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Time in the Age of Capitalist Desire: A Review of ’24/7′ at Somerset House

16/01/2020
Maria Cynkier

Curated by Sarah Cook together with the Director of Somerset House, Jonathan Reekie.

Economy has re-invented time. Development of industrialism and accompanying its advancements, for example, the invention of the railroad, forced standardisation of time. During 1700-1900 this invention increased methods of moving goods, new technologies and large scale investment in the UK’s countries infra-structure (communications network). The result was a complex transport system including roads, rail, canals and the London Underground.[1] Without socio-economic time discipline, it would have been impossible to progress into modernity. Similarly, capitalism and all its products which are well-known to us today, could not have functioned without the disruption of humans’ natural sleep cycle. The artists in the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House explore the ways of responding, coping with and resisting the capitalist mechanisms of shrinking and controlling our sense of time.

The main focus in 24/7 are the “non-stop processes” of our contemporary culture, and it recognises sleep as pretty much the only time we can unplug from technology, even this time is becoming scarcer and scarcer. The different sections in the show are inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. The show is in dialogue with the author’s observations of capitalism’s influence on our everyday lives, creating illusions of timelessness, disorientation and relentless pursuits of capturing, monetising and consuming.

In Marcus Coates’ Self Portrait as Time (2016), the artist’s finger follows the second hand on his wristwatch, creating the illusion of him actually moving it. The work evolves in the space and is a looped video, but also works as a clock, counting time as it passes and constantly reminding the visitors and staff about it. Admittedly, the artistic process at times felt like a trance, and Coates kept loosing the sense of boundaries between himself and the clock.

Installation view of Marcus Coates’ Self Portrait as Time (2016), and Julia Varela’s X.5000 (2017) from 24/7 at Somerset House. Photographed by Stephen Chung for Somerset House.

Benjamin Grosser’s Order of Magnitude (2019), a film containing excerpts of Mark Zuckerberg’s interviews, covering the earliest days of Facebook in 2004 up to Zuckerberg’s appearances before the US Congress in 2018, these recordings reveal what’s changed and what hasn’t changed about the way he speaks and what he says. The film shows him boasting the enormity of Facebook, where the edits present us with him repetitively announcing “more, more, more, growth, more than a billion, much bigger, another billion, more than a hundred billion, more efficient, growing, even more, growing by 50%, billion, more billions, many many more”. 

Many have become disillusioned with Silicon Valley and its technology based corporations, and the systems and platforms, which they have co-created at the expense of our privacy. The problem is, we are the silent workforce that these companies feed on. By giving away raw data for analysis and material extraction, we fuel the machine of surveillance capitalism. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected by a significant portion of artworks in the exhibition, which are concerned with what the contemporary meaning of labour is now. 

Dust Bunny (2015) by Alan Warburton, part of the 24/7 exhibition at the Embankment Galleries of Somerset House

As we enter the age of acceleration and automation, much of our labour is done with the help of machines. As this happens more we will need to keep re-evaluating our position in the process. On the one hand, 24/7 seems to portray humans as slaves to the machines, while our lifestyles are twisted, over full, and packed with too much stuff. Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos presents us with her sculptures of various configurations of empty hands, the fingers arranged to show them presumably texting, holding a phone and sliding up the screen. (Fifteen Pairs of Mouths, 2016-19).

Then we have Tega Brain’s, Unfit Bits (2015), pointing to constant connectedness; relentlessly moving metronomes stimulating smartwatches for those whose insurance forces them to rely on the health and physical performance data, and then Jeremy Bentham’s famous 19th century drawings of the Panopticon.

Many of the artworks in the exhibition work to debunk the myth of immaterial labour. For instance, this is poetically illustrated by Alan Warbuton’s Dust Bunny (2015), a sculpture comprised of finely milled angora-like dust harvested from the inside of ten 3D animation workstations at visual effects studio Mainframe. The volume of dust here represents an estimated 35,000 hours, or 4 years, of constant rendering and processing.

Still from Les Grands Ensembles (2001) by Pierre Huyghe, part of the 24/7 exhibition at the Embankment Galleries of Somerset House

The distressing nature of social media is shown through the lens of architecture rationalising human relations in Pierre Huyghe’s The House Project (2001). The film shows computer-generated high-rise blocks with window lights blinking in the rhythm of the electronic soundtrack by Finnish techno duo Pan Sonic and French sound artist Cédric Pigot. As the track progresses, the beat becomes heavier, faster and the lights begin to run up and down the stairs, across all floors. The two apartment blocks become musical instruments with flashing diodes, generating an eerie and creepy soundtrack.

Among this horde of artworks, there are some which allow space for contemplation. Finnish artist Nastja Säde Rönkkö, one of the Somerset House Studios’ residents, spent 6 months living and working in London without using Internet. Her letters, souvenirs and received gifts are displayed in a glass cabinet, alongside the film documenting her experiences of moving around the city and reflections on the difficulties she had encountered when she refused to use and benefit from the web. In Catherine Richards’ Shroud Chrysalis I (2000), the visitors are invited to be wrapped in a copper blanket by the gallery attendants, and savor time off technology, as the blanket blocks out electromagnetic signals emitted by mobile devices.

Installation view of Catherine Richards’ Shroud Chrysalis I and II (2000/2005) from 24/7 at Somerset House in London. Photographed by Stephen Chung for Somerset House.

The show proposes a retreat and asks us to contemplate the world’s speed and our disconnectedness from a sense of time. At the same time, it overwhelms the space with an abundant amount of artworks, with over 50 beautiful and innovative artworks on display. And, while this diversity is one of the exhibition’s biggest strengths and should be applauded, it is also a weakness. It involved much shifting about and squeezing between displays, and tireless engagement. One’s experience of this ranged from disinterest to awe, as well as disorientation.

The exhibition’s theme is about time. It literally demands a fair chunk of time forcing the visitor to slow down and re-evaluate experiences and perceptions of what time means to us when its so deeply a part of the systems that are accelerating, alongside capitalist means. This big show offers us no way out of the contemporary trappings of capitalism and its intertwined, connections with time. But, it has opened up a space where we can consider it in a context where it involves the mediums and processes of, art, technology, and varied philosophical, political interjections, and observed outlooks. The exhibition presents us the visitor with an opportunity to reflect on the connected world through the experience of disconnectedness which has successfully been woven into the exhibition’s concept. The works shift and turn not with one message, but as oracles, or reminders that, there is a possibility of living differently, where we can create communities in alternative ways and highlight the value of questioning, while critically experimenting with our methods of communication. Time or capitalism, are not the main messages, but it’s more about what we do with them. It is an important and necessary exhibition that needs our immediate attention.

24/7:
A WAKE-UP CALL FOR OUR NON-STOP WORLD
is at Somerset House in London until 23 Feb 2020
somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/247

Featured Image:
‘Slogans for the 21st Century’
Courtesy of Douglas Coupland
and Maria Francesca Moccia, EyeEm
via Getty Images

1 Roads, Railways and Canals. Transport in the Industrial Revolution. https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/british-history/industrial-revolution/railways-and-canals/

Maria Cynkier has a background in History of Art and Art-World Practice and is currently studying Curating Contemporary Art at RCA. Her interests include art, technology, and the use of networked infrastructures in socially-engaged art projects. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. Instagram: @mariacynkier

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1 Roads, Railways and Canals. Transport in the Industrial Revolution. https://schoolshistory.org.uk/topics/british-history/industrial-revolution/railways-and-canals/

Maria Cynkier has a background in History of Art and Art-World Practice and is currently studying Curating Contemporary Art at RCA. Her interests include art, technology, and the use of networked infrastructures in socially-engaged art projects. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic. Instagram: @mariacynkier Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook