Hans Dieter Huber
Split Attention. Performance and Audience in the Work of Dan Graham

(Published in : Hans Dieter Huber (ed.): Dan Graham: Interviews. Ostfildern: Cantz Verlag 1997)


The experience of art is a form of self-experience. In experiencing art, the viewer discovers something about himself. The aspect of otherness in art can provide occasion and stimulus for an experience of the self that under certain circumstances may lead to profound inner change. While in static image media the work of art stands like an impenetrable wall between the artist and the viewer, in performance the performer interacts directly with the audience. He integrates his own person into the process of viewing his work and becomes the interface between work and viewer. In traditional art, in contrast, the artist and the viewer do not interact directly with one another, but rather indirectly through the work of art as a shared point of reference. The artist, who communicates with the audience through the work of art, can only attempt to imagine his partner in the process. With his art he approaches a generalized other, to cite a phrase coined by the American social philosopher George Herbert Mead.(0) Similarly, the viewer can conceive of the artist only in a very general sense. In becoming involved with the work of art the viewer in turn communicates with the artist as a generalized other, a hollow form for his subjective projections.

In performance, however, this indirect reference becomes a direct and symmetrical interrelationship. The relationship between artist and viewer has become one of social interaction. The viewer reacts directly to the behavior of the artist, and the artist can, in turn, respond to the reactions of the audience. (1)

Dan Graham titled an early performance from the year 1972 PAST FUTURE SPLIT ATTENTION. This title suggests that, in principle, a person's awareness can be focused upon two different areas: upon oneself or upon the other. According to this thesis, art is always experienced in a state of divided awareness and can be comprehended adequately only if both aspects of the distribution of awareness are taken into account. (2)


The 1972 performance INTENTION INTENTIONALITY SEQUENCE (3) comprises three different phases of social interaction between the artist and the audience. (4) In the first phase, Dan Graham attempts, by describing his intentions, to achieve a state of complete concentration while eradicating his awareness of the presence of the audience. In doing so, he speaks almost exclusively in the conditional. In the second phase he establishes direct eye contact with the audience as he describes in the indicative what is taking place in the audience at the moment. In the third phase Graham addresses the relationship between himself and the audience. At this point, the relationship between artist and viewing audience becomes the subject of the performance. (5) Once again he speaks in the conditional. The following is a passage from a transcript of the performance:

My intention is to do a piece that has to do with my intention. I sense that the word, i n t e n t i o n, can be broken down or used in two different ways. One way is subjective, and the other is objective. The subjective is what I see; my intention - intentionality - is everything I see in the world. Just the way things appear to me. Or, my intention could be an attitude in my movements, appearing as my behavior. So I wanted to do a piece where I would arbitrarily split myself and time into these two facts of intention. Now I want to do something where the audience and I would be in a kind of a cause and effect relationship, each other's cause and effect at nearly the same moment of stimulus/response. I might be doing something where I affected the audience, where they were the cause of that effect, and they would be able to see it in me as a consequence . . . (6)

In the second phase Graham goes on to describe the audience:

I see just about everybody in the front row in an absolutely static, almost timeless kind of a statue-like expression except that the girl in the front row is fooling with her fingers, scratching on her legs and smiling, laughing, coming very, very close to my time, just sort of natural. And everyone else is very close to me now, except for Max, who is deliberately looking to the side, but out of the corner of his eye . . . Everybody is focused directly on Max . . . except Marta who turns to look behind her at other people in the audience looking . . . . There is a man behind with a beard in the third row who is turning at an angle and chewing. Everybody else now is doing identical displacement gestures either with their legs, chewing or smoking, and, for some reason I can't really figure out, Max is a little bit looking away and lighting a cigarette. Everybody is doing that; one person, two people, everyone looks at him and back at me . . . it hasn't happened before in that sequence, people doing that - not looking at me. (7)

In the third phase of the performance, Dan Graham talks to the audience, discussing, among other things, the alternatives and possibilities he might have had during the interaction but which were not realized:

Maybe I could have said more specific things about people which would have brought me close to one or two specific people . . . focusing on them. Instead it seemed like a vacuum was forming. In other words, I had wanted to come as close as possible to the time of the audience, but I felt their position to be entirely different. Their responses can't correspond, so the spectator's sequences, order of relation, cause-to-effect perceiving, always would be inverse . . . or, one step ahead or behind mine. They can see my motives before I can see the motives in them. (8)

While the performer is describing himself, his full attention is concentrated on himself. He perceives himself as an object of observation. He appears entirely unaware of his surroundings. He takes no, or very little, notice of the audience that is watching him. When he describes the behavior of the audience in the second phase, however, his awareness is deliberately focused outward, upon the others. In other words, he moves from a state of inner-directed awareness to one of outer-directed awareness. He divides his attention between two different areas - himself and the others: SPLIT ATTENTION.


In 1972, the very same year in which Dan Graham first presented this performance, the American social psychologists Robert Wicklund and Shelley Duval published a book in New York entitled A theory of objective self-awareness. (9) In this work they proposed the thesis that a person's awareness constantly moves back and forth between aspects of his or her surroundings and the self. Any stimulation capable of calling one's attention to oneself is sufficient to produce self-awareness and therefore leads to self-experience; thus a mirror, a photo, a scene from a film or even the sound of one's own voice is capable of generating an experience of identity. When the performer describes the behavior of a certain person in the audience and the person hears this, he or she enters a state of heightened self-awareness. His or her perception is no longer directed towards the surroundings and the performer but on the self. In this way the performer calls the audience's attention to itself through his description.

Let us take a look at 'Max', for example. The performer's description causes Max to enter a state of heightened self-consciousness. He suddenly experiences himself as an object of observation. The description by the performer thus mirrors his own behavior for him. Perhaps Max is not even aware that he is avoiding the artist's gaze. Increased self-consciousness is particularly unpleasant in public, and Max attempts to escape from it by altering his behavior. Embarrassed, he lights a cigarette. The transfer of awareness from an external to an internal orientation, stimulated by the performer, represents one of the most crucial and significant mechanisms of the experience of art.

The performer's self-description in the first phase emphasizes certain aspects of his own self that are called to his attention by the situation existing at that particular moment. (10) At the same time, the person becomes aware of a social standard or a societal norm that pertains to his or her actual behavior. For every social situation there is a certain range of behaviors that are regarded as socially appropriate. The standard may reflect personal values or a particular level of expectation with respect to such a social situation. But it may also exist as a part of a generally accepted norm. Thus for every social situation there are both personal standards and generally binding conventions. (11) In a situation of heightened self-consciousness, standards of behavior are compared with actual behavior. When the actual behavioral state does not correspond to one's own standards or to the societal norm, the resulting discrepancy initially leads to avoidance of the state of self-directed awareness. (12) When Dan Graham determines in the course of his description of the audience that everyone is avoiding his gaze, it is clear that this behavior is motivated by a desire not to be an object of the performer's description.

Where it is impossible to avoid this situation, the discrepancy between the social standard and actual behavior can be diminished by adjusting behavior to conform more closely to the standard. Thus objective self-awareness can also serve as a corrective that brings behavior in line with desired or acceptable patterns. This possibility for correction and adjustment of cognition or behavior in keeping with existing standards and norms serves an important function in the process of experiencing art. Even in the static pictorial media it has always represented a significant disciplinary mechanism. According to Anselm Leonard Strauss, language plays an important role in the stabilization and transformation of social identity. (13) The analogous question should be posed with respect to art as well: What role do non-linguistic symbol systems play in the development, stabilization or transformation of social identity?


In an adaptation of this performance entitled PERFORMER AUDIENCE SEQUENCE, presented in 1975 (14) Dan Graham defined the relationship between self-awareness and the awareness of others more precisely, articulating the following premises:

I face the audience. I begin continuously describing myself - my external features - although looking in the direction of the audience. I do this for about 8 minutes. Now I observe and phenomenologically describe the audience's external appearance for 8 minutes. I cease this and I begin again to describe the audience's responses . . . The pattern of alternating self-description/description of the audience continues until I decide to end the piece. (15)

In this passage, greater precision is applied to the change of perspectives. Self-observation and self-description alternate with observation and description of the audience. We can distinguish among four different perspectives in the process: 1. The performer's perspective on himself. 2. The performer's perspective on the others. 3. The audience's perspective on itself. 4. The audience's perspective on the performer as an other. These differing views of performer and audience are further complicated by the possibility of taking the perspective of the other in the interaction. Thus the following perspective-taking situations complicate the process: 5. The perspective of the performer from the viewpoint of the audience. Through this taking of perspective, the audience can identify with the performer's view of itself, meaning that it can experience and comprehend itself as an audience from the performer's perspective. 6. The perspective of the audience from the viewpoint of the performer. The performer may attempt to imagine how the audience sees him, thus experiencing and comprehending himself in this imagined figure as an object of perception from the viewpoint of the audience.

In Mead's view, the ability to assume another's perspective is a necessary prerequisite for the development of a person's social identity. Dan Graham addresses this idea in a written note on PERFORMANCE AUDIENCE SEQUENCE:

When looking at the audience and describing myself, I am looking at them to help me see myself as might be reflected in their responses. In the initial stage of my apprehension of the 'understanding' of 'me' will be imprecise as the meaning, for me, of their gestures is more or less unclear. Similarly my initial description of the audience in terms of their behavior may appear to them as at variance with the self-awareness as a group. (16)

Here, Dan Graham actually uses the term self-awareness in his own formulation. Although his response to my question as to whether he was familiar with the theories of Duval and Wicklund at that time was evasive - 'It was just everybody and everything.' (17) - the parallels and analogies in the conceptual basis of this work are astonishing.

In both the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson and Jacques Lacan, the ability to assume the perspective of the other - taking the role of the other - is an exceptionally important element in the development of a person's social identity. When it hears the performer's self-description and sees him at the same time, the audience can appropriate the performer's perspective and see itself in his place, or 'put itself in his shoes.' The audience can experience itself as a social body. Ultimately, the ability to take the role of the other presupposes the ability to understand the other as well. When this knowledge is applied in a kind of mental experiment in which we replace the artist with the work of art, it becomes possible to understand what it means to take the perspective of a work of art, to identify with it and to perceive oneself from that perspective. Viewer-oriented art history has repeatedly emphasized that the work of art compels the viewer to take on a particular observational role, which must be taken if the work of art is to be properly understood. Thus the observer initially identifies himself with the work of art by taking a certain role or perspective. He experiences himself as an other. This self that sees itself as an other, as reflected by an other, has been described by the American social philosopher George Herbert Mead as the me, in contrast to the I, which in his view constitutes the true, ideal self of spontaneity and creativity.The me represents a person's social identity, constituted in social interaction and shaped under the influence of social norms and public requirements with respect to behavior. The I, on the other hand, stands for one's personal identity, whose origin and development cannot be explained solely on the basis of experiences in social interaction, and which is subject to the anarchic spontaneity and creativity of a single identity. According to Erik Erikson, therefore, a person's identity consists of a sense of belonging to a social community, on the one hand, and its self-awareness as a unique individual, on the other. One's personal identity is its difference from others.

Thus by projecting aspects of his personal identity onto the audience, the artist is better able to understand it. For this self-image projected onto the audience is reflected back to him in the responses of his interaction partners. In this way, personal identity becomes social identity. Performance, however, also enables the audience to experience itself as the object of the observation and description of an other, i.e. the performer. This process establishes a relationship between those components of personal identity (the I) that are not based upon the other's perspective and the social identity (the me), composed of the descriptions and reactions of the others to one's own person. This makes it possible to compare the two perspectives or identities with one another. The discrepancies between ideal norms and empirical behavior can be observed and a correction of one's own self-concept, which is literally a very general concept of one's self, undertaken.

If we examine the specific forms of interaction that take place between the work of art and the viewer, we recognize that the viewer of a painting or a sculpture is fully capable of perceiving himself as the object of his own awareness. In this state of heightened self-awareness on the part of the viewer, generated in the encounter with the work of art, discrepancies between personal identity (the I) and social identity (the me) can be brought to the level of consciousness.


In 1977 Dan Graham completed this series of interactive performances. In an incredibly simple and at the same time complex manner, he defined the problem of differing perspectives and their appropriation more precisely by placing a large mirror at the rear wall of the stage. With this approach, he supplemented the direct interaction between performer and audience by adding a reproduction of that interaction. An image of the self, i.e. the mirror reflection, took a part of the function of externalizing one's own perspective. The personal self (the I) enters through the mirror into a relationship with the social self (the me). It enters into a relationship with the audience as a social community. The mirror makes it possible to see me from the perspective of an other, to experience me as if I were someone else. The discrepancies between the I and the me thus become observable simultaneously. The personal self can be continuously compared with the social self, and continuous correspondence can be established with respect to the discrepancies between social standards and actual behavior.

PERFORMER AUDIENCE MIRROR 1977,(18) presented in 1977, consists of five different phases of social interaction. In the first phase, the performer stands facing the audience. He begins, for about five minutes or so, a continuous description of his external movements and of those attitudes of which he is convinced that they characterize his behavior. He uses a mixture of strictly phenomenological description and a kind of radio football commentary. The public hears the performer speaking and sees his body at the same time.

Holding the microphone with two hands cradling it with, one hand on the top, as if it's a very important object. I'm holding it upright, and now I straighten my head up, wearing, wearing a kind of plain, green shirt, and as I stand very straight, I make a V-shape, with my . . . I make a shape with a V, with my two legs and feet apart, and now I've rocked backwards and almost lost my balance, leaning now the my right, the audience's left side, all my balance on my right foot, and the other foot walks this side of the stage as I walk more regularly, holding the microphone now with two hands, but the hand lower, looking somewhat down but not completely down now, started to walk backwards and stopped, as I said the word now.

In the second phase the performer faces the audience again. Now, however, he looks at the spectators directly as he describes their visible behavior for about five minutes.

Facing the audience. In the first two rows, the audience appears very serious, and now everyone laughs the same kind of laugh, and as they laugh they make a phhh-type of a sound, and the sides of their . . . , it's a laugh, where they don't show their teeth, and now just the opposite, everyone showing their teeth, particularly in the center, and they are laughing a little bit more loudly. This is true in the first two rows, all the way back. But there's some, there are people who are looking down and trying to maintain some seriousness. And now their laugh is much louder, and people smile and chew gum, and people look at each other now and there're many people who are moving their heads likely, which they hadn't before, or scratching themselves, as they laugh immediately after that, they are usually . . . , if their hands were on their faces, they change after that laugh. Now they look at each other to see if that's true, perhaps, it's hard now, and they laugh again; and again there's someone looking at each other, everybody tends to be smiling, as if at a, uh, as if it's a kind of humorous performance . . .

Up to this point, the interaction proceeds according the same scheme used in the two performances described above. Now, however, a significant change takes place. And this change, which I would like to examine more closely, leads us to the heart of the experience of art. The performer turns around and faces the mirror. If we view the mirror in metaphorical sense as an image or a picture, then we can say that the artist faces a picture that presents him and the audience from the same perspective. Through this reversal, the initially opposing perspectives of performer and audience are brought into parallel. Both become joint observers of a third party, i.e. of a medium: the depiction of a social community. In the mirror, both see a reversed representation of their public selves and thus have the opportunity to experience themselves, in a static and momentary sense, as a portrait of a social group.

At first, the performer faces the mirror as he describes the gestures and movements of the various parts of his body reflected in the mirror. Thus he describes his own, reversed mirror-image from the perspective of a third-party, as if he were an other. The audience sees only his back, however. It cannot observe his gaze. By describing himself from the perspective of an other, so to speak, which is at the same time the perspective of the audience, he brings about a change of perspective, a taking of the role of the other. Graham describes himself from a perspective that could also be taken by the spectators in the audience. In this mirroring process, he takes the audience's view of himself and describes his own social, public identity.

Now I'm looking at myself, and what I see is the microphone, an enormously large microphone, held very close to a mouth which is moving rather rapidly, and the eyes are looking down, and I see a contrast between the green, very green shirt that I'm wearing, and a very reddish face. Some hairs are white on the brown, blackish-brown hair of head and beard, and as I stare I look very, very naive as if I don't know precisely why I'm looking at myself, and as I move further back and drop the microphone I see more natural and I can see more of my teeth, it could have something to do with the microphone being very large, that produces the self-consciousness, now I notice my foot is kind of going back and forth as if it's playing with the image of itself.

In the last phase of the performance, Dan Graham describes the appearance of the audience. Remarkably, no one laughs, and the spectators in the back rows tend to be rather inattentive.

Looking at the audience on my right. In the front row, everybody seems fairly serious, in the second row, some people are talking, the third row, everybody seems basically serious but they're smiling, smiling just a little bit. Behind that seriousness which is a kind of, well now people are making gestures as if they're, let's say, acting, showing off a little bit. And now everybody is changed, now people are blinking, talking to each other, making gestures, usually with their hands, to attract attention and the other side is very noisy, the left side, hey look there, they are noisy, because they are all talking to each other and they are not looking at me. This is again in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth row, people are very much like a kind of an unruly gang of people over there. These are the least well behaved people. By the way, people in the first row have been fairly serious and now they're making somewhat nervous, on both sides, yawning or nervous gestures as if it's a little difficult to continue. The best behaved people, I'd say, are in the second row, up to this point. But beyond that it gets pretty bad. Well, there's a change here as people are smiling and laughing, and in the second row, very self-conscious. Other people are talking to each other and weren't mentioned before, in the sixth row, seventh row, all the way back, people are turning and talking to each other in a group, as if conspiring to do something totally different. (19)

Theoretically, one could imagine a painting in place of the mirror, being examined and described by the performer. This would make him a kind of art historian or art critic. Looking at art history and art criticism as a kind of performance strikes me as an especially amusing idea. (20) In the Stuttgart interview, Dan Graham himself characterized the mirror as a sort of Renaissance painting. I asked him about his reasons for introducing the mirror into his performance:

So the audience could use the time-situation. So as I was giving a kind of continuous present time. More like a Gibson time which wasn't static. The audience can see itself in static present time. Also they have a reference to what I said. In other words, after I described them they could look at themselves. And also it gives them an idea of themselves as a social group. So it was the social group that I was giving them that was continuous and then they could look at themselves and see themselves in another social group as a portrait. That also goes back to the Renaissance idea of the portrait. (21)

Graham mentions that with the help of the mirror the audience can make use of the time situation. He distinguishes between a continuous present time and a static present time. The continuously expanded present is a time of consciousness - that is, the time he creates through his description in the consciousness of the audience. It permits the spectators to develop the idea of a continuous self as a social group. The static present as an image, on the other hand, is represented by the mirror. Graham compares it with a Renaissance portrait. He allows his audience to comprehend itself as an other, i.e. as a static, social body.

In his famous 1954 essay entitled 'The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I' the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called attention to the importance of the mirror image in the development of a person's social identity. Like George Herbert Mead, Lacan distinguishes between two aspects of self, the I (je) and the me (moi), as it is reflected in the mirror. The two are not identical. The moi is understood as an I alienated from the subject because it is an external, an other, an unknown I. (22) It is interesting to note that the first English translation of Jacques Lacan's writings was issued in New York in 1977 - the year of Graham's performance. (23) In his essay, Jacques Lacan makes the following statement:

We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image ... (24)

Through the observation of his mirror image a profound change takes place in the viewer. Everyone has an experience of self in viewing his mirror image which alienates him from himself. He sees himself as an other. The experience of the I as an other, as difference, can lead to an objectifying self-transformation, to a permanent process of development, stabilization and change of social identity as social difference.


For much too long, the experience of art was viewed as a kind of one-way street in which the 'message' of a picture was passively 'received' by the viewer. If we regard the experience of art as a form of social interaction, then we are better able to understand the complexity of the perspectives involved and the reciprocal identification of artist with viewer and vice versa. If we accept the experience of art not as a singular, individual experience but as a social process, then it also becomes clear that experiencing art can shape, strengthen or change viewers' social identities by reflecting them back from the perspective of the picture and offering them the experience of a social difference. An individual's continuous concern with art, as an uninterrupted tradition of art experience, can bring about profound changes in the social identity of a viewer whose life and convictions remain amenable to change.I consider this the primary social function of art in our society. It explains why the experience of art is always an experience of and with oneself. And it explains as well why the experience of art is always the perception of a difference.

0 George Herbert Mead, Die objektive Realität von Perspektiven. In G.H. Mead, Philosophie der Sozietät. Aufsätze zur Erkenntnisanthropologie. Frankfurt: 1969, p. 220.
1 The amenability to direct influence through the behavior of another in a communicative situation is thus referred to as interaction. In this context the terms 'reciprocity' and 'interdependence' are often used to characterize the reciprocal opportunities for influencing the behavior of the other in the course of interaction.
2 Furthermore, the relationship between the work of art and the viewer in the static media can be more precisely defined on the basis of the particular form of interaction that takes places between artist and viewer in a performance. Compare with a similar conception of self-observation (based, however, on different premises) articulated by Niklas Luhmann: 'Die Evolution des Kunstsystems' in Kunstforum International, Vol. 124, Nov/Dec. 1993, p. 224): 'Thus the viewer himself also remains invisible in his operations - although with a different operation (for which nevertheless the same applies) he is, unlike all other viewers, able to view himself as well.'
3 Presentations in (among others) the Lisson Gallery, London, March 1972; the Protetch-Rivkin Gallery, Washington, D.C., May 1972; Projects, Inc., Cambridge, Mass., December 1972.
4 The title relates to Graham's concern with the phenomenology of Husserl, to which he became acquainted through his reading of Sarte. See Interview with Dan Graham, p. ...
5 The focus of attention is on the difference between his observations, his behavior and the observations and behavior of the audience and the possibilities that he might have had and the audience might have had.
6 Dan Graham, Theater. Gent: year not given [circa 1982], p. 16.
7 Dan Graham, Theater. Gent: year not given [circa 1982], p. 18.
8 Dan Graham, Theater. Gent: year not given [circa 1982], p. 19.
9 Shelley Duval, Robert A. Wicklund (eds.), A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press, 1972.
10 Wicklund and Duval contend that in the state of self-awareness, attention is directed to certain specific aspects of one's self-image.
11 Each of us knows exactly what standards are relevant to behavior in church, at a funeral, at a party or at an art exhibition.
12 This kind of experience of art occurs frequently. Due to a discrepancy between an ideal self-concept and concrete action, one tends to react with annoyance to art that one does not understand.
13 Anselm L. Strauss, Mirrors and Masks: the search for identity. London: 1977.
14 Presented (among other locations) at: San Francisco Art Institute, December 1975; Artists Space, New York, January 1976; New Gallery, ICA, London, August 1976.
15 Dan Graham, Theater. Gent: year not given [circa 1982], no page given [p. 21].
16 Dan Graham, Theater. Gent: year not given [circa 1982], no page given [p. 21].
17 See Interview with Dan Graham, p. . . .
18 Presentations (among other locations) at: De Appel, Amsterdam, June 1977; P.S. #1, New York, December 2nd, 1977; Riverside Studios, London, March 1979; Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, February 20th, 1981.
19 Transcription of a video recording of the performance PERFORMANCE AUDIENCE MIRROR presented on February 20th, 1981 in the Städtischen Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ulrich Wilmes of the Lenbachhaus in Munich for making the video documentation available.
20 See Robert Filliou in this context: Lehren und Lernen als Aufführungskünste. Cologne: 1975.
21 See Interview with Dan Graham, p. . . .
22 The relationship between je and moi reveals an astonishing similarity to Mead's distinction between I and me. I have not been able to determine whether Lacan ever concerned himself with Mead's work during his lifetime. In any case, the name George Herbert Mead does not appear in his own writings or in secondary literature about Lacan.
23 It should be noted, however, that Dan Graham had already been introduced to the use of the mirror indirectly in the British film journal Screen. His own answer when asked by me when he had first read the essay was that it had been shortly before PERFORMANCE AUDIENCE MIRROR. It could well be, then, that his interest in Lacan's mirror theory, a theory about the formation of the social ego, led to the introduction of the mirror in his performance. Certainly, Lacan's theory enjoyed great popularity during this time, particularly in intellectual circles in Great Britain and the U.S.
24 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits. A Selection. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications 1977, p.2

designed by Hans Dieter Huber