Direct Encounters

“Ekka,” a newly completed painting (33 x 47″). An art collector had this to say when she stopped by my studio recently: “Lately I have wanted to just quietly commune with a work of art. I am not interested in deciphering references or spending time getting the inside jokes. I just want to find a work that I can sit with alone in silence and feel a connection.” What a heartening thing to hear and very close to the way I choose the art that I want to look at every day.

Theater director extraordinaire Anne Bogart recently wrote a post, Direct Encounter, about attending a theater conference where a young presenter announced that she would not be using PowerPoint in her talk. Bogart was thrilled to hear this young woman declare that she and her generation were moving away from PowerPoint lectures because they understood how much more effective it is to speak directly to an audience.

The bullet points, charts and graphs that fill those dreadful and horribly overused PP decks (and which led to the infamous phrase, “Death by PowerPoint”) actually activate a very small part of the brain, in particular the areas that process language. When you watch a PowerPoint presentation, your brain shuts down its other functionalities.

How different things are when you use metaphor, storytelling, and emotional exchange, says Bogart. “Stories are journeys of the mind that provide the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. If I can engage a person’s imagination, I will have managed to link our brains one to the other. Our brains are synchronized. We are literally sharing brain activity.”

While Bogart makes her case for the full-bodied richness of the theatrical experience, her pitch is an articulate advocacy for direct encounters in every field of artistic expression. Because so much creative expression now is excessively curated and over-mediated, getting to an authentic, unmediated place requires conscious effort.

Case in point, Bogart shares this anecdote:

In Paris, in 1971, writer Deirdre Bair met with Samuel Beckett to request permission to conduct extensive interviews with him for what would become a definitive biography about the playwright. Beckett granted Bair consent but on the condition that she not tape-record their conversations or even take notes while together. Bair agreed nervously. During their nearly three hundred interviews, she listened closely to Beckett who described countless details about his life and work. Then she rushed back to her hotel room to quickly tape-record her memories of Beckett’s words that day. From this she constructed a readable and consequential biography published in 1978.

Perhaps Beckett understood that an unmediated connection between Bair and him would reap more riches than standard interview techniques that depend upon recording and recounting. Perhaps he trusted the event of their human connection from moment to moment more than any act of reported facts. Perhaps what happened between them, together with Bair’s reconstructed memories of their direct encounters, is what makes her biography of Beckett successful and interesting.

While the visual arts occur in a domain that exists outside the spoken/written language zone—for the most part— other factors obscure connection in that world as well. Exclusivity, self-referentiality, meta meanings and other obscurant scrims can make it difficult to achieve that direct encounter Bogart speaks about. Many an eager and open viewer has left an exhibit feeling exempted and alienated from work that appears to be the exclusive province of a limited and rarefied cognescenti.

The solution is not to dumb down a body of work with languaged explanations. Simplification of that nature flattens the potent and richly layered experience that the visual can offer, stripping it of its unique potential for mystery and evocation. The best solution is a two fold one, where both the maker and the viewer take a step towards each other in that numinous space that exists between them.

Some will find this to be nothing more than an idealistic notion. But I don’t see it that way. I have been an artist for a long lifetime, but I still have to work at being an open and trusting viewer. It is easy to fall into suspicion and cynicism, wary of being manipulated or played. As an artist and as a viewer of art, it is a daily discipline to speak it true, to get as close to that direct encounter as I possibly can. It’s a skill set, not a given.

10 Comment

  1. There’s an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reported on similar studies of part-of-the-brain-use to suggest students who listen closely (and take notes) retain more conceptual information than those who watch PowerPoint presentations, even when the students have access to the presentations to “study” them outside of class. Listening and writing activate more areas of the brain. But we knew that, didn’t we?

    I love the Beckett anecdote.

    The history of stories is oral/aural.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Ann. I’ll stand with anyone who is advocating another format. I have a personal aversion to PowerPointing. BTW have you seen some of the spoofs on You Tube? There are several, and all very very funny.

  2. Interesting ideas. I would question though the ethereal benefits suggested in the quotation about Beckett. Boswell was forced to do something similar for the Samuel Johnson conversations he reported in his biography. Drives a conscientious biographer nutty, of course, struggling to memorize all that detail as it comes, then rushing away to scribble frantically one’s memories as they fade. You actually end up wanting the subject to stop talking for fear you will forget what you already have. The only virtue to it is in relieving the subject of the self-consciousness of having a microphone thrust in their face.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Spoken as the historian you are. Bogart, being a theatrical person, would always opt for the moment itself rather than the content. So many points of view, so many things to consider…thanks for your comment, a very useful addendum to this post.

  3. olganorris says:

    I so agree with your argument. I am increasingly distressed by the instant reaction approach that seems to be encouraged by the supremacy of the soundbite, the text and tweet, the snapping of pictures in exhibitions rather than looking at them, etc. Presentation seems so often to be more important than content. It is worrying that so many seem to be more concerned with being described as artists rather than concentrating on expressing themselves through their work. I certainly approve of all encouragement to look and to listen, to ask and to discuss.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much for your aligning views. I think the more voices with that message, the better.

  4. Story telling is one of the most powerful ways to have an audience both relate and remember the essence of your message. I guess when said “we were on the same wavelength” it holds a literal meaning of sharing brain activity.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks for your response Di.

  5. Direct Encounter grabbed my attention. In the practice of photography words, in the form of artist statement, can obfuscate rather than mediate the encounter of the photograph by the viewer. Maybe I should qualify: it’s my experience when looking at work that’s selected for exhibitions; frequently I don’t understand what the photographer is saying or see the significance of such explanations. The words seem to justify rather than clarify why the photographer did what he/she did. Photography has many uses, but the images that move me most require no words. An example: Paul Caponigro’s photo “Two Pears, Cushing, Maine.”

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks James. I do think there is a fine (and often misunderstood) line between justification and clarification. In general I just tend to be partial for work that stands on its own. Thanks for your comment.

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