By Justin Jaeckle
For the last year or so I’ve been succumbing to the feeling that contemporary art might be a waste of time. Or, more accurately, that it might be an exercise in the waste of time. On a Saturday night, the first of the festive period, a standing-room only group of art-workers, mostly aged in their early 30s, appeared to be doing just that (for four hours on hard chairs) for Gareth Bell-Jones’s Being Boring symposium at Space. When all that time they could have been at Winter Wonderland.
A Danish philosopher from the Copenhagen Business School opened proceedings with a history of boredom. Touching on the word’s Age of Enlightenment emergence as nomenclature for disenchanted urbanites’ resignation to the hollow emptiness of secular time, Rasmus Johnsen’s presentation developed to fold in research on prison inmates’ devices to cope with ‘doing time’; the ennui of bored bon vivant Gaston in Gigi (1958, “the earth is round, but everything on it is flat”); and the revelatory animalistic character of the suppressed ‘yawn’ as a visualisation of humanity’s ongoing existential conflict between its mudane primal-physiognomy and its aspiration towards higher intellectual values. We’re living in the Enlightenment’s after party it would seem, and have been for a langeweile.
Gigi, 1958 (dir. Vincente Minnelli)
Animals would crawl back onto the stage via Matthew Clements’s critical exploration of the (possibility of) the ennui of the hamster – resigned to the eternal return of its wheel – through the prism of Heidegger’s definition of boredom and self. In a romantically academic paper, psychology historian Anthony Morgan used Nietzsche and David Foster Wallace to chart the passage from Nietzsche’s excitement at the limitless possibilities of a world without God, to the postmodern sensation of freedom as existential crisis, and life as a drag.
First God died, then our attention span did, seems a possible extrapolation.
Artist Cally Spooner would bore us all (and herself it would seem though her onscreen checking of Quicktime’s clock), via two clips from her film Collapsing in Parts (2012), depicting two poor actors awkwardly negotiating the prolonged downtimes of silence (c.8 mins or so) in her oblique episodic screenplay. Forced to perform the direction ‘not to perform’, there manifested a call and response of fidgets and frustrations between her protagonists and the audience; both forced to observe nothing as something.
Cally Spooner, Collapsing in Parts, 2012
The very nature of the talk format looks increasingly problemitised by our ready access to primary sources of knowledge through the Internet. Talks increasingly appear to be a ‘read later’ browsing list narrated in realtime by a spotlit speaker, giving such events the feel of an antiquated theatrical enactment of knowledge transfer, when knowledge is (literally) at our finger tips. Yet the artworld loves them, as an analogue-analogy for the Information Society, and moreover, perhaps, as something to pass the time – because perhaps the artworld is bored and hungry.
The evening’s proceedings explored boredom as a ‘necessary, yet debilitating experience accompanying the creative process.’ And in a world in which the compulsion to lead creative, individuated lives is ever more paramount, boredom may be a pending epidemic, for a populous never fulfilled. Already in 1984 sociologist Sean Desmond Healy described ‘hyperboredom’ as the sensation of ‘the ego’s shocking awareness of its helplessness in regards to its aspirations… The growing metaphysical void at the centre of Western civilisation.’ The emergence of ever more technologies devoted to expelling boredom, and time’s sublimation ever since, would seem to attest to this, and an ongoing effort to inoculate us against boredom’s disease. Buses full of people checking email, Twitter and Facebook, playing Sudoku or Angry Birds, and iCal-ing the hell out of chronological time serve to illustrate a world terrified at the possibility of not being productive, occupied or in the loop – a world in which Vita Activa has replaced Vita Completiva as the higher human goal. And yet we’re still bored. Or rather, boring.
(Apparently at this point I should stop as people on the Internet get bored reading past this word count, but I will persist…).
2011 was convincingly titled the ‘Year of Boring Music’ by The Guardian columnist Peter Robinson, while the same newspaper’s Stuart Jeffries extrapolated further to cite The New Boring found everywhere on TV from Downton Abbey to the Great British Bake Off. A week before the event at SPACE, another Boring Conference – ironically also dedicated to the mundane – sold out at £20 a pop and garnered serious column inches. Boredom is in the air. Strictly Come Mumford & Sons. No wonder we are we bored, when our culture is too.
The post-Fordist victory of productivity over contemplation as the human ideal in a world of evermore stratified chronological time has led to the elision of downtime (in an anthropologisation of ‘always on’ capitalism), as we attempt to avoid exposure to time as reality. Do we have enough time to be bored when information flows faster than we can handle? And/or is this in itself a source of insurmountable ennui? It would seem the answer to both is a resounding yes.
Religion was a constant subtext to the evening’s discussion – the boredom of entrapment in the present having erased the promise of escape through the eternal – and it’s here perhaps that art’s collusion with wasting time was most succinct. Johnsen’s comparison of the ascetic monk waiting for divine revelation, and the studio-bound artist waiting for inspiration, proved particularly insightful within the context of this metaevent in an artists’ studio complex.
If creative production is a game of waiting for a lightbulb, perhaps the experience of consuming art is one of staving off boredom through the pursuit of illumination by others – of art pilgrims ‘stimming’ on experiences of products without grand projects, pursuing the dream of being contemporary – literally, to be ‘with time’ – through a pursuit of the waste of it. With art increasingly divorced from an emancipatory avant-garde project, treading water as it struggles to assert its increasingly weak position in a fast-paced world that fetishes the creative worker and constant cultural production in all sectors (both professional and social), perhaps its one remaining capacity is to counter this by exercising the waste of time.
Being Boring was interesting, but perhaps it is time we concentrated upon making things exciting, and had some serious fun in the process.