walking warmup as civil attention

Emily and I are now writing the report from the project. As we do so, we are of course thinking of new things.

I’ve been struck this week by the utility of Erving Goffman’s notion of civil attention/inattention, in relation to the walking warm-up.

Goffman suggested that in public places we get from A to B by appearing not to notice what is happening around us. We avoid making eye contact with anyone, and direct our gaze to others only in as much as is necessary to avoid bumping into them. We want to get through a crowded space as inconspicuously and neutrally as possible, with no embarrassment, no accidental encounters. Our object is to appear not to notice or be noticed. This behaviour becomes second nature to us, Goffman suggests, and we are generally not aware that or how we exercise the social code of civil inattention nor of its effects – creating an apparently private impersonal bubble for ourselves in the public sphere.

It was precisely this kind of civil inattention which Tino Sehgal set out to disrupt in the Tate Turbine Hall during the Live Art season in 2013. Gallery visitors were not only ever so politely accosted by complete strangers, but were also confronted with the kinds of private revelations that are normally accorded to close friends and family. This challenged the accustomed boundaries of acceptable public behaviour. Perhaps there is also something of a disruption to civil inattention in Marina Abramovic’s current show at the Serpentine, where the artist makes personal,  often bodily contact with gallery visitors, not something that is usual between audience and artist.

Sara’s warm up also made the familiar activity of walking strange. There was no A or B to get to, no Turbine Hall to manoeuvre, no artist to make contact with. The walking itself was the point. During the warm-up Sara called our attention to the directions of our gaze, and the relationship of our bodies to others in the space. Rather than a subconscious awareness of our bodies in movement in relation to others, we became highly aware of our own trajectories, highly conscious of where we looked and highly observant of the pace and directionality of others in the same space. Bringing us to a conscious appreciation of the usual way we practice civil inattention, engaging us in an act of civil attention in fact, was profound piece of learning for many of us.

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