Spending Time / Wasting Time: In Praise of Boredom and Confusion (Part I)

by A.R. Warwick , Summer 2011

The birth of the idea of boredom is contemporary with that of modernity. The rise of industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created repetitive, tedious labor for the lower classes and increasing periods of leisure for the upper classes. In nineteenth-century literature boredom developed into a sense of ennui and malaise within the leisure classes described like that of the main character in J.K. Huysmans’ 1884 novel À rebours who, bored and disgusted with the bourgeois culture of Paris, retreats into an aesthetic world of his own creation. This kind of boredom was viewed by enlightenment writers like James Boswell as a sign of moral weakness and an emptiness of mind. In the early twentieth century, Martin Heidegger saw boredom as anesthetizing, a retreat from contemplating the reality of our existence. Walter Benjamin viewed it differently, believing that the tolerance for boredom demonstrated one’s willingness to contemplate and reflect within the cacophony of modern life.

More conventionally, boredom is associated with time. Time has been transformed from something that happens to us as we exist as beings-in-time to a commodity held in reserve to be organized and “spent.” As such, we expect a return on the time we spend. We view films, read books and visit museums believing that we will have a worthwhile experience and perhaps learn something. On occasion, works demand that we spend this time in undifferentiated tedium, or learning about something the value of which is unclear.

Andy Warhol’s films Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964) are about nothing so much as duration. The ideas for the films were often explained by Warhol’s belief that something was becoming obsolete. In the case of Sleep:

I could never finally figure out if more things happened in the sixties because there was more awake time for them to happen in (since so many people were on amphetamine), or if people started taking amphetamine because there were so many things to do that they needed to have more awake time to do them in. Seeing everybody so up all the time made me think that sleep was becoming pretty obsolete, so I decided I’d better quickly do a movie of a person sleeping. Sleep was the first movie I made when I got my 16mm Bolex (Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol Sixties, 1980).

Warhol filmed his lover John Giorno sleeping in four-minute sections of silent film over the course of several months, ending up with four hours of footage, however, he only used around thirty minutes worth of film for the final result. By repeatedly looping static shots and projecting at 16 frames per second, 180 minutes of film became a five-hour-and-thirty-minute viewing experience.

The viewer watching Empire looks at the screen, as the stationary camera remains focused on the top of what was the tallest building in the world at the time. Warhol shot his film in August 1964 shortly after the announcement of plans to build the World Trade Center (Callie Angell, “Empire,” in Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures, 2004). But, as Graig Uhlin has pointed out in “TV, Time, and the films of Andy Warhol,” the Empire State Building’s significance for Warhol was also based on its function as the site of a powerful television transmission tower (Cinema Journal, Spring 2010). Just as he believed that amphetamines would make sleep obsolete, he also believed that “you don’t have to read anymore. Books will go out, television will stay. Movies will go out, television will stay” (Warhol in Alan Farmer, “Pop People,” The New Frontier: Art and Television, 1960-65, 2000). Thus while the building itself was famous, it was also a vehicle for fame through the continuous television transmissions. Uhlin described the film as “a sort of staring contest between the two media—the continuous transmission of the television as it meets the outwardly gazing eye of the film camera,” but that contest between the physical medium of celluloid and the electronic medium of television isn’t presented as such to the audience, just a continuous, silent image of the building at night. The film was shot at twenty-four frames per second, but was projected at sixteen frames per second, making a six-hour-and-thirty-six minute reel into an eight-hour-and-five minute presentation. Shot entirely at night, the only action is the changes of the building lights beneath the constant presence of the building’s new floodlights. It ends when they turn off at dawn.

These are not films to be watched, but endured. While experimental cinema usually subverted the tropes of classical Hollywood cinema, Warhol’s über-durational films exchange the durational aspect of the diegesis for that of the projection. There is no narrative conclusion; the films just end. The cultural cachet of watching the film comes from one’s ability to sit through the entire screening, to endure the inevitable tedium of watching a virtually unchanging image for hours at a time (though Sleep would focus on parts of Giorno’s body in the beginning for as much as forty-five minutes at a time before settling on his face). The value of the perceived tedium of the films (and minimalism in general) was supported by a number of critics in the 1960s. Writing in 1965, Barbara Rose asserted, “If, on seeing some of the new paintings, sculpture, dances or films, you are bored, probably you were intended to be. Boring the public is one way of testing its commitment (“ABC Art,” 1965). This attitude toward the art public is illustrated by a description of the Los Angeles screening of Sleep in 1964 by theater manager Mike Getz. Five hundred people attended the screening, which began at 6:45 PM. People started walking out at 7:00 PM and other members of the audience became increasingly restless and finally openly hostile when they were reminded of the venue’s “no refund” policy. Getz reminded them that they knew they were going to see something strange, unusual, and daring, that lasted six hours. When a patron threatened to incite a riot, he relented and gave out over two hundred passes for another show. Briefly stopping the film, Getz tried to explain to the remaining audience that he did advertise it properly, but people interrupted him, yelling, “Don’t cop out!” The film continued, with the projectionist repeatedly falling asleep in the booth. By the time the film ended, only fifty people were left in the audience who were “really digging the movie” (Jonas Mekas, in Movies, 1999).

For contemporary critics, the blame for the audience’s anger or “lack of commitment,” lay entirely with the audience itself. Susan Sontag wrote in 1966:

There is, in a sense, no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration. And the new languages which the interesting art of our time speaks are frustrating to the sensibilities of educated people (Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 1966).

So, what the audience failed to understand was that these boring films (and other works) were actually interesting. Their boredom came from ignorance of the critical and theoretical language of these new works, which they could understand if they had a genuine commitment to progressive art.  The elitism of Rose and Sontag’s assertions ignored a simple reality about these works and others of the period: They were boring. Conceptually and theoretically, they open up myriad avenues of interpretation, but even scholars like Uhlin describe the lot of the viewer as either a continual “struggle to stay attentive and engaged” or “succumb and become entranced by the film’s tedium.”

Warhol’s films were ostensibly motivated by his desire to capture and document what he believed was becoming outmoded. The results were documents that were always already nostalgic. When photographer Martin Parr published his collections of postcards from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, he did so under the title of Boring Postcards. The first volume was made up of British postcards, the second American postcards and the third were German. The focus of these collections was on the suburbia that grew on the margins of modern cities. They showed highways, housing developments, industrial parks, automotive service areas, trailer parks, truck stops, motel rooms and toll bridges. They also included images of campsites and working-class resorts.

Looking through the images in these books, one wonders why someone would make a postcard of something so achingly dull in the first place. But, at the time, these constructions were the height of quotidian modernity, the cutting edge of suburbia. It was a suburbia that many children of the 1950s and 1960s would remember vividly, and the images, many of which are devoid of people, reflect the boredom of long trips in the car and generic motel rooms, of trailer parks paved with sticky blacktop and of office buildings surrounded by miles of parking lots. These boring postcards reflect the tedium of adult life as seen through the eyes of a child. The pleasure of looking at Parr’s ridiculously dull collection comes from the nostalgia they incite in the viewer, not for the highlights of childhood, but of its tortuous lulls. In Walter Benjamin’s writings, boredom can open memories of quotidian experiences and neglected stories. In his discussion on Benjamin’s theories on boredom, Joe Moran described Benjamin’s idea of childhood as “a period of boredom and estrangement, of waiting for an unknown future and accumulating experiences which cannot be understood until adulthood” (“Benjamin and Boredom,” Critical Quarterly, July 2003).

Warhol’s audiences either fled or stayed, either struggling to remain engaged or succumbing to the tedium of his films that offer no conclusions, only experiences.  The different responses of various viewers were based on the perceived value of their time and whether remaining in the theater was wasting one’s time. This issue of the expenditure of time and its resulting value is also raised during a visit to the bewildering Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, California.

The museum is described on its website as “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic,” and the introductory video to the museum along with the narrations at the many exhibition-listening stations is given by what Lawrence Weschler accurately describes as “the same bland, slightly unctuous voice you’ve heard in every museum slide show or Acoustiguide tour or PBS nature special you’ve endured: the reassuringly measured voice of unassailable institutional authority” (Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, 1995). It is a voice we have been trained as children to sit quietly and listen to because it will teach us something.

The voice is what leads us through the Delani/Sonnabend Halls at the rear of the museum’s original building. The narration along with various artifacts included within tell the stories of Madelena Delani, a lesser-known opera singer with what was likely a minor case of Korsakoff Syndrome (which impairs short-term memory) and Geoffrey Sonnabend, a neurophysiologist who wrote a three volume work titled ObliscenceTheories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter. There is a lyricism and romance to the exhibit devoted to Delani made up as it is of feminine fashions and relics of the early twentieth century as well as the care with which they are displayed in velvet-lined wood and glass cases. Her last performance was given at a spa near the Iguazú Falls in South America. However, while Delani was somewhat famous during her life, no real reason is given for why we are being told about her. She didn’t do anything exceptional in the opera world; she just had a problem with her short-term memory. This must be the point, since there is a case with a plate of madeleines with a single bite taken from one of them, a nod to Marcel Proust’s ideas about memory.

We move on to the story of Geoffrey Sonnabend, an Associate Professor of neurophysiology at Northwestern University. There is a detailed diorama of the Igauzú Falls, complete with rushing water. His desk has been preserved and placed within a re-creation of his study, and a wall of photographs documents his parents’ lives along with his own, as well as that family friend Charles F. Gunther. In 1936 Sonnabend was taken to the spa at Igauzú Falls and on his first night there, he attended Madelena Deloni’s final performance. Afterward, feeling listless (i.e., bored), he went for a walk outside and came up with the ideas for “a model for the structure of the mechanism of forgetting” that formed the crux of Obliscence.

There it is. That’s the connection. An opera singer with problems with her memory performed at a spa where a man came up with an elaborate theory of forgetting. At the end of the exhibit is a bench where Sonnabend’s theory is explained through narration and sequentially lit dioramas. According to the narrator, “Geoffrey Sonnabend departed from all previous memory research with the premise that memory is an illusion. Forgetting, he believed, not remembering, is the inevitable outcome of all experience.” This conclusion is formed based on increasingly complex diagrams and formulae showing the visual constructions. The exhibit tape then goes on to explain how they work:

Group one, within 7 degrees of arc of vertical. Group two, between 8 and 90 degrees of arc. Group three, between 91 and 173 degrees of arc” (Lawrence Weschler, Museum of Jurassic Technology, aired December 6, 1996).

In a 1996 episode of All Things Considered, Lawrence Welschler explains that no information of Geoffrey Sonnabend exists, not in the Library of Congress or even Northwestern University. The museum does not have a copy of the book. Throughout the Delani/Sonnabend Halls, photographs, recordings and personal objects illustrate the lives of people whose only proof of existence is the exhibit itself and we are taught a complex theory compiled in a book that cannot be found.

Another exhibit recounts the tale of the hunt for and eventual capture of the deprong mori of the Tripiscum Plateau in northern South America. The name translates as “piercing devil” and the creature was believed to be able to fly through solid matter. This exhibit takes up a single large cabinet and, as the story is told through yet another listening station, portions light up to reveal artifacts from the expedition. First reported by anthropologist Bernard Maston, stories of the creature inspired Donald R. Griffith, author of Listening in the Dark: Echolocation in Bats and Men (which exists and is available on amazon.com) to go look for the creature.  Included within the story of the expedition is a lecture on echolocation followed by an elaborate description of the lead trap used to capture one. It entered and was stuck seven and one-eighth inches into a solid lead wall. Griffith verified that the bat was in the wall by looking at it through an x-ray viewer.  At the end of the tale, the light shines on a block of lead, eight inches deep, where the bat is entombed.

Along with the other exhibits in the museum, these elaborate yet enigmatic presentations have elicited responses just as angry as those at the opening of Sleep in 1964. Time is spent and attention given to narratives and artifacts that may not actually mean anything. We are told as fact by an instinctively trustworthy and authoritative voice stories of people who may or may not have existed and events that probably didn’t happen. The resulting confusion from all the unanswered questions that arise are seen by museum founder David Hildebrand Wilson as a positive, creative state of mind that opens it to myriad possibilities in a manner similar to Benjamin’s belief that boredom could result in philosophical contemplation.

While I am loath to validate elitist critics like Rose and Sontag, it is true that our reactions to tedium or confusion are based on our understanding of or willingness to contemplate what we are seeing. Someone expecting to be educated at a museum, diverted by a film or essay can feel their time wasted when those expectations aren’t fulfilled.

To be continued. Part II will appear in Vol. VII.