nthposition online magazine

Watching paint dry

by Paul Sieveking

[ strangeness - april 02 ]

For several months prior to the launch of the Science Fiction Channel a few years ago, a cable television company in Columbia, South Carolina, broadcast a fish tank. When the SF channel finally began broadcasting in September 1992, thousands of angry viewers phoned in to complain, saying the fish were better than the proper programmes and demanding the return of the tank. The aquarium was then given its own channel, which by May 1993 was pulling in high ratings and being transmitted for 14 hours a day.

A more comprehensive service started in April 1996 with the launch of the Goldfish Channel, a Japanese cable programme that offered live transmission of fish in tanks around the clock (with no commercials) to about 12,000 households in Asahikawa, Hokkaido's second largest city.

A cast of six goldfish appeared during the day, and another tank of five tropical fish at night. Background music came from the station's 24-hour Weather Channel. At the time of the report five months after the channel's launch, the station was receiving several calls a day. "The spotted goldfish is bullying the others. Please get rid of it!" one frantic caller pleaded.

Something called M25: The Movie, directed by John Spring, shows a clockwise drive round the 128 miles of tarmac on a Sunday. There is no commentary besides the hum of the engine and the highlight is a glimpse of a man mending a lamp. Nevertheless, 300 copies of the 9.99 video went in just two weeks by mail order in February 1993. A sequel, M25 - The Film, showing the orbital wonder in the other direction, had a sparse spoken soundtrack and clearly lacked the austere formalism of the original. It was a mail-order disaster - by 2 February 1994 it had sold three copies.

In 1996, all eyes - well, one or two anyway - were on Cutting the Grass, a 17-minute film by the avant garde French director Yves Blanc. It shows a man mowing his lawn and was described by critics as "sensitive", "powerful" and "moving". "It depicts man's struggle to overcome problems that continue to grow in his life," explained the director, who was nominated for several awards.

All these endeavours can now be seen as portents of static web cams, ersatz vipassana mediatation props for the electronic age. Typical of the new dull chic is Grass Cam, launched by Steven Mack, a 36-year-old Brisbane civil servant. He set up a web camera in his backyard focused on the grass, with updates every 60 seconds. The web page insists it is "at least as interesting as most other web cams." Judging by the number of hits the site had by late September - 30,000 plus - surfers seemed to agree. Mack plans two more sites: Mouldy Old Bread Cam and Wrecked Car Rusting In The Backyard Cam.

When you tire of grass in Brisbane, you can tune in to IowaFarmer.com, which has kept a constant eye on Jim and Sharon Greif's cornfield in Monticello, Iowa, since 17 May. You are invited to "cheer as the mighty cornstalks battle wind, hail and rainstorms." A single day in June saw more than 20,000 hits. There are plans for Iowa web cams devoted to soybeans, cattle and hogs.

The runaway success of the coffee-table book Boring Postcards surprised even its publisher, Phaidon. It sold out within three weeks and by last April was on its third print run. Things sufficiently boring take on some ineffable quality of fascination, an irresistible humour. Among my postcard collection is an old black-and-white photograph of a recreation ground in Leiston, Suffolk. Its combination of concrete posts, nondescript flower bed and featureless grass is literally stunning.

The Bookseller's annual 'Oddest Title of the Year' competition also relies on boredom, but of a different kind, based on obscurity; who could forget the 1996 winner, Greek rural postmen and their cancellation numbers?

In the early Eighties, I worked on a new edition of the British Library Catalogue of Printed Books, a gargantuan task alleviated by the discovery of such titles as: Fish hooks in Africa and their distribution by Sture Lagercrantz (Stockholm 1934); The romance of cement by the Edison Portland Cement Company (Providence, Rhode Island, 1926); and Fred Grundy's 1956 classic, A study of hospital waiting lists in Cardiff, 1953-1954.

Inevitably, the general trend in academia is towards ever more extreme specialisation, which gives scientists and researchers of all kinds a superficial resemblance to sufferers of Asperger's syndrome - people with unusual and narrow interests, coupled with poor social skills - which is a mild form of autism, first described by the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger 60 years ago.

Dr Uta Frith from the Medical Research Council gave some examples of Asperger's syndrome: a man who knew all there was to know about 50 types of carrot, one who collected details of light fittings in trains and one who learned the colours of the doors of all the magistrates' courts in his area. When he was asked why he didn't collect the door colours of juvenile courts, he said these bored him to death.

Burns victim Les Stewart of Queensland earned himself an entry in the Guinness Book of Records this year when he completed the World's Longest Typing Marathon. He used up 16 years of his life, seven manual typewriters, 1,000 ink ribbons and 19,990 sheets of paper in writing the numbers one to a million entirely in words. "It helped occupy my time," he explained.

Harvey Brant, a signalman at Temple Meads station in Bristol, became an electricity pylon spotter in 1999 after being bored by his workmates' trainspotting chatter. He has set up a web page on pylons packed with facts, figures and pictures. His favourite is 4YX183 near the M4-M5 junction at Almondsbury, south Gloucestershire. "Its design and backdrop are superb and the area would be bland without it," he said.

I have to slip in here a plug for a deliriously obscure website. It's a gallery of Ukrainian bus shelters.

A periodical called the Journal of Mundane Behavior was recently launched on the Internet, to cast a sociological eye on banal and unexceptional behaviour around the world. Articles in the first issue (JMB 1.1) include a study of how Japanese people interact in lifts. As with much in social science, people take some persuading that this is not an ingenious send-up.

However, the humorous intent of the Dull Men's Club is self-evident. It recently featured a review of a coat hanger exhibition in Manhattan, and suggests tractor-spotting for those "who find train spotting too exciting". The calendar of anniversaries teeters daringly near the interesting: we learn, for instance, that April 10 was the anniversary of Walter Hunt's patent of the first safety pin in 1849.