A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, about 70 people gathered at Ichon Hangang Park in Seoul, South Korea, to do absolutely nothing. There was not a smart phone in sight, no texting or taking selfies, and no one rushing to get anywhere.
The crowd was taking part in South Korea's annual Space Out Competition, a contest to see who can stare off into space the longest without losing focus. WoopsYang, the visual artist who created the event in 2014, said it's designed to highlight how much people have been overworking their brains and how much they stand to gain by taking a break.
"I was suffering from burnout syndrome at the time, but would feel extremely anxious if I was sitting around doing nothing, not being productive in one way or another," she told VICE. Eventually, she realized she wasn't alone. "I thought to myself, 'We would all feel better about doing nothing if we did nothing together as a group.'"
Since the first competition was held two years ago, it's evolved into a full-on pageant with a panel of judges and a set of strict rules—no phones, no talking, no checking your watch, no dozing off. WoopsYang said over 2,000 people signed up for the 70 contestant slots this year, and she had to hold qualifying rounds to select the best candidates.
During the 90-minute-long event, contestants are banned from doing anything other than spacing out. If you fall asleep, start laughing, or use technology, you're disqualified. Contestants' heart rates are checked every 15 minutes to ensure that they are in a state of chill; the person with the most stable heart rate wins. There's a live sportscaster who narrates the event to onlookers. If contestants feel discomfort—say, if someone gets thirsty or needs to use the bathroom—they can hold up one of several cards to make a request.
This year, Shin Hyo-Seob, a local rapper who goes by Crush, took the gold. He was among the last remaining competitors, and had the steadiest heart rate of them all, making him the most spaced-out. "I was really determined to win," he told VICE. "I practiced at home."
"We would all feel better about doing nothing if we did nothing together as a group." — WoopsYang
The competition is part of a larger conversation about the importance of rest—not just in South Korea, but around the world. Research has consistently shown that the brain needs downtime in order to process information and create memories, but also to mitigate the stress and burnout that comes from being constantly connected to both our work and social lives. South Korea, in particular, has one of the most stressed out populations in the world, which the New York Times once described as "on the verge of a national nervous breakdown."
Problems associated with stress, anxiety, and overworked brains are not unique to Seoul, so WoopsYang hopes to eventually expand the competition worldwide. Last year, there was an international Space Out Competition held in Beijing, which had roughly 80 chilled-out contestants.
Besides the competitive element, WoopsYang says she also sees the event as a piece of performance art. The competition is held during a busy part of the day (this year, it was on a Monday morning) in a busy part of the city (the first one was held in Seoul's City Hall; this year, in a large public park) to highlight the contrast between a group of people doing absolutely nothing and the chaos of the city surrounding them. "The best way to view this competition is from one of the surrounding tall buildings, looking down," said WoopsYang. "You'll be able to see a small patch of stillness amidst all the hectic movement."
WoopsYang also encourages contestants to come wearing outfits that represent their vocation—suits or lab coats or uniforms—so that the group of people gathered together looks like "a miniature version of the entire city," she said. The point is to demonstrate how burnout can affect anyone, but everyone can benefit from spacing out. "I also try my best to choose the most diverse pool of people possible during the final stages of the qualifying rounds, in the hopes that it'll allow every group in the city to be represented," she said.
Not everyone sees it as "art," but WoopsYang isn't bothered by that. "I'm content with it being a form of entertainment," she said. "I think I've provided an entertainment option that doesn't involve technology or money"—or, really, doing anything at all.