Here’s what you need to know: Milwaukee photographer Lois Bielefeld has created a 14-hour, 13-minute video called “Dad And Chair.” The video is a single uninterrupted shot of Lois’ father, Eric, sitting in his recliner. “This piece began at 9:07 a.m. just after my dad came downstairs to begin the day,” she says. “It chronicles one waking day in his chair from when he initially sits down to when he goes to bed at approximately 11:30 p.m.”
“Dad And Chair” is part of a larger exhibit called “To Commit To Memory.” It’s a mostly photographic show that explores Lois’ relationship with her parents, as well as subjects like aging, domesticity, ritual, and faith. It’s on display at the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art (207 E. Buffalo St., #526) through November 13.
Ahead of this weekend’s Gallery Night, I camped out at the Portrait Society and watched the entire 14-hour “Dad And Chair” video. Like, the whole thing. All 14 hours of it. By myself. In one sitting. From 9:07 a.m. to 11:20 p.m., just like the video. It was weird. It was exhausting. It was beautiful. This is my report.
8:48 a.m. I arrive at the Portrait Society and meet up with Lois and gallery director Debra Brehmer. Lois gives me a quick rundown of her show. Her photographs and videos are all set in her childhood home in Wauwatosa. They investigate questions of cohabitation, domestic chores, familial relationships, and religion. Lois explains that she is a queer atheist, and that her parents are evangelical Christians.
Deb, meanwhile, surprises me with a cooler stuffed with snacks. She shows me where I can find the restroom and gives me a key to lock up in 14 hours. She’s thrilled that I’m doing this. Both women thank me and say goodbye.
9:07 a.m. The video begins. Eric enters his living room and sits down in his chair. I gather my things and sit down in my chair. Eric browses his newspaper and sips his coffee. I scribble in my notebook and sip my coffee. Eric watches TV. I watch TV. Yep, this is going to be interesting. HERE WE GO.
9:19 a.m. Eric’s wife and Lois’ mother, Sally, calls from the other room. Eric gets up from his chair and walks out of frame.
9:21 a.m. Eric returns and sits back down. For the next half hour or so he reads his paper, sips his coffee, clicks away on a laptop, and watches what sounds like NCIS or something.
9:57 a.m. Eric gets up and leaves the room. A bug—or maybe it’s just a dust mote?—zips by the camera.
10:07 a.m. One hour down! This will be a breeze. Eric is still out of the picture, though. I am no longer watching “Dad And Chair.” I am watching “Chair.”
10:12 a.m. Sally is singing a hymn from the other room. I think it’s “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” but I’m not sure. I should know this, dammit, since I went to Catholic school for six years and I just got done watching Midnight Mass on Netflix. Eric returns and sits back down.
11:11 a.m. The phone rings! Eric’s phone, not mine. “Hello?” he says. Pause. He hangs up. Clearly a telemarketer. Welcome to still having a landline in 2021.
11:15 a.m. Speaking of phones, I’ve established some ground rules for today’s marathon viewing. I’m using my phone for taking pictures and answering calls or texts only—not checking my email or fiddling around on social media. I’m refraining from reading books or listening to music. I’m refraining from dwelling on things that have been haunting me for the past month. I will remain as engaged as possible with the video in front of me.
I’ve packed a lunch and a dinner: three sandwiches and a thermos of soup. I have a bottle of water. Deb has graciously provided oodles of snacks: apples, cookies, M&M’s, popcorn, and more. (Thanks, Deb!) She has also provided a comfy chair; I’ve brought a lawn chair of my own and a pillow, just in case. I have multiple notebooks and pens. That’s it.
11:55 a.m. The doorbell rings. “Sally!” Eric hollers. “Someone’s at the door!” Off screen, Sally answers the door. It’s a delivery. She brings it into the room and reveals that it’s a small care package from her woman’s group that occasionally gets together on Zoom. “There’s a note you can read for me,” she says.
About that: In the show’s description, Lois explains that her mother has severe vision impairment, and that her father has begun to experience memory loss. Those facts hang heavy over the scene I’m watching. On one hand, it’s a scene of advanced age and the price we pay for that age. Sally has a hard time reading. Eric occasionally seems aloof. It’s a melancholy moment. On the other hand, it’s also a scene of the everyday intimacy that can develop between two people, a scene of simple humanity and muscle-memory kindness. It’s sweet.
Eric reads the note for his wife. For the first time today I feel like I’m intruding in someone’s personal space. I feel like I’m spying. I feel like turning away.
12:57 p.m. Eric flips his laptop shut and sighs. He gets up from his chair, rummages through some mail on the couch, and exits the room. “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley plays on the TV just out of frame. Eric, I’ll learn later, used to play guitar in a Milwaukee blues band.
1:04 p.m. Eric returns to turn off the TV. It’s one of only two or three brief periods all day that the TV is silent. Eric leaves again.
1:10 p.m. Eric returns with a sandwich. He takes a bite. I follow his lead and take a bite of my own.
1:18 p.m. Eric finishes his sandwich and takes a bite of an apple. I grab the apple from Deb’s cooler and do the same.
1:25 p.m. We finish our apples.
1:45 p.m. I suppose I should answer the question that 8,000 people who won’t read this article will ask anyway: Why? Why am I watching a 14-hour video of a man sitting in a chair? I don’t know, but I do know that I wouldn’t subject myself to just any 14-hour video. When I read the original email from the Portrait Society (“Is this the most boring film ever made?”) I was intrigued that this would be a 14-hour video involving a person. If it had been a 14-hour video of, say, a tree or a field or a chair without a dad, I wouldn’t have bothered. But the prospect of spending time with another human being for a full day appealed to me. Sure, that other human being would be on a screen, but the idea of that distance appealed to me, too. Maybe that distance appeals to me more than I’d like to admit. I don’t know. Maybe I just want to sit in a chair all day and watch TV.
2:03 p.m. “A-CHOO!!!” I’m jotting down notes as Eric sneezes. It’s LOUD and it scares the living daylights out of me. He sneezes again: “A-CHOO!!!” The sound echoes through the empty gallery. I’ve been here for five hours.
2:08 p.m. Sally enters the room. “I’m ready to do coupons,” she says. For the next 40 minutes or so, off screen, husband and wife engage in another ritual: Eric reads coupons for Sally and the two discuss the week’s grocery list. They place an online order for things like milk, vegetables, frozen pizzas, and Land O’Lakes butter. “Skinless Atlantic salmon, four ninety-five a pound!” “I haven’t seen them that cheap in a while!” goes a typical exchange. I’m riveted.
2:38 p.m. Hoo boy, there’s some low-level bickering going on about mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip. Sally wants the mayo, while Eric wants the Miracle Whip. “If we can afford Combos and things like that for you, we can afford mayonnaise,” Sally argues. Eric eventually relents, even though he thinks the mayo will spoil. Did I mention I’m riveted?
2:48 p.m. Eric walks back into the room and sits down. “Dad And Chair” resumes.
3:07 p.m. Sally enters and sits on the couch. Eric reads the day’s mail aloud, including a schedule for the upcoming Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra season. (Through clues I gather throughout the day, I’m pretty sure the video was shot on December 9, 2020.) Husband and wife spend the next hour discussing the MSO shows they want to see. Both agree that the Brahms string quartet sounds great. Both are excited for the Bach stuff. Both have absolutely no use for the pops concerts or anything by modern composers. They know their classical music. They’re fully engaged.
At one point, Eric reads the COVID safety precautions. “All patients are required to wear face coverings,” he begins. “Patients?” his wife interrupts. “Oh, ‘patrons,'” Eric says. Sally laughs to herself as her husband continues. I laugh along with her. It’s like we’re sharing a private joke.
4:07 p.m. Exactly halfway through the 14-hour video, Eric returns from a brief trip to the mail box. Did I mention he went outside to the mail box? Yes, he went outside to the mail box to mail a card with their MSO concert preferences. “I’m home,” he says. He sits back down in his chair, fires up his laptop, and half-watches what sounds like Sanford And Son.
4:29 p.m. I’m thinking about television, about background noise, about screens, about disappearing inside yourself for a day. It’s not so hard, is it? Frittering away an entire afternoon, an entire night. Hell, I’m doing it right now.
I’m thinking about childhood. I’m thinking about parenthood. I’m thinking about how I’ve succeeded at both and how I’ve failed at both. I’m thinking about how glad I am that there’s someone here with me.
4:57 p.m. Eric: “A-CHOO!!!” Me:
5:19 p.m. It’s getting dark outside, both onscreen and in real life. Eric gets up and closes the drapes. I get up and close my notebook. I check out the rest of the exhibit.
It’s a lovely show. There are a number of “house study” photographs—a radiator, tattered Bibles, a package of freezer-burned meat—but the real stars are Lois’ photos of her parents engaged in the rituals of everyday domestic life. Here’s her father mowing the lawn. Here’s her mother shoveling snow. There’s her father raking leaves. There’s her mother hanging plastic bags that she’s saved and washed. The two of them doing laundry. The two of them at the dinner table. The two of them in the same living room that I’ve been staring at for more than eight hours.
The photos are accompanied by quotes from Lois’ parents and childhood memories from Lois herself. “Part of being a Christian is being a good steward of the time, talent, and resources with which God has blessed us,” Sally says next to the picture of her hanging plastic bags. “Winter was such a kingdom of adventure,” Lois remembers next to a picture of her father plowing the driveway.
5:23 p.m. Sally enters the room and asks her husband about dinner. It sounds like they’re going to have soup? I eye up my own thermos of soup. Weird.
5:54 p.m. As Eric sits idly in his chair, there’s a sudden and unexplained jump cut. It probably skips over only a second or two, but it’s incredibly jarring. I realize just how real this scene of domestic contentment/chair-sitting has been for me today. The jump cut is like a splash of cold water, waking me up and making me realize that what I’ve been watching is an illusion. I suddenly feel bad for myself. Why am I here? Why has anyone allowed me to do this? Is dropping everything and watching a video for 14 hours nothing more than an exercise in futility? In stupidity? In privilege?
Was the jump cut simply a glitch? Perhaps not—perhaps Lois edited out an embarrassing noise and spared her father a moment of humiliation. Yes, that’s what happened. I’m sure of it. I’m glad Lois did it. I’m glad she thought of her father. I’m glad his quiet chair-sitting dignity is intact. I smile. I feel better. I go back into the video.
6:16 p.m. Eric gets up and leaves the room. I need to eat.
6:37 p.m. Incredibly, Eric returns with some food. Chips? Cookies? Some kind of chocolate crackers? He munches away and laughs at the TV. I polish off a curry mango chicken salad (thanks again, Deb) and tuck into my third and final sandwich.
7:07 p.m. Hour 10. I’ve been taking inventory of everything in the frame—a frame that is more or less burnt into my retinas at this point. One (1) dad. Three (3) chairs. One (1) couch. Two (2) lamps. Two (2) windows. One (1) fireplace. Eleven (11) pictures on the shelf above the fireplace. Countless books stuffed into the built-in shelves on either side of the fireplace.
I wonder how long it’s been since anyone looked at those books. I wonder how old Eric was when the picture of him as a young man that sits above the fireplace was taken. I wonder if that’s Lois and her brother in the picture to the right. I wonder how old they were. I wonder about time. I wonder about death. I wonder about impermanence and permanence. Lately I’ve been cursing the latter and praying for the former. Like Lois, I’m an atheist, but I’ve been praying.
A cleaning guy stops outside the gallery door and looks at the post-it note stuck to the glass: “Private viewing today—do not disturb.” I give him a wave and a nod. He waves back, nods back, and disappears.
7:17 p.m. On whatever cop show Eric is watching (judging by the non-Archie Bunker voice of Carroll O’Connor, I think it’s In The Heat Of The Night), a woman is giving birth to twins. Eric smiles and laughs when the babies arrive.
7:21 p.m. M*A*S*H.
7:48 p.m. Frasier.
8:25 p.m. Something else. Shows aside, I’ve come to delight in the devilish little grin that lights up Eric’s face when he fast-forwards the commercials.
8:39 p.m. It’s been hours since I’ve seen Sally. Where is Sally? I miss Sally. I miss my wife, whose name is Sallie.
8:59 p.m. “A-CHOO!!!”
9 p.m. “A-CHOO!!!”
9:01 p.m. It’s Sally! She’s back! She picks up Eric’s newspapers and leaves. Oh.
9:10 p.m. I’m thinking about my own father. He’s a little younger than Eric, but they share more than a few classic dad traits. The way they keep the TV on all day. The way they have “their chair.” My dad has gone through a lot of chairs. Some of them have ended up in the cabin of the hunting club he belongs to. Other dads in the club have retired their old chairs there, too. My brother jokingly refers to this line of beat-up recliners as “Stud Row.” I miss my brother. I miss my dad. I’ve been shutting my family out for the past month. I know what happened wasn’t their fault. I know it was an accident. I don’t know why I’m shutting them out. I don’t know what else to do.
9:12 p.m. Out of the blue—just like that!—Eric turns the TV off and jumps out of his chair. He grabs an empty plate and walks off screen. Thankfully, it’s only a few seconds before he returns, sits down, and turns the TV back on. I’m relieved. I realize just how much I’ve come to depend on Eric’s presence, and just how anxious I get whenever he’s gone. I’ve been here for 12 hours and I’m not sure I’m ready to leave.
10:05 p.m. It’s Sally! She’s back! Again! Eric helps her with a pair of scissors and the two discuss bedtime. We have an hour and 15 minutes to go. Eric has been enjoying the heck out of Everybody Loves Raymond.
10:16 p.m. “A-CHOO!”
10:20 p.m. Eric changes the channel to a song (“That’s What I’m Talkin’ About” by Elvin Bishop) and leaves the room. I’m anxious again. One more hour.
10:27 p.m. Eric returns and flips to Andy Griffith. Or maybe it’s Gomer Pyle. Yeah, it sounds like Gomer Pyle.
10:37 p.m. With a loud CLICK, the lights outside the gallery go dark. I’m moderately freaked out. Eric can’t stop cackling at the hijinks of Gomer Pyle. Everything is suddenly strange. Time, which has flown by for 13 hours and 30 minutes, slows to a crawl.
10:48 p.m. Sally enters, pulls up a chair, sits down in front of the TV, and begins what appears to be another ritual: watching the nightly news (CBS 58) while flossing her teeth. It’s the exact same ritual depicted in the photograph to the right of the gallery screen:
“Every night we watch the 10 o’clock news often at 11; this way I can fast-forward through the commercials,” Eric says next to the photograph. “Sally redeems the time by flossing and icing her neck while watching the news.”
Lois’ caption is a little different: “Something about growing up with a TV or conservative talk radio program constantly blaring has made me very adverse to these sounds. This includes football. It took me until I was in my mid-30s to open up to listening to NPR.”
I can relate. My parents-in-law also watch the nightly news late so they can fast-forward through the commercials. I didn’t grow up with conservative talk radio, but any kind of talk radio makes my skin crawl. Eric and Sally watch the news without comment. COVID. Vaccines. Joe Biden. Tony Evers. The weather. The Packers. Eric laughs incongruously during a story about Giannis contemplating his then-unsigned supermax extension. It’s getting late.
11:17 p.m. Eric: “Are you done?” Sally: “I guess so.” Oh. This is it. They’re going to bed. Am I ready for this to be over? Am I done? I think I am. But maybe not. Maybe I don’t want “Dad And Chair” to end. Maybe I’ll be crushed. Maybe I knew this would happen and I went ahead with it anyway. I don’t know.
11:20 p.m. Eric turns the lights off. Husband and wife walk into darkness. For a moment, just before the video starts all over again—because of course it has to start all over again, again, and again until it doesn’t—it’s only me.
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