Advice — Writer and journalist Rob Walker on the art of noticing
‘Pay attention’ – it’s something we’re used to hearing at school, and something we try to practice at work. But in the age of productivity – one filled with endless notifications and seemingly infinite email inboxes – it can be hard to pay real attention. Rob Walker is a writer and journalist based in New York. “Paying attention is a pretty vital skill for a designer [and] crucial to any creative process,” he says of the ability to notice what others might miss. In his recent book, The Art of Noticing, he encourages us to slow down, and flex those observational muscles. Because if you look closely at the everyday, you’ll realise that it’s perhaps not so everyday after all. Here, in an extract from one of the book’s chapters, Rob takes inspiration from artist Marina Abramović to explain why it’s worth taking the time to have a mental palate cleanser.
“When I was in my twenties and was working way too many hours a week, I was still determined to have a life outside my job. So I signed up to attend a weekly documentary series. Predictably, it was a challenge to make time for this. The night of the third screening, I was in a desperate scramble to get to the venue on time and arrived just as the lights were going down, too distracted to remember what the film would be and too busy to check. I flopped into the seat and on flickered – Triumph of the Will. Just what I needed after a day of sensory overload: an overwhelming dose of Nazi bombast and Hitler’s screaming.
I was reminded of this ridiculous experience when I learned of artist Marina Abramovic’s Goldberg. In theory, the main event was a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as payed by Igor Levit. But to some extent the real attraction was the prelude. Attendees were required to arrive thirty minutes before the show and sit silently in the venue, wearing noise-cancelling headphones. This was a sort of mental palate cleanser.
“When I was in my twenties and working way too many hours a week, I was still determined to have a life outside my job.”
Abramovic may be best known for her performance The Artist is Present, which involved her showing up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and sitting across from patrons, one at a time. For as long as they wanted, Abramovic sat and the two would silently regard each other. She also devised a series of exercises called the Abroamovic Method, which involves focussing on one particular action as a recurring theme.
The Abramoic Method workshops include activities such as a period of silently regarding another attendee or walking incredibly slowly across a room. Other exercises involve drinking a glass of water with such deliberation and concentration that it takes as long as twenty minutes; spending a full ten minutes writing out your name a single time; and counting every grain in a huge pile of rice. Elsewhere, Abramovic has underscored the importance of solitude by declaring that an artist should ‘stay for long periods of time’ at waterfalls, fast-running rivers and (rather more importantly) erupting volcanoes, as well as taking lengthy looks at the horizon and at the stars in the night sky.
“How routinely do you find yourself arriving just in time for an event or meeting, distractions trailing you like a cloud of dust?”
Intriguing as all of these suggestions may be, I’m drawn back to the way Abramovic applied her thinking about attention to that Goldberg performance. How routinely do you find yourself arriving just in time for a significant performance or event or meeting, distractions trailing you like a cloud of dust? Whatever the pros or cons of Triumph of the Will, I should have admitted to myself that night that I was not up to giving it authentic attention, walked out and sat in the quiet for two hours instead.
Try recreating the spirit of Abramovic’s Goldberg in regular life. Next time you have a dinner out planned with someone you care about, arrive (or plant yourself nearby) early. And do nothing. Observe the world; think about the person you’re about to see; cleanse your mental palette of other obligations or distractions.
A significant moment deserves a considered prelude. Be ready.”