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Hooray! We are celebrating our 10-year anniversary in 2023! The celebrations will be themed around the future of arts.

Visiting professor D. Graham Burnett: Art and the Attention Economy

Professor D. Graham Burnett from Princeton University is visiting Uniarts Helsinki this spring. He is teaching a course at the Academy of Fine Arts titled “Attensity: The Poetics of Attention” in March and May 2023. His aim is to increase awareness about the attention economy we all live in, artists included.

D. Graham Burnett is a researcher, teacher, and artist. He holds a professorship in History and History of Science at Princeton University in New Jersey in the USA. He specialises in the connections between the sciences and the visual arts.

“My primary identity, or the identity I care about most, is my role as a teacher. I consider my central vocation to be the work of collaborating with others, to create spaces where we can focus together on understanding. Universities are special institutions. They have an important tradition of surfacing and serving the delicate work that is involved in understanding our world, understanding each other, and understanding ourselves,” Burnett says.

He specialises in the History and Philosophy of Science.

“That discipline seemed to me to be especially concerned with the understanding of understanding itself. My creative and research projects all move from those preoccupations. Action matters, but action undertaken without understanding cannot consistently serve us.”

Burnett makes an effort to hold together creative practices and research.

“I believe that the process of ‘understanding’ is not exactly the same as the project of ‘knowledge-making’ within the framework of university disciplines. We are ‘at stake’ in the work of understanding in a special way. It is about us, and about our ability to survive and make sense of the world.  Artists place that entangledness at the centre of the work. This is essential.”

The rise of the Attention Economy

Burnett’s research topics have varied during the years from geography, cartography, imperialism, and optics to the history of marine exploitation. They are mostly works on history of science and technology.

”In more recent years, in the context of our rapidly changing digital lifeways, my attention has turned to attention itself — to the rise of the Attention Economy, and its historical, technical, and existential genealogy. Most of my creative work and my research practices now orbit this problem, which seems to me to be a central challenge of our time.” 

But what is attention?

“Attention has meant different things at different times, and in different contexts. For those military scientists interested in radar monitoring in the time of the Second World War, it meant the ability of a soldier to watch a screen, and spot fleeting specks of light.  For a philosopher like Simone Weil, attention is, in effect, a kind of prayer — it is the way we bring ourselves to existence.”

The Friends of Attention and attention activism

Burnett is associated with the Friends of Attention, a loose coalition of artists, organisers, writers, and others who share a commitment to attention activism.

“The group took shape in the wake of the 2018 São Paulo Biennial in the aftermath of the election of Jair Bolsonaro. There was a shared sense that a certain kind of reactionary politics in Brazil, but also in Europe and the US, was linked to the shifting patterns of platform capitalism. The Friends of Attention emerged out of those conversations. We want to push back against the wholesale commodification of human attention. We believe that the powerful new array of algorithmic technologies and corporate or industrial enterprises, which try to turn all eyeballs towards money, are not aligned with people’s wellbeing,” Burnett says.

As a collective, Friends of Attention writes collaboratively on these issues. Last year they published a book called Twelve Theses on Attention. (See link below.)

In today’s world, attention is closely related to international politics and economics.

“The last decades have seen an incredible intensification of the mechanisms by which our attention is seized and auctioned off. A tremendous industry now works to get everyone to look over here, or over there, for a moment, and to turn that glance into money.  These dynamics have had real consequences for the experience of personhood — and for our life in community.”

Why should art students pay attention to attention?

On the 6th of March 2023, Burnett gave a public lecture titled The Tip of the Finger, and the Moon at Uniarts Helsinki. The lecture attracted an audience of about 40 people and many of them took part actively in the conversation that followed the lecture.

“I talked a bit about the history of the scientific study of attention in the twentieth century, focusing on the ways in which laboratory psychologists and experimental physiologists conceptualised and quantified human attentional capacities. This material is drawn from a book I have been working on for the last few years,” Burnett says. 

In March and May 2023, he will teach a course in the Academy of Fine Arts titled Attensity: The Poetics of Attention.

“The course will take up the ways that attention can be conceived as a medium within a certain line of artistic inquiry.  I have a longstanding interest in the use of attentional ‘scores’ and other kinds of attentional ‘choreography’. During the course, I hope to work with interested students on a series of open-ended investigations, exploring what joint attentional practices can bring to research-based artistic practices. In my own practice, often in conjunction with the collective known as ESTAR(SER), we work precisely with these kinds of formal ‘protocols’ for joint attention.” 

Burnett emphasises that attention is the work of care, and therefore it is essential to our ability to respond to the needs of others, and the needs of our planet.

“Critical thinking is very important, especially for anyone who is interested in human attention as a medium or material for new artistic expression.  We need to generate new forms of attentional resistance, and a new movement of Attention Activism.  My best hopes lie in that direction!”

More information about Burnett´s course and projects

Text: Päivi Brink

The Visiting Professor programme

Every year, many internationally renowned artists and experts in the field of art come to the Academy of Fine Arts as visiting professors. The partnership with Saastamoinen Foundation allows the academy to continue developing the Visiting Professor programme.