Re-cognising Monotony and Boredom
Klare Lanson, February 2019 (1)
Social media newsfeeds recently highlighted an ABC story of a pilot graffitiing the sky with the words “I’m Bored”, visible via online flight tracking radar systems—a relatively harmless pursuit that nonetheless amplifies the affect that monotonous work environments have on the human psyche (2). Punctum Inc’s first Seedpod of the year invites further investigation into this phenomenon with a developing work entitled The Pathology of Boredom.
The Pathology of Boredom is a new collaboration by Rohan Drape, Alexander Garsden, Oliver Mann, Erkki Veltheim and the INLAND concert series; an experimental music performance where the listening audience is situated in almost complete darkness. This project was named after the 1957 psychological paper by Woodburn Heron, which claimed that human behaviour in monotonous work situations is a critical problem for society at large and proceeded to examine the scientific study that sought to find solutions.
Heron’s article reported that childlike and hallucinatory behaviour occurred when subjects were in complete isolation and deprived of stimuli. They were also prone towards arguing for the existence of the supernatural and showed active change in brain wave patterning (3). The creative collaboration of The Pathology of Boredom interestingly connects these findings to Schubert’s rendition of Goethe’s poem Erlkönig, a well-known ballad of a father riding horseback through bad weather with his deliriously sick son, who throughout the journey declares to be tormented by a supernatural being known as the Erlkönig (Elf King) before he dies.
The ICU performance space works best with dark and poetic endeavours in art. Walking into the space, the audience is confronted with chairs positioned as two wide arcs, taking up the majority of the room, perhaps spatially reflecting the parallels drawn between science and art, simultaneously same and different. In near darkness, four speakers seem to be hovering above us, heralding the surround sound experience that has yet to come.
White noise begins as ambient sound. There is no overt patterning at work here, just the audible frequencies of vibration that slowly rise in volume level. It is structured by a set of technological arrangements—laptops noticed on arrival—but its seamlessness evokes continuous sound. There are also uncanny feelings of urgency to begin with, not dissimilar to the response of Schubert’s composition of rapid piano triplets in Erlkönig. Occasional audible sighs and bodily movement of surrounding audience members are heard. Slowly—in tandem with the white noise—they dissipate into secondary position and the mind takes over; shadows of grey, flickering light shapes, and dancing chairs beyond the sightline.
Ear witnessing this creative experiment is a collaboration that is enhanced by the sensory deprivation of vision (for both audience and performers), yet there is a strange blurring of the imaginary and the real, enveloping what is being overheard. The relationality of time and space within a darkened environment fluctuates like the synchronisations that may only have been heard and seen in the imagination.
Although the artists obviously knew the durational piece well, for this first development that included an audience, it could be understood as being their first performance. Both audience and performers were equal subjects of this experiment, a framework set up for democratic forms of listening. The combination of performing the subtle shifting of sound modulation alongside human improvisation was stimulating. It performs the poiesis, making manifest the layers of our internal psychic workings, our creative representations and their perceived meaning.
There is also a parallel presence between the audience and the performers who are unseen, and only occasionally heard. Within this performance, quiet improvisation becomes the new loud. The collaborators become part of this embodied lived experience, where performers respond only to what they believe to be illusory. It is difficult to ascertain the difference between internal and external forces, questioning whether the elements of water and wind are heard within the soundscape, the sympathetic vibrational sound of an oboe, or if all of this is a kind of lucid dreaming. In the end it doesn’t really matter because to “re-cognise, to commit to the power of our imagination as a poetic force, is a capacity that we all share” (4).
This performative encounter goes for a surprisingly short 100 minutes in total, the average amount of time for the normal sleep cycle. It was a commitment that made explicit the power of collective and creative world making. An important aspect of art such as this is the way it speaks to and participates in wider debates and developments related to psychology and its impact—probing into human behaviour. The sounding of The Pathology of Boredom does just that; the promised logic of science doesn’t add up, in this case the only promise is no promise at all.
1 Klare Lanson is poet, writer, sound artist and editor. She is a member of Punctum Inc, Undue Noise media art collective, and a creative practice research PhD candidate at RMIT’s College of Design and Social Context.
3 Woodburn, Heron. "The Pathology of Boredom”. Scientific American, 196, no. 1 (1957): 52–56.
4 See Frosh, Paul. The Poetics of Digital Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2019.