The Future of Attention: Inside Locarno's Ambitious 24-Hour Talk

Beanbag chairs, meditative readings, and ASMR: an experimental panel sought to reframe the attention economy of a film festival.
Dini Adanurani

From left: Stefano Knuchel, Khesrau Behrouz, Laurie Anderson, and Maya Shenfeld.

On our way to Locarno from the airport, a fellow Critics Academy participant told me that he had made a list of 37 films he wanted to see, while I glanced at my own list feeling underprepared. In the end, he didn’t reach that number—none of us did. We had our writings to do, the glittering Lake Maggiore to bask in, and daily necessities, like scurrying between venues and finding time for meals.

When the goal of festival-going is to take in as many films as possible, attending a 24-hour long talk on the “Future of Attention” may not seem like the best way to resolve these anxieties. Film festivals run on an attention economy. It was a statistically risky decision for me to pitch this article instead of several smaller film reviews, since I didn’t know what kind of panel would take shape, nor how long it would hold my concentration. With a slight tremble, I came upon the courtyard of Istituto Sant’Eugenio, the venue of this year’s Locarno Pop-up Basecamp. Beanbags, folding chairs, and a huge sofa were set up around a big tree—a gesture which encouraged the audience to sit back, relax, or perhaps take a nap in the shade. Perhaps classroom-style learning was never the goal of this panel. 

Curator Rafael Dernbach invited 24 speakers of various disciplines to take part in the event. Each was allocated an hour to take center stage, but they were welcome to stay and converse with the next speakers for as long as they pleased. Three guest moderators—Khesrau Behroz, Devika Girish, and Milosz Rosinski—each took turns running the panels. Dernbach, a media studies and future studies researcher at Università della Svizzera italiana cited different phases of sleep as a major inspiration for this talk. “Interestingly, circadian rhythms go throughout the entire day,” he told me after the event. “Even during the day, you have daydreams and forms of attention.”  Another significant inspiration for this talk was Dernbach’s own experience of co-parenting with his partner. “It really changes your perception of how to give attention,” he explained. “My son immediately feels it when we give him attention. I learned from him that attention is something we all need to survive, like this feeling of connection.”

The Istituto Sant'Eugenio courtyard.

When the event started at 12:00 p.m., about ten people were spread across the space reclining on beanbags and beach chairs, a number which gradually rose in the first few hours of the panel. I came prepared, not only with my full attention, but also with a laptop to record everything that took place in the courtyard. This proved to be quite a feat while sinking into a beanbag made for relaxation.  

The panel was designed to lead the audience through different topics regarding attention, and it constantly mutated in its focus, form of presentation, and pace of dialogue. Anxieties regarding the attention economy were mentioned now and then: from the quick rate of feedback on podcasts and test screenings, as well as the dilemma of contemporary metrics from platforms like Spotify and YouTube. Interestingly, this is not a new kind of anxiety, as Carolin Duttlinger, a German Literature professor at the University of Oxford, explained early in the day. Since attention is one of the most observable forms of consciousness, it has always been the object of surveillance efforts geared toward efficiency. This is indicated through the use of language surrounding attention itself: records from the 18th century showed that children had been educated to “pay attention” and “be mindful” with their studies. During the Industrial Revolution, attention began to acquire economic value as work became more detail-oriented and dangerous, hence the phrase “time is money.”

Beyond economical concerns, curatorial practices and artmaking also engage with the audience’s attention to create a certain experience. In the first session, Abby Sun described her curatorial work aptly as “designing the supermarket so people can find milk easily.” Later on, Locarno Artistic Director Giona Nazzaro expanded on his intent to present films in a way that would resonate with the audience rather than alienating them. One of the results might be the inclusion of Broken Blossoms (1919) as this year’s pre-opening screening, with a note of acknowledgement about its cultural insensitivity and an invitation to stimulate a dialogue for an inclusive future.

On engaging with her audience, artist and writer Hito Steyerl prefers to open space for viewers to process her work on their own. Drawing from her moving-image-based practice, being too directive or didactic might push the audience to look the other way. “People tend to have bodies, and bodies need their space. At the beginning [of my artistic process], I try to create a nice condition for them, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be so nice, it can be uncomfortable.”

Filmmaker and artist Laurie Anderson also emphasized the bodily experience of interacting with artworks. “During the movies, you leave your body behind,” she observed. “In VR, you have to have your body.” Yet, she refuses to surrender to a utopian vision of technology. For her, virtual reality and artificial intelligence merely provide other ways of creatively interface with yourself and your surroundings. This notion is in line with Steyerl’s vision of the possibility to co-create technology, underlining the importance of understanding technology as an operating system of the world today. 

Hito Steyerl, in conversation with Devika Girish.

Some sessions invited the audience to revel in sensory exercises, which demonstrated how attention can be understood as a practice. This gave way to a different flow of dynamics in the courtyard. Composer Maya Shenfeld presented selections from her debut album In Free Fall, inspired by Steyerl’s text of the same name. Scattered individual attentions came together in a state of collective immersion: some people closed their eyes, smoking calmly as they tuned into the atmospheric sounds and the feel of the breeze. In a different immersion, filmmaker Helena Wittmann read aloud a note describing the two weeks she spent on a boat filming her new feature, Human Flowers of Flesh. I was struck by her expanded awareness of space, movement, and sound, describing it in a poetic, sensuous flow not unlike the film itself. After the reading, she asked us to drift into silence for two minutes. Her descriptions of the boat were imprinted on my mind, merging with the stillness of the courtyard that afternoon. Every bodily movement I made seemed like it was heightened, every rustle of my arms against the beanbag seemingly announced to the whole world. For a moment, my body was afforded a space for its own rhythm, even a corporeal self-awareness.

Around 7 p.m., roughly fifteen people were still present at the venue, and their endurance levels seemed to vary. Some of them could be seen checking their phones, just listening to the talk as background noise. Every few minutes, I went back and forth between microsleeps, jolting myself awake, and bathroom breaks. I began to feel my attention level thinning, too. I felt myself drifting in and out of some sessions due to lack of sleep, and even though napping was highly encouraged, I still felt guilty for it. After gathering enough consciousness, I started making small talk with a man who had also been in the courtyard since the beginning of the panel. He noticed me falling asleep, and I brought a cup of espresso to shake myself awake as the weather was getting cooler under the bluish sky.

Being in the same sphere for several hours and noticing the presence of others underscores the notion of collective attention. I was not talking much to others beyond a couple of amicable nods and exchanges, but I felt a sense of fondness toward everyone who consciously chose to spend their hours in that space. As I was imagining this shared intention, the quietness between us became more comfortable. Film critic Dana Linsson reflected on attention as a way of feeling, seeing, being, and relating to other people. She read a section from Momo by Michael Ende, a timeless children’s book on the concept of human connection, modern time, and consumerism. At another point, Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Aljafari offered another way of conceiving of solidarity through attention. He called upon film festivals to give a platform to unseen images, and discussed his experience of working with archives in his film Paradiso, XXXI, 108. He described archives as “the camera of the dispossessed,” and put forth the notion of attention as something that should be allocated politically towards urgent, marginalized matters.

Total Refusal.

Past midnight, everything seemed like a fever dream. Claire Tolan dove into her work with Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), a physical sensation induced by specific auditory triggers. At no point in my life did I think I would be lying under the night sky watching Candy Queen ASMR Role Play video with strangers. However, the physical dynamic of the panel completely shifted as the collective Total Refusal, whose practice focuses on creative interventions with video games, began to set up their station—which was, to our glee, a cooking station. In this session, simulation and reality paralleled each other: as the group played a cooking competition game, which was projected on the screen behind them, they prepared bowls of pasta for us hungry spectators in the real world. The audience had to shift their attention quickly to take in all the movements happening in front of them, while also having the freedom to choose a fraction of the performance to focus on. The act demonstrated how attention is a primary resource in video games and the gender dynamics of cooking; in the public sphere, it is often depicted as a competitive spectacle dominated by white men yelling at each other. It was ironic to see how cooking could become a tool of radical discourse when combined with video games—themselves a masculine-coded form of entertainment.

Total Refusal’s interplay between reality and simulation signaled a shift toward complete immersion in the screen. The following sessions focused on various online initiatives which pushed the boundaries of videomaking, aesthetics, and politics. UKRA))i((NATV, a political information platform created by artists based mostly in Ukraine and Poland, streamed a series of talks with activists; an onscreen DJ played in-between, which made for a trippy, politically-charged  rave. Their stream was followed by Omsk Social Club, a Berlin-based collective working with speculative fiction and Real Game Play (RGP), who performed a role-play about the attention economy and cryptomnesia. After that, there was Dream Video Division, who set out to rework the film Speed (1994), inviting collaborators to edit individual sections, which they then stitched together. Perhaps these groups constitute what Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou referred to in his afternoon session as “speculative communities”: a group of people brought together online by niche interests, which allow them to mobilize for a cause or project. 

By 8:00 a.m., around eight people remained on site, and one or two were falling asleep on beanbags. Though I briefly left to get a bit of sleep at my hostel, somehow I feel glad to be back, despite my initial doubts about committing to the full panel. Film Comment Co-Deputy Editor Girish mentioned this feeling in conversation with Kevin B. Lee, Professor for the Future of Cinema and the Audiovisual Arts at Locarno Film Festival and USI. “There is something deeply rewarding about discipline, to experience discomfort for 24 hours,” she said. “There is something fulfilling in subjecting yourself to something that’s not easy. It’s pleasurable to notice how the body responds to something.”

It is indeed satisfying to notice how, across eighteen hours of attendance, I mentally drifted in and out of the space, whether due to the biological algorithm of my body, external stimulation, or streams of thoughts. Returning to Dernbach’s ideas on circadian rhythms, no one can be fully attentive for 24 hours. Rather than a dichotomy between attention and distraction, the fluid format of the panel seemed to advance a third way: the creation of a space where one could freely alternate from intense, “productive” discourse to the luxury of beanbag leisure, which made it possible to observe the shift between them. In Komporozos-Athanasiou’s words, “It’s not about how to recover the loss of attention or minimize the distraction: but recognizing the possibility for distraction. Maybe we can be creatively distracted, inhabiting this ephemeral space.”

Today, distractions can manifest in the endless stream of short-lived content on the Internet, which prompts questions about how the traditional cinema experience might evolve. Concepts of cinema and spectatorship may expand in form and definition. On this topic, Lee prefers to think of cinema as a “heightened space for concentration”: this allows him to observe the shift of cinema beyond the dark room, its gradual encroachment on smaller screens, and the way that it coalesces with other forms of media. 

Perhaps the purity of cinema is a myth—just like the purity of attention, which naturally fluctuates depending on the context. Rather than mourning the loss of true cinema and undiluted attention, the panel positioned these changes as evolutionary mutations, which can encourage creativity and new ways of conveying meaning. This realization doesn’t directly resolve my anxiety regarding the current attention economy, but this panel wasn’t designed to tie up loose ends. Instead, it offered us the space to breathe and open ourselves up to these possibilities, evoking what Steyerl called “optimism in desperation.”

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