Stuart McMillan, Blue Twilight, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.Digital Detox - Art, Nature and importance of re-connection

words by Stuart McMillan

What importance do we place these days on being connected to the present, in this very moment?  And what effect are smartphones & technology having on our connection to nature and each other?

More and more we find ourselves completely consumed by the constant vibration or bing of a notification on our smart phones, so wrapped up in sharing the latest purchase, travel update or culinary creation, we don’t really think twice before we've posted almost every living second of our lives. What would happen if you didn’t have this constant outlet or feed of information? What if our smartphones were taken away and maybe even our internet access became very limited for a month or longer? How would you cope? How would people know if you still existed or what you ate for dinner?
Earlier this year, I embarked on such a journey over the month of April 2017, at the Finnish art residency Arteles Creative Centre three hours from Helsinki, in the municipality of Hämeenkyrö. Coordinated by a team of fantastic creative and innovative minds, Arteles embodies the importance of connection to environment, nature, and nurturing individuals creative process.
Arteles Creative Centre, Hameenkyro, Finland. Image courtesy of Stuart McMillanThe month long program I had signed up for titled ‘Back to Basics’ stipulated that your phone would be taken off you within the first few days (but you could check it once a week), and for the first week there would be no internet access and use of internet was limited. And no it wasn’t some sought of cult, or religious camp! Housed in two converted school buildings originally built from 1901 to 1941 and converted to accomodation and studios in 2010, every room had a view of nature. The surrounding area of rolling fields, swathes of birch and pine forest gave way to the ever moody Lake Parilanjarvi.

I imagined what would happen if you did this in a regular internet savvy household for a week/month; what might ensue, separation anxiety, serious boredom, tablet tantrums or even worse a complete FOMO (fear of missing out) meltdown!

As eleven creatives from a broad spectrum of disciplines and cultural backgrounds surrendered their phones, and plunged into a world void of connection to external information and feed. The only thing we had to keep us occupied was meditation, yoga, nature walks, creativity, writing, outdoor fires, reading, the odd adventure for cake, cook ups, saunas, good old cups of tea and conversation (maybe the odd movie or two and some dancing).
Stuart McMillan, Blue Twilight, 2017. Image courtesy of the artistThe first week drifted by and most creatives admitted they had deeper sleep, increased productivity, re-connection to nature and a general feeling of relief from the constant feed which smart phones and technology requires of our daily routine. Many great conversations were had, meals shared, and I felt real comfort in just being present and experiencing every given moment. We were provided the space and opportunity to mediate twice daily, I managed about six to eight meditations a week and also shared yoga practice with other artists three times a week, which truly was a grounding experience.
At the halfway point, I’d only been online twice to briefly check emails and messages via social media. I had no inkling to scroll down or explore more stories or news, I saw the time drain it would have on my creative day, after 15 minutes, I’d had enough.

It felt so liberating, and I was constantly enamoured by the ever changing mood in the cloudy sky, the colour of the lake, or which new pair of birds had arrived to nest for spring in the nearby forest.

Had I become anti-technology or socially outcast? Had I lost connection? To be honest my sense of inner self had returned to beyond adequate levels, and I felt connected to the present more than ever before. The more I think about it, I searched for reasons for logging onto Facebook or Instagram every day; What was I really there to do? Who did I want to see? What did I want to share? And what feelings did it invoke in me if I saw shares of the latest grumpy cat video, or friends updates of their latest purchase or life changing event? To be honest it might conjure up the odd tear, or a laugh I guess, but for the most part I find its pretty mind numbing like reality TV (not that I watch much television these days).
Stuart McMillan, Silent Road, 2017. Image courtesy of the artistI couldn't pin point it, however I think for the most part, viewing, comparing or sharing has become totally oversaturated in our culture, and it brings with it a range of mental stress, social anxiety, and unbelievable expectations. Yes, technology and social media can be helpful in a lot of ways, building business, bridging gaps, instigating change and enabling important information exchange; but have you ever experienced the silent train ride, with almost everyone staring into a phone screen, you’ve gotta wonder what affect all this has on the human psyche?

The month continued to be fruitful in so many ways, as spring started to break and the snow melted away. I rediscovered the simple joys of painting and sketching, experimenting with sound and music, plus appreciating the general ebb and flow of nature. There’s something quite breathtaking about watching clouds, listening to birds, smelling the first blossoms of spring, they all have the ability to bring you back to simplicity and harmony of life.

Towards the end of the residency, the group had grown quite close due to more social interaction, we all reflected on our time and shared how we all had gained something from a month with less time online, away from our phones and more time in nature. As final departure approached, it felt sad to see members of our creative family slowly disperse back to their lives in various parts of the globe.

Had it changed the way I wanted to use technology and so called social media?
I felt a need to use my computer less and switch off my phone more often. I’ve become more aware of how much I’m on my phone, using my phone less in public and social situations. I think a lot can be gained from this, whether it’s a new friend or just an interesting yarn with a stranger, we are social animals and nothing compares to first hand social exchange.
If your feeling overwhelmed by all technology has given to us in terms of constant addiction or feed, I suggest switch off, go somewhere in nature, a beach, park or forest, take some deep breaths, take your shoes off, feel the ground under your feet, simply watch nature for a while, you’ll be amazed at the calming effects.

Stuart McMillan is a Perth based multidisciplinary artist, examining evolving factors that shape the human condition, from urban habitat  and technology to natural environment. He is fascinated how the external world influences our inner being.