Declan Whitaker on the topic of brevity and performance

The Irish choreographer describes his research on audience experience in modern performance and how to test the limits of attention span

Published: June 3, 2018Words: Declan Whitaker & J.Scott StrattonArtist Link: declanwhitaker.com

There is a common issue that is arising within the art world, and it has everything to do with the shrinking of our attention spans. Of course, one could argue this is present throughout the areas of the world where we don the hat of observer or audience. Brevity is becoming a necessity across a multitude of platforms.

Of course, the most common artistic discipline being affected by this necessity is in the written word. Algorithms are forcing writers and journalists to write shorter sentences and more simplified language in order for their article to perform better on Facebook and Google.

Yet, a slightly more ambiguous area that is being affected by our quickening social behavior is the stage – more specifically within theatre and performing arts.

In an era where the average attention span is no more than 155 characters, how does that affect the traditional 45min – 1,5 hour time spans that are common in performance? How can the choreographer and dramaturge craft work that not only captures the audience but keeps them there?

Pulling reference again from writing, a technique that was perfected by Presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen, was a necessity to capture the audience within the first minute of the speech. Once this was done, it was merely a matter of keeping momentum.

Of course, Sorensen was the writer for John F. Kennedy a half a century ago. Things have changed dramatically in social constructs on how we consume and digest information and experience.

Most of us carry a small computer in our pockets, yet we still find ourselves frustrated when an app takes a split second longer to open. What does this mean for the way we experience slow information?

Irish artist and choreograph Declan Whitaker is in the process of exploring and research just these questions. As the experience of the audience is the core commodity of artistic performative practice, it’s not only a curious, but necessary, topic to explore.

I spoke with Declan to learn more about how he is exploring this subject in detail before his guest talk for the local Copenhagen event series Choreography in Action.

In your choreographic practice, you’ve been described as exploring the subjects of “high art vs. pop”. How would you define these disciplines, and how do you explore them in your practice?

My aim is to make work I would like to see, and in general, my taste is attracted to pop culture and pop mediums. I think there is a strange relationship between high art and pop. High art influences pop and vice versa but they rarely meet eye-to-eye. It’s a more borrowing and loaning of ideas, of appropriation and reappropriation.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been kind of obsessed with pop culture. I grew up in a time (the 1990’s) where plastic fantastic ruled and it has really had an influence on my taste. Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, NSync for example. Recently there has been a semi-ironic revival of 90’s music, but for me, it’s always just been what I listened to and enjoyed. It’s over the top and synthetic, but I never took it for a joke. In fact, in some ways, I think pop mediums are the most genuine. They sell a product; we know it, and they know it – there’s no guise or disguise, or an attempt at coolness.

In art, or ‘high art’ and contemporary dance especially, pop is often referenced as a parody or pastiche, but rarely is it taken seriously. I always found a friction in that what I listen to, watch or enjoy every day was difficult to integrate into my work in a nonsatirical way or with something that was nothing to do with sampling, referencing or irony but just a plain choice.

I guess I would say I don’t try to explore pop, but it’s just there. I jokingly say my work explores the tension of high art vs. pop and Beyoncé vs. Rihanna as a way to try and describe the tension of convention vs. taste.

You have been developing a research and piece called ‘For the Time Being,’ which explores boredom and brevity in the audience experience. Can you tell me about that?

I have the feeling that we have developed an appetite for immediacy, satisfaction, and overstimulation. The work asks: in a world of increased technological dependence and decreased attention span, what are we willing to give our time to?

In truth, I began researching a work called ‘The Death of Duration’. This hyperbolic expression was used as a starting point and the research began with the intention of giving the audience an experience only related to brevity; meaning an extremely short work that would cater to the decrease in attention span I see around me and feel personally. As the research developed, we investigated different ways of experiencing time and how that can change a lot.

In the end, we landed somewhere in the middle. There is in a sense two works running parallel; one dealing with patience and one dealing with brevity. I think it had to be this way for each to draw attention to the other. The short works alone didn’t really make sense, or it wasn’t the brevity that you were drawn to notice. So one work acts as a medium or a buffer. It was a challenge to arrive at a work that only dealt with something fleeting.

On the topic of “brevity” in choreography, which is more common in “pop choreography” – for lack of a better term – how do feel the this affects more conceptual choreographic works or Expressions?

People consume pop in a completely different way to the way in which they consume art or dance. Pop is disseminated on a much larger scales. I think for the audiences, there is less preciousness around listening to half a song or watching half a video clip because you know you can watch it again and again for free or come back to it later.

In most cases, you can’t do that with dance, and it creates a situation where the expectations around going to a performance are heightened. This is alleviated when dance is shown outside of theatres. In gallery spaces, for example, there is no pressure to view an entire work, because of existing conventions around how people engage with art in gallery spaces.

In our correspondence, you mentioned a quote that was an inspiration in your work: “The first seven minutes of a performance is for free, the audience can accept anything – after this is another problem, then they want what they have paid for.” Can you elaborate your thoughts on this?

It’s something Jérôme Bel said in a conversation with Jonathan Burrows. It struck me that for Bell, a work must be longer than 7 minutes, it’s success is stuck in relation to the ticket price and it insinuates a dilemma around audience expectation and satisfaction too.

If the audience ‘want what they have paid for’, it suggests they have some idea before arriving at the performance venue about the ways in which their expectations will be met. With this in mind, we tried playing around with Bell’s ‘7-minute rule’.

Firstly, by seeing if we could stretch it to the edges and create a situation where the audience was held in this zone for the entirety of the performance; an ambivalent zone of missed opportunities and unmet expectations. Secondly, to split it up and say the 7 minutes is comprised of 14 individual works.

There’s another conversation I saw with Deborah Hay and Neil Baldwin where they talk about the audience ‘coming to the dance’ instead of the audience ‘sitting back and saying “give me a show”’ and I think these things are related.

What if you could just accept what was being shown and kind of say ‘Okay, this is what this work is doing’ rather than perceiving each work in relation to the last you saw. I think if we can undo that way of thinking it could open up the possibility for new formats to be easily accepted by audiences, if they don’t expect a particular kind of return or ‘reward’ for their money.

In juxtaposing these ideas of durational vs. easily consumable choreographic or artistic works, have you arrived at and personal opinion towards these individual executions? Do you feel one is more or less valid than the other regarding artistic practice?

I couldn’t say one is more valid than the other. But my question around how dance can adapt to changes in public taste is definitely leaning towards a deeper interest in the easily consumable. More often than not dance is formatted in distinct time frames of around 1 hour or 20 minutes. At the same time, from what I can see around me, people are attracted to increasingly short durations.

Instagram stories and Snapchat for example. They use extremely short and ephemeral formats, and we move closer towards media and information that is reliant on headlines, sound bites, segments, and not so much about the full picture.

I think it could be interesting to see how dance can shift to not only challenge, but also cater to those patterns, as a form that has historically insisted on time and place. I really wonder whether 10 seconds can be as valuable for an audience as an hour.

This performance of this work is to be accompanied by a discussion on the work. Are their specific questions that you want to engage with the audience about?

This is a work in progress that itself is asking a lot of questions. I think the discussion is a chance to get to know how it’s perceived by the audience and what feelings or questions it raises for them.

This is admittedly not the best advertisement but: In the last showing of the work, one person got bored and was on their phone [much of the work is very slow paced]. In a way, I am teasing these kinds of reactions from people, but it made me wonder: What would you rather be doing right now instead of this? What were you hoping to see?

It made me think, for this particular viewer, could it be summarised so bluntly as slow = waste of time. Fast = interesting?

Is the subject of choreographic and artistic “brevity” something that you plan on exploring further? Can you tell me how?

Yes. No.