Sunlight shone through lush foliage in the Seogwipo Forest of Healing in South Korea’s Jeju Island. Scattered between towering trees, dozens of people sat in silence on the forest ground, confined to individual purple mats. They were decked in raincoats amid a slight drizzle, surrounded by the tranquility of nature. An intense zen pulsed through the air.
Welcome to the Space-out Competition, one day every year where doing nothing is a competitive sport. Held on the last week of May this year, the event saw close to 30 participants sitting around doing nothing, in hopes of winning a championship title as the most zoned out.
For 90 minutes, contestants had to be as zen as they could be while event staff went around taking their pulses at fixed intervals. The top 10 participants, selected by audience votes, were later ranked based on their pulse—the one with the most stable heart rate wins the whole competition. It’s all about zoning out but not so much that you fall asleep; that would get you disqualified.
Visual artist Woopsyang, who only goes by one name, organizes the Space-out Competition. To her, spacing out is a form of reward akin to material luxury.
“We splurge on delicious food or goods we want to buy when we finally get paid after our laborious work. Then why not for time?” Woopsyang told VICE.
Typically held in South Korean cities like Seoul, Incheon, and Daegu, the Space-out Competition is a public performance which aims to create a visual juxtaposition between busy urban residents and the idle participants.
Since the first Space-out Competition was held in Seoul in 2014, international versions of the famously meditative event have also taken place in cities around the world like Beijing, Rotterdam, and Taipei.
“Traditionally, there has been a conception that spacing out is kind of a waste of time. However, this misconception needs to change and this artwork contributes to the change,” the event’s website reads.
Lee Radde, the champion of the 2019 competition, told VICE that he did not expect to win the competition when he first participated two years ago.
The 31-year-old, who hosts an English radio morning show in Seoul, said that his colleagues had challenged him to join the competition.
“People often tell me that [I] space out a lot even in the middle of conversation,” he said. “[The competition] seemed like a fun thing to do and something fun for my show, but I never thought I would have been awarded first place.”
Radde confessed that he didn’t prepare much at all for the 2019 competition, besides rehearsing how to sit on the ground.
“That's a weird thing to prepare, but I figured that since we have to sit in one place for so long, I didn't want pain or discomfort to take me out of the zone... of zoning out,” he said.
Radde got a certificate and a trophy for emerging as the champion of the 2019 competition, but he thinks that the opportunity to participate was even more precious.
“It's hard to explain but there is something meaningful about getting together with people who willingly choose to do nothing,” he said.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition went virtual last year. Instead of sitting down in a mass daydreaming session, people uploaded short clips of themselves spacing out on TikTok using a Korean hashtag that translates to “space-out challenge.”
The in-person competition resumed this year, with the number of participants greatly reduced as part of pandemic precautions. While past years’ competitions usually featured around 80 contestants, only up to 30 were allowed to participate this year.
Event organizers also decided to hold this year’s competition in the Seogwipo Forest of Healing on Jeju Island, a refreshing change from its usual urban venues. While that means this year’s event lacked the visual juxtaposition of spaced out participants in bustling cities, Woopsyang decided to roll with the nature setting because she realized that people may be equally occupied and engrossed in their daily tasks, even when deep in the forest.
When Radde found out through our interview that the Space-out Competition was back this year, he made a last-minute decision to enter. He had already planned for a road trip from Seoul to Jeju, and the competition fit snugly into his ambitious cross-country plan.
About 10 hours on his motorcycle and a ferry ride later—a tedious journey that he documented on Instagram—Radde arrived on Jeju Island on competition day, eagerly welcomed by participants who had gotten wind of his arrival.
“There were some no-shows so there was a spot for me to join. Word had spread that the 2019 winner was coming from Seoul on his motorcycle. So when I got there, people came and greeted me, some asked for tips about how to do it well,” he said.
While Radde didn’t expect to get voted into the top 10 this time, he placed an impressive second place in the end.
“I was so surprised when I found him participating this time again,” Woopsyang said of Radde’s last-minute appearance. “He couldn’t stop doing his best spacing out, and [ended] up with second [place] in Jeju!”
“The drive, I think, helped tire me out enough so I could get to a state of [spacing out] quite easily,” Radde said.
“My greatest achievement in life [is] winning the 2019 competition. So logically, my second greatest achievement in life is getting second in 2021,” Radde said.
At first place this year was Kim Ah-reum, a 34-year-old Jeju local who runs a hair salon.
Kim told VICE that she didn’t expect to win the competition, since inner peace didn’t exactly come easy for her that day.
“I was so cold and hungry… I heard crows and participants coughing, so it wasn’t easy not to think,” she said.
But after a while, she managed to find her zen.
“During the competition, my thoughts really stopped,” she said. “I think I just had a dream.”
Woopsyang said that she came up with the competition when she realized that many people, like her, had no time for much-needed rest despite being burnt out.
“We feel [like we’re] wasting our time if we don’t do anything while others are keeping busy,” she said.
Since many people seemed to have trouble allowing themselves to take a break, Woopsyang decided to have a group of people do absolutely nothing, with intention.
“You can waste time [a] little bit. You deserve it,” said Woopsyang.
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