Brandon Stosuy on “Cultivating an Art of Noticing” in the Age of Scrolling
With Thoughts From Sarah Gerard, Ling Ma, and More
“The world is a really interesting place, and making art is a way of being in the world. I don’t really know how else to be. It’s a stance of curiosity.” –Sarah Gerard (Writer, author of Binary Star, Sunshine State, True Love)
Part of growing up pre-Internet (I didn’t have a computer until I went to college) meant my path was a little weird, as most paths of curious kids were then. I didn’t have Wikipedia to direct me through a band’s entire album catalogue. I had to piece things together in my own particular timeline.
I used the few cassettes and albums I owned as tiny, self-contained resources. I’d read the liner notes of a Sonic Youth album and discover Raymond Carver that way. I looked to see whose art it was on the cover of Sonic Youth’s album Daydream Nation and discovered Gerhardt Richter. Or it just came down to listening—I learned about Keats and Yeats through the Smiths’ song “Cemetery Gates” and Jack Kerouac (and the Beats) via 10,000 Maniacs’ song “Hey Jack Kerouac.”
I discovered Andy Warhol through some of his work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then, once I could drive, I learned more about him. At the public library, I picked up The Andy Warhol Diaries and then tried to research each person he mentioned. I failed, but I did learn about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground that way.
The “local library” was about forty minutes from my place, but I drove there at least once a week and camped out until I was able to make some sort of connection. My resources were scarce, and so I never felt overwhelmed. I’d arrive at the library with a specific question and stay until I had it solved (or close to solved), and then hop back in the car with the books I needed and read them at home. If new questions arose, I’d address them at the library the next week.
When I was living in Canada in my early twenties, I wasn’t legally allowed to work, so I started pawning my belongings and reading deeply at the public library each day as if it was my full-time job. I used that time to get through Proust, Flaubert, Kafka, Woolf, Goethe, etc. I’d take out records, too, which is how I learned about classical music. Once I was able to get a job, I found an assistant’s position at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery. I was tasked with filing all of the art magazines in the gallery’s library, which is how I discovered my eventual friend and collaborator Matthew Barney’s work. Again, research.
When you move step-by-step through a subject, you learn that subject thoroughly. Research, in its various forms, has helped me start to make connections between the things that interested me and to better understand specifically why they spoke to me. It’s helped me to develop my specific taste across genres (visual art, music, literature). It’s exposed me to new forms and ideas. It also gave me my own very particular aesthetic, something that I came to on my own via years of trial and error.
Of course, research doesn’t just mean reading books—it can also be about building or taking something apart to see how it works, or making daily observations, or doing experiments. Sometimes, it just means paying close attention.Research can be as basic as daily observation. It’s not difficult to cultivate an art of noticing, of simply paying attention.
Research can be as basic as daily observation. It’s not difficult to cultivate an art of noticing, of simply paying attention. For example, something I do now and then is to ask my kids to look around the room in our house or some other familiar place, and point out a few things to me that they’ve never noticed before—a shape in a plaster molding, a mark on the floor, a pattern on the side of a lampshade. It’s interesting to watch familiar things defamiliarize and then come back into view.
There’s a tendency toward overstimulation in modern life, and it’s easy to succumb to information overload. Sarah Gerard, a novelist and essayist whose work is heavily research-based, knows this feeling well: “Because I’m a curious person by nature and am perhaps more dopamine-motivated than some other people, I can easily spend hours just clicking and scrolling and clicking and scrolling. I find this mentally and spiritually draining, so for my overall wellness, I know I need boundaries around it.”
How, in the present, can you try to instill those sorts of boundaries or limits? The problem with an endless scroll is that it tends to flatten information, and it’s easier to forget. It’s essential to find effective ways to digest what you’re consuming. What if you punctuate your research with a meditative stroll? Maybe try reading for forty-five minutes and then going to a local park to think about what you just read. Or, on your lunch break, take a notebook instead of your phone.
Also, when does the research or work stop feeling useful and start feeling like unproductive procrastination? It’s hard to nail down an exact moment. For me, I do background work, pile up ideas, then suddenly I want to move forward immediately. When that happens, I feel like one of those bucking horses at a rodeo, jumping in place behind the closed gate. The second it opens, I’m out the shoot. Pay attention to your own signs that you have enough input for now.
Personally, I always find more inspiration by unplugging and taking a fifteen-minute walk than I will doing an Internet search for the same amount of time. When I walk to work, I don’t look at my phone or listen to music. I notice things about my environment—something as simple as the way shadows were cast on a sidewalk through spring blossoms on a tree—and connect them to my memories and emotions. They come back later in my writing, curation, and art projects.
Think of small things you can do in your day-to-day to make room for this kind of open-ended reflection.
How Do You Research?
“In the last few years, I have been going to a lot of estate sales, which feels like endless research. The sales are in the individual’s home, so it’s like you are walking into their autobiography or a museum of personal objects.” –Beth Campbell (Visual artist)
“Sometimes I get spurred from a conversation, quote, or an image and I just want to explore it. I’ll get so deep into researching and completely forget what I want to accomplish in the first place. It’s been a process to recognize that it’s OK and actually strengthens my work.” –Shanekia McIntosh (Poet, performer, artist, librarian)
“A type of research is simply putting yourself near things that inspire you, like going to look at art or watching stand‐up. It doesn’t have to speak to your project directly. You’re just letting your lizard brain make the connections… I have worked in book production, at an indie feminist magazine, a men’s lifestyle magazine, a gelato shop, a library, a social media start-up, and a financial communications group. And I always felt, every time I began a new job, that I would somehow disappear into that role, that I would take on a new identity. For a long time, I felt like a voyeur in my own life as I infiltrated different industries. When I wrote more fiction, I began to see many of my past jobs as a kind of research, even if I didn’t know it at the time. In Severance, the job that Candace Chen worked was one that I had done, too, in a slightly different capacity.” –Ling Ma (Writer, critic, teacher, author of Severance)
“I love getting down to the many‐tabbed, open‐book, magnifying glass on YouTube brand of research. But my eyes are opened in the most unique and exciting ways when I’m not in front of a computer screen. And so that tells me that the world is waiting for me to engage with it in a way that enlivens the work.” –Hanif Abdurraqib (Poet, writer, author of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, A Fortune for Your Disaster, and Go Ahead in the Rain)
“Everything is a product of your inputs and experiences. So the best way to make original work is to diversify those inputs. Surround yourself with different people doing different things, read new books, consume a range of content. Go against the grain. When they zig, roll on the floor. The only way to ensure originality is to apply your unique combination of experiences and skills. It’s the only variable no one else possesses.” –Carly Ayres (Creative director, writer, founder of 100sUnder100)
From Stay Inspired: Finding Motivation for Your Creative Work by Brandon Stosuy. Used with the permission of Abrams Image. Copyright © 2021 by Brandon Stosuy.