Free Time / Freeing Time: In Praise of Boredom and Uncertainty (Part II)

by A.R. Warwick, Fall 2011

After writing part one of this series, I started thinking about looking at boredom from a different angle. Rather then focusing on tedium, especially that imposed under the elitist purview of modernist criticism, this installment will focus on the revolutionary potential of boredom, as suggested in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. In his analysis of the work of Joseph Havel, Michael Pepi discussed how modernism’s formalist exercise of the blank canvas, the empty space or empty time occluded the potential of absence and duration to have social and societal meaning. (Artwrit, Feb. 2011)

Modernity’s ethos of boredom as a sign of moral or intellectual weakness reflects the Calvinist doctrine within capitalism. As individuals shifted from a cyclical sense of time to a granular one, time became a commodity to be sold, exchanged and, more importantly, spent. Each moment has value and therefore cannot be wasted. The hostility that arose from viewers of Warhol’s films and visitors to the Museum of Jurassic Technology is a direct result of the feeling that the time they gave had been wasted. To have free time, time not devoted to being productive, was to waste time. Even leisure requires occupation through hobbies, crafting and sport. This drive to account for time was the motivation for Alyson Provax’s Time Wasting Project (2009). In it she documented every way in which she “wasted time” in an attempt to learn how to be more productive. Her idea was that out of twenty-four hours, she worked eight hours and slept for eight hours so she should have eight hours free. She documented each unproductive period on a series of cards ranging from “1 hour, 32 minutes comparing nearly identical options” to “24 minutes of worry when it’s too late to change a thing.” The cards themselves, which often slide into platitudes, are less interesting than the basis of the project, human mortality. Provax’s anxiety over not doing or accomplishing enough is tied to her belief that wasting time is wasting life minute by minute.

This fear of wasted time, of unoccupied time, according to Martin Heidegger, arises from anxiety over facing one’s ontological condition as ungrounded and contingent. The fear of boredom or wasted time can only be conquered by enduring it. Free time allows one to remain aware of the nature of our being-in-time. However, while leisure is productive, for Heidegger, boredom is dangerous; it anesthetizes one from the world and should be conquered at all costs.

Conversely, Walter Benjamin saw real value in boredom. In his Convolutes he discusses the benefits of a rainy day to the city dweller. By muting the experiences offered by the city, one gains access to quotidian memories that are overlooked when consciously searching for the past. The same way that a child’s boredom turns them to focus on minutiae and effluvia of urban life, the isolation of the rainy day can do the same for adults. (Joe Moran, “Benjamin and Boredom,” Critical Inquiry, July 2003).

An exploration of this sequestered monotony took place on a December day in 2010 when two hundred people paid £15 to attend Boring 2010 and experience seven hours of dull presentations on dull topics. Presentations included William Barrett’s “Like Listening to Paint Dry” in which he recited the names of 415 colors listed in a paint catalog, “The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs,” “Personal Reflections on the English Breakfast” and “My Relationship With Bus Routes.” Organized by James Ward, Boring 2010 was his response to the cancellation of an event called the Interesting Conference. Each member of the audience was supplied with unlimited coffee, energy drinks and energy bars to sustain them through the event.  He opened with a discussion of his tie collection, followed by an expert milk tasting and discussion of optimal food pairings. The most thoughtful presentation was Naomi Alderman’s “What It’s Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 25 Hours a Week” on her experiences observing the Jewish Sabbath as a child, concluding, “When we learn to tolerate boredom, we find out who we really are.”

Benjamin also saw a social value of the shared boredom of the urban experience. Waiting in queues, on daily commutes or on the crowded street produces a boredom that raises the question of how one should spend their granular time. An awareness develops of one’s place in the monotony, or as Joe Moran puts it, “that the linear narratives of development which we construct around our personal histories are often flimsy and provisional.” This awareness also reveals that this daily monotony is based in the contradictions of society and can be changed only by their resolution and the creation of an alternative based in creativity and pleasure.

That there was such a large audience for something advertised as boring also raises questions about free time. Who are the people willing or able to have what many would see as non-productive free time? Joe Scanlan asked himself the same question when noticing the growing audience at a showing of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in London. The work consists of a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) projected at two frames a second (instead of the usual twenty-four per second), making the film run exactly twenty-four hours. As a tourist, Scanlan himself embodied free time, but who were the others? He suggests the classes usually imagined as having free time: students, the unemployed or the idle rich.

When our time is granular, when we use it primarily to track our ephemerality, every clock becomes a memento mori. With the mass economic insecurity in a cognitive-cultural economy, unproductive time or free time is a luxury that few can afford. The ideal of a so-called “MBA President” has foregrounded a “business-model” approach to fields unsuited to the criteria of quantifiable time.  In a recent issue of Art Journal (Summer 2011), Scanlan discussed the role of free time in artistic production asserting that what appear to be leisure activities actually feed an artist’s work. Similar arguments are currently underway in academia, where professors are being asked to document their “productivity” on an hourly basis. What surprised Scanlan was how those with whom one would associate free time, the artist’s audience, often play a role in “completing” or “activating” the work, preferring some form of productivity over true leisure.

In 1995 Pierre Huyghe established L’Association des Temps Libérés for the development of nonproductive time, the study of free time and the promotion of a labor-free society. One aspect of this project was to reconceive the exhibition from a culmination to a production, engaging with the language of film, but often focusing on producing events. In his most recent work, The Host and the Cloud (2010), Huyghe filmed an experiment he staged in the abandoned Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, in Paris. The events or “apparitions” occurred over three specific days (Halloween, Valentine’s Day and May Day).  Something between an experiment and an extended ritual, he hired fifteen actors to function under certain conditions and influences but without any scenario to wander the building and react to events and situations presented by professional and amateur performers. The experiment took place on and off over the course of a year, with audiences to witness the events on the three holidays. In essence, Huyghe created a human zoo where the environment was set but the outcomes were unpredicted. Trials were re-enacted, personal stories recounted, generating public and private memories that are both individual and universal.

The resulting film was supplemented with animation of a rabbit during post-production. As an imaginary character, the rabbit is the alter ego of the absent subject of the film, wandering through the film and watching like the witnesses to the live event. But the rabbit is not the subject, and through fragments of the film, reveals our own roles as characters in a narrative where we are not the protagonists. The film itself lasts only two hours, but the viewer is very aware of its duration as details slowly accumulate or are repeated, leaving them little choice but to surrender and digest the fragments of the collective memories on screen. The intention behind the film was for the viewer to lose time and enter the hypnotic state of boredom, allowing the mind to stop controlling one’s reception of the information and allow the unconscious to wander, collecting fragments of collective memories.

Durational awareness is the explicit subject of Christian Marclay’s film The Clock (2010). It is a compilation of commercial film clips that focus on statements of time. The projection time at twenty-four frames a second and audience time totals twenty-four hours.  Most importantly, the narrative time synchs with the lived time of the viewer. In essence, the film is a working timepiece, synchronized to the local time zone. Along with the clips of timepieces are narrative clips from various films where time is noted or discussed. The piece is fragmented, presenting a range of narratives, moods and settings within the space of a few minutes. While the viewer easily recognizes the actors on the screen, it is time that is the multivalent protagonist of narrative cinema. It also illustrates how attuned many viewers are to the rhythms of commercial  (usually American) film by how immediately noticeable it is when Marclay includes a clip from a foreign film. Foreign films tend to manipulate narrative time differently, some would say slowly, which is a result of using the pace of real time. Much of the resistance to foreign films is based on their refusal to act as an escape. One sign of a good commercial film is how quickly time seems to pass for the audience, while an indication of an inferior film is often how many times viewers check the elapsed time as they watch. As a timepiece, The Clock constantly reminds the viewer of how much time has passed. Everything that happens on the screen is in the present tense. In a recent issue of October (N. 136, Spring 2011), Rosalind Krauss describes this effect as “now time.” As she points out, The Clock turns reel time into real time for an audience made continually aware of the passage of the present.

The sublime awareness of our own mortality makes time precious; we exchange units of our limited time for economic security and an ingrained work ethic demands productivity from our meager leisure time. We are characters in a narrative not of our own making, and to claim our status as protagonists may require rejecting the present system in favor of Benjamin’s utopia based in pleasure and creativity, or Huyghe’s ideal labor-free community. They call for the decriminalization of boredom and non-productive time and movement away from commodified, granular time in favor of space for contemplation.

Read Part I of this essay here.