Review of THE THIRD, MEANING: ESTAR(SER) Installs the Frye Collection

Fig. 1. The ”Frye Trunk,” from the ESTAR(SER) Collections. Photo: John Berens

A thing that masquerades as freedom of attention is on the rampage. It resembles an infinitely scrolling buffet of choice, where even the most thrilling of confections are made up of the same dye and corn syrup as all the rest. Constant invitations to self-expression are instead solicitations to evacuate the self, in which, in the end stages, one simply arranges a series of attractive objects within the empty, bauble-be-decked frame of a thing that was once a person.

Manifesto for the Freedom of Attention (2019)

This passage from the Manifesto for the Freedom of Attention drafted by The Friends of Attention, “a coalition of artists, scholars, and activists concerned with attentional forms (and practices) that are resistant to commodification,” describes one possible outcome of full submission to the attention economy in which we operate today. According to an early study of this phenomenon, data on the internet doubles every two years, and a recent Forbes article notes that we are exposed to 6,000 to 10,000 advertisements a day. In turn, corporations have tried even harder to mine the precious and limited resource of consumer attention. But these strategies to increase time on device or “TOD”— coincidentally also the German word for death, as the Friends of Attention note—are pernicious threats to forms of freedom, desire, and community that sustain a livable life. A recent exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, “THE THIRD, MEANING: ESTAR(SER) Installs the Frye Collection,” was an enigmatic response to this “crisis” of attention. Its innovative curatorial practice revived the gallery as a scene for human connection and analog interaction.

The show ran for a year from October 15, 2022­ to October 15, 2023 and was part of an ongoing series of creative revisions of the permanent collection at the heart of the Frye. At the invitation of Amanda Donnan, former chief curator and director of exhibitions, it was guest curated by the research collective ESTAR(SER), an acronym for The Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization (now incorporating the Society of Esthetic Realizers). This name is perhaps the first clue to the parodic and absurd mode in which this group operates, recalling avant-garde plays with language and critiques of the institutionalization of art. The object which greets the visitor on entry to the exhibition, the “Frye Trunk,” appears similar to Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise, the “box within a suitcase” works he began in the 1930s which, when unpacked, present a kind of readymade exhibition of his most famous pieces in miniature reproduction (Fig 1). The Frye Trunk does not contain works of art, however, but objects and items which, according to the curators, were collected over the decades by a Seattle-based offshoot of an obscure and secretive group of individuals who gather to practice forms of radical attention, The Order of the Third Bird. In the catalog for the exhibition, which takes the form of an issue of a “Proceedings” of ESTAR(SER)’s research, we are told that the objects in the trunk are evidence that “persons engaging in ‘sustained, durational practices of attention’ have worked in sporadic and intimate communities in the Seattle area for a very long time.” Furthermore: “Art has played a role in a significant number of these occasions, but so too many other kinds of objects and situations and locations. In immensely diverse ways, then, collaborative attention has convened those who have shared in its choreographic powers.1

Fig. 2. Installation view, The Third, Meaning: ESTAR(SER) Installs the Frye Art Collection, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, October 15, 2022—October 15, 2023. Photo: Jueqian Fang

“Collaborative attention”: this is what the curators of the exhibition also aim to curate in museum visitors. The trunk’s collection of various outmoded optical devices announces the curious and many layered conceptual framework of this installation, which draws from the Frye’s permanent collection of primarily 19th and 20th century German and Central European painting and Pacific Northwest contemporary art (Fig. 2). The curators have arranged the works in groups of three, prompted by what they think was this Seattle group’s preoccupation with triads and echoing the guiding legend of the larger Order of the Third Bird, whose name relates to Pliny’s famous story of the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis. A later account, supposedly by the Roman poet Ausonius, tells of Zeuxis reworking his hyper-realistic painting of a boy with grapes, setting it outside, and seeing three birds approach: one was scared by the image of the boy this time, another pecked again at the grapes, but a third bird simply landed in front of the painting and looked at it for a long time. “What a weird bird,” Zeuxis is said to have remarked.2 So, too, are visitors to the Frye invited by the weird installation to stay and look for a long time—and to make weird meanings together.

The weirdness primarily arises from the fascinating juxtapositions and spatial manipulations designed by the members of ESTAR(SER) mainly responsible for the installation, Princeton historian D. Graham Burnett and Yale art historian Joanna Fiduccia. Taking inspiration from Zeuxis’s third bird, and countering art history’s typically binary modes of comparison, the installation multiplies the logics of three. Some groups of three wrapped around walls, other pieces spoke to each other across corners, and the show was punctuated with optical devices from the Frye Trunk. An old telescope was installed through a wall allowing the viewer to peer into the adjacent gallery, and a tri-lobed glass lens was mounted on a stand that, when looked through, divided into threes and turned right-side up a small 1901 painting of a turkey hung upside down.      

Fig. 3. Installation view, The Third, Meaning: ESTAR(SER) Installs the Frye Art Collection, Frye Art Museum, Seattle,  October 15, 2022—October 15, 2023. Photo: Jueqian Fang

But it is perhaps Burnett’s and Fiduccia’s simpler curatorial decisions, such as not providing wall text for individual works or explanations of the themes that guided their groupings, that did the most to provoke the viewer’s curiosity and invite their close attention. Paradigmatic of the kind of freedom that the exhibition framework allowed the curators is the arrangement consisting of an 1881 German painting, Seifenblasen(Soap Bubbles) by Gabriel von Max; a 1984 photorealist self-portrait in a convex mirror by David McGranaghan; and contemporary Indigenous artist Duane Linkletter’s Trap (2016), positioned on the floor in front of both paintings, its mirror and white-painted bear trap installed at ankle height (Fig. 3). Greeting the viewer as they turned from the Frye Trunk display to explore the show, this triad seemed to point back at us, signaling the heightened responsibility of the viewer in puzzling out the relationships between works. Notions of reflection, vanity, the quest for self-knowledge, and the risk of narcissism connect these works through the mirrors depicted or, in the case of Linkletter, employed as a material by the artists. The woman in Seifenblasen gazes admiringly into a handheld mirror with the eponymous soap bubbles floating nearby, a classic reminder that our time on earth is too short to be wasted in vain pursuits—but she appears oblivious. This triad also speaks to the larger aim of the show to evoke self-consciousness about our capacity for attention and its manipulation by the corporate forces intent on “fracking” or profiting by it. In Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses, edited by Burnett and Justin E. H. Smith, co-curator Fiduccia discusses the power of the new-fangled “mirrors” of social media to distort our sense of subjectivity: “once the profitable theft of attention becomes repackaged as self-expression, we begin to give it away for free, dispersing the self through the very project of social self-construction.”3 The various analog technologies of reflection presented in this group of three works may cue the viewer to extrapolate this old experience to our current circumstances, prompting a consideration of how the desire to see, know, and project oneself is met and manipulated today.

The way the show elicits our involvement in determining the meaning of the curatorial choices—why did they put these three things together, then?—runs counter to typical museum practice. This was not a modernist aesthetic experience staged within the “neutral” white cube of the gallery, nor did it include simple educational explanations of artworks. One kind of response to the departures from the norm that Fiduccia and Burnett took with this show can be encapsulated in modernist critic and art historian Michael Fried’s critique of the way minimalist sculpture ruptured the viewer’s aesthetic absorption in art on display. Fiduccia sums up Fried’s problem with this art, that to his mind was littering the floor of New York galleries in 1967, as “attending to our attention to an artwork is the surest way to break its spell.”4 This was certainly not the case for myself, the students in my art history classes, and, it turns out, most visitors to the Frye show. A member of the museum guard staff told me that he had seen more people actually looking at and talking to each other about the art in this exhibition than any other he could remember.

As I observed in my own students during our visits, this exhibition encouraged viewers to think of themselves as part of a community, however briefly, when encountering these objects arranged before them that asked only for their attention—not their ability to classify, evaluate, or determine the meaning of an artwork. This intentional “attentional” community, then, is something that the Friends of Attention (who unsurprisingly include Burnett and Fiduccia) suggest we need to develop at a larger scale in order to reclaim our capacity to make real, lasting social bonds: “Where attention is free, mutual, and consensual, it is radical, it goes to the root, because these relationships form the deepholds for association in a world where the law is dissociation.” Counter to much current discourse about the declining role of the arts in our communities and institutions, the model that Burnett and Fiduccia provide in this exhibition suggests that, surprisingly, the museum—especially a free museum like the Frye—can be a crucial site for the spread of ideas about how we might reclaim our freedom of attention.

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  1. The ESTAR(SER) Working Group on Exhibitions, “The Frye Trunk: Opening a ‘Pandora’s Box’ in the Archives of Attention,” Proceedings of the Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization, New Series, Part VIII, Supplement, 2023: 12-13.
  2. Ibid., 5.
  3. Joanna Fiduccia, “Medium Focus,” Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023), 267.
  4. Ibid., 260.