Juxtaposed attention: Normalizing the disruptive.

April 11, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

In Jon Young’s ‘What the Robin knows” he eloquently describes how virtually all animals in a given habitat listen and respond to each others signals of significant distress. Essentially he demonstrates that there is an evolutionary survival advantage to being able recognize disruptions in the habitats’ baseline of activity. That recognizing these disruptions of the norm is key to individual survival.

Extrapolated, this hyper awareness to that which is disruptive is still very present in our own activities.  Comedy is grounded on the audience recognizing what is the norm and how the disruption deviates from this (often masquerading firstly as the normative), music is of interest when the rhythm is established and then deviated from, detective and horror stories are based upon the disruptions from the normative expectation. Cult figures can hold people in awe as we try to anticipate if they will be disruptive or normal, gambling is addictive for similar vacillation in trying to figure out if these losses or wins are the norm or not – are you on a roll? Even our fascination with the new or innovative stems from this fundamental anticipatory attention to the disruptive over the norm.  Our curiosity (and hence science) is based on this attention towards ‘is it normal or disruptive’, ‘is it peaceful or dangerous’? Do I need to pay more attention here?

There are two tropes herein. 1- The awareness and understanding of what is to be considered as the norm, and 2- the attention to the degrees of disruptions to this normative. So we really constantly pay attention to these two signals. What is usual, typical and normative, and that which disturbs that equilibrium. Disruption is the degree of change to the norm.

Our attention is pointed at both of these signals- it pays to know when the stasis has been disturbed.

In visual arts, the recognizable is the normative and the disruptive is the unique, it is where our ‘W- fives’ coalesce around. Our attention to these two criteria ; pattern and disruption, stasis and divergence, are somewhat like our peripheral and focal vision systems. They exist in tandem.

As an artist, knowing that the viewer pays attention to both of these is critical. Historical continuum and the changeable future are both key to garnering the viewers attention. Things that are recognizable but different grab us.

Hence the appeal and the revulsion of a Kinkade art work. The normative is there, we all recognize it, but then we are either left adrift in the camp awaiting for the other foot to drop or asleep in the camp of an assumed safety of home… Stasis, paradoxically isn’t. It gets interrupted all the time. Entropy and chaos; absence and presence, this attention dichotomy isn’t singular.

Art like music, without both established pattern and intervening variation, won’t engage the viewer. Our attention will shift to something else that responds to these juxtaposed keys.  It is a habit from long ago.  Evolutionary we habitually pay attention to both, so should artists.















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