Radical Slowness: Slow-Cities and Slow-Lives
by Dominique Rey
SPEED AND INNOVATION/THE CONSEQUENCES OF A CULTURE OF SPEED
Shallow laboured breathing, muscles chronically tensed and ready, a thin layer of sweat on the brow, on the back of the neck, and on all of the body’s folded parts. The air is dense, suffocating and a slight sour smell pervades. This is a body trying desperately to keep up with the speed of the world, miles behind, but transfixed and obsessed by the illusive prize on the horizon. What is this metaphoric trophy? How and why have we succumbed to its power and become amnesiacs of what really lies at stake?
The maxim that speed equals power has many under its adrenaline-induced spell. The tentacles of this vast machinery connect to all societal spheres, creating a desire and craving for acceleration everywhere. Unsustainable in nature and inherently destructive, a general fear of impending doom is spreading at an equally rapid pace. And while we rush headfirst towards it, we are paradoxically immobilized by powerlessness and apathy. Is it possible to resist this tidal wave, to stand still, to bear witness and even to go so far as to push and move slowly against this pervasive assault? Radical slowness may be one possible counterpoint in a world where the mechanisms of innovation and power are running out of control.
“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.” (Milan Kundera)
Sick with hurry, sick with time, our culture’s addiction to speed is engraved on the deepest level of the mind. In his book Art As Far As The Eye Can See, Paul Virilio states that “we are experiencing ‘Large-Scale Panic’ in the face of the acceleration of a common reality that not only outstrips us in tyrannical fashion, but literally outpaces all objective evaluation and thereby all understanding” (9). With everyone using speed to his or her own advantage, it leaves no choice but to continue to increase speed. Unfortunately, the ruling mythology that expounds the virtues of speed as giving an edge, of being ahead of the curve, are ploys to make us go even faster to the point where the entire life is a blur, blind to both our interior and exterior landscapes.
The standard of living of western society is the richest of all, affording every imaginable desire and craving, yet pervasive throughout are feelings of depression and hopelessness.
In his book Faster, James Gleick states: “Sociologists in several countries have found that increasing wealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it: that is a myth we now live by. What is true is that we are awash in things, in information, in news, in the old rubble and shiny new toys of our complex civilization, and – strange, perhaps – stuff means speed. (10)
Next in line is escape from these undesirable feelings through the hyper-stimulation of the senses, falling farther down the rabbit hole. Dazed and numbed, we are completely unaware that this supposed freedom to consume and self-serve is actually our enslavement. Consumed by our passions and driven by self-interest to have the newest gadget, fashion, car or home, this voluntary state of blindness has greater repercussions than our mere individual fates. The planet’s deterioration makes for popular entertainment on the big screen, but as a result of the increased acceleration of consumption and general reliance on instant gratification, it has little reverberation in our homes, our schools, our work places, and our governments. Most feel powerless to resist the perceived tide of destruction. In conjunction with this, many core elements of society are falling by the wayside, are being sacrificed, and abandoned: relationships, community, communication, personhood, and interconnectivity, to name a few.
Technological tools are marketed for their efficiency and ability to organize and simplify workflow. This false friend promises to free up our time and simplify our lives, espoused as bringing an Age of Leisure. As early as the late 1700s Benjamin Franklin predicted that all the technological advancements would create a four-hour workweek, yes, 4 hours! What ends up happening is that the nine to five day is a figment of the past, making the worker accessible and accountable 24/7, with growing demands and expectations and multi-tasking necessity as he or she desperately tries to keep up. Of course some stress is good, but too much will lead to a physical or mental burnout. Our whole life revolves around our work and as the workload grows exponentially and the ability to focus on a single task becomes an impossibility, a situation is created where one never gets a feeling of satisfaction that comes with a job well done, moving too fast to register the fruits of one’s labour, at its extreme causing karoshi, which translated from Japanese means “death by overwork” (Honoré 6). Adding to these phenomena is the power of the screenal space, which is creating a growing schism between our self and our bodies, with only the sense of sight left to dominate the field of experience. This disembodied experience has yet to take into account all of our senses. The ‘cancerous growth of vision’, as Michel de Certeau dubs it, has shifted us from the present moment to the virtual realm, with the technology at hand becoming of greater importance than the person in the room (xxi). In response to this growing imbalance, CBC’s tech reporter Mike Wise, who was featured on Spark this Fall, talks about taking a “Digital Sabbath” as a way to counteract the increasing anxiety and the sense of urgency we feel about being connected to what’s going on around us at all times. He and many others have discovered that a no device or offline day, regardless or your religious background, has made them more relaxed.
SLOWNESS: Is it possible or desirable to slow down?
Most of our life is spent living in the past or future as our minds shift ceaselessly between craving and aversion, like and dislike, which according to the Buddha is the cause of all human misery. This pattern of behaviour is directly linked to our obsession with speed and its intrinsic quality of escapism, allowing us to forget, and to fall into oblivion: greater the speed greater the distraction. The most important thing we escape is the greatest fear of all, our own mortality, and in so doing suppress the inner voice that is all knowing: “Socrates says you can know the unknown because you remember it” (Solnit 25). But the unknown will remain just that for most, as it is very rare to accept the present moment as it is and live it fully. Slowness offers the possibility of experiencing this very quality of time.
We must determine first what slowness is and what role it can play in a speed crazed culture. An initial query into slowness conjures many pejorative images: dull, boring. Beyond this initial interpretation lies its extreme opposite, one in which slowness defines a measured movement through space as a way to be fully aware of both inner and outer worlds. It is a mindful state that awakens the subject to the present moment, uniting mind, body, and spirit. The act of slowness requires rigorous practice and strong determination as the magnetic force of speed and its promise of endless distraction exercises an incredible pull on the psyche. In its purest form, slowness is a path to experiencing timelessness that Tibetan Buddhism calls the fourth moment. Eleanor Rosch describes this as the moment when “All phenomena are completely new and fresh, absolutely unique and entirely free from all concepts of past, present, and future, as if experienced in another dimension of time” (Baas et al. 43).
In Western culture, the perception is that there is never enough time and that it is a finite resource. If time is money you have better do everything faster. Faster is Better. Time management is de rigueur, bookstore shelves are filled with titles like “175 Ways to Get More Done in Less Time.” Productivity and efficiency dominate our day and our night, for example college students listening to tapes while they sleep to prepare for exams. Wrong, with slowness, life becomes better. In his book In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré states that many traditions and philosophies consider time as cyclical (29). The use, purpose and relevance of slowness are to give back to the present moment its true worth: enjoying the moment! It is a careful gesture of carving out blank spaces free of premeditation. It decreases stress and anxiety, and improves health, wellbeing, relationships, work, family life, sex, and much more.
Slowness sets forth a complex series of encounters that at times allow for a rich enjoyment of life, while other times may lead to darker spaces that have been patiently awaiting attention and require tending. Rebecca Solnit affirms that according to Walter Benjamin, to be present means to willingly accept and meet face to face with uncertainty and mystery (6). The fear of being alone with one’s thoughts is frightening, and for this reason, it is feasible to conclude that few would willingly seek out the path of slowness. However, there is a growing tide of interest looking to integrate slowness into their lives, the resistance to the cult of speed being one of several motivations.
The resurgence of slowness is directly related to the growing imbalance in the world and in our lives. As corporate interest further impedes upon the rights of human beings and takes precedence over the safeguard of the environment, the more the impetus towards slowness grows. Although it appears to be new, the resistance to the cult of speed started long before the industrial revolution. For instance many people protested the advent of the clock and its widespread use, as they recognized how their day was to be regulated and appropriated for the benefit of others. The changes wrought were instantaneous, suddenly every minute became spoken for, and punctuality was seen as a sign of moral rectitude. Not to mention Europe’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which had people rioting over the loss of their days. Such reforms instituted a diametric shift in which humans were now in service to the economy and not the other way around. Today, there is growing opposition toward dromological ideology as the current state of affairs distributes the vast majority of the world’s wealth into the hands of fewer people, dismisses and grossly abuses human rights, and puts into peril our environment.
A good example of this growing opposition, are the Slow Cities popping up everywhere. As of 2003, 28 cities in Italy will have been officially designated Slow Cities with another 26 on their way, as well as 2 in Norway, 2 in Germany, 1 in England, and many more cities all over the world interested in following suit. These Official Slow Cities are interested in living in a more humane way. Their reforms and pledges include closing certain streets to car traffic, banning supermarket chains and neon signs, and hospitals serving local organic food. As well as implementing urban time policies such as harmonizing operating hours, cutting noise after certain hours, and putting people before cars. Sherry Williams, a grandmother in North Carolina posted a pledge to slow down on her front lawn that stated: “I will observe the speed limit on every neighbourhood street as if it were my own – as if the people I love the most, my children, my spouse, my neighbours, live there.” Hundreds signed, soon enough the police were backing this pledge, and in the end it was picked up by an online dealership that gave it nationwide exposure. Other anti-speeding movements include mobile speed bumps where following the speed traffic acts as a form of control or other initiatives which offer offenders the choice of taking a one-day speed awareness program, having school children speak to them about repercussions of speeding, or still more interesting tactics, such as creating a lottery for people who don’t speed (FUN Group). A calmer driver = a calmer person.
Although it may seem impossible for many cities to adopt the Slow City manifesto in its entirety, the core tenants of taking out the stress and hurry of urban living has become popular worldwide. Cities are creating more green spaces, parks, plazas, limiting roads and diminishing parking, creating bicycle and pedestrianized lanes and car free days.
The Slow Food Movement founder Carlo Petrini states that “being Slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life. You decide how fast you have to go in any given context… What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos” (Honoré 16). This movement has spread to over 50 countries and counts over one hundred thousand members. On a practical level, the Slow movement is focused on downsizing and decreasing consumption, shedding materialistic tendencies, redefining wealth, implementing sustainable production and consumption practices and developing renewable energies. Philosophically, reclaiming values that are otherwise in danger of becoming extinct is of fundamental interest to the movement: family, community, the integrity of our food systems and the health and future of the planet. A great local example is the work of grade school teacher Elearnor Woitowicz who lives in Northern Manitoba. The project involved building together a small garden in each student’s yard which they then planted and tended themselves. The act of growing their own food has an amazing impact on the children which is wonderfully captured in the documentary film by Katharina Stieffenhofer called: “And this is my Garden.”
The Slow movement is emerging in many spheres, including food, health, sex, spirituality, work, leisure, and art. Other than the Slow food movement, slow movement organizations are popping up worldwide, such as the World Institute of Slowness, whose mandate is to create slow awareness around the globe, Slow Planet which is an open community and online meeting place for all things slow, and Slowlab, a design firm that focuses on creating viable spaces of social engagement through slowness. With yoga studios on nearly every urban block, the growing interest in slowing down is impossible to ignore. Add to that list meditation, practiced by over ten million Americans today, and other slow practices, such as Tai Chi, Chi Gong, and a plethora of leisure activities such as cycling, walking, hiking, camping, enjoying a cup of tea with a friend or sharing in a meal. The slow movement is even being called a revolution, making it clear that this is not a nostalgic fantasy of a romantic utopia of bygone days, but a thriving and relevant movement immersed and involved in contemporary culture. A myth exists that slow means unproductive, but in actuality, slowness can yield greater results because of an increased ability to focus on the work at hand. Or adversely, being able to retain a slow frame of mind at times when one must move quickly.
MIND & BODY: THE PRACTICE OF SLOWNESS
As slowness recedes further into our collective landscape, as an intellectual concept it becomes harder to grasp, and even more difficult to embody. One possible method of experiencing slowness is by reconnecting to the senses. David Howes argues that “the knowledge specific to each sense is apparent only when we are deprived of the others, and a new world is then revealed by the single sense that is not quite the same one we know with all five” (399).
Slowness may appear to be a radical practice, but it is growing in popularity and valued as a countermeasure against the rampant discontent that is the result of the superficiality and mad pace of contemporary life.
The practice of slowness takes multiple forms. There are spaces and places where among a collective there is a shared experience of slowness, for instance within the sublime afternoon depicted in Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, which is carried on in parks and plazas all around the world to this day. Of course, slowness is an essential element for most religious and/or spiritual practices: the creation of mandalas and other devotional objects, the singing of hymns and the chanting of mantras, and the shared speech and gestures of countless rites and rituals. Even if one is working in silence, the presence and participation of others in the same activity becomes a communal space of slowness, for instance in a library or a classroom. Similarly, there are ways to practice slowness individually, such as meditation, silence, reading, walking, reverie and countless other ways in which in the midst of the moment, one consciously evokes a slow state of mind and channels it through the senses. The practice of slowness also extends itself to holistic medicine and the many complimentary and alternative therapies that exist such as acupuncture, massage, osteopathy, Ayurveda to name a few.
Most often it is difficult and challenging to practice slowness, as the mind is constantly seeking refuge in distraction and stimulation. Left to its own device, it will forever put off the real work that needs to be done unless one takes hold of it. While slowness brings with it the pleasure of slowly shedding all the unnecessary pressures and burdens that have been carried around for too long, there is very serious work involved in delving into one’s spirit. Heidegger speaks of meditative thinking, a state of being that is dependent on two rare attributes: “releasement toward things” and “openness to the mystery” (54-55). He states that meditative thinking is intrinsic to man, yet it is not possible to will this state into being, quite the contrary, it is by dispensing of will that releasement becomes viable. If we rely solely on rationality and allow the practice of meditative thinking to die, Heidegger goes on to say that we are in danger of being subsumed by technology and may lose all ground in staking autonomy over our lives as well as the preservation of the planet. Called the “mind of don’t know” in Buddhist philosophy, the mind frames a question without willing for an answer or an outcome, rather it is an experiential state in which one must simply observe thoughts as they emerge free of judgement or desire (Baas et al. 267).
The ‘mind of don’t know’ is the creative field which the artist explores intimately in order to express and communicate the unknown to his audience. Artist Robert Irwin eloquently expresses this: “If you asked me the sum total – what is your ambition? – basically it’s just to make you a little more aware than you were the day before of how beautiful the world is” (Baas 221).
“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (Henry David Thoreau).
To conclude, I would like to briefly share my own explorations of slowness through the lens of a multi-disciplinary art practice.
Not surprisingly, my interest in slowness emerged from very personal motivations. After nearly fifteen years of professional life conditioned by speed, sick with hurry, and ruled by ideologies of productivity and success, my life was void of true happiness or satisfaction. There was a nagging feeling within me that I attempted to quell and deny, but this voice refused to be ignored. In 2005, I attended a meditation course for the first time in my life. I had never done anything like it. It was a ten-day course of silent meditation. Each day I sat in silence for eleven hours from 4 in the morning until 9 at night, in total a hundred and ten hours of meditation in ten days. This first experience of sustained slowness was a breakthrough moment that at last opened the door to the possibility of a different way of living.
Around that time I started a series of photographs titled Projections. In the expansive and serene images of the Projections series, I navigate towards notions of solitude and reverie. These vast aerial photographic spaces are an invitation to dive into one’s own projected landscape. Nearly indiscernible, the photographs are upside down, and the ambiguities generated from this reversal allows one’s imagination to enter a greater space of self-awareness.
Another project, which I started five years ago, proposes to unveil the hidden and profound lives of a group of catholic nuns from the order Sisters of the Cross, in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and France. In this study of the convergence of art and spirituality, I am interested in creating an atmosphere where stillness and temporality become tangible; it is a meditation on the texture of slowness, the nature of listening, and how the relationship between attention and time might be experienced in art.
As part of the Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada 2010 ARTS FOR ALL project, I had the honor of being named Winnipeg’s Arts Ambassador of Visual Art. In addition to advocating for my art form, I am creating a legacy project for the people of Winnipeg. My project is an action/invitation/call that was conceived as a way for people to experience the benefits of slowness firsthand and to act as a catalyst for integrating this practice in people’s everyday life. The project has three components, the first is a workshop that was given at the Symposium “My City is Still Breathing”, which acted as a space for brainstorming on the topic of slow cities and slow lives, as well as offer the group of participants an opportunity to experiment with the practice of slowness firsthand in the form of interventions and performances. The second component is the “Do Less, Slowly” blog, which is a forum for you and for others to continue to engage on the topic of slowness and most importantly to collectively create a slow list. This slow list plays a vital role in the third and final part of the project, a public art piece that takes the shape of the slowgan “Do Less, Slowly” on billboards throughout the city.
On that note, it’s time to turn the conversation to what you think a slow city and a slow life are…