Attention Economy at the Locarno Film Festival: a 24h long talk organised with USI


Institutional Communication Service

9 August 2022

Twenty-four hours to talk about attention, with twenty-four speakers live at the festival in Locarno and streaming on Twitch - discussing about attention as a practice, the attention economy and possible alternatives. A 24h long talk on the Future of Attention was held from 12 (noon) on Wednesday, 11 August, to 12 (noon) the following day and is an initiative curated by Rafael Dernbach, a researcher in the joint Locarno Film Festival and USI chair, and organised in collaboration with BaseCamp and Film Comment Magazine.  

Speakers included Hito Steyerl, Laurie Anderson and Kevin B. Lee, whose artistic works have critically addressed the issue of attention and its economisation for years. The conversation also featured academic experts on attention, such as Carolin Duttlinger, professor at Oxford University, and Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, associate professor at University College London. There has also been a series of exploratory talks by streaming collectives, including Krakow-based Ukrainian collective UKRA))i((NATV, the (Los Angeles-based collective Dream Video Division, Berlin-based collective Omsk Social Club, and guerrilla media collective Total Refusal.  

The conversation is moderated by Devika Girish, Khesrau Behroz and Milosz Paul Rosinski. The space was designed by a team of architecture students from USI Academy of Architecture, Mendrisio. 


Rafael Dernbach, how is this 24h long talk structured? 

The rules of the 24h conversation are simple. Each hour a new speaker joins the conversation, takes the lead for one hour, and stays as long as they feel like it. So there is an element of surprise: who will talk to whom? Where will the conversation float? In a time where much of the content we see is strongly formatted, we want to encourage unexpected encounters. This is also why we invited artists, filmmakers, academics and practitioners of attention. We believe the shift in attention we experience needs a broad and open discussion. 


Such a long encounter is far beyond the threshold of attention and even wakefulness. Is it a provocation, or are there reasons behind it?  

Nobody or only a few people will probably attend for the entire time. This reflects our experience in the attention economy. There is always more to do, watch, and experience. The format really wants to make these logics of attention more conscious. Also, the number of 24 hours is intentional. In 24 hours, our bodies usually have completed a circadian rhythm, an entire sleep cycle, with all different states of attention, sleep and everything in between. There is a wonderful book by Jonathan Crary called 24/7 that was an inspiration. 


Are we really observing a decline in attention or is it a cliché? 

The change we are experiencing is more complex than a simple decline. Of course, many digital platforms are optimised for maximal distraction. And distraction is a reality that we all will know very well. But there are also new forms of giving and receiving attention emerging. ASMR is a good example of that, or Twitch live streams that encourage deep attention. At the same time, we should be careful with our obsession with deep attention. Attention and productivity are very much linked. Ana Vaz, one of our speakers, told me that for her, sleep is the biggest enemy of the attention economy. The 24h talk at Locarno will examine the shifts in attention, and the role cinema can play in attention economies. 


What are the consequences of this lack of attention? The presentation mentioned fake news, climate change denialism, erosion of trust in institutions... 

The question of attention is a deeply political issue. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly shown how there is also a battle for attention in social media. But the question is also, who is responsible for the state of attention we are living in? Are we all individually responsible for cultivating attention? Or is there a shared responsibility as well? For example, we use a platform that others use for harassment, distraction or fake news. During the 24h conversation, we also want to look at alternatives to the current platforms and status quo. 


You wrote that cinema is a place of "special attention." What do you mean by that? Would the world be a better place if everyone went to the movies? 

I strongly believe that cinema has the potential to cultivate a special kind of attention. It can be the place for deep emotions and deep understanding. And there is something powerful about watching a film together with strangers. You are at Piazza Grande in Locarno and experience something together with 8000 other persons. You feel the atmosphere and reactions of the others, and for an hour or two, you leave yourself behind. I am not sure cinema can create better worlds, but sometimes it can express ideas before we have the words for them. 


Rafael Dernbach is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, Università della Svizzera italiana. He obtained his PhD from the University of Cambridge; he was a visiting researcher at Princeton University in 2016 and the Freie Universität Berlin in 2015. In 2019, he contributed to opening Europe's first museum of the future, Futurium in Berlin, as a researcher and strategist.