Don delillo’s 2010 novel Point Omega opens and closes with an unnamed man watching Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), a film installation in which the Hitchcock classic is slowed down so that it takes 24 hours to run from start to finish. Day after day, the man returns to the museum to view the film, compelled by its glacial pace and the opportunities it offers to observe details that would otherwise stream by unnoticed: Anthony Perkins’s eyes ‘in slow transit across his bony sockets’, or the number of frames it takes to capture the actor turning his head. As he watches Gordon’s work, the man reflects on the alertness it provokes in him: ‘The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.’
Note the shift to the present tense, ‘what is happening’, surely intended to highlight the immediacy felt by the protagonist as he follows the stately image flow. By denaturalizing the acting, camerawork and editing, 24 Hour Psycho allows DeLillo’s nameless museum-goer to scrutinize and anatomize the original film—but also to observe himself in the act of watching, over time. The man responds to Gordon’s piece with a keener awareness of his surroundings: the presence of the museum guard, the resistance of the wall behind him and so on. His attention is no longer fixed exclusively on the screen. He watches the other viewers, tries to guess where they are from, even enters into conversation with one of them, who tells him that she likes ‘the idea of slowness in general. So many things go so fast . . . We need time to lose interest in things.’footnote1 The installation brings not just respite from the accelerated cadences of the present, but also an opportunity to ‘lose interest’ in the forward rush of the film’s plot, and so to view it with a sharpened and more quizzical attention.
In these pages, DeLillo makes the case for a slowed viewing experience, and an art space that can accommodate that slowness. In recent years this view has been rehearsed by many in the art world. Museums are often described as sanctuaries where visitors can take their time in the observation of artworks. Amidst accelerating cycles of innovation and obsolescence, just-in-time production, instant communication and the rise of a fast-paced, precaritized service sector, moments of unhurried reflection are increasingly rare. What leisure remains is often coloured by similar temporal pressures, as patterns of consumption quicken on the back of constant advertising feeds, faster transport and longer opening hours, while fomo, the fear of missing out, leaves many feeling that their free time is compressed, however they spend it. The sociologist Hartmut Rosa has coined the term ‘social acceleration’ to capture this frenetic atmosphere, in which technological, economic and cultural changes impede our ability to harmonize the temporal registers of experience. Daily schedules, hopes for the future and perceptions of historical evolution have become progressively misaligned, heightening the cultural and political importance of deceleration zones.footnote2
Against this background, a certain vogue has developed for artworks that impose slowness on the viewer. Antony Gormley claims that his work ‘demands that you stop’, enjoining the spectator to mirror its own stillness.footnote3 Art historian Yve-Alain Bois has argued that the paintings of Agnes Martin produce a similar effect by opening themselves up to the viewer gradually, in stages. For Bois, such paintings are ‘among the strongest agents of resistance against the growing desensitization of human subjectivity promoted by the so-called digital revolution’.footnote4 In a 2018 panel on painting and criticism at the Cooper Union, the critic Barry Schwabsky stressed the importance of prolonged attention, citing Richard Wollheim’s comments on painting from 1987: ‘I came to recognize that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was.’footnote5 The curator Anthony Huberman extends this argument to institutions, writing that in the face of growing pressure to expand and attract more visitors, some galleries—including bak in Utrecht and mamco in Geneva—have deliberately moved in the opposite direction, ‘slowing down, staying small, repeating, making long-term commitments’.footnote6 Curators such as Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans have also organized shows that rely on the principle of duration, titling the 2005 Biennale de Lyon ‘Expérience de la durée’, and codifying their commitment to slowness in audio guides, museum wall texts and press releases.footnote7
These positions are not new. The notion of the museum as a refuge from the agitation of public life was already entrenched in Victorian times,footnote8 and its conception as a Foucauldian ‘heterotopia’—a space at once connected to and distinct from its broader temporal context—is well established.footnote9 But social acceleration has revitalized the image of the museum as a pole of resistance to the quickening dynamics of contemporary existence and of mass culture in particular. Rosa observes that cnn ads have shortened from 30 seconds to 5 over the past fifty years, and Steven Shaviro makes a similar point in his discussion of ‘post-continuity filmmaking’: the contemporary action film, he writes, appears as a sequence of explosively stimulating but largely disconnected moments, obviating the patience needed to follow a continuous narrative.footnote10 Slowness is prized not just as a defence against the stresses of the social order, but as a sign of cultural sophistication. In her critique of the slow movement, Sarah Sharma points out that slowness is traditionally associated with health and responsibility, but also with privilege and taste: not everyone can dine at slow food outlets, stay in ‘slow living’ centres (such as Tokyo’s Caretta Shiodome) or repose in first-class airport lounges.footnote11