[-empyre-] All call: subscribers interested in Boredom

Simon Biggs simon at littlepig.org.uk
Sun May 17 17:32:21 AEST 2015

It's been an interesting and multi-threaded discussion on the topic of boredom. However, I'm not going to consider the cultural or social dimensions of boredom but reflect upon it more personally. The five forms of boredom identified by Thomas Goetz, as recounted by Renate, make a good departure point for what will be a subjective reflection upon the topic. Nevertheless, repetitive labour, as will be seen, is part of this, as is a certain concept of capital.

My most memorable (if that's the correct term) experience of boredom was in childhood. As an adult it has been hard to find the time to be bored. The opportunity to be bored feels like a luxury to be savoured. Boredom can be like coming up for oxygen - but like the whale most of us spend the greater part of our time deep in stuff.

As a child I knew what it was like to be bored. My passion, from an early age, was surfing. I lived on the coast (the Southern Ocean, in Australia). In the 1960's this was an isolated area so most of the time the beach was empty. We had no neighbours so there were no kids to muck about with. Most of the time I surfed on my own - too young and caught up in the activity to be spooked by sharks (of which there were plenty). When there was surf I was in heaven.

But there were plenty of days when there was no surf and, being an isolated place, there was little else to do. No cinemas, cafes or any of the cultural infrastructure of a city - not even a town (that was 12 kilometres away). No TV. No internet (that was 20 years away). The road to the house was a sandy track - so nowhere to skateboard (the backup activity of many surfers). I read a lot of books. I walked in the bush and dunes behind our house. I had a pretty active imagination, to make up for the lack of social interaction. I was bored a lot.

There was a period when boredom had a role in my artistic practice, from the mid 1980's till the late 1990's. My work then involved highly detailed and repetitive activity - creating thousands of matted images, of various kinds, for use in interactive installations and online artworks. I would have periods, sometimes lasting weeks, where all I did all day was manually cut mattes around images (usually of people, acquired from studio video shoots) to create non-linear databases of visual material that could then be reassembled, live, when interacted with by viewers. This was mind-numbing work that required 100% concentration. It was a form of handicraft.

However, I found that when I was undertaking this highly repetitive and boring work I was able to think about where the work was going - or about the next work after that. I discovered that being really really bored allowed me space to be creative. It engendered a form of autistic fog that functioned to defamiliarise - a fugue, a form of ostranenie, where the poetic push and pull of elements are in play. Just like when I was a kid, looking at the sea for hours on-end wishing a swell into existence, the slow heavy seconds aided imaginative speculation. Being bored was, for many years, an intrinsic part of my creative process. Perhaps it showed in the work?

Subsequently, my methods of production changed. I started to make work employing only realtime data (eg: live video, speech, movement, etc). I no longer spend hours crafting material. I still spend hours programming: although, to be accurate, only a small proportion of the time is spent writing code - most of the time is spent de-bugging, tracking down errors or unintended consequences. This can be boring but rarely is. Time is too precious. Working quickly makes it difficult to get bored. I am aware that, as a result, I am probably less creative and make more mistakes. I look around myself and I see that the whole world has become like this - it's not just me that no can longer afford to be bored but pretty much everyone, sucked into the contemporary logic of capital. We're all producing half-baked stuff, quickly. There's little time for craft left...

This leads to the (interim) conclusion that boredom might be considered a form of excess for the time-rich and an elusive rarity for the time-poor.

Ana Valdes, this week's other invited respondent on empyre, has spent an extended time in prison, which I have not. I can't imagine what this was like for her. However, a prisoner might be conceived of as somebody who is time-rich who has had such excess imposed upon them. Time can be of such different value, depending on how it is acquired and spent.

Whilst in prison Boethius wrote a treatise on solitude called the "Consolation of Philosophy", where the author engages (Platonically) in an imaginary dialogue with an imaginary other - philosophy. The outcome of the dialogue is that value emerges from within and that it is only when everything else in the world has been removed that this can be achieved. Boethius proposes a possible system of value for boredom.

However, I'm not an essentialist. I cannot agree with Boethius. For me value arises from interactions, in the relations between things, not from within things themselves. I'm not sure what the value of boredom might be in this context... perhaps it is something beyond value.

As mentioned at the start of this email, this would be a subjective reflection on boredom. Perhaps the value of boredom is subjective, not measurable in terms of exchange value or currency. It cannot be given and it cannot be taken away.



Simon Biggs
simon at littlepig.org.uk


simon.biggs at unisa.edu.au
Professor of Art, University of South Australia

s.biggs at ed.ac.uk
Honorary Professor, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh

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