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
These critics often assume that cultural institutions can isolate themselves and their visitors from the forces of social acceleration. The notion of the gallery as a slowing instrument is a corollary of the old conception of art as an autonomous sphere, shielded from broader social and economic pressures. But the understanding of the art space as a white cube cut off from its context is particularly difficult to credit in a time that has seen the market for contemporary art swell and state support fall. As museums become increasingly corporatized, their spaces, programmes and collections are reconceived as revenue-generating assets whose heterotopic character is eroded.footnote12 Their reliance on blockbuster shows, along with their burgeoning range of public events and retail services, has made them more akin to airports and shopping centres, impinging on the stillness envisioned by Bois and Gormley. In an unusually clear demonstration of this trend, viewers were only allowed 30 seconds in each of the immersive installations by Yayoi Kusama at commercial galleries in 2015–16, and at museums hosting her ‘Infinity Mirrors’ show in 2017–18. Reporting on the latter, one critic ironized on its title, writing that the decision to restrict the time a visitor could spend in each room brought ‘what you might call infinitely diminished returns’. Another spoke of the queue to enter Kusama’s 2016 show in London and the panic she felt when her 30 seconds in the first room had elapsed. ‘A gallery should be a space for contemplation’, she noted, ‘but this felt tense and too rushed for anything of the kind. Gallery assistants were equipped with stop-watches, measuring your every second in each space and regulating your enjoyment of the art.’footnote13 The critic Robert Storr wrote in 2010 that major art spaces were now organized around the imperative of crowd management, aiming to control the movements of their visitors with maximal efficiency.footnote14 His analysis has been borne out not just for Kusama’s shows, but by the broader evolution of contemporary art spaces. Institutions that depend on high visitor numbers to secure grants and boost revenues from ticket sales, merchandise and catering are bound to value quick and easy passage through their galleries and shops.
The argument that art spaces are poles of resistance to social acceleration also presupposes that visitors are open to slowing down when particular displays require protracted engagement. DeLillo’s character is happy to return day after day to watch 24 Hour Psycho, but few contemporary museum-goers are as free in the disposal of their time. For many, the task of deciding which works to view and how long to devote to them is challenging. When visiting large shows, we are often caught between a desire to give each piece its due and a fear of missing other works, between the impulses to slow down and speed up, focus and scan. Extended time-based works can ratchet up the tension, as Lynne Tillman suggests in her response to Christian Marclay’s much-discussed work The Clock (2010), a 24-hour video consisting of short clips from old Hollywood films, each showing a clock or watch that indicates a time coinciding with that off-screen. She wrote, ‘It was Thursday—3:15pm, 3:16pm, 3:17pm—I was watching time pass. My time. It was passing, and I was watching it. What is this watching, what am I watching for? I wouldn’t, couldn’t, wait for the end.’footnote15 She is not alone in this anxiety, which is routinely expressed in the critical responses to biennials. Every two years, writers complain that the Venice Biennale is too big, there is too much to see, it would take too long to view it all.footnote16 They often point specifically to the number of video works and the demands they make on the visitor’s time.footnote17 Instead of pushing back against social acceleration, slow art can alert us to its unstoppable flow.