Boredom: Documents of Contemporary Art

Boredom (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art)

A heady compendium of snippets about boredom that quickly became completely self-referential. I wonder if the editor (Tom McDonough) simply started with a couple of essays from the past decade that he enjoyed, and then included bits that were referenced over and over (e.g. John Cage’s 4’33” in 1952, Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Warhol’s Sleep, McLaren’s banner asking “What are the politics of boredom?” at the New York Dolls’s last show, Walter Benjamin’s “Boredom is the threshold to great deeds” quote from The Arcades Project, Kracauer’s 1924 essay on Boredom, etc. etc.)

It’s a beautiful physical book, thick pages, well-designed. McDonough’s introduction is carefully honed to pinpoint your attention to why you’re here reading a book about boredom. It’s a modern affliction that combines weariness with restlessness. The idea of rottenness pervades the pages, as if our insides have rotted out because we have nothing else to worry about.

Georges Perec has a lovely bit about this rottenness: “The enemy was unseen. Or, rather, the enemy was within them, it had rotted them, infected them, eaten them away. They were the hollow men, the turkey round the stuffing. Tame pets, faithfully reflecting a world which taunted them. They were up to their necks in a cream cake from which tehy would only ever be able to nibble crumbs.”

Walter Benjamin is called out by Jennifer Doyle as a philosopher of boredom in her 2006 essay. This is true, and probably my favorite bits in this book of tidbits was Benjamin’s collection of boredoms.

The idea that “one cannot be surprised if things are all the same or all different… Entropy, as loss of meaning, always lurks at both ends of the continuum from banality to noise. Redundancy and variety alike spell boredom” is interesting. (Georges Teyssot’s 1996 esssay referencing Orrin E. Klapp)

Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 essay deals with the deadly boredom of social interactions:

“The no-man’s-land of neutral relations is the territory between the blissful acceptance of bogus communities and the total rejection of society… politeness [is] the art-for-art’s sake of non-communication… The innocuousness of neutral relations, however, offers no more than a moment of dead time in the ceaseless battle against isolation, a brief stopping-place on the road that seems to lead towards communication but that in fact leads far more often to the illusion of community. Which probably explains my reluctance to stop a stranger for the time of day, for directions, or simply to exchange a couple of words, for I am loath to seek contact in this dubious fashion. The pleasantness of neutral relations is built on sand, and empty time never does me any good.”

John Cage’s comments about teaching a class at the New School wherein he played an LP of Buddhist chants that was a “single loud reiterated percussive beat [whose] noise continued relentlessly for about 15 minutes with no perceptible variation.” A woman got up and demanded that he take it off, and when Cage did, a man yelled “Why’d you take it off? I was getting interested.” This, along with Erik Satie’s 1893 piece—Vexations—a 32-bar piece intended to be played softly and slowly for 840 times, which takes about 25 hours. These musical bits were extremely interesting—the idea that Boredom really is the threshold to great deeds begins to make sense as you dissolve your mind and simply exist as you sink into the pieces.

Women are mostly relegated to the feminist section (Nothing Happens) that begins with Friedan and ends with Solanas, although I have to give props to any book that includes clips from her manifesto and who lists her in the biographical note section as “a dramatist and radical thinker based in New York.”

This from Warhol resonated with me as I was staring out the window: “When you just sit and look out of a window, that’s enjoyable.”

Just realized that the index is a great way to visually see who was referenced the most. Here are the top mentions:

  • John Cage
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Siegfried Kracauer
  • Andy Warhol
  • Karl Marx
  • Robert Rauschenberg
  • Jean Baudrillard
  • Elizabeth Goodstein,
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Guy Debord
  • Henri Lefebvre
  • Sex Pistols
  • Gertrude Stein