Neuer Berliner Kunstverein - Past Future Split Attention

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 September 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Dan Graham Past Future Split Attention (1972)


Dan Graham Past Future Split Attention (1972)

The further we enter into the 21st century, the more important Dan Graham's work from the 1970s is becoming, not just for the history of video art, but for contemporary art in its efforts to rethink all its traditional parameters: time, space, materiality, subject, relation. In retrospect, Graham seems to have anticipated almost every major development over the past thirty years, and in particular, he pioneered the spatial turn well before anyone had thought of the concept. What is more, right from the start, he added 'time' as the fourth dimension of the art space that is the gallery.

Although his Time Delay Rooms are perhaps better known (and more fun), Past Future Split Attention is one of my favorites. It is Minimalism at its best and most impressive – especially when comparing its casual improvisation with the orthodoxies of the 1970s, in NY as well as among the international film avant-garde: in Graham, there is no need for reflexive formalism, no insistence on materialism, no fetish of media specificity. Instead, a situation of almost banal simplicity, recording a fleeting, impermanent and conversational exchange. And yet: even at the time, one might have seen it as a witty but not irreverent response to Jacques Lacan's "you never listen from where I speak", or as an ironic comment on the writings of the then very popular schizo-psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, with his intersubjective "knots".

Seeing it again, however, I am more struck by Graham's uncanny ability to think time and temporality into any spatial or interpersonal configuration whatsoever. This may be stating the obvious, since among this artist's innumerable experiments, innovative installations and bold performances, the co-presence of multiple temporalities has always been one of his hallmarks, but I think it is these time shifts, time delays, and time travels speak to us in such spontaneous and immediate ways that they mark him out as the towering figure of the 1970s revolution in the arts in America. Alert to the Zeitgeist and alive to his surroundings, he grasped the enormous changes that were taking place around him, in a way that was very physical and immediate, but also very conceptual and subtractive. Making full use of the humble unconventionality of materials and media that henceforth would enter into art-making, he nonetheless restricted himself in each work to very few basic elements, in order to push to the utmost their philosophical potential: in this respect, a true disciple of Marcel Duchamp, without ever reproducing or replicating the master.

Past Future Split Attention is delicately poised between a video, recording a unique and single performance, and a template or script for live action, inviting future – repeat – performances. Minimal instructions sketch the situation: "Two people who know each other are in the same space. While one predicts continuously the other person's behavior, the other person recounts (by memory) the other's past behavior. Both performers are in the present, so knowledge of the past is needed to continuously deduce future behavior (in terms of causal relation)." One can call Past Future Split Attention a dance piece or 'stand-up Beckett' but it is also an encounter that loops a therapy session with a boxing match. Like the latter, there are some ground rules, and a set of (creative) constraints; like the former, there is room for free association and massive transference. The two protagonists share the same space but live in different time-zones as it were. One is conjuring up the past while the other is commenting on the present, but as one predict what we are about to see, the other one has already consigned it to a memory. Words anticipate actions as if by remote control, while physical gestures are being cornered into the past tense. Having apparently shared a lifetime in each other's company, they can draw on background knowledge but such is the talking past each other that they also have to think on their feet, in order to go with the flow, stay in sync, and not fall out of the loop.

Graham has described Past Present Split Attention "a figure-eight feedback-feedahead loop of past/future'. In am ore technical language, one could say that it is the test-run of a system of transfer and exchange where positive feedback and negative feedback are not opposed to each other, but alternate with each other: negative feedback not regulating input-output but tending towards entropy, while positive feedback neither amplifies the signal nor feeds on itself, but pushes its excess energy towards a future that might never arrive.

So far, I have described Past Present Split Attention mostly in terms of the temporalities that it intertwines, overlays and loops. But, of course, the piece also functions as a mirror: a two-way mirror for the characters on the move, so sometimes one of them can 'see through' (to) the other, at other times, the other is completely opaque and he only sees himself in the mirror. The audience, too, has to decide: are they included, according to conventional theatrical space of the invisible fourth wall, giving them transparency and access to the action before them as if looking through a window? Or are we becoming so intensely aware of ourselves, our bodies, our fatigue and boredom, our nervous laughter, our embarrassment at watching painful and painfully performed acts of self-exposure, that the performance is in fact a mirror: designed to be opaque, given a brittle surface, so as to make ourselves see ourselves in the act of seeing. Not 'the mirror and the lamp' of romantic aesthetics, but 'the mirror and the loop' of (Rosalind Krauss') video narcissism morphing into social networking.


Thomas Elsaesser • Reguliersgracht 20 • 1017 LR Amsterdam, The Netherlands • Email:
Copyright © 2013, Thomas Elsaesser