The Art of Unplugging

While a smartphone may only weigh down someone’s purse or pocket by a few ounces, the weight of potential that it holds is much greater. With constant, instant access to the whole history of human knowledge, it’s easy to go overboard.

What’s the most recent news story in the Times? What’s the coolest up-and-coming app? How far am I from that hot new restaurant, and just when, oh when, does Beyoncé’s new album come out?



If you find yourself kept up at night by the digital tempest, know that you’re not alone.

According to a 2016 study, most smartphone users have about 28 apps. Americans, on average, check their phones almost 50 times per day (though for millennials that number is closer to 75 times). Google processes more than 3.5 billion searches per day, each of which feature millions of results. That is a lot of information passing to and from people all the time.

Between staying informed on current events, checking in on social media, and communicating with friends and family, it can be exhausting to exist in the digitally saturated modern world. So, what can we do to cope with the inevitable moments of overload?

Horizontal Music

When I’m finished with classes or home from a day of work at the art museum, one of my favorite ways to decompress is by listening to music. I particularly enjoy what I call “horizontal music”—a label I made up to describe the songs I believe are best experienced lying down, steaming mug of tea nearby.

Some examples of musicians who fall into this category are 2012 Grammy winner Bon Iver, his longtime bandmate S. Carey, and Swedish singer-songwriter José González—artists known for their mellow voices and penchant for both traditional and electronic instruments (such as acoustic guitars and synthesizers). Their songs are soothing, and the light arrangements invite listeners to let their minds wander.

Conspicuously absent are the pulsing bass tones and driving drums that dominate top 40 radio, leaving only a sparse, gentle soundscape that’s the perfect accompaniment for a period of dedicated relaxation.

The Benefits of Breathing

American performance artist Allan Kaprow believed that an individual’s most mundane activities could become meaningful in the right context. In the 1960s, he pioneered an unusual artistic practice called Happenings, which consisted of actions based on repeated, everyday experiences—even something as simple as brushing one’s teeth.

“[Happenings exaggerate] the normal unattended aspects of everyday life,” Kaprow said, “such displacements of ordinary emphasis increase attentiveness.” In other words, Kaprow felt that paying attention to things we usually take for granted might make us more mindful in all areas of our lives.

His 1979 essay, “Performing Life,” included instructions for an untitled Happening, inviting participants to record the sounds of their own breathing and then play them back.

“sitting alone at the beach

drawing in your breath and releasing it

with the rise and fall of the waves

continuing for some time

walking along the waves’ edge

listening through earphones

to the record of your earlier breathing”

In the same 1979 essay where Kaprow provided these instructions, the artist admitted he’d never actually tried it himself. I think that we would all be doing him a favor by testing it out on his behalf.

If you don’t have a tape recorder handy, or you’re nowhere near a beach, that’s still totally okay. Instead, just close your eyes, imagine your favorite place, and enjoy some slow, deep breaths. The simple act of inhaling and exhaling will calm the nervous system, providing a natural rhythm that helps combat that frazzled feeling.

And About that Beach…

People often think of beach vacations as peak opportunities for relaxation, but as a self-proclaimed museum junkie, I would argue that a good old-fashioned visit to your nearest art gallery can serve the same purpose. Although you won’t have the same physical experience, you do have the option to indulge in multiple landscapes all in one place. Plus, you won’t come home covered in sand.

  The South Ledges, Appledore , Childe Hassam (1913). Image credit:  Smithsonian .

 The South Ledges, Appledore, Childe Hassam (1913). Image credit: Smithsonian.

And while you won’t benefit from the vitamin D provided freely by the sun, you can still get the feeling of the beach from American Impressionist Childe Hassam’s 1913 painting, The South Ledges, Appledore, which beautifully captures a warm day on the Maine shoreline.

The image is all stone, sun, and sea salt. A woman in white leans against an almost equally white rock. Her hat protects her from the warm sun, while the sea air kisses her exposed face. The water goes on and on, broken only by the waves crashing foamy against darker shoreline rocks below the bleached cliff. You can practically hear the rush of the water, and smell the salt and sunscreen.

More of a mountain person? American landscape painter Alfred Bierstadt has got you covered. His massive, five-by-eight foot 1876 painting, Mount Corcoran (a fictional place), features tall peaks, picturesque fluffy clouds, slim trees, and a token animal to make sure you know that you’re in the wild.

Mount Corcoran , Albert Bierstadt (1876). Image credit:  National Gallery of Art .

Mount Corcoran, Albert Bierstadt (1876). Image credit: National Gallery of Art.

Bierstadt’s mountains tease the sky, and a bear explores the edge of the blue-green water. Clouds arrange themselves and then break into mist in the tall pine trees. As the lake turns into a lazy stream, which winds back toward those stoic mountain peaks, the canvas seems wholly unaware that it is supposed to be a two-dimensional object—just as you may have forgotten that the scene you are looking at is, indeed, a painting, and that you aren’t actually on a hike through the 19th century American wilderness.

Of course, even in the well-worn halls of the museum, no one is free from the tyranny of digital overload. While it might be relatively easy to put off responding to that work email, it is much harder to maintain self-control on social media. Can you resist posting a picture of this iconic painting on Snapchat or Facebook, and just move on?

Where technology and information are concerned, it can be hard to decide when enough is enough – when that text can wait to be answered, or that Instagram notification can be left un-checked. The thing that is most important in those inevitable moments of overload is to remember that you are not, in fact, Alice falling helplessly down the rabbit hole. There are always alternatives (or, if you will, art-ternatives) that might offer some solace.

And, let’s be honest, your phone probably needs to recharge, anyway.