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Sofo, Charlie - 2013.4

Charlie Sofo

Cats 2011
digital colour video, sound
1 minute 2 seconds
Purchased 2013

Charlie Sofo’s artwork pivots on attentiveness to place. He notices things – a flickering light, a perfectly round ball of alfoil – and collects them, either physically pocketing them or taking a photo or short video on his phone to store for later use. These collections of objects and images are often corralled to produce a warm, humorous and intimate portrait of a locale. Seasonal Work 2017, for instance, saw the artist forage fresh figs from around his neighbourhood, which he then presented as both a sculptural object and an offering to gallery visitors. Such works highlight the simple act of looking or paying attention. But they also, subtly, open onto the politics of neighbourhoods: migration, introduced botanical species, gentrification, displacement, the ideal of common space, free food. There is an ironically distracted – or wandering – quality to Sofo’s attention. Like tabs proliferating in a web browser, all observations are equally interesting, whether sensual or superficial (a shop sign blowing in the wind), or a deeper meditation on property, social housing or homelessness (prompted by a tent beside a train track in A Short Film 2013). All are subject to the same aesthetic treatment.

Cats exemplifies Sofo’s methodology of observing, collecting and presenting. In the short video, we see shot after shot of solitary cats in Melbourne’s inner-northern suburbs: sitting on front porches, lying in driveways, crossing a street, peering out from behind a fly-wire door, gazing down from atop a fence or sidling up to some flowers. The video is just over a minute long, yet it includes forty-seven shots of individual cats. That’s an average of one cat per 1.3 seconds. Each shot is characterised by a rapid zoom-in on the cat subject, who, on a number of particularly satisfying occasions, returns our gaze. Each zoom is accompanied by a sound effect – it’s ambiguous; it could be the sound of a sharp inhale or of paper shuffling – added to accentuate the sensation of zooming.

In its rule-based format (which we might shorthand as: film cat, zoom-in on cat, repeat), Cats is conversant with the history of structural film. In particular, we might recall Michael Snow’s iconic Wavelength 1967, a forty-five-minute slowly zooming shot of a New York apartment room, accompanied by a tone that slowly rises in pitch. Against this, it is tempting to read Cats as either a product of or a commentary on the contemporary commodification of attention: who in our era of twenty-four-hour news cycles (not to mention internet cat videos!) has the patience for a punishing, actionless forty-five-minute zoom? How can contemporary art engage this infinitely distractable viewer? (It is telling that Snow released a sped-up version of his film in 2003, reduced to just fifteen minutes in length, titled WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time).

Innately entwined with the experience of the internet, the logic of attention economics is that we, as consumers, filter out information that is not immediately ‘relevant’ or ‘interesting’ to us. Accordingly, advertisers and app developers find ever-new ways to anticipate and shape what we perceive to be relevant and interesting, recognising that attention is a scarce commodity to be mined at all costs. If Sofo’s art is an art of attentiveness, then we are compelled to ask: what is the quality, or politics, of Sofo’s attention? To what end is it deployed? Despite the gentle humour that is often present, there is a defiant streak to Sofo’s work. His attention is wilfully deviant and meandering – algorithmically unpredictable. In these ways it is also resistant.

Dr Helen Hughes is Research Fellow, Department of Fine Art, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University.