Articles - 20th January 2020

Sleep and the 24/7 exhibition at Somerset House

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

On Thursday 17th January at 23:59, I counted the day’s remaining seconds awaiting the release of Mura Masa’s new album Raw Youth Collage to hear a close friend’s featuring track. The song’s saga of idiosyncratic references to bananas and public nudity filled me from top to toe with a warm pride, exacerbated by the fact that the record has subsequently reached 15,000,000 streams a mere three days after its midnight release. It was worth losing sleep for, in spite of the bleary eyes, the flickering irritability of rude customers and later, the dangerous post-work bathtub flash-naps. I’m grateful for cycles of deep sleep, because when stress builds, my sleep is always the first thing to be compromised. Nowadays, the deepest of sleeps are mostly instigated by ASMR videos, as much as I’ve joylessly attempted hypnopaedic podcasts and Audible. Crunch crunch.

Published earlier this month, Samantha Harvey’s autobiographical essay collection The Shapeless Unease – A Year of Not Sleeping explores a period of extreme sleep deprivation leading to a chapter of spiritual and creative self-discovery. Sleep evades Harvey, like “the picture when you turned off an old TV screen, receding to a dot,” following “blankness and blackness” and “the yawning expanse of a night awake.” It’s achingly confessional, slipping between first and third person and shifting from confessional journals, to scripts, lists, and diagnostic medical passages where the author identifies herself as a potential victim of “Post Brexit Insomnia (PBI)” which she treats, unsuccessfully, with combinations of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcasts, CBT sleep clinics, acupuncture, mindfulness, gratitude diaries and abstention from caffeine and sugar.

The worst of Harvey’s extreme sleep deprivation is exacerbated by the death of a close relative, and in the midst of navigating daily hyperventilation attacks and obsessive reflections on mortality, Harvey slowly discovers the remedial potentials of writing. “In the last year, writing has been the next best thing than sleep,” she admits, “I am sane when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. Writing has saved my life.” 

As of yet, writing has failed to save my life from irregular and disrupted sleeping. Rather, writing is my life insofar as it’s my job and I can’t afford to compromise the quality of my creative output through ravenous sleep-deprivation. As romantic as it sounds experimentally exploring the creative effects of deprived delirium; it’s not a risk I dare run. Conversely, my chances of indulging in a pill-fuelled Year of Rest and Relaxation (which, Twitter tells me, has been optioned for filmic adaptation by the Godfather of quirky arthouse films, Yorgos Lanthimos) are very, very slim. 

Before attending the 24/7- A Wake up Call for Our Non-Stop World exhibition at Somerset House, I’d seen the installation’s catch-phrase blown up on a celestially Tumblr-esque background covering the institution’s scaffolded facade. “I WANT MY TIME BACK” admittedly didn’t do the best job of signalling the culture therein, and given that I’d spotted the display on the homebound walk from my day job, it affirmed my perma-state of fatigued tardiness in the face of totalising, life-engulfing capitalism. “Have we lost control of our time, our sleep cycle and the natural rhythm of our lives? Have we forgotten how to pay attention to the things around us, or to daydream?” asks Jonathan Crary, the American art critic whose new book inspired the exhibition’s thematic considerations of time, disturbed circadian rhythms and upended lifestyles.


Somerset House.

The exhibition is a charged, furious challenge to the absurd demands of late capitalist logic and statistical evidence that “The average North American adult now sleeps approximately six and a half hours a night” compared to the previous generation’s eight hours, and the early twentieth century’s ten hours. Like walking into a nightmare, the exhibition opens with NONE Collective’s floodlights programmed by rabid computers performing “a routine stress test in a never-ending loop”. Histories and futures are pinned adjacent to one another, analysing the continuation of labour, surveillance, emotional exploitation, and compromised sleep patterns. We see a familiar photograph of a highrise tower block by Rut Blees Luxemburg, as used in The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, placed next to Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Arkwright Cotton Mills by Night’ (c.1790s) a bleary-eyed vision of a nocturnal factory, nestled in the crook of a moonlit valley. In the next room, LCD TV’s are scrunched up like used tissues beneath the domineering projection of Marcus Coates’ Self-Portrait As Time where a large thumb nudges the second hand around a Casio watch.

Whilst it’s far from chipper, it’s certainly not as bleakly political as its accompanying theory may suggest. There’s an undercurrent of wryly satirical jest foregrounded in Adam Chodzko’s tenderly voyeuristic guerilla photography; showing a varied ensemble of sleeping subjects in trucks, on dogs, on steps, wheelbarrows, sickbeds, at work and in their living rooms. On an unassuming white dressing table we find a single hair of headphones and a tablet playing looped YouTube videos of performance artist Addie Wagenknecht, beauty blogging with all the stylistic trimmings one might expect from James Charles. It soon becomes clear that whilst clumsily applying fake eyelashes and rating German-branded facemasks “2 bitcoins out of 5”, Wagenknecht is divulging the logistics of data protection and password encryptions. She suggests the use of pass-phrases over words for basic cyber security, providing the example “myexboyfriendisamofo” whilst admitting that “If you’ve got Russia coming after you, you’ve got probably bigger problems than boyfriends.” 

Whilst the metaphors of biopolitics and surveillance are a bit on-the-nose in Tega Brain and Surya Mattu’s ‘Unfit Bits’ – where a metronome stem ruptures FitBit straps (the horror!), the exhibition is redeemed with the surrealist silliness of pillow-wigs, dust bunnies composed of “the detritus shed by human beings” and the aural equivalents of chamomile tea; a chorus of hummers and artificial birdsong. 24/7 isn’t an exhibition to lose sleep over, but it’ll play on your mind like a hyperreal cheese dream. 


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