It was time for the festival of the obscure, the mundane, the common, the twisted, the funny, the celebration of Boring! This year, the Boring conference was taking place at York Hall on Old Ford Road in East London. A sold-out event; it had twice the capacity of the venue used last year and this notice greeted the worryingly excited people upon arrival –
Looks like last year’s inaugural conference had caught the attention of quite a few people!
Some of the presenters took the opportunity to pose for pictures in the hall before it filled to the rafters with curious attendees.
Sky News were also sneaking around the conference hall, catching attendees under the media spotlight and asking about their reasons for being at York Hall.
While the hall slowly filled up, a video of pencils being made in a factory played quietly away on a loop, overlaid with the flashing message ‘THIS..’ ‘..IS..’ ‘..BORING.’ A scuffle of activity broke out as people tore open their goody bags, rifling through the sweets, badges, books and pens inside. After 10 minutes, the pencil video was replaced by slides giving gentle suggestions to sit down.
Welcome To Boring!
James Ward is the creator of Boring and was the first on stage to give a brief introduction. He described the event as a celebration of things that we take for granted which become invisible.
Hi-Cone, the packaging firm that makes the plastic strips that hold together cans and tins were the commercial sponsors of Boring 2011. At the same time, Hi-Cone were also sponsoring an exhibition entitled Hidden Heroes at the Science Museum. Sharing a theme with Boring, the Hidden Heroes exhibition (on until 5th June 2012), celebrates everyday objects and tells the stories behind their invention.
Clement Freud Goes Through Customs: The First Ten Years of Which? Magazine
Ward gave the first presentation of the day, talking about Which? magazine. He examined early reviews of electric kettles from 1957, noting that the cheapest kettle reviewed was priced at an amazing £3.10s 3d (£66 in today’s money) with warnings not to put them on the top of the stove. Particular attention was paid to the pictures used to illustrate the reviews, questioning the impact of using a young girl doing washing and the resultant message given to the women of the 1950’s. Testing methods such as oven roasting pens for 12 hours were evaluated. While some of the reviews ended with the passive conclusion ‘no doubt you will buy the one you like the best,’ James offered his extensive knowledge of the magazine and its contents to write some excellent reviews for Which? magazine himself.
Hand Dryers: A Beginners Guide
The first electric hand dryers were introduced in 1948 and many will be familiar with the hot air Warner Howard A48 – which until recently, was seen in most washrooms around the world. Tim Steiner is so passionate about hand dryers that after reviewing & documenting hundreds of different dryers, he even has a jet air Dyson Airblade installed in his own home. If the standard 10 second drying time was too long for some busy people, he suggested that investments should be made in Panasonic’s 3 second dryer. Some consideration should also be given to noise pollution as today’s dryers can reach 90dB (equivalent to getting close & friendly with a lawnmower) and that children have developed phobias from these creatures!
Although up to 50% of the market is held by generic products which are then branded by hygiene companies upon arrival at washrooms, some establishments have been reported to ‘pimp up their dryers’ (pictured). There are a few which he says competes with his Dyson such as the forerunner and jewel in the hand dryer crown, the Mitsubishi Jet Towel.
Vignettes were performed by Will Barett and Tom Webb between each presentation. While their performances were great – the scripts were stilted, strange and unsettlingly amusing resulting in nervous rounds of applause after each one. The purpose of these vignettes was not explained until later in the day….
My Favourite Loos From 2010 And 2011
Chris T-T, a folk musician who performs in heavy metal clubs quite a lot, talked about toilets. A notable few included the one in the Green Room of the Theatre Royal in Brighton which had a helpful ‘not drinking water’ sign on its cistern. Then there was another in Brighton that had a window with which to observe other customers in the diner. The Vic in Swindon had a stage with toilets on it (pictured) and he reminisced about the time he urinated off a waterfall and into ancient roman toilets. Chris has made a poster of all the loos he visited in the past year.
Talking, Tweeting; Not Talking, Not Tweeting About Nando’s Chicken Restaurant
Matt Crosby used to tweet so much about his visits to Nandos, that strangers on Twitter would contact him expressing their disappointment if he wasn’t at their local branch. He would like a Nandos app for his phone (no, not pandas…) and discussed the hot potato of forged loyalty cards. He eventually had to stop going because he questioned whether he was going because he enjoyed eating more or tweeting more, recommending that we should stop and look around us. That we should enjoy the moment more (at this point a person along the row looks down at the author of this article writing her notes. The author guiltily glances up)…..
The Question of Budgens – the Reorganisation Of A Local Supermarket
Dr Galit Ferguson presented an ethnographic study of a financial exchange centre. The case study related to a branch in Crouch End, London and the proprietor Andrew Thornton. Despite being a chain, this particular branch seemed as local as a family owned store. This gentleman once sold squirrel meat from a small butcher at the back of the shop and cultivated a sky garden. Steph 76 and Ruth 108 made useful contributions to the study.
Eyes Wide Shut
Jon Ronson talked about a phone call he received in 1996, about a guy who was looking for a copy of Ronson’s Auschwitz hotel documentary (every one visits, but no one wants to stay) for his boss. The boss turned out to be Stanley Kubrick.
After Kubrick’s death, Ronson was presented with an opportunity to review the material that Kubrick based his films on. There were a significant quantity of photos taken by assistants with which Kubrick would decide to film on location or build a set in the studios. Ronson talked about the determination one of those assistants; of Manwell, the chap who took over 30,000 photos and even photographed in minute detail the whole length of Commercial Road in London. Kubrick was reportedly never overwhelmed with the amount of information that he was presented with. A small excerpt from the resulting documentary was played as Ronson stood at the side of the stage, looking like he still had a thousand unanswered questions about the material playing on the screen in front of him.
The Supper Book
Peter Burnett loves lists. He likes the ones that list the 10 people who have died in sexual intercourse, the ones who list people who have been misquoted by Ronald Regan. ‘Lists capture everything, they can’t be misinterpreted’ he professed. Using George Perec’s book; Species of Spaces as inspiration, Burnett once recorded everything he ate and drank in one year. He eventually developed a habit of going to Greggs. Not to eat, but to see what things are called and what people are talking about.
The Square Root of Two
Toby Dignum conspiratorially told the audience the tale of a secret that got someone murdered thousands of years ago. While allowing us to hold hands for support and regular supplies of feline humour, Dignum led the audience through the revolutionary discovery of the infinite number, the square root of two. Somehow Dignum managed to sneak in a bit of an algebra lesson too.
The audience appeared to be split into two groups. Those who were becoming sweaty and their eyes beginning to fill with tears, and those who were becoming sweaty and were beginning to lick their lips…
About A Boy – The Film That Taught Me To Be Bored
Leila Johnston described the film ‘About A Boy’ as 91% about boredom and 9% about a boy. In 2009 she started to track down and travel to photograph the locations in the film, noting inaccuracies such as disparate places being closer than they really are or highlighting similarities with Ronson’s talk and the common theme of using doorways as thresholds. When the locations proved too difficult to track down, she turned to her bored but enthusiastic fans for help in finding them. Eventually her experience led to recommend three golden rules of location spotting. For example, the first one is to be constantly looking, to cultivate being a bit autistic.
Another comedian attempting to sneak a bit of maths education under people’s bored radars, Matt Parker talked everyone through the pictorial and numerical coding and condensing of information. Explaining the pattern of a traditional striped barcode, he illustrated what the check number was by predicting the last number. Parker then went on to discuss the latest advances in barcode technology – the QR code (the pixelated square). So much more information can be squeezed into these little stamps – the black squares representing 1 and the white squares representing 2, in total incorporating 45 different characters; 0 – 9, all the letters and 10 bonus characters. Simple he says, as he proceeds to show us some that he designed himself. All this while his self-styled Mobius strip, fashioned from his conference pass wristband, jangles gently on his wrist
Personal Reflections On The London Underground
Greg Stekelman decided to pretend that his audience was dead to help him relax and get started. First up was the Piccadilly Line (vomit), followed by the Bakerloo Line (worst colour) and every other line throughout his presentation. Following a survey, there were rumours that the District Line was Jon Ronson’s favourite line – but this was later denied. It angers Stekelman that someone in Watford can get on the Underground.
Meanwhile the performances between each lecture continued…..
There Are No Boring Shuttle Flights
Helen Keen doesn’t think that the space shuttle program is boring at all. She collects space stamps, especially ones with animals (insert some more feline humour) and possesses a thorough knowledge of the origins of NASA. Operation Paperclip was detailed where space scientists were smuggled from Germany to the USA to assist with developing rockets. The presentation was summed up through the use of a very well designed Venn diagram.
The Loebner Prize
Will Barett returned to the stage to explain the curious pieces that he had been performing with Tom Webb including exchanges like ‘Why don’t blind people skydive? Perhaps it is impossible?’ and ‘Do you experience love? No, I’m 53. Well I’m 9’. It transpires that these exchanges were transcripts of computers attempting to act as humans. Every year since 1990, the Turing test has been used as a competition to try and find a computer with the most impressive level of artificial intelligence expressed as the ability to pass themselves off as humans in conversation. One robot that only replied with the word ‘smashing’ came second in 2007. Barett suggested that all the test means is how little we know about humans.
As a writer working from home, Rhodri Marsden feels he may be somewhat out of practise with the refined art of small talk. Even after consulting with fellow presenter; Greg Stekelman he realises that he should just remember a series of questions, but he couldn’t care less. With a quick plug of his book he went on to explain how to get away from a boring person should you find yourself in conversation with one.
Reclaiming Public Spaces
The amazing Josie Long is a seasoned comedian and a seasoned protester too. As a key supporter of UK Uncut, among others, she has spoken at the 2010 student protests, Block the Bridge and various Occupy London events. On this occasion the audience were treated to a tale about Josie’s ‘Anti-cut, pro-youth, awesome, like adventure – will travel tour’ to public spaces in Margate, Isle of Sheppy, Milton Keynes, Hull, Leicester, London, Bedford, Gloucester, Bidford. The exact location of each event was decided upon arrival & the message spread using social media. Long had some beautiful anecdotes from each location, including people who stayed talking together even though the show had ended. Temporary theatres constructed within minutes where ever and whenever they are needed. Occupy briefly. Memories last forever.
Mark Stevenson happens to be a Cultural Engineer at Honda’s Dream Factory. He thinks that cynicism is to reason what Andrew Lloyd Webber is to music and that cynicism is a perfect excuse for not thinking. Maybe some people think that making the world a better place is a contact sport? Stevenson suggests that ideas are like assholes – everyone’s got one before going onto suggest that Edison didn’t come up with a way to make a light bulb, he came up with 3000 ways not to make one. Very fast paced, confrontational and containing plenty of naughty words. Aren’t Engineers at the dream factory supposed to be burping daisies and stroking tiny baby rabbits all the time?
Health & Safety
Electrified Richard DeDomenici, a live artist, maintained the pressure by giving his presentation in the PechaKucha style of 20 slides for 20 seconds each. He talked about Chicago’s daring Man Lifts, Paternosters and the nightmarish vision of being decapitated in one, doing handbrake-180s in old Routemaster buses and his international 2004 attempt at disproving Chaos Theory. He was in Basic Instinct 2 don’t you know…
Vending Machines Of The British Isles – A Sound Diaries Project
Dr Felicity Ford took the pace down several notches with her relaxing and calming presentation. Ford said that when she first got a microphone she pointed it at everyone and recorded everything. Sometimes it’s the silence, the sound that seems to be missing from the recordings that have more of an impact than the sound that is actually there. She played a recording of a vending machine at rest and orated the most exquisite poem over the top; ’43, 44 are curiously defunct, the spirals held crisps in only flavours we can imagine.’
BBC Television Archives
Adam Curtis directed the audience’s attention towards the BBC archives which hold 940,000 programmes in a large warehouse in Perivale. Adam tells everyone of a man named Andrew Martin who works after hours documenting the bits and snippets spliced from the ends of programs – the bits that don’t make it to air. An example record of the snippets would read; ’26/02/66 BBC3 (LPR512811) – front snatch of sound under line-up; most of credits of ‘The Spies’; clock (22:25); plug for ‘A Farewell To Arms’ part 2 and ‘Late Night Line Up’ (with Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore) on BBC2…’ Or maybe the announcer would be recorded talking about way-out space hippies in reference to an upcoming episode of Star Trek. The document containing the records currently runs to 212 pages.
Curtis seized upon this engineered example of an abundance of resources, and abundance of wealth to bring light to how it can stifle common sense and smoother innovation. He suggested the UK is undergoing an era of stagnation last seen in the 1980’s Soviet Union. The plan to give everything to everyone had run out of control. Items were being produced when they weren’t required. This resulted in vast amounts of profits being made for some, but a lack of resources for others. The Union was starving. Curtis suggested that the UK has the opposite problem, that there are too many goods. He suggested that people live in an era of boredom brought about by innate passivity and exploitable stagnation. The government tell their voters that there is no alternative but austerity and the voters think that there are so many things to cut and things will be ok.
But are there some jewels in those proposed management technique cuts from the government? Are some of those rights, some of those services unique and beautiful? Some of those rights may be the joists that hold everything else together. Is it wise to sit and be passive, to sit and be cynical, to sit and think what we’re told to and behave as we’re supposed to? Is it the variety of life, both the boring and exciting moments, which keeps everything hanging together?
No More Presentations
It transpired that no one correctly identified all four of the locations but at least the star of last year’s Boring controversy Ed Ross, admitted that he couldn’t identify any of them.
After a full day of learning about things one never expected to be learning about, the 400 strong crowd slowly filed out the hall.
The sponsors of Boring 2011 had kindly filled their plastic packaging with free wine for the crowd to take home.
Another fantastic Boring conference! Who knows how big or how many venues it will take place in next year…