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.