a crushing hangover.

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Distraction can be creative. Sometimes whilst attempting one thing, our mind wanders into unexpected areas and we find ourselves with a new idea, or absentmindedly doing something that turns out to be interesting, beautiful or surprising.

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Sometimes a café or bar is surprisingly good for creative concentration: a gentle hubbub can be conducive to thinking and writing, and there are real pleasures of working on something whilst in the company of others.

It can be a good place to drift and to eavesdrop when inspiration is failing.

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Distraction means that we don’t get around to tackling important things.

Distraction means that we risk never completing tasks.

We can’t keep our focus.

We have short attention spans.

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It’s hard to escape the talk of distraction these days.

We are told that in the developed world contemporary life involves the constant shifting of our attention, and that this makes it hard to get anything accomplished.

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Some of it may be down to our dopamine system, which causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search. According to one recent study, texting, Twitter and Google are addictive because they offer potentially instant gratification to our curiosity, but that once involved we are rewarded by the stimulation rather than the results we gain, and thus find ourselves caught in exhausting loops of repeated, distracted searching.

At home we watch a film but having used smartphone, tablet or laptop to look up an actor whose name we couldn’t remember, we find ourselves wandering through the digital labyrinth rather than following the film; sometimes we get distracted from the original search by a new email or message or thread on social media and realise half an hour later that we know neither the name of the actor we sought, nor what has been happening in the film.

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We rarely do one thing at a time: this seems both very clever and a bit stupid.

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On the train, commuters shift constantly between media or deal with two things at once: we read whilst listening to music; we carry on multiple, simultaneous conversations by text; we text one friend whilst talking to the person next to us; we put aside the Metro for a moment to catch up on Twitter, then shift back again, or follow links to a new story and its iterations on diverse websites.

At work the ping of new emails jerks our attention away from the task at hand; at lunchtime we eat at our desk whilst scrolling through Facebook or idly skimming the inventory of favourite online shops.

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We do nothing wholeheartedly, or with the full attention of our brain.

But our brain is always doing many things at once: it is running diverse bodily systems as well as being conscious of whatever tasks we are undertaking.

It manages this pretty well.

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A sort of horror vacui prevails within the contemporary media. Electronic screens are stuffed full: information multiplies. On certain TV channels, whilst an interviewer quizzes a sports star or politician, or a lead feature is broadcast, the image is jostled by sidebars giving league tables, polling results and the like, whilst continuously scrolling ribbons of breaking news unfurl beneath.

Sometimes one programme hasn’t even finished before the screen splits and trailers for the next show erupt; it’s meant to keep us glued to that channel for whatever follows but often has the effect of breaking whatever concentration we had for the story at hand.

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Websites are interrupted by pop ups and advertising, by opt-ins for mailing lists, warnings about cookies and more.

Adverts are intended to distract – that is their purpose. If we use software to block annoying ads or reveal illicit web trackers, the alerts themselves, which appear as little red indications on the browser tool bar, snag our gaze and distract attention from whatever we were intending to look at.

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Contemporary electronic devices assume that the default position is that we want to be distracted – most smartphones automatically set audio or visual alerts as a matter of course so we know that a new email, text, instant message or call is awaiting us. The device wants to be helpful, to keep us connected. It wants to tell us when someone has liked, commented or shared; when we have been tweeted, retweeted, favourited; apps and sites want to make contact when someone has looked at or rated our personal or professional profile on a dating site or LinkedIn.

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Some people don’t like this at all and turn everything to silent, or select user preferences such that they will only discover a message if they choose to go look for it.

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In social situations, many explicitly indicate their willingness to be distracted by incoming communications: they choose to lay their phone face up on a desk or table, so that they can quickly see new messages have come in or if someone is trying to reach them; others are sly, sitting with the silenced device on their lap, hoping its vibration will alert them surreptitiously; some indicate a willingness to concentrate on their present company by pointedly putting a phone into their bag, but then disrupt the effect by taking it out and checking it repeatedly throughout a gathering.

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Two women sit across a table from one another in a cafe; they are clearly having a sustained conversation about something important – there is eye contact, empathy, connection.

A mobile phone rings and one of them chooses to answer it despite the ongoing dialogue with her friend. There is no excuse or apology given: she simply takes the call, and diverts her attention to the person on the other end.

A long conversation ensues: advice is given, opinions expressed.

At first the other woman puts in a bit of time by getting out her own smartphone from the handbag she has on her lap. She uses it for a while: there’s a little tapping and texting, swiping and scrolling.

She is trying to be sensitive to the other conversation going on in front of her by seeming not to listen: she gazes around.

She is clearly getting bored.

Finally she heads to the lavatory.

When she returns, the telephone call is still in progress. She sits down and stares out of the window.

Finally, when the call concludes, both women make some comments about the time and get up to leave.

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If we are alone in public then having a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a smartphone offers us a sense of protection. We are safe here because of this object in our hand, or resting on the table. We have something to do. It will distract others from bothering us. Sometimes we don’t want to talk.

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A little while ago, cafés and bars started to have blackboard signs that read:

‘No, we don’t have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other.’ Versions of this proliferate across the world. Não temos Wi-Fi. Conversem entre vocês! Non abbiamo Wi-Fi. Parlate tra di voi. No tenemos Wi-Fi. Hablen entre ustedes. For a time it seemed to have become popular for holidaymakers to share images of these on social media – uploaded, no doubt, by Wi-Fi they accessed elsewhere.

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Just because someone isn’t looking at a smartphone doesn’t mean that they aren’t distracted, and that they are truly engaging in dialogue. Many conversations are merely a series of monologues; the only thing some people are listening out for is the moment when a pause occurs and they can jump in to tell their own anecdote.

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At certain social gatherings we are aware that the person to whom we are talking is looking beyond us all the while, searching the room to see if other more interesting or important people have arrived and are available to talk: both parties are distracted by this.

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Sometimes people seem at their most distracted when in fact they are really concentrating: physical diversions such as playing with crisp packets and folding them into triangular packages, or tying them into little knots, picking at the label on a bottle with a fingernail, or peeling the printed surface from a beer mat frequently accompany conversation. Once such behaviour would also have included the fiddly business of smoking – toying with a cigarette, tapping or shaping ash, burning holes in plastic wrappers, blowing smoke rings… physical fidgeting can accompany mental attention.

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Some therapists provide mediating or transitional objects in order to reduce a patient’s anxiety during sessions, or to elicit communication from those who seem too inhibited to talk. Touching, handling, or playing distract from one state of mind, and potentially provoke us into another.

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We are often distracted when objects don’t function as they ought, when something isn’t quite right: an inadequate spout dribbles tea into our saucer; a wonky table leg causes our drink to slop over the rim of a glass; a table top seesaws as one or other of us leans on it.

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Activity can bring us together, lubricating our interactions. It is not unusual for pubs these days to offer their patrons a stack of board games, or amusements like Jenga or Connect 4: even if we choose not to play with them, our recognition of their presence reassures us that this is a warm sociable place. Books too are provided, available to browse whilst we wait for a friend; often we are encouraged to treat this resource as a book swap – take the copy we’ve begun, and later return with the same one or another, ready for other readers to enjoy.

This is rather different to the 1980s fashion when firms renovating rundown bars would bring in job lots of books as part of the new decorative scheme – hardbacks with faded cloth covers and gilded lettering of some sort were usually preferred – in order to evoke a gentleman’s club or a snug living room; the intention did not seem to be that anyone would ever read them. Their presence was reassuring rather than distracting.

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There are though the eye-catching curiosities or so-called ‘decorator’s pieces’, explicitly designed to attract our attention: taxidermy specimens, obsolete tools, a collection of china, old tins into which have been secreted little notes, gatherings of other entirely inexplicable things. They are intended as a talking point in a home or venue, meant perhaps to prompt conversation if awkward silences occur.

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Some artefacts distract us emotionally: we may have an heirloom we don’t like at all but which holds some sort of familial obligation and so we can’t quite bring ourselves to throw it away. Or maybe our amassing of objects has got out of hand and thus we hatch domestic schemes to contain them: we think of new bookshelves, fresh furniture, or an alternative storage system, so that order may be restored and some future perfection attained. Some of us are overwhelmed by things – very literally – and we are distracted from being able to live our lives ‘normally’ because our stuff is patently out of control; some of us use goods to distract us, hoping again and again that we will find fulfilment as another object is found for our collection, or an item of clothing for our wardrobe.

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It’s often hard for us to know what to pay attention to and what to ignore; so many signs and sounds and things and people want us to take notice of them. Sometimes it is a matter of safety or convenience: to alert us to a dangerous bend or give directions to the lavatory; often it is about selling to us, or a request for us to give time or money.

We might protect ourselves by giving proper attention to one sort of signal: we note the zebra crossing and pause to let traffic come to a halt. At other times we choose one stimuli to allow us to ignore another: our headphones let us pretend we haven’t heard someone begging, a gaze fixed on something across the street enables us not to meet the gaze of a person we really don’t want to talk to. Feigned distraction allows the petty cowardice of daily life to function.

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Art by contrast isn’t usually meant to be distracting. We are meant to look at it seriously, with full attention, aren’t we?

We may be distracted from doing so by problems with poor lighting, by the chatter of an annoying companion, the demanding presence of a gallery attendant, or the fact that too many people have come to see the blockbuster exhibition on its closing day.

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Long statements by artist or curators, and tables laid out with publications and press clippings, may get in the way of our encounter with any actual artwork.

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It used to be said that sculpture was the stuff you fell over as you stepped back to admire the paintings. It’s sometimes claimed now that contemporary pieces need the clarity of the white cube space in order for us to notice that they are art at all; there’s a lot of very casual, contingent works around and were they not afforded the surrounding blankness of a gallery, perhaps we would fail even to remark on them?

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Most things for sale in the world don’t consciously try to irritate or upset us, but for some artists such norms are there to be played with: even ostensibly ‘commercial’ art objects can be tricky stuff to deal with. Some art works can be distracting for their makers: a thing comes into being and the artist isn’t at all sure how to fathom what they have made.

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For some art is a distraction from other pleasures. During a holiday trip we skim through galleries at speed, perhaps inspecting some work a little more closely than others, glancing at the odd label for additional information, but whilst doing so we may be thinking instead of the tea and cake we have promised ourselves once we have made it through.




In a pub there are countless distractions and that is probably the joy of such places.

Here in The Castle, Walthamstow, we can add art to the list.

Objects have appeared which may distract us from our conversations, from the newspaper we have brought, from our digital scrolling, from the food we had so carefully selected, from catching up with friends…

Of course, these things may remain unnoticed by many of us, as they occupy the shelves just behind where we sit.

If we spot them, we may not know quite what they are, what their intention is or whether we are supposed to do anything with or about them.

We may see the new things and think them lovely, funny and curious; they might also be irritating, perplexing, hard to define... Beauty might be in the eye of one beholder and distaste in another.

We may realise that the objects have temporarily nudged aside the usual board games and books, and just find ourselves looking for these instead.

We may be distracted by the missing menu of specials on the blackboard.

Looking around, we might encounter this book, and this text, and wonder differently about the objects as a result.

Or we may turn away and go back to our magazine, our phone call, our conversation, our meal, our Sudoku or crossword puzzle, our desire to eavesdrop, our search for the name of an actor we can’t recall… before we are again inevitably distracted by something else.

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