Aesthetics of Boredom

by kamilla kuna

PART 2 ︎︎︎ understanding boredom: its aesthetics and topicality

(10 minute read)
Text is a part of Master Thesis “Aesthetics of Boredom in post-soviet neighbourhoods. Multisensory experience of Laumas microdistrict in Liepaja, Latvia.” (full text available here

Researching boredom might be the least boring thing I have ever done. What at first seemed to be an easily understood phenomenon soon revealed its elusiveness after reading about its many forms and contexts. As prominent American psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson puts it, “boredom is a phenomenon that is easier to describe than define” (Greenson, 1953). We easily can relate to the term as we all have experienced boredom at least once in our lives – in our childhood. When we were just kids, boredom seemed to be a part of our daily life. And parents did not try to break nor stop it by giving free space for creation, at least in my experience. My first interaction with boredom was similar to receiving a white canvas without any guidelines, only the task of trying to find ways to use it. Parents advertised the blank space where nothing needed to be done as my own time where I needed to figure out what to do with it. From this perspective, boredom was not very fun but correlated with creative thinking and taking responsibility for your free time. Therefore, it can be seen as a positive space that enables creation.

Just like Latvian rapper, beatmaker, and producer ansis outlines in his latest album “Liela māksla”: “the childhood in the post-soviet resort is slowly dragging by” (translation from “postpadomju kūrorta bērnībā lēni velkas dienas”) (ansis, 2020). The emphasis is on how slow the days passed by in his childhood neighborhood, which also happens to be concrete soviet blocks in Kauguri, Jurmala. Throughout his album “Liela māksla” we can hear many stories of his childhood that make me think of how boredom gave all this space for experiencing the soviet blocks to its fullest.

On the other hand, in the 21st century, capitalism builds a strong belief that boredom is shameful and always a negative aspect. In capitalist societies, boredom is the one thing that we are asked to avoid because it does not create instant growth (Peeren, 2019). It is becoming more evident that growth does not enable a circular economy and a road towards sustainability, including stopping and re-defining our life goals. Not going any deeper into a topic that cannot be discussed enough even in a doctoral thesis format, personally, it was much easier to admit that I was bored as a kid than it is now. Nowadays, productivity is construed as the only beneficial way to contribute to society, making it harder for even my friends to admit (without shame) whenever they are bored. To find something boring is always to devalue and critique. The current lifestyle of always having something to do rules our lives and reinforces the concept of boredom as a negative aspect. Peeren outlines the controversy of boredom and creativity being considered mutually exclusive. The idea of free time has been changing, but is it not a luxury to be bored nowadays? With many possibilities for distraction, it is not that easy to suddenly catch oneself being bored. Only on a plane when the phone battery dies, and all the magazines have been read through one can finally allow the act of doing nothing.

In comparison, during the Soviet Union, life in microdistricts was standardized, and everything was reachable. I keep thinking how time might have been experienced differently, going to the factory within the area in the morning, coming back in the evening, picking up your children from kindergarten or school nearby. On the contrary, today, every person in a microdistrict is dependent primarily on a private car, and kids do not necessarily go to the closest education institutions. Parents are more likely to have a job on another side of the city.

To tackle this multilateral phenomenon, it is inevitable to come across authors from various fields. The term is utilized throughout philosophy, psychology, photography, sociology, literature, and cinema but rarely encourages us to think about the concept in terms of how it can transform into appreciation or at least be acknowledged in everyday aesthetics. Understanding the wide range of how boredom is and can be used in different contexts, this work is focused on placing boredom as a characteristic of an urban environment. What is boredom in urban aesthetics, and how can we experience it? Through researching where boredom stands, the aim is to open up the discussion of boredom as a part of everyday life - that needs attention and should not be neglected. Even though boredom has neither positive nor negative aesthetic value, it still yields important content in our mundane life, but it is mainly kept invisible because of its mundane nature.

Like German philosopher Walter Benjamin outlines that boredom can reveal the communal everyday life that otherwise would remain unseen, emphasizing it (through the research process) can reveal hardly ever noticed aspects (Benjamin, 2002). 

For instance, in Marseilles, Benjamin was always eager to seek out the monotonous rows of houses of people who have lived there for years, calling them "places that do not give anything away to tourists" (Moran, 2003). In reality, the very mundane streets give the facts about urban settings and their community every day. A cultural historian and everyday researcher, Joe Moran, also outlines the importance of capturing everydayness by giving the example of Martin Parr, who documented post-war scenes around the United Kingdom through postcards. Moran claims that the history of boredom and everydayness is written into images, not stories (Moran, 2003). However, thanks to photographers like Martin Parr, today's viewers can see scenes from WWII in everyday life without even noticing the presence of war.

As this research case study was done in Latvia, it is essential to understand the etymology of the term boredom itself. Interestingly, Latvian boredom translates to garlaicība, which initially comes from the two-word combination garšs (long) and laiks (time). Whereas in Lithuanian, the only similar language to Latvian, the word for boredom is nuobodulys which originally comes from badas (starvation) and beda (misery) (Narusyte, 2010). The important part is that in Latvian, the term is more neutral and not necessarily negative, suggesting a grey zone between positive and negative aesthetics. However, in the Lithuanian language, the word is more directed towards a more negative connotation. Sticking with the Latvian garlaicība – a long time, it is also very relatable within the current situation of a global pandemic. It has been a long time with the same routines without understanding how long it will take. Living with more limited opportunities of experiencing new scenery reminds me of post-soviet neighborhoods. It does not matter where you live, as the view from the window is almost the same – facing other block buildings. There have been many interpretations of when boredom is compared to a disease that needs to be dealt with. Where did the boredom come from, and how long has it been a relatable topic to everyone, the phenomenon that is easier to describe than to define?

Every day seeing the same environment over and over again cannot be put on a timeline. At this moment, even Word is signaling that I should lose one "over" from the previous sentence to use concise language. But keeping the repetition and moving forward, if I were to try to remember how many times I have walked from school to home, I would not answer even approximately without using a calculator. Most of the walks were so insignificant that I cannot remember each one of them separately.

I remember most of the details along the way, even the color of the small grocery stores, but not a quantitative measure of pointing out each walk separately. Not even how long it took to walk to school every morning. I know that it was a lot, and it took a long time. Garlaicība. And that the pathways were quite boring, so I used to choose different parallel streets through innyards. In that way, I was able to entertain myself along the way and hide from the wind.

Nowadays, I would listen to music or distract myself with a phone; that is how rapidly boredom has become easily avoidable, as mutable as the grey blocks.

In December 2019, I took my old zenith analog camera, went to Laumas district, and walked through the pathway from my childhood home to school and back. I went there intending to refresh my memory of the everydayness in this microdistrict. It took me precisely one walk to realize that I have never been able to look at this everydayness with the same eyes as I saw it while living there. Every tiny detail that has changed seemed like a significant discovery, whereas the neighborhood's aesthetics, in general, have not been changed even a bit. Considering that I was a kid the last time I visited this place, everything seemed smaller, yet, surprisingly mundane. With the following pictures taken during this observation, I tried to capture a sense of garlaicība.

The emptiness on the streets deserves a soundscape. Only public buses and a few cars pass by, meeting a few seniors and school kids along the way. It looks like time has been encapsulated, making observers pay attention to every single crack on the buildings. Surprisingly, I did remember a lot of the buildings and was able to place which ones were new. After spending a long time walking back and forth to school every day, I made a game for myself, where I tried to spot some numbers, letters, or figures on the cracks of block building sides, which might explain the reason for remembering something ordinary and boring. When you are surrounded by boredom without the possibility of escaping, daily observers create more layers. When there is free space for the mind to travel, our eyes catch the scenery more poetically, trying to find some interest in the grey zone of long-time. As I mentioned before, plans were made for a car-based city where the primary mode of transportation after passenger cars would be public transportation. It created empty holes for the scale of human beings, leaving very little to see as a pedestrian (Newman & Kenworthy, 2000).

At this point, one might say that to change the way we experience boredom, the value of the subject or object should become more relevant than just the outer appearance. And I agree that knowledge does take us one step closer to change-making, one step closer to the equality of preservation. Even ugly things can bring a positive aesthetic experience. According to Slobodan Markovic, a Serbian researcher in experimental aesthetics, beauty should transcend from pragmatic to aesthetic values, transforming from a beautiful object into beauty. When attention is directed to the object separately, meaning taken out of its everyday purpose and usefulness, one can reach the peak experience (Marković, 2012). If the way to school through the post-soviet neighborhood is dismantled, meaning divided into several film shots representing a unique experience, it creates a new perception of microdistricts. Picturing boredom and making it the main research subject can open up unseen everyday life and avoid burying the microdistricts in history. The truth is – these neighborhoods still exist in 2021, and even though those blocks are not made for this era, it is a phenomenon that deserves to be noticed. The pictures that I took do not try to put the neighborhood in better or worse colors. However, when one digs deeper into the topic of boredom, it leads to the very opposite of boredom. It is a challenge to explore hardly ever noticed aspects of everyday life. And maybe it is the only way to fight boredom – by looking directly into it without attempting to escape.

While studying the aesthetics of boredom within built environments, it is uncanny to come across discussions about what aesthetic experience includes. We know that aesthetic experience, in general, is an exceptional state of mind where we tend to judge, for instance, beauty on an everyday basis – people we pass by, their outfits, buildings, and so on (Marković, 2012). Meanwhile, Markovic also states that aesthetic preference belongs to a separate class than aesthetic experience, which would mean that aesthetic experience has the potential to be judged not only by beauty standards and first stimulus but also by its more profound aesthetics. Everyone has a preference when it comes to aesthetics. However, it does not necessarily mean that we would hate everything apart from our preferences. Aesthetic preference is very subjective with its measures. For some, Finland can seem like the dreamland of minimalist design and architecture, whereas it might not seem tasteful for others. The sterile urban environment can evolve into homogenous and unexposed Finnish culture that becomes rootless (Munasinghe, 2016). These types of environments can be described by using the term over planned or planning driven by fear of ending up with a non-functional city. A city like every other living organism cannot be planned and predicted to the smallest detail. A homogeneous environment relates to what has been seen as boring and even threatening for urban planning. It is one of the reasons why contemporary urban planning aims to adopt interdisciplinary work, where the Architect of the city is replaced with professionals from many fields. In future city planning, repetition, boredom, and monotony are listed as qualities seen as a threat (AlHinkawi & Al-Qaraghuli, 2016). Time changes, and so does aesthetic preferences. Soviet mass housing plans were never meant to be boring. On the contrary, they were shown as very futuristic and strong urban planning of the time.

To sum up the discussion on the aesthetics of boredom, it needs to be understood as a phenomenon that is still an aesthetic experience. Although boredom exists in the grey zone of negative aesthetic experiences, it can still be understood as valuable. One can see it as a white canvas giving space and place for new ideas to be born. On the other hand, it might be a frightening experience that needs to be overcome by quickly finding something interesting. Long time passing by can be repeated in the same way repeatedly, or it can be studied by finding its value. Within this research, I invite the experience of boredom to be enforced by going into the details of how Soviet mass housing is a phenomenon itself. By examining the history, ideology, and meaning behind the blocks, we overcome the fear of boredom as an aesthetic experience.

Or as ansis puts it “the heart of the district is made out of concrete and iron” (Kauguri 1998). And I could not agree more, that these poverty pockets might be boring but it is still an inspiration for songs, artworks, and new research topics. It made us who we are, allowing us to see beyond the seemingly empty concrete blocks.

  • ansis (Ansis Kolmanis), 2020. Kauguri 1998. Rokas. In Liela Māksla. 
  • Benjamin, W. (2002). The Arcades Project. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.
  • Greenson, R. (1953). On Boredom. The journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 7-12.
  • Marković, S. (2012, January 1). Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal, and aesthetic emotion. I Perception, pp. 1-17
  • Moran, J. (2003, September 16). Benjamin and Boredom. Critical Quarterly, pp. 168-181.
  • Munasinghe, H. (2016, July 29). Aesthetics of urban space through collaborative urban planning: integrating environmental aesthetics with communicative theory of planning. Built-Environment Sri Lanka, pp. 35–44
  • Narusyte, A. (2010). The Aesthetics of Boredom. Lithuanian Photography 1980 - 1990. Vilnius: Vilniaus dailes akademija.
  • Newman, P., & Kenworthy, J. (2000). The Ten Myths of Automobile Dependence. World Transport Policy & Practice, pp. 15-25.
  • Peeren, E. (2019). You MUST not be bored. Boredom and Creativity in Global Capitalism. In J. d. Kloet, C. Yiu Fai, & L. Scheen, Boredom, Shanzhai, and Digitisation in the Time of Creative China (pp. 101-109). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
kamilla kuna 2022