There are many ways to kill time on the Internet. Late one night in January, I found myself on Reddit and came across a thread titled, "This guy streams himself sitting and smiling for hours. I'm not sure what to make of it. He's on right now."
So I clicked.
The post, it turned out, was old. The livestream had ended. The link took me to the man’s 25th video. Each video is four hours long, give or take a few minutes, and each features a young man sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of an undecorated room, with a big cheesy grin stretched across his face. He starts to smile at the beginning of the video and doesn't stop—or do anything else—for the rest of the four hours. Then he turns off the camera.
I tried to watch through the video, "Sitting and Smiling #25," in real time, but I couldn't do it, and I ended up skipping around in it looking for any change, for hints that the video might be a loop, for some explanation of its purpose. I saw him sniff once. I saw the corner of his mouth droop slightly and rise again. If I paid close attention, I made out his chest and shoulders contracting and expanding with his breath, and sometimes saw the vibrations of his head and neck as he strained to keep them straight. For the whole thing there was no sound, just the silence of a webcam recording: a slight buzzing, or scratching, as if it were imitating a vinyl record still spinning after the album has finished.
Some investigation revealed that the videos were made by an artist called Ben Bennett from Columbus, Ohio. He has made a website for the project; he has another website that used to link to his other work but, for at least a week, has just been a grey webpage (although some of its other pages are accessible). Bennett has quite a long performance history, mostly in improvised percussion. There are videos of him dragging chairs around a room and banging drumskins against skirting boards. (You can buy his records here.) His biography, on the page of one concert listing, says that his music is “fully-improvised, with an emphasis on remaining as receptive as possible to the limitless possibilities of any given moment.”
None of this seems to explain why he has spent more than 186 hours sitting still and smiling.
On a cold afternoon in February I watched most of the second half of "Sitting and Smiling #44" as it was streamed live. When I started watching there were 11 other viewers; about an hour later there were eight of us. In the chatbox next to the video feed, the same messages kept coming up: “Why?” “What's the joke?” “WHAT IS THIS!” I wondered who these people stumbling across this feed were, momentarily intrigued, then bemused, then elsewhere, looking for something more fun. They came from Sweden and Poland and Australia and South America. I wondered how they found it. I spent the time I had the feed open flicking around on my browser, checking Twitter, making coffee, instant messaging my friends. I sent the feed to one of my friends. She opened it and told me she hated it and closed it again.
I had to go out and missed the last 15 minutes of #44 and watched them five hours later when I got home, now no longer live. In the video it was still morning, and the light was crisp; in my room it was dark, and taxis picked up drunks from the pub outside my house.
I wondered how he keeps track of the time. Is there a clock on top of the camera? Is he watching the seconds creep by, one by one?
Despite its weirdness, I see Bennett's videos as engaging with widespread cultural concerns about our ability to appreciate time. The rise of various technologies that change our relationship with time—clocks, wristwatches, railways, telegrams, telephones, and the Internet included—has provoked anxiety about our ability to exist in the present moment. This is reflected in a whole host of ways: the rise in the West of ideas about mindfulness, fears that Internet-addled children have diminished attention spans, and the hyper-attention to the banal and mundane in the works of writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard. Ben Grosser, meanwhile, has argued that Facebook's NewsFeed has “an ideological preference for the new” inherent in its timestamps, which relate all content to the present moment, and this critique seems to apply just as strongly to much modern media, from 24/7 rolling news coverage to live-tweeting.
Particularly relevant is a phenomenon know as Slow TV. Slow TV consists of video footage that is unedited and represents the apparently unmediated passing of time. It has its origins in a film of Andy Warhol's called Sleep (1964), which shows the poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and 20 minutes, and has an average rating on IMDb of 3.7/10. It is prominent in Norway, where programs like a seven-and-a-quarter hour train journey from Bergen to Oslo, or 12 hours of knitting, or eight hours of footage of a fire burning, reach national audiences that can approach half the population. The company who make these shows, NRK, are sort of the HBO of all-night knitting marathons.
Slow TV's appeal is easy to understand: It is pretty, soothing, and doesn't require a lot of attention or effort. The shows have narratives that are in a large sense comfortingly predictable (the fire will burn to embers, the train will reach Oslo) but are in a small sense prone to all kinds of variations and details that cannot be anticipated. These narratives progress, slowly, toward their conclusions; the sense of slowness comes not from the lack of progression, but from the fact that it is spread over a long period of time rather than telegraphed into a short video. They are “slow” because they progress at the same speed as actual life, rather than at the accelerated speed of digital life. Slow TV, like Bennett's "Sitting and Smiling" videos, makes sculptures out of time, and claims to offer access to a “real time” that it is all too easy to miss as it passes.
Other powerful influences on "Sitting and Smiling" are The Clock, a film by Christian Marclay that runs for 24 hours and is assembled from footage of clocks from other films, and One Year Performance 1980-1981 (otherwise known as the Time Clock Piece) by Tehching Hseih (which Bennett namechecks in an interview with Vice), artworks that make the viewer painfully aware of the passing of time. Hseih's piece is particularly relevant. It is a performance art piece: Hseih punched a time clock every hour for a year, and the photos of each stamp have been collected together and made into a film. This much awareness of the passing of time can be painful, crushing even.
The Clock and Time Clock Piece and Slow TV all have something that Sitting and Smiling glaringly lacks: progression. This makes the experience of watching Bennett's work distinct. The lack of progression makes it unwatchable, and the act of watching it is almost as much of a feat of endurance as Bennett's performance. These are four hours of almost absolute stasis, repeated over and over again. There are no details to observe, no slight changes or unexpected happenings (with the exception of #5, in which a stranger enters the house, opens the door a little, says "Hello," and leaves without being seen), no slow movement toward a goal. "Sitting and Smiling" forces the viewer into a cruel awareness of the passing of time, time that passes so slowly that it doesn't seem to move at all. It is not the mirror of a moment, not an unmediated representation of the passing of time as it happens to some object or person, not soothing or calming or soporific: It is one moment stretched for four hours across a rack.
Sitting and Smiling is, therefore, an extreme version of engagement with the present. It takes concepts like mindfulness (it is perhaps not coincidental that Bennett's cross-legged pose recalls the stance of meditation), attention to the present, and discomfort with the speed and busyness of modern life and pushes them to until they are unpleasant, even unbearable. Watching them is only tolerable if the viewer skips across the videos, the bar at the bottom reminding her of all the time she is jumping over, or if she is distracted, watches the videos with one eye on her phone and another on the old man walking by outside the window, neither eye on the video itself. By making the videos borderline unwatchable, Bennett suggests that experiencing time in a way that is unmediated, focused, and 'real' is impossible. But, of course, Bennett manages it, smiling the whole time.
One change is apparent across the videos, although it is a change in the viewer's perception, not in what is happening on the screen: Bennett's smile gets creepier and creepier. What would be wholesome, even charming, in a still or for a second becomes terrifying after four hours. The smile becomes a leer, or a mask. It is unnatural. It shouldn't be extended this long.
Maybe it is better to be distracted.