Mobile phone technology in art galleries

The mobile phone has transformed contemporary society into a tech dependent, distracted nation. Despite their many benefits, such devices have greatly hindered our ability, particularly in the younger generation, to focus and engage in their surroundings. ‘For many who encounter art casually, visitors to museums and galleries, reflection is often assumed to be the response of the art viewer’ (Leggett 1999, p.176) thus, the response required by the artist from the audience is one of intensive study, interaction, and minimal distraction. Multitasking can be defined as engaging in several things at one time. American psychologist Michael I. Posner has devised a definition of ‘attentional tasks’ to assist in the understanding of multitasking. Posner discusses the theory of ‘rapid attention’ as the ability of individuals to ‘only process one stimulus at a time, but rapidly shift back and forth between the stimulus’ (Posner 1990) and another. In this situation, it ‘takes more time to process the information, and therefore results in missing information during the process of switching between the stimuli’ (Posner 1990). Throughout my observation I will aim to connect Posner’s theory to my study of the use of mobile phones and people’s ability, or lack thereof, to simultaneously pay attention to artistic detail in galleries.
This paper is based on an ethnographic observation of young people in ‘The Museum of Modern Art’, a public Gallery devoted to Modern Art in New York City. The intention of my study is to examine the way in which people are able to interact with and also observe artwork, whether they appear engaged in the subject matter of the artist’s creations, and if the use of mobile phones puts a divider between the individual and their ultimate experience of the Gallery and its pieces. Through the use of cultural anthropology, the study of human cultural differences, I was able to fully observe my subjects. I studied the variation in how groups of people behave, and sought to confirm ‘that much of human behaviour is learned rather than inherited’ (Priest 2009, p.17).
My observation began in a viewing room focusing on works such as ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, painted by world-renowned artist Pablo Picasso. I chose this particular space as it clearly hosted one of the most sought after pieces of work in the museum, and its subject matter appealed to a diverse range of artistic preferences. I decided to focus on both males and females of ages 15 to 25. I chose this particular demographic because they are the most prolific mobile users in society today. Over a period of two hours I observed approximately 20 case studies. My first challenge was to study the difference in how people approached Picasso’s painting. As visitors poured into the room, I noted the behaviour of those gripping onto their mobile devices. It was clear that many younger groups had ‘cybernetic reliance’. As they moved towards the painting, they would fiddle with their phones and scurry to obtain the optimum position to take a photograph. Identified by a trend in behaviour, many mobile phone users were more interested in viewing the artwork through the lens of their device, than having a direct face to painting interaction.
People would enter in small groups and congregate before the painting, taking photographs in front of Picasso’s work, and then moving on to the next where they would then repeat the same behaviour. Having experienced this pattern, and in line with the view of Australian Art Historian Christopher Allen ‘it is true people have become more used to looking at art in this lifeless form, but the real meaning of compulsive photography is as an act of possession’ (Allen 2013, para.5). It was clear that the way in which young viewers engaged with the Picasso painting, using the assistance of their mobile phones, was ultimately an act of consumption. The viewer’s body language was hasty, they were disengaged, and their priority was not to absorb the aesthetic of the work, but to use their mobile phones as a lazy alternative to exercise attention, and as a substitute for looking. It seems to me, this behaviour is not dissimilar to compulsive buying in a supermarket.
In order to gain a greater understanding of the interference of mobiles in a Gallery setting, it was important to also focus on those few who were not cyber dependant. These people would approach the artwork, and move to their next viewing in a very different way to those looking through the eyes of their phone. Their behaviour was soothing, not rushed – and their attitude towards the art was consistent with the historical culture of an Art Gallery. This is in contrast to the cyber dependant who consumed the artwork by taking photographs for later viewing, or who were simply distracted by incoming phone calls, text alerts or general mobile phone use.
The use of mobile phones challenges traditional notions of the culture and heritage of Art Galleries. The idea of a ‘passive regard or reflection upon an artwork, accepted as a sign of respect for the integrity of its maker, and the aura of the object itself’ (Leggett 1999, p.176) has greatly decreased after use of mobile phone technology was granted in public Art Galleries. It is important to recognise this cultural change as media devices evolve, to avoid a loss of museum history and etiquette, but also to encourage complete absorption in artistic experiences. The findings in my social study align with Posner’s idea of ‘rapid attention’, and support the theory that mobile phones are undoubtedly a distraction in the dedicated space of an Art Gallery. In future, it is vital that we understand the distraction caused by mobile devices. Indeed, some artists such as Marina Abramovich have banned the use of mobile phones in their own exhibitions, in hope that it will encourage greater interaction and appreciation of their artwork.

Featured Image: Floating Heads Installation by Sophie Cave
Allen, C 2013, Complex fields of vision at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, The Australian, retrieved 25th March 2016, <;

Leggett, M 1999, ‘Electronic Space and Public Space: museums, galleries and digital media’, Continuum: Journal Of Media & Cultural Studies, 13, 2, p. 175, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 25 March 2016.

Posner, M.I 1990, ‘Hierarchical distributed networks in the neuropsychology of selective attention’, Cognitive neuropsychology and neurolinguistics, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, pp.187-210.

Priest, H.P 1996, Doing Media Research, 2nd edn, SAGE Publications Inc, Washington.

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