In 1963 Andy Warhol filmed his then-lover, the poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and titled it Sleep. A year later the film was premiered at the Grammercy Arts Theater, and according to the New York Post only nine people attended the screening, with two leaving during the first hour.
However, it would seem that Warhol’s “anti-film” was perhaps a little ahead of its time. Today, millions of viewers in Norway are tuning in to watch real-time footage of burning fireplaces, sheep shearing and ship voyages on the country’s public service broadcasting service, NRK.
A notable example that has been gaining a lot of attention is Bergensbanen minutt for minutt, which shows a minute-by-minute train journey from Bergen to Oslo predominantly from the driver’s point of view. If you have a spare seven hours you can watch the complete film below:
The growing popularity of Norway’s aptly named ‘Slow TV’ has also gained interest here in Britain, with British Airways set to show Bergensbanen minutt for minutt as an in-flight film to calm stressed passengers. Although whether we’ll start to see real-time footage of the London to Edinburgh line in place of Strictly Come Dancing remains unseen.
But the use of Slow TV by British Airways also draws particular attention to the therapeutic qualities of the genre. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller states:
Slow TV seems slow in part because, unlike our standard experience of the world, it’s unshaped by interior consciousness. Instead of drowning out its viewers’ inner lives, it seems to want to be a backdrop that can give rise to their own reflections. A slow-TV program is like a great view you encounter on vacation: it’s always there, impervious, but it gains meaning and a story depending on what it conjures in your head.
So by presenting us with the mundane and normal within a timeframe that matches our everyday experience of the world, Slow TV creates something of a blank narrative canvas on which the viewer may project their thoughts onto.
In the book Art as Therapy, pop philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong present a thesis based around the notion that the visual arts serve a therapeutic function for the observer. To underline their argument, Botton and Armstrong strongly advocate that the arts should be approached in a more personal and subjective way that can help us think through our ‘innermost problems’.
Although watching logs burning in a fireplace for five hours may not arouse the deepest of soul-searching or provide the answers to all of our moral dilemmas, it could be argued that it still serves a therapeutic purpose through inciting self-reflection and mindfulness within the viewer.
Like the iconic pop art that Warhol is predominantly known for, Sleep is very much about the representation of the mundane. Both Warhol’s paintings and films challenge the traditional conventions of each medium both in subject and form.
The same can also be said of Slow TV. Television has long been thought of as a medium for broadcasting ideas and information through its programming, rather than as a catalyst for self-reflection. It presents us with the interesting and the engaging, rather than the mundane. By subverting these norms Slow TV makes us reconsider the very nature of what television should or should not be.
So is this genre of “anti-television” a new form of conceptual art? Some may argue so. However, I’m sure there will be many more who echo the thoughts of one Rotten Tomatoes user, who on reviewing Warhol’s Sleep simply states: “This is just as boring as you’d imagine it would be. I want 5 hours of my life back.”