Winter 2004–2005

The End of the Line

To queue or not to queue

Mats Bigert

At the 1998 World EXPO in Lisbon, the Swedish pavilion decided to give a revolutionary gift to humankind—the eradication of all queues. Waiting would be an obsolete activity after the pavilion installed its new “Turn-o-matic” system. I remember the company team showing up some weeks before the opening. With impeccable suits, aluminum flight cases, and brand new PC laptops, they made a shiny contrast to the dirtbag construction site and the motley crew of workers from the former colonies of Portugal. During the weeks that followed, five vertical ticket stations were erected outside the pavilion. A fat mother computer crowned the system and swallowed some 20% of the pavilion’s total 
budget. After the usual technical problems, the system 
was up and running just in time for the opening. The idea was that visitors could take a number with an estimated waiting time, visit other locations, and return just in time to see their number pop up on the red outdoor LED screen. When the gates opened and the crowd crashed the EXPO area, the Swedish pavilion would be the only architectural body liberated from an appendix of excremental human queues.

When the first visitors arrived, they all followed the cool hostesses’ advice and took their numbers. What no one expected was that the people would take their numbers and still line up for a queue. Free from dictatorship for 24 years, the Portuguese people still paid astonishing respect to authority and performed the most amazing waiting stunts I’ve ever seen. For them, queuing for the attractions was an essential part of the EXPO experience. Here, national success was measured in the length of meandering lines flanking the buildings. No computerized queuing system in the world would change that.

After a couple of days of hopeless attempts to initiate the visitors into this new welcoming interface, and some physical arguments about digital versus physical positioning, the Swedish organizers gave up and covered the columns with black body bags. During the summer, the Swedish pavilion had a daily dose of some 2000 people and the average waiting time was 2 hours.

Big countries like the US and Great Britain had anticipated the flood of visitors and were well-prepared for the attack. They used the well-tested theme park concept of a series of labyrinthine antechambers connecting to the outdoor queue. The idea was to have a queue outdoors, but not longer than one hour. As soon as the waiting person made it into the pavilion, his attention was directed toward minor pre-attractions like screen-saver film scenarios with vague national themes. The path would bend and twist, divide and turn, and the visitor would lose his sense of time and direction. And, like amenable cattle on their way to slaughter, contentedly while away another hour of wasted time.

As a symbol, the queue goes hand-in-hand with the eruption of overpopulated cityscapes. Although mostly suggestive of bad times with unemployment and empty bread shelves, a queue also signals that there’s something worth waiting for. Historically, the queue as an organizing principle for waiting has lost terrain to its more civilized sibling—the waiting room. The queue—a soaking wet useless fuse, a hierarchic thread of anonymous necks, with everyone busy counting the collar dandruff on the next person—would turn itself not only inside out but also to come to include objects like chairs and tables. The waiting room tries hard to charm its inhabitants. It is open, it is democratic, it is sterile, and you can look other people in the eye. But what is it? It is trying to be a room for waiting, the most abstract of activities—an architecture by default.

Most of us have traumatic memories of waiting rooms where time stretched out infinitely, as though you were camping next to a neutron star. Without any wormholes or other strange consequences of the theory of relativity, there’s no escape—either from yourself or from the surroundings that miraculously balance the nondescript with the hideous.

A doctor once gave me a hint as to why hospital emergency waiting rooms look so uncanny. He explained that these rooms have to be not only unpleasant and ugly but also must radiate the sense of a long-wait-to-come. Otherwise, people would go to the hospital with minor ailments and the emergency system would immediately collapse. Instead, the person in pain measures his misery against the potential torture of a long night’s wait on a neon-lit polyester bench.

In Lars Tunbjörk’s pictures of Swedish waiting rooms, the human is absent. Despite their superficial pleasantness compared to waiting rooms in some other countries, these rooms function not only as a blueprint of a dystopian social welfare laboratory, but also as a stale negation of its organic predecessor—the queue.

See Tunbjörk's project “Waiting Rooms,” here.

Mats Bigert is one half of the artist team Bigert & Bergström and an editor-at-large at Cabinet. He lives in Stockholm.

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