19 March 2012

Author Orla Foster

Sometimes it feels as though true, unadulterated boredom is a thing of the past. The suburban maths homework and Sunday dinner kind of boredom, the boredom of counting woodchip flecks on a wall. Nobody experiences a great deal of nostalgia for a youth spent memorising the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that's for sure. So it's fair to conclude that these days, no matter how enervated you're feeling, no matter how uninspired your surroundings, there is always another channel or another stream, always something to put you at a remove from the prosaic environment you find yourself in. 

But there are moments when this constant access to diversion and entertainment can feel like a curse. It brings an anxiety entirely its own, making you feel overcome by the relentless urge to flit between different tasks, without ever fully switching on or off. If you're viewing art, for example, this might mean that you rarely digest more than a snapshot of whatever it is you're looking at. You're eager to absorb the basic idea, then abruptly move onto the next thing that catches your eye. 

Prepare, then, for a welcome return to tedium. This year's AV Festival has been showcasing a new perspective on the speed in which information is transmitted, the more torpid the better. The theme for 2012 is 'As Slow As Possible', which examines the pace of modern living - by grinding it almost to a halt. 

In practice, this means that there are no shortcuts. When viewing the exhibits, you aren't given the option of getting the gist and moving on. Each installation becomes into a masterpiece of lethargy, information stretched beyond recognition, into the abstract. It's a far cry from the edited version of culture we're used to - the soundbite, the thumbnail, the caption, the top 5. To take in the work, you need to let it dominate your full attention. 

By imposing these distortions, the festival draws attention to the spaces in between information points. It leads the viewer to perceive familiar items in a totally new light, simply because there are no other distractions to steer them off track. 

Except there's a catch - full appreciation of this festival could take several hundred years. The exhibitions demand more of your time and effort than you can physically give, no matter how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed you're feeling. Just take a look at installations such as On Kawara's work 'One Million Years', which poses the challenge of reading 20 volumes of a text filled entirely with numerical date sequences, laid out in columns across each page. Then there's the premiere of James Benning's 'Nightfall' - a feature-length film depicting a mountain range as the sky changes from day to night.

A further piece includes a record player manipulating well-known compositions by vastly decreasing their speed. Vinyl has always been a medium which has responded to the user's whim, whether it means resembling a message from beyond the grave, or being sped up to sound like Aqua. This time, the funereal slowness with which familiar works are reconstructed strips them of their original entertainment value, and you don't get to fiddle around with the needle either.  

The Sound of Music, for example, is made to crawl along at 1/11th of its actual speed, removing its original function as a honey-throated escapist piece of entertainment. Meanwhile, Nirvana's Bleach is reappropriated to sound like wind swelling through a crevice, the cultural significance it holds for hordes of individuals now entirely erased. Strangely, the content remains exactly the same, it's just the form that has lost all meaning. 

So what is 'slow art'? Well, it's a statement about the era of information overload; a stand against the frenetic habits we've developed, the constant checking and compressing. Beyond that, however, it's an admission that modern culture is bursting at the seams and we don't stand a chance of absorbing all of the information that's available to us every minute of the day. Oddly enough, the idea is pretty liberating. How often do you get the opportunity to let your brain wind down? Ennui may have become a rare sensation, but maybe it was more of a luxury than we realised.