No Wave Is Boring
Marc Masters describes how musicians and filmmakers weaponized the ennui of New York in the late ’70s
Can boredom be art? Can good art be boring? When a work of art is deemed boring, it’s usually an automatic, accepted pejorative. After all, who would want to be bored by art? Yet some artists have actually imagined positive, counterintuitive answers to those seemingly obvious questions. In some particularly vital cases, those answers themselves were inspired by boredom – by the creativity that can arise out of being bored, and desperately wanting to do something about it.
The boredom that infected the intersecting music and film scenes called no wave was a distinct product of time and place. New York City in the late 1970s was empty, dangerous and practically cost-free – a bombed-out wasteland open to anyone fearless enough to squat in an abandoned building and siphon electricity from street lights. In their confrontational, rule-rejecting work, no wave artists reacted to the recent past – the bloating of rock music, the homogenization of cinema, the staid pretension of the art world – but also dealt with their numbing present. They faced a gaping hole created by the droves fleeing Manhattan, and a “blank generation” that punk started but didn’t complete. It was up to no wave to blast away the remaining rubble.
This was both an opportunity and a burden, because no wave artists were, at their core, bored. They were bored by conventional art, bored by dead streets and abandoned blocks, bored by being broke and living in squalor, sitting around in decaying apartments with little to do besides scream their frustration into widening voids. One of the most inspiring aspects of no wave was that its participants didn’t just create art to fill this void – they used the void itself as the subject for and product of their art.
No wave artists made art that was about boredom, that dared to bore people, and that attacked people for being bored – jolting them out of complacency to confront the fact that convention was sedation. In the process, they insisted boredom could be interesting. It’s a radical idea, striking directly at the accepted notion that art must entertain, creating a new path previously unheard or unconsidered. Boredom is also a way to reject the tyranny of audience-pleasing – and perhaps the only sane reaction to the stifling deadness that surrounded these artists in New York.
No wave’s Attack of the Bored shone most vividly in two of the scene’s best groups. Lydia Lunch and her trio Teenage Jesus and the Jerks performed their ennui by standing still on stage, refusing to coax audiences or do anything other than play their music. They looked bored, and they were (one of their songs was called “Popularity Is So Boring”). But they were also rejecting the trained-seal concert game. Lunch’s penetrating stare was like a wordless lecture: “We’re bored, and we’re going to make you deal with it.”
On the other end of the attitudinal spectrum, James Chance (an original member of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks until Lunch kicked him out partially for being too entertaining) led his band Contortions through antagonistic performances that threatened to sedate audiences. Chance bemoaned how repressed everyone was, and his revenge was exacting. Venturing into seated crowds at art galleries, he dragged people up off the floor, literally kicked them into action. As Contortions drummer Don Christensen in an interview for my book No Wave put it: “People were just stunned – like, ‘He’s supposed to be entertaining us and instead he’s just shoving this stuff in our face and insulting us.”
Lunch and Chance were the clearest examples of how boredom infected and informed no wave, but the concept wormed its way into everything. Like their punk forefathers – who they revered but also wanted to break free from – few no wavers were musically trained, so their music was born almost wholly out of boredom. They had no technical prowess to prove, no background to make good on, no obligations to any worn-out forms or histories. Many had experience in visual arts, but since rock clubs were easier to penetrate, starting a band was quicker way to exorcise boredom than pestering the hierarchical art scene.
The trio DNA was trying to discover a new form of music by dodging all the others, skirting conventional melody and rhythm to avoid auto-pilot banality. The quartet Mars devolved the music of their New York ancestors – particularly the Velvet Underground – until it became a dark, deadened roar, music meant not to engage but to harrow.
Boredom even infused more formal no wave experiments, particularly the guitar symphonies of Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. They used something traditionally seen as mundane – repetitive, unchanging chords – to rethink classical composition. For Chatham, boredom was inspiration: He devised his most famous work, the one-note-centric Guitar Trio, when he sat one night at home strumming the low E string on his guitar over and over.
Boredom as an artistic weapon was even clearer in no wave cinema. The scene’s filmmakers approached film much the way the musicians approached music; in fact, many directors and actors were in bands themselves. So just as the bands expressed boredom through sound, the filmmakers addressed boredom through pictures – by literally replicating it.
Usually shot quickly on cheap Super 8 film, no wave movies felt more like mundane reality than flashy artifice. Plots were simple and sometimes absent; dialogue was rambling and purposefully pointless; editing was rudimentary or non-existent. Even movies with obvious plots – like James Nares’ Rome ’78, a modern retelling of that empire’s epic fall – meandered and courted tedium, daring audiences to keep watching. Directors built on Andy Warhol’s minimalist epics like Sleep and Empire, but no wave films were more confrontational, leaving less opportunity for the audience to be lulled. They captured New York at the time in a way conventional narrative could not.
The king of boredom in no wave film was director Eric Mitchell. He actually touted the tedium of his movies, asserting that they accurately reflected the participants’ daily ennui. (Queried about his directing style in a 1979 interview, he said, “It’s a little bit boring, but I like it that way.”) His first film, Kidnapped, was made in 1978 for just $500. Inspired by Warhol’s film Vinyl (itself an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange), Kidnapped presents a group of friends in Mitchell’s cramped apartment talking, fighting and dancing while the Contortions and Teenage Jesus blare from a record player on the floor.
Throughout Kidnapped, Mitchell’s camera either sits still or pans arbitrarily, and the only editing consists of splices between uncut Super 8 rolls. Pages of script are visible on the wall, and at times the actors read directly from them, escalating to the pitch of an argumentative scream. “It’s a very abrasive movie,” Mitchell told me, “You have a bunch of people gabbing at each other, trying to create some sort of situation for each other. You’re subjecting the audience to ennui.”
The abrasiveness of no wave boredom spilled over into violence in the films of Beth and Scott B., particularly their torture-study Black Box, wherein Lydia Lunch kidnaps a man and locks him into a black metal box. Screened loudly over the PA at legendary rock club Max’s Kansas City, the film was intended to make the audience feel as trapped and tortured as the subject onscreen, and apparently it worked. “We could get this rumble in there that was so intense, the whole place was shaking,” said Scott B. “We heard that some guy ran into the bathroom and threw up afterwards.”
The boredom of no wave even found its way into television, via Glenn O’Brien’s weekly public access cable show TV Party. Shot live in black and white, episodes featured people just hanging out and talking, without apparent scripts or direction. O’Brien was ostensibly the host, but no one really seemed in control. Phone calls were taken at random; some who had switched over from watching other channels asked if the show was a mistake. Visual pranks were played: everyone on set would freeze to create the illusion of a paused tape, or artist Jean-Michael Basquiat would improvise poems by superimposing electronic characters on the screen.
TV Party started near the end of no wave and outlived it, leading to a more celebratory post-no wave scene that intertwined with funk and disco. That development may seem anathema to no wave’s nihilism, but really it was just another expression of its boredom. First boredom as art, then boredom as confrontation, and finally, in a way only this remarkable, singular scene could have conceived, boredom as a party.