Week 4 – Part 3: Boredom and Science

I have been looking forward to our lesson about boredom and science because it would allow me to share this video, which definitely remains one of my favourite boredom related finds while researching this project. It is a video used to induce boredom in test subjects participating in a study on the relationship between boredom and attention/reaction time. I find this video, and its choice of cultural content, anything but boring, and I’m not alone. Most participants in this particular experiment reported being more bored by the reaction-time test that followed the video than by the video itself. So this experiment may teach us less about boredom and more about the cultural perceptions of boredom that can inform scientists choices. Which leads us to…

Things science has taught us about boredom #1

Most people, and particularly men, would give themselves small electric shocks if left in a room alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.

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That’s right. In one oft-mentioned experiment, people left alone in a room for 15 minutes with nothing but a device with which they could self-administer a safe but painful electric shock, mostly chose the shock over the boredom of their own company. All to show how little some people like boredom.

 

Things science has taught us about boredom #2

That being an astronaut is not as exciting as you might think.

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A scientist/test subject at HI-SEAS Habitat, Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Groups of 5 or 6 subjects have spent up to an entire year living in this dome in the volcanic mountains of Hawaii. The location is chosen because of its visual resemblance to the surface of Mars. There is no visible vegetation or wildlife in the area. Scientists are using the site to simulate life on Mars, and test to possible risks this way of living could pose for a future mission sending astronauts to the red planet. Subjects can only leave the dome in a space suit, and so breath no fresh air for the year. Nor do they eat any fresh food. Their findings so far: all participants report boredom as one of, if not the biggest challenge they faced while living in the dome, and it was found to be the most likely cause of human error that could have disastrous consequences on a space mission. 

Pilots and spies are two other occupations that have attracted therecent attention of scientists, as they too are both involve activities in which boredom is common, and can carry extreme risks. All those jobs that seem like they’d be really exciting when you’re a kid? … Not so much.

 

Things science has taught us about boredom #3

That boredom is good for us and that boredom is bad for us.

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Students were given this article to read in class during the week: 6 scientific benefits of being bored.

And together we read the following passage from another recent scientific article about boredom.

There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences.

In studies of binge-eating, for example, boredom is one of the most frequent triggers, along with feelings of depression and anxiety. In a study of distractibility using a driving simulator, people prone to boredom typically drove at higher speeds than other participants, took longer to respond to unexpected hazards and drifted more frequently over the centre line. And in a 2003 survey, US teenagers who said that they were often bored were 50% more likely than their less-frequently bored peers to later take up smoking, drinking and illegal drugs.

“Why Boredom is Anything but Boring” Maggie Koerth-Baker, Nature, January 18, 2016.

 

All these strange science experiments and findings were just a primer before attempting our own boredom related science experiment, the Lazy Readymade Boredom Induction Experiment.

We attempted to duplicate, imperfectly, an experiment conducted by psychologist Sandi Mann in 2012 to test the question “Does being bored make us more creative?”.

Procedure

  1. Divide into 2 groups, with members of each class in both groups.
  2. Test subjects in group 1 will read a page of the phonebook for 5 minutes.

Test subjects in group 2 will copy a page of the phonebook for 5 minutes.

  1. After 5 minutes has passed you will be given your next instructions.
  2. (Next instructions) For the next 5 minutes, come up with as many ways as you can to make readymade sculptures out of two milk-cups. You may include other objects or materials in your sculpture ideas. Make a list of all your ideas. You can use words and/or pictures to communicate each idea.

Students and teachers were then set the homework of collating the data for their class, and determining which group came up with the most ideas on their lists.

One of the things tested for in the original experiment was whether reading or copying a boring text produced more creative thinking in participants. The study found that reading produced more creative outcomes, which the researchers put down to reading being an activity more conducive to daydreaming. 

The original experiment saw participants make a list of possible uses for two polystyrene cups, a well established test for divergent thinking. I chose to use milk cups because, thanks to the school’s hot lunch program, there are always plenty of them available. I as this is actually an art project, I thought it would be more relevant to list ideas for readymade sculptures rather than potential uses. 

Unless next Friday is cancelled due to snow, students will be developing and making a milk-cup sculpture idea of their choice from their list. 

 

Week 4 – Part 2: Boredom as Material

To help students start thinking about their final projects (see Week 4 – Part 1), I wanted them to imagine boredom as a material with which to make art. This requires some fairly high level abstract thinking, so to help it along, we revisited the boredom trackers that students received in week 1. KC’s boredom tracker, shown here, provided a simple example of how the details of her boredom could potentially provide material for her to make art with. In her last entry, she is writing about the day spent in the gym doing our full rehearsal of the Christmas concert. I drew students attention to the object she mentions, ‘hat’. She is referring to the Christmas hats that all the students were given for the performance, and which they spent the day holding on their laps while waiting for their turn to perform. As students were allowed to keep their hats, any student who wanted to make work about this particular instance of boredom already has an object they could potentially work with. A Christmas hat could become an element in a sculpture, a prop in a performance, a part of a costume for a photograph. Once considered as material for an art project, the hat can become whatever you want to make it.

I shared with students a few other examples of artists whose work demonstrates how boredom (or something like it) might be used as a material with which to make work, beginning with one of my favourites, Mladen Stilinovic, and his work on laziness.

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Mladen Stilinovic, The Artist at Work, 1978.

 

“Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time – total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, of futile concentration. Those virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough, it must be practiced and perfected.”

Mladen Stilinovic, “In Praise of Laziness”, 1993.

 

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Washing/Tracks/Maintenance, 1973.

From the rich boredom of laziness, we moved to the boredom of certain kinds of work, as put to good artistic use by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. She took the kind of undervalued and invisible ‘maintenance’ work usually done by women or people of colour, and performed it within, and in front of, the art gallery/museum. She writes:

 

“Maintenance is a drag: it takes all the ****ing time (lit.)

The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom.

The culture confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.

clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again he doesn’t understand, seal it again it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969

Here is a video that gives a helpful primer to her work.

(Language Warning – this video shows the section of the above excerpt from Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto including the word that I have blocked out.)

http://https://smarthistory.org/ukeles-washing/

 

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Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964.

Any look at the relationship between boredom and art wouldn’t be complete without Andy Warhol. We discussed his Brillo Boxes, shown here, and their homage to the mundane objects of consumer culture, and also watched some, but not all, of Warhol’s 8 hour movie Empire. 

“I’ve been quoted a lot as saying ‘I like boring things.’ Well, I said it and I meant it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not bored by them.”   – Andy Warhol

 

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Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Fountain, 1917.

Then we had a quick look at “the most important artwork of the 20th century”, the work only recently re-attributed to an obscure female artist, and which was made famous by a lazy male artist who claimed the work as his own. 

Deep down I’m enormously lazy. I like living, breathing better than working.

– Marcel Duchamp

 

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Bicycle Wheel, Marcel Duchamp, 1913.

“In 1913 I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”

Duchamp might not have conceived Fountain, but he did come up with the artistic idea in general of using carefully chosen everyday objects as art. He called these kinds of objects readymades, which he describes as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” The artist’s role, in this kind of work, is to select items and serve them up in unexpected or meaningful juxtapositions.

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LHOOQ, Marcel Duchamp, 1919.

 

Week 4 – Part 1: Boring but important project information and some boring but important music.

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

John Cage, “Experimental Music”, Silence, 1961.

We began this week with some music. The students watched, and then discussed, this orchestral performance of composer John Cage’s famous silent composition, 4’33”. 

This was really just a way of getting students excited about our first boring but important project announcement: Bored Shmored is starting an afterschool Glee club! Guess what we are calling it?

 

Students took home a handout about this which you can see here: Glee club permission form 2020

Next we looked quickly at what’s coming up between now and the end of the project, and students got a quick taste of what to expect on their upcoming field trip to the Cindy Sherman exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Untitled #413, Cindy Sherman, 2003.

What’s coming up

Week 5 – Jan 16 Vancouver Art Gallery field trip Div 3 and 4

                   – Jan 17 Photo project

                                    3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Week 6 – Jan 24 Guest artist Julie Hammond

                                     Photo studio with Mark

                                     3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Week 7 – Jan 28 VAG field trip Div 1 and 2

                     Jan 31 Julie again

                                     Photo studio with Mark

                                     3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Week 8 – Feb 14 Exhibition and final project planning

                                     3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Week 9 –  Feb 21 Full day studio time

                                     3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Week 10 – Feb 27 (Thurs) Full day studio time

                                        3 – 4.30 – Glum Club

Exhibition March 6

Assembly/Glum Club performance March 9

The last piece of boring but important information was to properly introduce the final art project so students have time to start thinking about it in advance. 

Open Project: What will you make when you can make anything you want?

  – Working with boredom, or responding to it in some way, you will each individually research, conceive, plan and make/perform/display an artistic idea of your own.

  – You can choose which medium you produce work in, including but not necessarily limited to painting, drawing, sculpture, text or writing, music, photography, video, digital or performance. Don’t be afraid to work outside your comfort zone.

  – Don’t feel limited to one artwork. Make make make.

  – Remember, what you make is for exhibition. Everyone will see it. What do you want them to see?

Invented Demons and student sketchbooks

On the first day of this project, students were each given their own sketchbook. These sketchbooks are a key element of this overall project, as it is the students’ own space to freely explore their artistic thinking and to respond visually and rhetorically to the theme of boredom and the material I am sharing with them. Over the holidays I had the pleasure of spending some time with the contents of these journals so far.

For now I am just intending to share some of the students’ work on the demon project set in week 2.  Click on the image above to view, at your own pace, a selection of the demons and demon stories that students came up with to explain certain things, big and small, that they struggle with in life. 

As much as I enjoyed the demons, I found myself just as interested in other things that appeared throughout the sketchbooks: the poetry contained in the “Boredom is…” lists that students had compiled; the artistic quality of the unsolicited visual responses to the project (the doodling) that students had worked on independently. The range and complexity of creative thinking and engagement on display in their words, pictures and ideas was amazing to see in its entirety. So keep an eye out for future posts of curated selections from the sketchbooks.

 

Week 3: Charcoal for Christmas

Our last session before the holidays saw students get their hands dirty while making art out of words, and charcoal. I had students compile a list of concise ways they might finish the sentence:  Boredom is…

Once they had decided on which version of the sentence they liked the most, they built their chosen text using letters from sheets of alphabet stickers.

Once their words were in place and their borders were masked, the students started applying the charcoal to their paper. Their task was to focus on the quality of their blacks, and to create as deep a black as they were able to across the entire surface.

The charcoal pencils I had purchased proved to be a failure, as they were too crumbly to work with, so students quickly started using their fingers to spread the charcoal over the page. Ms Binns was also able to locate some charcoal sticks which proved much easier to work with.

By the end of the session, most students’ work looked more or less like this. I sprayed everyone’s charcoal with a fixative, and next week, students will carefully remove their stickers and masking tape. I guess we’ll have to wait until then to see the final results.

 

 

Week 2: Words and Demons

We began with two and a half minutes of watching this without explanation.

It is a gif taken from a digital artwork called Waiting, by Addie Wagenknecht and Pablo Garcia, which you can read more about here, and which looks like this.

Installation View. The work is embedded in the code posted on the wall. When you point your phone at the code, the GIF loads on top of the code. The piece is made of handmade GIFs animating spinning buffering wheels. Visitors watch and assume they are waiting for the artwork to load, unaware that the piece is the waiting. 

After checking in and having students share a bit about their personal observations of their own boredom during the last week, I had everyone copy into their sketchbooks the following passage from Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller”, 1936.

“This process of (assimilating stories), which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places – the activities that are intimately associated with boredom – are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained.”

This took a while.

After a quick introduction to the idea of inner demons, feelings or thoughts that worry us or that make us unhappy, and that we might struggle against at times in our lives …

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… we met our first boredom (and word) related demon, Titvillus, the Patron Demon of Scribes, and looked at some representations of him throughout history. Titivillus was an invention of medieval scribes, as a scapegoat on whom to blame the errors they inevitably made when they were bored, tired or distracted from the tedium of their task. The demon was said to collect the mistakes of wayward scribes in a large sack or satchel, and take them to the devil who would read them out loud and count them against the poor scribe on their Judgement Day.

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The Temptation of St. Bernard, Book of Hours, c. 1510.

 

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Titivillus, DKing Studios.

 

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Unidentified engraving.

 

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Detail of Titivillus, Virgin of Mercy, Diego de la Cruz, c. 1485.

A quick show of hands revealed that Titivillus had visited most of the students at some point in the previous copying task they had attempted.

 

Next students were introduced to Acedia The Noonday Demon.

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The word acedia comes from Greek for “lack of care”. It was first described as one of the 8 deadly sins by Evagrius, a member of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, late in the 4th century.

Similar to sloth or laziness, it is more like dejection that made it difficult to be spiritual, avoiding ascetic practices, boredom that led to falling asleep while reading, and frustration with life in a monastery. It was named the Noonday Demon because at a certain point in the day the inescapable fact of the desert heat made it difficult for many Desert Fathers and Mothers to focus on their meditations, prayers, and other religious responsibilities.

Scenes From the Lives of the Desert Fathers, Fra Angelico, 1420, above, and detail, below, showing some demons. If you are interested in having a closer look at this painting, click on the image of it at the top of this link, and then zoom in by scrolling the mouse over the image.

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The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch, between 1500 and 1525.

 

Detail, Desidia (sloth), Pieter Bruegel the Elder, engraving, 1558.

 

Then we met the last of our demons for now, The Terrible Trivium “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” He is one of numerous demons that appear in Norton Juster’s children’s literature classic, The Phantom Tollbooth.

Illustration by Jules Feiffer, from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, 1961.

I read the first couple of pages of the book, where we meet the main character Milo, who is a very bored boy, and then jumped ahead to the section where the Terrible Trivium distracts our hero and his friends from their quest by very politely giving them some worthless jobs to spend the next 800 or so years on.

Then we discussed the students’ project for the week:

Invent your own Demon

– Based on your own recent experience of boredom, invent a modern day version of a demon of boredom or mistakes or distractions or mild annoyances.

– Write a short story of an encounter with this demon.

– Give it a name.

– Feel free to illustrate your story. It could even be a short comic strip if you like.

We will be sharing students’ demons on the blog soon, so stay tuned, and while you are waiting, remember…

For Cowboys, Jenny Holzer, 2012, electronic LED sign, site specific commission, AT&T Stadium video board.

 

See everyone next week for our last session for the year, a boring Christmas special!

Week 1 – Boredom enters the classroom

I was super excited to start this project in the classroom yesterday. The highlights for me were the strangeness and discomfort of the 2 minutes of unexplained silence, and the students’ willingness, despite the groaning and the complaints about sore hands, to complete Boring Art Exercise #2. We will be posting some examples of the students’ work soon. I wish we had more time than we did to hear students discuss the question “What is boredom?” It felt like we were only able to scratch the surface of what they already knew about boredom from their personal experience of it. Too many other things to fit in. It’s a good thing we have 10 more weeks.

Below is the rundown of what we looked at and discussed.

Raven Tales: How Raven Stole the Sun – without boredom, no light in the world.

Alice in Wonderland. – “Books are boring / I would rather spend my life exploring…”

Without boredom, no wonderland.

So…

… two silent minutes later.

David Shrigley, Untitled (Boredom).               

Discussion – Boredom: what is it?

 

What is conceptual art?

“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand, and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”

-Sol LeWitt

“Conceptual art, for me, means work in which the idea is paramount and the material is secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious, and/or dematerialized.”

– Lucy Lippard

John Baldessari, I will not make any more boring art, 1971.

 

Boring Art Exercise #1 – Draw a line for five minutes.

 

Homework:

Collect and clean 4 plastic milk cups from the hot lunch program.

Start tracking your boredom. Boredom Tracker example

 

Boring Art Exercise #2 – Erase your line.

 

That’s all. See you next week!

 

 

Welcome to Bored Shmored

John Baldessari, I will not make any more boring art, 1971.

Why, in a psychological study, did almost half of the participants choose to self-administer electric shocks rather than endure the boredom of being alone in a room with nothing but their thoughts for 15 minutes? And why, in another study, did participants who had been primed by being made to copy pages from the phone book, do better at creative problem solving tasks than those who hadn’t? Is there a difference between boredom and ennui? And why on earth would we want to teach intermediate students about ennui? And why, in classrooms, is boredom so often treated as a negative: a pedagogical failure to engage; or a behavioral problem to be addressed? What happens if we, as educators and students, decide to look at boredom differently, and in doing so, welcome this subjective state, and its associated moods and behaviours into the classroom? 

Bored Shmored will see artist Mark Cunningham lead students on an exploration of various boredoms, by looking at the culture, science and history of the term, and by engaging with our own experiences of boredom. Students will learn about a range of artistic and literary practices and techniques, and will then conceive and pursue their own creative explorations of boredom. This 11 week project will culminate in an exhibition/event in which students display their work to the school community and public. 

The project will begin in the classroom on November 29, with the final exhibition taking place in March.

Bored Shmored is grateful to be able to take place on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

Bored Shmored is supported by the South Slope PAC, and by an Artists in the Classroom grant disbursed by ArtStarts in Schools and funded by the Province of British Columbia and the BC Arts Council.