Smartphones and Museums: Spectatorship’s Gray Zone

In addition to housing art and historical artifacts, museums have increasingly become spaces for performance. That shift has blurred the museum’s white cube with the theater’s black box, creating gray zones for spectators. “Even more than paintings and sculptures, there’s something about the live body in a space that looks particularly photogenic and drives this impulse to capture it and mediate it,” said Professor Claire Bishop (The Graduate Center, CUNY).

For art critics and historians, the proliferation of performance in museum space has given rise to anxieties about attention. Bishop’s new article in TDR: The Drama Review, questions those fears by examining the growth of one particular mode of performance: dance exhibitions.

Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, live installation at MoMA, 2016. Photo by Thomas Poravas
Maria Hassabi, PLASTIC, live installation at MoMA, 2016. Photo by Thomas Poravas

Differing from visual and performance art, dance exhibitions typically entail events in which choreographers extend their work to fit a museum’s hours or visual artists hire dancers to stage performances. Having arisen around the same time as smartphones, their relationship with technology is more symbiotic. “It’s simultaneously working together, so it is live and embodied and durational, and incredibly mediated at the same time,” Bishop said in an interview.  

Bishop examines that relationship between performance, technology, and attention in her article. Describing people who reach for their phones to capture a museum performance, Bishop said: “It’s not as if there’s a good spectator who is fully engaged and a bad spectator who just looks at their phone.” If anything, dance exhibitions offer a means to question the notion of attention itself. “We should be open to thinking through different types of spectatorship,” she said.

Audience watching Jérôme Bel, MoMA Dance Company, October 2016, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Audience watching Jérôme Bel, MoMA Dance Company, October 2016. Photo by Claire Bishop

Thinking about attention as only one thing — “tightly focused” — is problematic. “We’re always aware of other people,” Bishop explained. “Just as we listen to music on headphones, we’re not paying full and absolute attention to that. We wouldn’t be able to cross the street.”

But as much as she’s interested in complicating the idea of spectatorship in light of the rise of performance in the museum, Bishop added that she’s not here to advocate for smartphone usage. “Smartphones are here to stay, but I think we can be attentive to the different uses and social dynamics they set up.”

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The Graduate Center