A metaphor. The helicopter is our temptation to check our phones, refresh our feeds; it is niggling thoughts about tomorrow’s to-do list keeping us up at night; the background buzz of an ongoing state of restlessness. But my attention keeps coming back to the sleeping Signer, with something like envy. Imagine being able to sleep deeply, on cue and undisturbed. Imagine how restored and how ready to be productive you – I – would be then.
Capitalism Wants Your Sleep
In Roman Signer’s ‘BETT’ (1996), a remote-controlled helicopter orbits the artist, who is fast asleep in bed. As the helicopter hovers, dips and dives, like a fat wasp at a picnic, Signer doesn’t stir.
Imagine being able to sleep deeply, on cue and undisturbed.
It pays to treat such thoughts with suspicion — especially in an exhibition titled 24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World, which explores our warped working days; the erosion of day into night.
With the helicopter still droning in earshot, the sky in Joseph Wright’s ‘Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night’ (1782) is sublime in the Romantic tradition: cloud rolls across the night sky like smoke from some gigantic chimney stack. The cotton mill looks cosy, nestled in a dark valley, five storeys of windows illuminated. A man and a horse cut shadowy, alienated silhouettes in the foreground.
Whether we are physically working long hours or not, it is built into the very logic of capitalism to squeeze our time
Our non-stop culture stirred its first stirrings in Wright’s time, with industrialisation. Arkwright’s cotton mill ran 12-hour shifts through the night, with the day shift picking up the baton at 5am. Compared with such conditions, one could say that we’ve got it easy with our gig economy and flexibilised workforce.
But as Karl Marx explains, ‘To appropriate labour during all the 24 hours of the day is the inherent tendency of capitalist production.’ 24/7 offers a more modern translation in Benjamin Grosser’s ‘Order of Magnitude’, a supercut of Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite words: ‘more’, ‘more’, ‘more’. Whether we are physically working long hours or not, it is built into the very logic of capitalism to squeeze our time: whether we are replenishing ourselves for work the next day, or worrying where our next ‘gig’ might be coming from – are we ever ‘off the clock’, or merely on perpetual standby?
There is an echo of Wright’s mill in Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Les Grands Ensembles’ (2001) with its windows burning the midnight oil. Huyghe’s computer generated film shows model replicas of two modernist high-rise blocks flashing to the pulse of an industrialised soundscape composed by Finnish techno duo Pan Sonic.
The scene shifts with dense fog, rain and snowfall, invoking the alienating effects of the housing estate. These types of nondescript blocks were typical in 1970s Parisian suburbs, an attempt to provide affordable housing in a postwar economic boom; but by the 1980s, they were stigmatised by creeping poverty and crime.
The shifting patterns of weather and light, a cold and low-key rave, are compelling, as if the buildings are trying to tell us something. But they also hold your attention in the more banal way that a slot machine pinging with flickering lights and jingles does – enough promise of reward to keep you wanting the real thing.
Not unlike each one of us, idling behind our windows. Glass, or digital.
The way I’m sitting and watching Huyghe’s film, mesmerised by variations of the same, reminds me of refreshing my Facebook feed, having only done it a minute previously. Again, like a slot machine, you pull down to refresh and wait for variable reward; capital’s rather crude methods of seduction and engagement are satirised in Mat Collishaw’s ‘The Machine Zone’ (2019). Taking his inspiration from B.F. Skinner and his boxes — the behavioural psychologist who manipulated pigeons with grain pellets – Collishaw positions a series of animatronic birds in cubes, pecking for random reward. Not unlike each one of us, idling behind our windows. Glass, or digital.
While some of the works here suggest a salve — Tatsuo Miyajima gives us ‘Life Palace (Tea Room)’ (2013), a meditation chamber for drinking time instead of tea – the only way to save ourselves from the tyranny of 24/7 culture would be working less, together more, and on projects aiming for collective liberation.
I wish I could end somewhere as uplifting as the exhibition does: ‘I Heard There Was a Secret Chord’ (2017) from Daily Tous Les Jours, uniting listeners around the world in the humming of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. For my taste, Cohen’s ‘The Future’ would have been a more accurate – though less cheerful – expression of collectivity under late capitalism: ‘And now the wheels of heaven stop / You feel the devil's riding crop / Get ready for the future / It is murder.’
Not to worry. We can sleep when we’re dead.
By Sammi Gale