A lot of contemporary art is deliberately boring. Endurance is a feature of viewing it. It involves spectacles that unfold over hours, changing minutely (videos on loops, projected to empty galleries; artists sitting still in boxes, etc.).
A lot of this sort of thing fails because one is not forced to endure it: One can come and go in the gallery, glance at the thing, read the artist's statements, go out for coffee and come back in a few hours to see if it has changed. Musical performances are among the few that demand you sit still and turn off your phone, and in the realm of the avant-garde, where there is rarely a narrative structure or a song, those can sometimes seem long. But art that forces you to sit and experience something, even if it makes you impatient, can be valuable in the same way that meditation and quiet spaces (churches, libraries) are valuable, in the same way that any inactivity is valuable. I believe this is what is now called mindfulness.
Last week in Halifax, I had an extremely pleasant bout of mindfulness in a sweaty black-box theatre with a small crowd of very badly dressed and not-recently-bathed people, listening to some improvisational music that sounded a lot like grunts and growls and pops and whines. The music was a group creation, conceived by a sound artist of the old school called Helmut Lemke. Lemke, a native of Germany who now lives in Britain, has been experimenting with how to create and record sound from unusual homemade instruments for 35 years. He sets up bottles to drip water so that one can hear the splash; he creates large wire contraptions connected to amplifiers; he knows synthesizers and hay-bales. One of his goals is to make his audiences aware of the myriad beautiful sounds that are created by objects around us; he wants us to simply listen to the world. He's a charming old hippie with a big beard who performs barefoot in spaces like these.
The space is typical of university towns: a small, co-operative-run theatre in a run-down neighbourhood, called the Bus Stop. Storefronts such as these, more than large institutions, keep art going in this country. Here, Lemke performed with local musicians: a double-bassist, a clarinetist and a vintage-synth guy.
Lemke was playing an instrument of his creation: he had a belt with electric pickups on it, and each pickup was attached to a wire (bass-weight fishing line, he explained), and the wires stretched to the ceiling. By pulling them taut he could pluck on them, and their sounds were amplified. He hung metal rods from the wires and tapped on them. The double-bassist furiously plucked and banged and bowed on strings that he hung with bells and tuning forks; the synth guy came up with lovely growls and tapping noises, like wooden hammers inside caves. They all studiously avoided anything like a regular rhythm or a melody; this is about texture and energy. In the second half, a local poet came on stage and declared random phrases while the tumult went on around him.
This an entirely familiar space to me – there have been performances similar to this since the 1970s, and Halifax, due to the presence of the art college that specialized in the underground and avant-garde in the seventies and eighties, was a good place to see them. I had a bit of an odd childhood, in proximity to this, and so a black-box room with a bit of a barnyard smell and a barefoot guy making plinks and zings with wires and spoons is quite comforting to me. It's a safe and pleasant space in which to think and relax.
That's not how most people think of avant-gardist music: It is usually seen as difficult and off-putting. But as someone who has never been able to meditate, I realized in that closed space that the function of non-narrative art is partly simply to force me to be still and unfocused for that period. A story is an escape; a melody is an escape; a song is a deeply textured escape. Non-narrative art forces one to not escape, to be there, to follow how the art is being constructed. And, perhaps, simply, to drift off. And don't the mindfulness gurus say this, too – that it's okay to drift off sometimes, in one's meditation, as long as one comes back to the moment?
The philosopher Blaise Pascal said that all humanity's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. Contemporary theorists come up with similar ideas. The critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum – who is generally brilliant at theorizing the avant-garde – has often spoken of the value of the boring in the unconventional. He said in a 2012 interview, "'Boredom,' like 'perversion,' is one of those words I like to see transvalued." He means both can be valuable things. I would think this a particularly useful idea in an age of constant entertainment.
I cannot meditate. But I don't have to: I have art, especially amorphous and useless art like Lemke's. Art provided us with mindfulness long before the existence of a separate category of experience called therapy.