Bhob Rainey on Boredom

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

Source: http://bhobrainey.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/boredom/

Transient

Being generally interested in film and all things marginal, I had read a good deal about Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) before I had seen it.  Any writing on Wavelength is likely to contain a complete synopsis, as the events of the film can be summarized briefly:  A stationary camera is placed at one side of a room, facing the opposite, windowed wall.  Over a period of 45 minutes, the camera’s zoom steadily increases until a small photograph of the ocean taped to the opposite wall fills the entire frame.  Several events occur in the course of this zoom, including an episode of furniture moving, a drinking and listening session (“Strawberry Fields Forever”), and what appears to be a murder.  Though the camera captures these events, it is clearly indifferent to them, often revealing only a portion of the visible action, tangential to its single-minded journey.

Michael Snow, "Wavelength" (1967)

Michael Snow, "Wavelength" (1967)

Even without seeing the film, one can read any number of analyses and understand the thrust of the arguments.  But having a complete knowledge of the film’s structure and a strong knowledge of its intellectual legacy left me wholly unprepared for what it would be like to experience it.  I had never imagined I would be so riveted or laugh so hard.  And this giddy, visceral reaction was brought on by something clearly designed to be, in the usual sense of how we judge entertainment, completely boring.

Kenneth Goldsmith, creator of UbuWeb, and Professor of University of Pennsylvania’s Uncreative Writing course, describes a similar experience seeing a theater piece by Robert Wilson:

“It took four hours for two people to cross the stage; when they met in the middle, one of them raised their arm and stabbed the other. The actual stabbing itself took a good hour to complete. Because I volunteered to be bored, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen.” (Goldsmith)

In the past decade or so, our society has embraced and transformed the banal in unprecedented ways.  From television shows following the humdrum familial exploits of aging rock stars to the steady stream of minutiae typically found in a Facebook news feed, we seem wholly content to devote a significant portion of our lives to banal thoughts and images.  But we are far from embracing boredom.  We behave as if we have a right to not be bored.  Even the banal must reach us in short, regular bursts, constantly regenerating our passive attention.  The type of voluntary boredom described above is anathema to the restless urge for changing stimuli, feedback, validation.  A concerted voice demands that boredom be kept at bay, and endless means of increasingly portable distraction are created in response.

In the face of this formidable distraction, those of us asking for periods of undivided attention, whether we are marketers, military generals, performers, teachers, etc., often find ourselves employing the same tools as the distractions themselves.  If we use all the powers of multimedia technology, if we place complex material in friendly audio-visual narratives, if we are increasingly provocative, aggressive, or inflammatory, maybe, just maybe, we can hold court for half an hour.  Failing that (and we often do), we might meet people in their favored lands of distraction – hold classes on Facebook, meet colleagues on Second Life, etc.  If any of these tactics prove unsuitable, there is always network blackout – no phones, no computers, eyes forward.

We may be able to stage the battle on another plane.  At least part of the time, we can be willfully, unapologetically boring.  Instead of trying to fill space with ceaselessly novel, interesting ideas, we can open up space to possibility (by leaving it empty), allow creativity to emerge (by forgetting about being creative), wake attention from its distraction-induced coma (by removing those things that keep it pacified).  A radical boredom could remind us that reality is much more vast and exciting than common sense allows.  As in the artistic experiences related above, the results of this boredom are unforeseen, but they are clearly enhanced by a voluntary commitment to be bored for as long as necessary.

Always the provocateur, Goldsmith sums it up in stark, challenging terms:

“Creativity is such a bankrupt concept in our culture… such an over used cliché, and yet something held so highly esteemed, still, that in order to truly be creative and truly find a way out of that we need to employ a strategy of opposites–we need to be uncreative, we need to be boring, we need to be everything that the culture claims creativity isn’t.” (Goldsmith)

Sources: Goldsmith, Kenneth.  “Being Boring.”   2004.

All of the above written by Bhob Rainey, reposted from this site.