The Art of Mediated Attention by Matthew Ballou

Matthew Ballou

We live in the age of mediated attention. Never before have so many devices and their attendant apps offered us so much information with so little direct experience. The perspective Paul Valéry foreshadowed (and famed painter Francis Bacon lived by) has come true: people “want sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.”1

This philosophy has bred a kind of strange pragmatism, one that begs questions such as the following:

Why actually visit a cathedral or museum when you can browse its inner sanctum on the web (as if the two experiences were equivalent)?

Why spend time looking at “Mona Lisa” when you can snap a selfie and “prove” you were with her (as if that proof consisted of mere proximity rather than physical and intellectual engagement)?

Why take hours and hours to draw an object when you could take a photo and move on (as if the monocular, digital, near-instantaneous camera eye were anything like the binocular, subjective, temporal physical eye)?

The answer to all of these questions rests in proving the intense value of the conveyance – that is, the body itself, and in allowing our adaptation of popular technologies to become a means to go further into that conveyance rather than simplify or – even worse – nullify its power. Embodiment is our innate conveyance, and our physical relationships to space, light, and form are not boring. They are life. The key is finding modes of understanding that highlight the kinesthetic logic of our sensations and go beyond mere entertainment or surface knowledge.

Matthew BallouMatthew Ballou, Sunday Morning Mandala {om mani padme hum}, Digital collage and painting, dimensions variable. 2014

The ongoing challenges of returning individuals’ minds to their bodies are often felt most keenly at the level of university education. Professor Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has conducted studies showing that undergraduates given recall tests on art objects they were asked to either photograph with a digital camera or to observe with their naked eyes, “remembered fewer of the photographed objects, and fewer of the details about them, relative to the pieces of art they’d actively observed with their own eyes.”

Results like these indicate a revolution in the nature of observation, documentation, and memory. They present a pressing concern: the extensive use of smaller and smaller computers and hand-held applications has created a situation in which our very ideas of creativity and understanding are changing. We have grown to trust our devices to remember details or find information for us. We do not need to know how to move through the world, only how to manipulate our phones. Thus we are left with more time for entertainment. Distraction pays, or it wouldn’t be the focus of so much of contemporary culture. When our engagement with reality is reduced to entertainment, there is little need for deep physical and intellectual agency.

The scope of this increasing transformation from physical maneuvering to digital maneuvering goes far beyond the recent development of iPhones and Facebook. In their book Homo Evolutis, Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans investigate the evidence that human beings have – for many thousands of years – used technological advancements to shape the evolutionary trajectory of the species. The break-neck speed of contemporary developments wherein corporeal perception is increasingly being intercepted and altered by technology looks more and more like the “transhuman” singularity of futurists like Ray Kurzweil. While Enriquez and Gullans argue from the biological angle and Kurzweil comes from the side of technology itself, it is clear they are describing two sides of the same coin. Clearly, huge society-altering shifts are on the horizon. It would be easy to let alarm and fear rule the day.

Matthew BallouMatthew Ballou, Cloud of Unknowing , Digital painting, dimensions variable, 2014

Yet it would be intellectually lazy to claim that human intellectual and aesthetic experiences are destroyed by our technologies. Our adaptive tools are no more the root of the problem than they were when we came out of Africa or through the Industrial Revolution. Our challenge is to find ways to maintain curiosity, personal agency, and contemplation through the mediation of the tools we use, not in spite of them.

Art making is, at its core, about paying attention. Likewise, good viewing of artworks – regardless of their form – requires contemplation of that to which artists have paid attention. The modern proliferation of images and information and the layers of technology between our knowledge and our physical experiences can be avenues through which we may choose intense, attention-demanding engagement. While certainly containing the possibility of negating or simplifying powerful experiences, I believe that our computers, databases, digital clouds, and gadgets can be turned to serve what is genuinely human.

Matthew BallouMatthew Ballou, Field , Digital photography and collage and painting, dimensions variable, 2014

My current crop of freshmen drawing students has never lived without an Internet. Most of them have always had glowing screens, phones, and monetizing algorithms right in front of their noses day in and day out. When I bring them into an arena of slow-sensation such as my Beginning Drawing course, there is a learning curve for them. They are used to making instantaneous, surface evaluations and one-off status updates. The work of maintaining attention and focused effort is sometimes hard for them. Almost none of them understand the radical difference between a photograph of an object and a drawing of that same object. But there are always opportunities for me to use their Instagraming, Facebooking, or texting proclivities to get them to ask themselves deeper questions.

Sometimes doing this is as simple as having them use their phone camera as a viewfinder for compositions or their image-editing apps to better understand color and value in real time. Other times it amounts to asking them to conduct on-the-spot searches about the subject at hand or other related issues, using their technology to feel out tenuous connections. I can’t necessarily stop them from mediating their experience of my class with their phones, but I can certainly enlist those tools to draw them into the wider context of my course content. When they begin to correlate their digital world with their physical attention, and to sense the difference between the two, they grow in their ability to rest in their own embodiment. The phone can then be transformed from a thing that makes demands on them to a tool that they can deploy in service of understanding. That awareness of and ability to coalesce a variety of experiences is a skill that is increasingly necessary in our world.

Matthew BallouMatthew Ballou, Expansive Field, both depthless and infinite. At a quantum level all points in the universe are equidistant… But are all times so? , Digital photography and collage, dimensions variable, 2014

One of the things that great artists are very good at is bringing disparate elements together. Unfortunately, creative critical thinking and an ability to triangulate ideas is usually the weakest aspect of first-year students’ intellectual lives. It makes sense that this is how it is, since most of them have been trained in an educational system dominated by teach-to-the-test methods. Their innate curiosity and self-awareness has, often times, been quieted. In a country where learning is monetized and student outcomes are reduced to data sets (and where that data is used to allocate scarce resources) it is hard to change entrenched ideas of personal engagement. Too often our students have been raised to be good consumers rather than good citizens of the world.

Teachers are on the first line of defense against this trend, and we are on the side of our students. They’re not lost. They’re not stupid. Helping them come to greater intellectual awareness is our greatest job. That is why the central subject of all of my classes is awareness. If Instagram can help my students get to that revelatory attention that increases their awareness of themselves, their world, and the deepest human concerns, then I’m all for it. Part of the reason I have always been willing to learn about new technologies of art-making is so that I can help students in their native creative environment. Showing them that crafting digital images in their phones can indeed be valid and valuable, but that it requires every bit of the intentionality, thoughtfulness, and rigor of a physical medium, helps transform their use of the technology from a passive arena to one of focused, clear attention. That skill will be important as they navigate a world that their digital activities are making before our very eyes.


Top Image: Matthew Ballou, “\_+_/” Digital collage and painting, dimensions variable, 2014

All the works above were created on digital devices (either iPad or iPhone) and shaped or changed using several image-editing apps, including Instagram, Afterlight, Glitché, Sketchbook Pro, Art Rage, Adobe Shape, and Paper.

Matthew Ballou – husband, dad, artist, writer, and educator – is an Associate Teaching Professor at the University of Missouri. He lives in mid-Missouri with a polymathic wife and highly exceptional children. For more info:

1David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 3rd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 65. See also John Russell, Francis Bacon, rev. ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 109.