Published October 13, 2003
NEW YORK – A staring contest (search) usually occurs when two people are so bored they can't think of anything else to do together or say to one another.
But one conceptual artist has decided to place the duel before an audience -- and people are lining up to watch and compete.
After college, when Sean Linezo, 27, returned to his hometown of Pensacola, Fla. (search), he realized that the youth subculture he once enjoyed there was nowhere to be found. During a conversation with friends at a local bar about how dull things had become, StareMaster (search) was born.
“We were three people in a bar all night long talking about how nothing was happening," he said. "There was no do-it-yourself art, no local culture. So we decided to exploit this nothingness, invert boredom and create excitement.”
From its origins in Pensacola, StareMaster grew into what it is today -- a narrated staring contest with a musical soundtrack ("Eye of the Tiger" is one song), dramatic lighting and a video component that has traveled to Miami, New Orleans, Tallahassee, San Francisco, New York and plans to hit Europe and Asia.
StareMaster works like this: An emcee presides over the non-action as two participants stare into each other’s eyes for two minutes. They are permitted to blink, but “no laughing, no crying, no talking, no smiling, no teeth, no sudden movements, no touching, no coughing, no time-outs, no sneezing, no tongue, no snorting, no fluttering,” according to the rules.
After two minutes, participants enter the “dry-eye death phase,” in which blinking is not allowed. Meanwhile, videos show the audience a close-up of the participants’ eyes, and two judges, including Linezo, stare at the starers, with whistles ready to blow.
Participants take the unusual match seriously -- sort of. Jordan Bennett, a 25-year-old photographer, went as far as to practice the night before he competed. In the hot seat, he beat two contestants, but ultimately lost during a competition in New York City.
“I was a little bit disappointed, but I’ve been second place my whole life so it’s no shock,” he said, adding that the contest is “good clean fun” but “pretty intense.”
“The dry-eye phase is very, very hard -- your eyes start to water. The video screens show your eyes to the audience, the judges are on each side and the crowd is screaming and yelling. You can’t cheat,” he said.
The actual “StareMaster” during that competition, Will Lemon, is proud of his dubious honor.
“I feel like I was born for it," the 25-year-old T-shirt designer said. "I have a certain knack -- I don’t lose my cool and mess up in the first couple of minutes like other people do."
Penn State sociologist Beth Montemurro compared the phenomenon to one of her areas of expertise -- reality television (search).
“It’s the continued fascination with a spectacle," she said. "I guess people would want to do it for a moment of fame, even if it’s just in a bar. People like attention.”
And StareMaster may have a future on TV. Linezo said he's working on a pilot and is in talks with cable channels to do a game show and possibly some spring break specials, like a StareMaster “super bowl” among colleges. He’s also thinking of doing a celebrity StareMaster.
“It would be cool to get burnt-out celebrities,” he said.
Elana Berkowitz, who wrote a first-person account of her experience as a StareMaster competitor for the local weekly New York Press, told Foxnews.com she found the contest exhausting.
“[When I left] I had already stared at over an hour of video of other people staring, then stared at people staring at each other on stage and then engaged in some eye-to-eye combat of my own," she said. "Some competitors seemed to have an edge of violence to them -- the contest lets you get out your aggression and competitive edge.
That said, Berkowitz said it was very entertaining.
"I appreciated the simplicity of the fun. It wasn’t something that required a flat plasma screen TV, wads of cash or scantily clad women," she said. "And you need no talent to prove victorious. That can certainly be appealing.”
But Linezo, a former philosophy student, believes StareMaster is more than just mindless entertainment.
"It comments on the way we’re entertained, the way we’re attracted to lights and sounds even when nothing is happening," he said.