LAST MONTH, I went to see the ambient / art-rock band Sigur Rós in concert. The Icelandic group is renowned for their lush, immersive concert presentations, and this evening was no exception. The first clue? Hanging 30 feet overhead and draped over the entire front, sides, and rear of the stage were gauzy, white curtains.
As the lights darkened and the first notes drifted in, high-definition projections began to flicker on the rear and side screens, bending the visual dimensions. Spotlighted silhouettes of the band, slumped over their instruments, cast eerie, 15ft-high shadows on the front curtain.
It came as no shock to me when iPhones started to rise from out of the crowd. Some people just snapped a quick picture. Others filmed entire songs. In a darkened auditorium, the camera phones glowed like beacons, on and on and on into the night, a candlelit vigil for — what, exactly? Shaky, overexposed footage and distorted sound?
My annoyance at this distraction gradually waned (witnessing the cathartic “Hoppípolla” certainly helped), but after the show, I kept thinking about those phones, and why we choose to document an experience rather than just experience it.
I’ve been that guy in the crowd with my camera phone. When one of my favorite bands starts the opening chords of a favorite song, somewhere in my brain, alarms are going off, screaming:
What’s happening right now is important. I need to preserve this.
I think that urge is natural and good. But it also presents a choice: Will I plunge myself right back into the moment, surrendering to the purpose of the artists onstage? Or will I reach for my phone, and play journalist?
Neither choice is wrong. But I’ve seen hundreds of concerts in my 32 years, and exactly none of my favorite moments have occurred through the lens of a camera or an iPhone.
Our brains are great at multitasking all sorts of things, but experiencing art is not one of them. Good art presents a zero-sum game of consciousness — you either allow yourself to be fully engaged, or, by working to document it, you detach yourself.
Being cradled in rhythmic sway by Radiohead and “There, There,” along with 30,000 others at Bonnaroo in 2006. Packed into a crowded, sweaty church in Greenwich Village, singing along in holy unison to “Wake Up” with the Arcade Fire. Bouncing up and down to !!!, Tilly and the Wall, Gogol Bordello, Big Boi, Girl Talk, Robyn, The Roots, LCD Soundsystem…my eight-megapixel camera was so unworthy of these moments.
We all know that a concert is an inherently temporary event. The live music you hear and see will never be played exactly the same way again. Some people see this as a tragedy — the art, once performed, is now lost forever. To others, the fleeting nature of the moment is exactly what makes it beautiful.
Ultimately, I think it’s important to resist that insidious desire to quantify and warehouse the important moments of our lives. It’s better to savor a moment rather than save it, to make a memory rather than make media. A freedom and availability to the present moment, which will never come again, is always the right choice. Awareness is all you really need to make a memory.
This post was originally published at 20 Something Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.