Unpacking the many ways to appreciate The Flaming Lips' epic new track, Andy Warhol's 8-hour film of the Empire State Builing, and a 10-hour YouTube clip of Justin Bieber
The Flaming Lips perform in 2008 (Reuters)
Earlier this month, alt-rock longtimers the Flaming Lips released a six-hour song called "I Found a Star on the Ground." To hear the song (legally), you had to buy a plastic toy called the "Strobo Trip" that creates visual effects like a handheld light show; the song (along with two other, shorter songs) came on a USB drive packaged with the device. Frontman Wayne Coyne was up-front about the purpose of the song, saying, "I wouldn't be a surprised to hear about some people taking LSD or something while listening to 'Found a Star on the Ground,' and playing with the Strobo Trip for hours and hours."
There was a deeper purpose to the song, though. Musicians have done a lot with the opportunities digital technology provides them, both to create new sounds and to vastly expand the audience they can reach. But as Peter Gabriel recently pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, artists haven't done much with the possibilities of greater time available now that recorded music is no longer embedded on a physical device. "The digital environment is the first one in history where a composition could be three seconds long or three months long," Gabriel said recently. "In a way, people aren't really being radical enough with the freedom that the digital environment could provide."
The ultimate effect of hyperlong art is to alter your experience of time
With its six-hour running time, "Found a Star" is radical for recorded music, and stands alongside the Lips' own Zaireeka—a four-disc album intended to be played on four different stereos simultaneously—in pushing the boundaries of the format. But it also joins a long tradition of hyperlong works in other artistic forms. Live music has long played with the possibilities of extended performance lengths, from opera to jam bands (a genre with which the Lips have increasingly aligned themselves over the past decade) to, most recently, indie noisemakers Oneida's seven-hour set at All Tomorrow's Parties in Atlantic City. Film, too, has experimented with extremely long running times, most famously in Andy Warhol's "Empire," an 8-hour static shot of the Empire State Building. But here, too, the digital environment has begun to intrude in such forms as "10 hours" videos on YouTube. In these, someone has taken a usually famous clip like "Nyan Cat" or "It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time" and cut-and-pasted until it reaches 10 hours in length. These clips (if "clip" is even the right word anymore) can have millions of views, but as many YouTube commenters point out, it's unlikely if many, if any, viewers have sat through the entire running time.
So if the average viewer isn't ever going to experience all or even most of these extremely lengthy works of art, what's the point? Well, it depends. For the vast majority who don't sit through a hyperlong song or movie, the very existence is the point; like conceptual art, the form is the message, not the content. But for those few who do actually experience the work, that exclusion of the majority of the audience is, in a way, a big part of the appeal. In our digital era, consumption has become effortless, and while this has had almost entirely positive effects on the experience of music fandom, it does make it very hard to feel like you're having a unique experience with a creative product anymore. That pre-YouTube sensation of being part of a chosen few when you got to see an obscure movie or hear an out-of-print record is hard to recapture. By raising the barriers to listening again, as "Found a Star" does, it allows those select dedicateds to have an experience that most listeners won't. Even if the song itself is widely available, as "Found a Star" most definitely is, the actual experience of listening becomes obscure, worthy of seeking out, collecting, and displaying. (Most people who have listened to Zaireeka have a story about listening to Zaireeka, for instance.)
Moreover, by requiring more effort and more dedication to consume than a normal three-minute pop song, hyperlong works force us to focus on music in a way we usually don't. That separation of music from our everyday existence makes it a kind of sacred space—not the thing that's going into your ears while you're riding the subway or driving to work, but a special experience you make time for. And, like any good religious experience, the ultimate effect of hyperlong art is to alter your experience of time. Some, like Warhol's "Empire," force us to live in the moment, pushing us to consider the minutia of art that normally blends into the background. And others, like "Found a Star," force us out of the moment, altering our expectations so that instead of looking for rapid bursts of fulfillment, we can appreciate a long, slow burn of enjoyment. Either way, hyperlong art extends a promise: Become a careful artistic consumer, and you, too, can experience a rare transcendence.
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THE 10-HOUR VIDEOS ON YOUTUBE are, at base, a joke. For one thing, they point out how short most popular YouTube videos are. We had become used to consuming video entertainment in 30-, 60-, 90-, or 120-minute blocks to such a degree that in the five years preceding YouTube's explosion, the music video viewing had started to decline. YouTube brought back the short film, and if the film in question often features a cat playing a keyboard, that doesn't change the fact that one- or two-minute pieces of video now occupy central places in our cultural imagination. What the 10-hour clip does is essentially make a supercut of our viewing history. By leaving out all the hours we weren't watching "Nyan Cat," our experience of multiple viewings of the same clip is compacted into a single timespan. It points out the ubiquity of these videos by showing how frequently they can be repeated in the space of, say, a little more than three back-to-back viewings of The Godfather.
"The digital environment is the first in history where a composition could be three seconds long or three months long," Peter Gabriel said recently
The point of these types of hyperlong works, then, isn't so much to offer an alternate viewing experience to normal art, but to get across an idea that actually doesn't take a 10-hour sitting to grasp. Ten-hour videos are meaningful because, like, holy shit, that's a lot of fucking Nyan Cats; they fall into the same "funny for no reason I can possibly articulate" category of web bricolage as "YouTube poop" and the "shreds" videos. The sentence "Nyan Cat repeated for 10 hours" isn't funny, but a video demonstrating that sentence very much is.
In this way, they're conceptual art. (Not good conceptual art, but classification is not evaluation, after all.) As Sol LeWitt put it in his definition of conceptual art, "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." Indeed, the idea of the 10-hour video was robust enough of a concept that it's been taken up by many successors to the anonymous originator, and if there's anything that would make conceptualists happy, it would be both the identity of the artist and the works themselves vanishing even as the concept becomes more visible. Aesthetics, so the theory goes, becomes less important than ideas. Even if you never hear "Found a Star," that you are reading about it here makes it a data-point in your understanding of the world, for better or for worse. You live in a world where some people decided to make a six-hour song, and in which other people paid to listen to it.
Indeed, most of the 10-hour YouTube clips aren't very rewarding to watch. Something like "Empire" has variation, even if it's not very much variation and it happens very slowly. When you copy and paste a clip, you just repeat it, sound-for-sound, pixel-for-pixel, so there's nothing waiting in the 999th minute that wasn't there in the first. Granted, some of them, like "Rainbow Bunchie 10 hours," are pretty mesmerizing in their simplicity, but it doesn't really take 10 hours of your life to become mesmerized, and as some commenters imply, watching the entire thing might cause you to have some sort of mental break. Others, like "Justin Bieber shot on CSI 10 hours," work for a bit longer since the parts of the clip are repeated in semi-random order, but your brain keeps waiting for the resolution of Bieber falling, and its non-arrival is quickly exhausting. The videos that come closest to the traditional purpose of hyperlong art are, like "Epic sax guy 10 hours," those that take a small piece of dense footage and force you to spend a long time contemplating it.
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In Air Guitar, Dave Hickey writes about the experience of watching another Warhol film, "Haircut," a 27-minute silent clip of a man getting his hair trimmed in real time. Gathered together with his friends, Hickey's audience at first made fun of the film, but slowly became more and more drawn into it, until, Hickey says, each snip of the scissors became an incredibly tense moment. By taking what would normally be a brief moment in any narrative film, the action of someone getting a haircut without any dialogue, it forced them to really focus on that one action, narrowing their sense of meaningful time from the broad to the very small. "When the lights came up," Hickey wrote, "we were all looking at one another with new eyes."
"Found a Star" takes the other tack. Music, like film and TV, controls your experience of time, forcing you to experience it in a certain order and for certain durations (whereas you exert more control over your experience of books, comics, and visual art). Non-art music has generally kept the unit of time for which you are held captive to 10 minutes or less, and usually somewhere more in the three-to-five-minute range. At this length, each individual moment is important, and is carefully designed to have the maximum impact possible. This mentality is reflected in modern recording software, which allows you to shift individual drumbeats or sung notes—and, in the case of almost every recording released in the last decade in any genre, such shifts are indeed performed. Music, a "loose" genre, tightens up, becoming more regimented and controlled.
"Found a Star," though, finds a way to loosen up the experience of music listening without resorting to Luddite or throwback tactics; new technology is being used to achieve an old effect in a different context. A pop song becomes less an anthem and more something you live with, or live in. When the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse played in theaters in 2007, people brought takeout with them into the show, and "Found a Star," too, feels like something you could eat a solid meal during. Moreover, the meal doesn't feel incidental; it feels required, as if it's built into the design of the experience. Like the six-century-long performance of John Cage's "As Slow As Possible," each individual note takes on lessened significance. It's so long that no moment is going to be revelatory. The entire experience, taken as a whole, is the point.
But, of course, taking it as a whole is tough. Even if you like the more-experimental material in the Lips' back catalog, the 10-minute-long burst of feedback that comes only 20 minutes into the song can be awfully off-putting. The Lips also solicited donations for the track (which went to Central Oklahoma Humane Society and the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma), and in return, the donors' names were read during the song's recording. It's a fine enough idea, but instead of happening in the background, Sean Lennon intones the names fully in the foreground for some 10 minutes at different points during the tune's run time. (I must admit that I took advantage of digital technology myself at certain points during the song's run, using the VLC music player's fast-forward function to scan in 8x time through the more painful sections.) If you're not one of the donors, the section is almost unlistenable. At the same time, that also makes the song more exclusionary; if you are one of the donors, then those sections are incredibly suspenseful as you wait for your name.
And maybe that's really the point of hyperlong art: Where other artworks demand you interact with them in a certain way, you are free to interact with extremely lengthy works however you like. If you want to carefully consume the whole thing, you can, and you'll have a particular experience. If you want to drift in and out, or sample at random, you can do that too, and that is also a valid way of experiencing the work. You can even not consume it at all, and just by being aware of the work's existence, you've had a certain experience of it. The point of a six-hour song, in other words, is freedom: freedom for the creators to do what they want, to stretch out and try something new, sure. But it's freedom for us, too. Here is a gift, they say; do whatever you like with it.