The move towards a constantly connected lifestyle has disrupted our body’s natural rhythms as many of us feel an unremitting pressure to be productive around the clock. It’s therefore high time for an exhibition like the one newly opened at Somerset House, which brings together over 50 multimedia artworks by global artists to interrogate what all this screen time is really doing to us.
Left: Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century, 2019. Right: Alan Warburton, Sprites I
Organised into five zones, called Day and Night: The Wreckage of the Day, Activity and Rest: Sleep/Attentiveness, The Human and the Machine: Surveillance/Control/Acceleration, Work and Leisure: Work/The Commons, and The Individual and the Collective: Reset, the exhibition exposes the darker side of the Information Age by exploring an always-on culture in which we trade sleep for scrolling and where tech companies have come to know us better than our own mothers through surreptitious data-mining.
Visitors are confronted with the difficulty of ‘switching off’ even before they enter the gallery space as staff offer the option of temporarily sequestering smartphones in lockers – a deeply unattractive choice for social media addicts entering a tantalisingly interactive and Instagrammable exhibition.
Whether you choose to enter with or without your phone, you very quickly feel a sense of dread at the torturous and ubiquitous representation of technology. It’s hard to resist a giant yawn looking at the numerous images of sleep deprivation such as Roman Signer’s Bett, a video of the Swiss artist trying to drift off while a remote-control helicopter hovers around his head, or Alice Vandeleur-Boorer's Jet Slag, a photography series documenting the 10 days the artist spent living in a lab without natural light or knowledge of time passing.
Installation view of Tatsuo Miyajima, Life Palace (Tea Room) © Somerset House
‘Within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleeping is for losers,’ is just one of the ominous quotes which punctuate the exhibition, and is taken from 24:7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, a book by art critic Jonathan Crary. Crary’s ideas about the paradox of 24/7 living and how it has created a warped sense of time form the cornerstone of the exhibition's major themes. His notions about enslavement to the clock are visually represented through a video of Marcus Coates' onerous performance piece, Self Portrait as Time, in which the artist manually kept the second hand of his Casio watch ticking for 12 hours. After a minute of watching, you can almost feel the hand cramp starting to set in.
Other works propose tongue-in-cheek solutions to the problem of sleep deprivation. Somnoproxy, a video work by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, narrates a ‘futurist bedtime story’ about a person who sleeps on behalf of wealthy clients who are too busy to sleep. Visitors can also unwind in Tatsuo Miyajima's Life Palace (Tea Room), a 'meditation isolation chamber' filled with blinking LED lights in which people can relax and ‘drink in’ the passing of time. Catherine Richards’ Shroud/Chrysalis 1 invites digitally fatigued visitors to wrap themselves inside a copper blanket designed to block out electromagnetic signals.
Some works show how we can cheat the system, such as Australian artist Tega Brain’s Unfit Bits, an installation and video work which shows office workers attaching fitness monitors to hand drills to trick insurance companies into thinking they have done more exercise than they have. There's certainly no shortage of humour in the show, which brilliantly balances the foreboding tone of many of its works.
With so many thought-provoking pieces, the exhibition will no doubt be a much needed wake-up call shedding light on the link between digitalisation and workaholism and issues which are swiftly becoming regarded as public health crises. We probably won't be smashing our smartphones on the nearest rock any time soon, but cultural enquiries such as these are a positive step towards understanding the sense of being overwhelmed that we experience in our 24/7 world.
|What||24/7, Somerset House review|
|Where||Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Temple (underground)|
31 Oct 19 – 23 Feb 20, 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|