The curator of 24/7: A Wake-Up Call for Our Non-Stop World, Sarah Cook, is a professor of museum studies at the University of Glasgow. She co-authored, with Beryl Graham, the insightful book Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (2010) and has curated more than a dozen exhibitions with an emphasis on new media art, including The Gig Is Up (2016) at V2_Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam; Not even the sky: Thomson & Craighead (2013) for MEWO Kunsthalle in Memmingen, Germany; Biomediations (2013) for Transitio_MX_05, the festival of electronic arts and video in Mexico City; and Untethered (2008) for Eyebeam in New York City. In this current show, Cook demonstrates her extensive experience as a curator of media art by impressively bringing together work by more than fifty artists or groups of artists, both established and young.1 The exhibition's title is a variation on Jonathan Crary's well-known 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which takes the nature and condition of sleep (and its denigration) as an important category in its analysis and critique of late capitalism, with particular attention to transformations in work under the influence of neoliberal managerial approaches and governance and new digital technologies.2 Cook took, arguably, a more optimistic consciousness-raising approach (“wake-up call”) to many of the issues that Crary discusses in his book.3 The press release claims that the exhibition “holds up a mirror to our always-on culture and invites you to step outside of your day-to-day routine to engage, reflect and reset.”4
24/7 was organized into five zones across an expansive section of Somerset House5 according to theme, namely day and night, activity and rest, the human and the machine, work and leisure, and the individual and the collective, with each zone distinguished spatially from the others. The relationship between the zones was carefully thought out by theater lighting designer Lucy Carter, who guided the gallerygoers through a twenty-four-hour period, from moonlight to sunset, from the first to fifth zones. It was a delight to see this high degree of attention to detail, both conceptual and experiential, given to an exhibition space.
The first zone, Day and Night: The Wreckage of the Day, addressed how the distinction between day and night has eroded since the Industrial Revolution, disrupting our diurnal rhythms. Upon entry, the visitor immediately came upon Roman Signer's performance video Bett (1996), in which the artist lays in bed attempting to sleep while a drone helicopter hovers ominously above his head. Nearby was Rut Blees Luxemburg's gripping High-Rise—A Modern Project (1995), a photograph of a solitary London tower block at night.
As Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, has noted of his company, “Our biggest competitor is sleep.”6 Under the neoliberal gaze, if our productivity and attentiveness drop, what sort of supports, digital or chemical, are then required to keep us going? The second zone, Activity and Rest: Sleep//Attentiveness, explored such issues, and Tatsuo Miyajima's Life Palace (tea room) (2013) certainly stood out. The enclosed tearoom admits one person at a time into its darkened chamber illuminated exclusively by a constellation of blue LED lights in the shape of numbers glowing and blinking, cycling from 9 to 1. The installation produces tranquility and calm, perhaps an echo of the isolation or meditation tank used to temporarily escape the noisy world.
The third zone, The Human and The Machine: Surveillance//Control//Acceleration, drew upon the long history of our interest in surveillance and control through architecture and other forms of technology. We leave digital footprints at a touch every time we use our digital devices; we become dependent on them; they track and monetize our every move. In this zone, visitors saw philosopher Jeremy Bentham's design for the Panopticon (c. 1791), which was brought into a wider contemporary discourse in Michel Foucault's writings on surveillance and modernity. Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos's installation Fifteen Pairs of Mouths (2016)7 peppered the room with a series of fifteen plaster casts of pairs of hands in various positions of typing on invisible smartphones. The installation invites us to consider how such devices have allowed us to replace voice with the action of our thumbs. Hasan Elahi's Scorpion W2 (2019), a vast collection of small photographs, stems from the artist's personal experience of having his name mistakenly put on a no-fly list after the terrorist attack of 9/11.8 As a continuing project, Elahi designed online systems to update his personal data, spatial coordinates, and photographic evidence constantly with the FBI, including all the meals he ate, and the beds and airports he used. The Machine Zone (2019) by Mat Collishaw explores the notion of the random reward, which is programmed into the algorithms driving social media. Collishaw recreates B. F. Skinner's historic behaviorist experiments with birds with his own programmed robotic birds. 24/7 included Pierre Huyghe's video installation Les Grands Ensembles (The Housing Projects) (1994/2001), with its haunting soundtrack composed by the Finnish techno duo Pan Sonic and French sound artist Cédric Pigot. Huyghe reflects critically on Le Corbusier's premise that apartment blocks were “machines for living in” and their fall into social alienation and urban blight in the infamous “banlieues” circling France's large cities. This critique of the planned and algorithmic living spaces resonates strongly with the structure and function of our contemporary digital devices and social media. Where will all the surveillance and calculations lead us in the end? How will the algorithms influence the world we create?
The fourth zone, Work and Leisure: Work//The Commons, focused on the effects of the breakdown of the longstanding formula of “eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest,” coined by Robert Owen in early nineteenth-century Great Britain and explicitly spelled out in Sam Meech's large hanging banner Punchcard Economy (2013).9 Where our work and leisure time have merged, particularly due to working from home and being tied to work via current communication devices, the balance is lost among the three segments of the twenty-four-hour period. Pilvi Takala demonstrates a confusion of professional and intimate codes of behavior in her 2018 video performance The Stroker, in which she poses as a wellness consultant at a shared worker space for entrepreneurs and start-ups. The video captures her walking through the space extending her arm to touch those who come close to her, as a commissioned service of her company. As expected, the reactions to these attempts at touch are mixed. It was a surprise to encounter along one corridor Harun Farocki's absorbing installation of twelve video monitors, Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades (2006, 42 min). The piece is an homage of sorts to Louis and Auguste Lumiére's short film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), which is included as the first looped clip of twelve from film history capturing workers' routines as they themselves leave their factories.
In the final zone, The Individual and The Collective: Reset, were restorative immersive installations that were designed to remind us of our diurnal rhythms and slower balanced ways of being in the world. Catherine Richards's Shroud/Chrysalis I (2000) invites visitors to be completely wrapped in a shimmering copper taffeta. Once wrapped, the participant is shielded from any external electromagnetic signals and may imagine the solace in escaping the flow of electromagnetic waves around them, even if only temporarily. In the final room of 24/7 was the participatory sound installation I Heard There Was a Secret Chord (2017) by the Montreal-based art and design group Daily tous les jours.10 In the dimly-lit room microphones hung from the ceiling in an inner circle. Participants joined in by humming Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah into the microphones, as the choir of voices grew or diminished.
As a public display, one wall outside of the final room and bordering the gift shop was dedicated to Douglas Coupland's Slogans For The 21st Century (2011–14/2020) updated with new sharp-witted additions for this exhibition, such as “I MISS MY PRE-INTERNET BRAIN,” “LET'S MEET IN REAL LIFE,” and “INSOMNIA IS BAD FOR BUSINESS,” with uppercase font in black against a solid bright color background. In the same section, Somerset House Studios artists Hyphen-Labs installed a photo booth, Yawn (2019), which captured contagious yawns of its participants and showed them to others.
With more than fifty artists or groups represented in the exhibition, this is merely a sketch of some of the work, and many other pieces also deserve attention. Cook's ambitious project proved successful in providing visitors with much to consider with respect to sleep and its compromise and degradation through creeping neoliberal ways and their preferred technologies. Perhaps the exhibition was tied a bit too closely to Crary's book, quotations from which were posted beside nearly every piece, but Cook's overall aim was indeed to provide us a wake-up call about the dangers to our well-being that will surely continue to grow if unabated.11
The included artists are Biome Collective & Joseph DeLappe, Tega Brain and Surya Mattu, Heath Bunting, John Butler, Adam Chodzko, Marcus Coates, Tyler Coburn, Mat Collishaw, Douglas Coupland, Daily tous les jours, Hasan Elahi, Harun Farocki, John Gerrard, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Benjamin Grosser, Daniel Eatock, Ed Fornieles, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Garnet Hertz, Susan Hiller, Ted Hunt, Pierre Huyghe, Humans since 1982, Hyphen-Labs, Kimchi & Chips, Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos, Lawrence Lek, Inés Cámara Leret, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Michel Mandiberg, Étienne Jules Marey, Cassie McQuater, Sam Meech, Tatsuo Miyajima, NONE Collective, JooYoun Paek, Katie Paterson, Catherine Richards, Kelly Richardson, Nastja Säde Rönkkö, Erica Scourti, Kateřina Šedá, Roman Signer, Pilvi Takala, Tekja, Mark Thomas, Thomson & Craighead, UBERMORGEN, Viktor IV, Alice Vandeleur-Boorer, Julia Varela, Addie Wagenknecht, Alan Warburton, Joseph Wright of Derby, and Liam Young.
For readers interested in the emerging area of night studies, see for example Will Straw's The Urban Night: An interdisciplinary research project on cities and the night at McGill University (https://theurbannight.com), and the work of urban geographer Luc Gwiazdzinski at the Université de Grenoble (www.pacte-grenoble.fr/membres/luc-gwiazdzinski).
Another recent exhibition on sleep was curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan. Figures of Sleep was on display January 17–March 3, 2018, at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto Art Centre, https://artmuseum.utoronto.ca/exhibition/figures-of-sleep/5.
See the exhibition's webpage at Somerset House: www.somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/247.
Somerset House on the Strand, the earliest part of which was built in the eighteenth century, has been exhibiting contemporary art since 2000 and inaugurated its Studios program for artists, filmmakers, and other makers in 2016.
Matthew Humphries, “Netflix: Our Biggest Competitor Is Sleep,” PC Magazine, April 18, 2017, www.pcmag.com/news/netflix-our-biggest-competitor-is-sleep.
This piece is a reference to and play on Bruce Nauman's Fifteen Pairs of Hands (2009), which presents the case for the expressivity of hand gestures in augmenting speech.
This work continues a project Elahi began earlier: Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project (2005–present).
For more details on social movement and Robert Owen, see Stephan Bauer and Alfred Maylander, “The Road to the Eight-Hour Day,” Monthly Labor Review 9, no. 2 (August 1919): 41–65.
The installation has an online component available at http://asecretchord.com/en.
For more art engaging sleep, see Abigail Cain and Demie Kim, “From Ai Weiwei to Marina Abramović, 12 Artists Who Made Artworks for Us to Sleep In,” Artsy.Net, October 21, 2016, www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-12-artists-who-made-artworks-for-us-to-sleep-in.
I wish to acknowledge and thank Professor Janet McCabe for her invitation to speak on my research at Birkbeck College, University of London, in February 2020, and my institution Ryerson University for generously supporting my research and travel—without which I would not have had the opportunity to see this exhibition, among others.