Artist Marina Abramović – the woman famous for staring into a record-breaking number of people's eyes at MoMA, letting an audience point a gun at her head, and convincing the public to take performance art seriously – has some opinions about our phones. Namely: They are distracting us, and we need to stop pretending like they aren't.
Her 2015 project was called "Goldberg," and it was a collaboration with celebrated pianist Igor Levit and the Park Avenue Armory. The team says it was designed to help audiences remember what full attention actually feels, looks, and sounds like. Through a performance of J.S. Bach's notoriously difficult Goldberg Variations, they were attempting "a reimagining of the traditional concert experience," in which attendees first trade their tickets for a key. Each key had a corresponding locker, in which they were instructed to put their phone, watch, computer, and any other personal belongings that tell time or receive a signal from outside.
Once they had locked the doors, they were given a pair of noise-canceling headphones. For the first thirty minutes of the performance, that's it. The entire audience – and also Levit, the performer – sat together in complete silence.
Levit then broke the silence by starting to play his version of the Goldberg Variations.
On this podcast extra, Abramović explains her "method" for really, truly listening:
Marina Abramović: You're taking a taxi, you’re concerned you’re on time, you’re answering [a] last phone call and so on. And you’re arriving, and you sit down, and you hear the concert... but you’re not ready to hear anything. You’re just too busy. So I’m giving this time and space to the public to actually prepare themselves.
Manoush Zomorodi: But surely, I mean, we’re grown ups right? I’m coming to the concert. Can’t we just turn off our phone? Why does it have to be so heavy-handed?
Abramović: ...If Igor has enormous discipline to learn by heart the Goldberg variations with 86 minutes, and play [them] in the most incredible magic way, we can have discipline to to honor this. And to just see, to have [a] new experience... the moment you don’t have your phone and you don’t have the watch to check if you’re sitting there for five minutes or ten, it just gives you a completely different state of mind.
Zomorodi: I’m concerned that my state of mind won’t be one of calm but rather one of agitation. That it’s going to be very difficult for me.
Abramović: Well this is where you have the real problem then. That you have to address the problem in your life. That is why it is good for you.
Listen above or anywhere you get your podcasts. Bonus points if you sit in total silence for 30 minutes first.