A photo of a person's upper chest, with a sticker on it that reads 'Hello! I'm tired'

Sleep Mode and the Cultural Politics of Time

22 Jun 2020

As part of the Sleep Mode takeover week, we welcome back curator Sarah Cook to reflect on co-curating our 2019 exhibition 24/7: A Wake-up Call for our Non-stop World and to draw our attention to how artists work and play, then, and now, and how we might all pay attention differently after lockdown.

Are you living your life in sleep mode – a deceptive term meaning never fully on or off? If there is one thing I have been practicing during lockdown it is giving myself permission to actually turn off. I started to reflect on this during my time spent co-curating the exhibition 24/7 with Jonathan Reekie for Somerset House last year (reading Jenny O’Dell’s How to Do Nothing) and I’ve been perfecting it since then. Our exhibition planning schedule made us all aware of the different sleep and work patterns of the team and of the artists whose projects we were organising to exhibit. We asked each of the artists in Somerset House Studios making work for the exhibition about their ‘8 hours rest / 8 hours work / 8 hours for what you will’ routine and got a variety of answers:

Alan Warburton - whose new project Country Diary, made during lockdown, is a marvellous and meditative contribution to Sleep Mode, wrote:

"I have always protected my sleep, for a long time it's been my only sovereign space. I can't imagine how others sleep so easily on trains, planes, on the floor of a house party or at work. Sleep for me is a space of isolation, control and calmness. I'd defend it with my life, but before I was at Somerset House I'd work at home, sleeping in the same room as my PC workstation. When I was rendering something for a deadline, I'd often work 20 hour days, sleeping, eating and working in the same tiny attic. As I drifted off, I'd dream of digital interfaces, and I'd never quite fall completely asleep, always tuned subconsciously to the whir of the computer fan, listening for the signs of a fatal crash, burnout from overclocking or the ever-present software bugs. I felt like a paranoid mother guarding a newborn, checking every 5 minutes to make sure my render was still going. The work I've made for 24/7 relates to this idea. Huge numbers of people all around the world are engaged in similar activity, babysitting complex computational processes to make sure they don't crash and burn. We're guardians of a new kind of incessant production, one with an inhuman kind of rhythm."


An still from a film by Alan Warburton. It shows a man with a pillow asleep at his desk.
Alan Warburton, Sprites

Hyphen-Labs (whose Gospel According to Yawn features in the Sleep Mode broadcast on Friday night) wrote:

"The work never stops, we inject sleep and play into our lives whenever we can. Our average arrangement is work 11 hours; sleep 7 hours; play 4 hours. The hours are flexible and change depending on the project, but art, and thus, our work, is intertwined between our waking and dreaming minds."

The different members of Hyphen-Labs all had different equations for their division of time (work 3 hours; sleep 4 hours; play 17 hours), not all of which added up to a normal 24-hour day.

Douglas Coupland (whose Slogans for the 21st Century were the mantra of 24/7 and are the new mantra for life in lockdown) wrote:

"I’m a sleep freak. I get nine and a half hours every day of my life, and it’s why I’ve been self-employed since 1988 – I’ve based my entire life on getting those nine and a half hours, and it’s why I never do a morning radio or TV work or take early flights. Sleep always comes first."

It struck me that when asked about their sleep, most artists instead talked about their work. As a curator it is essential I ask artists about their work, but I’ve learned that I should ask all artists about their sleep, in part because of the way they often juggle the practice of making art with other forms of labour, whether self-employment or freelance contract work. Lockdown has exposed the fragility of those routines in professional and personal lives. 

A favourite book of mine, Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, details the eccentric working (and sleeping) routines of great creative people and is the ideal counterpoint to the 'highly effective habits of successful people' - genre of motivational or self-help guidebook which usually crowd out the novels on the shelves of an airport bookstore (buying a book before boarding a plane - remember that?). Georgia O’Keefe would take her half-hour walk before breakfast at 7 a.m. (hot chili with garlic oil, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, coffee) and then paint all day, with a lunch at noon and light supper at 4.30 p.m. so that her evenings were free for a long drive in desert. Proust didn’t leave his bed, and wrote, ate, and drank there; Mozart was up and had his hair done by 6 a.m. before a day of composing, teaching and attending concerts. Curators too have particular work/sleep routines: Hans Ulrich Obrist famously commented that he used to sleep 15 minutes every three hours. Me? I sleep a solid 7 hours but wake most nights at about 4.33 a.m. and listen to the silence - or the dawn chorus - before falling back into dreamland.

I, like others, find that the pressures of work shape the times of the day I can switch off. This is more evident during lockdown when the other thing that used to shape my work time - travel - is not possible anymore. Working on 24/7, the meetings to develop the exhibition were measured in increments of time, which started out stretched and unstructured, and then became fixed the closer we got to deadlines. The six hours on the train from home in Scotland to work in London served as time for me to read and write so that the eight hour day could be scheduled with meetings. My own recognition of the distinction between my working time and my leisure time was often determined by external factors and technology: laptop battery power left; wifi speeds; my phone telling me whether the article is a long read or a two minute read; the failure of the power coupler on the train’s engine resulting in a delay. As cultural theorist Sarah Sharma points out in her essay Speed Traps and the Temporal, discussions of time spent tend to be about pace (how efficient or fast are you?) rather than about how time constraints shape us as citizens in a shared society:


The democratic expectation, to be free and have time, is a liberal bourgeois demand that lends itself better to arguments for lifestyle choices like ‘how do you do it all’ rather than recognition of the politics of time. 

Sarah Sharma

I am someone who is often asked how I do it all - using the train as my office and the commute as productive time. My being in sleep mode or not, efficiently working or distracted and tired, doesn’t really matter, and I am privileged to even consider it. As Sharma notes, it’s one thing to analyse the conditions of one’s working life, and the role technology plays in creating or enabling those conditions, but such an analysis doesn’t “deal with the uneven cultural politics of time”.

These uneven cultural politics are highlighted now many of us are #WFH or furloughed, and learning to structure our days differently, and balance work with family life, or, as Alan Warburton pointed out, becoming aware of our being subject to inhuman kinds of rhythms instigated by computerised systems. It has brought to the fore the complex relationship between distraction and attention – committing time necessary to get something done, or the time to switch off. That is the matter at the heart of this week’s takeover of Somerset House’s programme to stage Sleep Mode (the off-shoot of 24/7 which was due to be exhibited at Glasgow International in April and was cancelled along with everything else). All exhibitions used to have fixed opening dates and times. There were times when you could pay attention and other times when you weren’t able to, or could give yourself permission not to. Distraction is something we use to break up our working time, to get us through the day. Attention is something we give when we have privilege of time or the inclination to, whether that is work time or leisure time.

Add to the new working/not working conditions the fact that so much cultural activity has now moved online, and this work/rest/recreation balance shifts and blurs again. Before lockdown it seemed we already consumed content via the screen at all hours of the day and night, but it is even more so now. In the absence of an alternative means of being together, we have overwhelmingly given our attention, at the expense of our privacy, to systems which enable us to pay attention (whatever the cost) to other distracting things, together, at the same time. Another watch party tonight? Am I late for the Zoom quiz?

Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century, courtesy the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery.

As I type these words in my own new work-from-home setup, I hear the church bell toll, telling me it is noon and I should step away from the screen. Generations ago the same bell told the workers in the mill at the top of the street they could down their tools for lunch (you might want to read E.P. Thompson’s 1967 article Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism, for more on this). Nowadays, alone in front of the screen (but together in Microsoft Teams) I can choose to ignore the bell and keep working (as the Teams slogan goes, ‘Nothing can stop a Team’), but no doubt I will later have my attention drawn to an alert on my phone which will distract me away from this digital window. Sharma points to how our attention to time is connected to the way we economically value its productivity, and our attention to time is “structured in specific political and economic contexts”:

"The temporal operates as a form of social power and a type of social difference. [...] Individual experiences of time depend upon where people are positioned within a larger economy of temporal worth."

Working from home has shown up what different peoples’ time is worth, and to whom. And yet in the midst of this negotiation between working from home (on screen) and allowing ourselves to be distracted (also on screen) the world has changed again. Our attention is called to not just required (individual) work, but necessary (collective) work.

In his book Infinite Distraction, cultural theorist Dominic Pettman argues that social media might very well be designed for us to be outraged at the same thing, broadly at the same time, but not for long enough to lift our eyes from the screen to do much about it:

While one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video, and, two hours later, vice versa. The nebulous indignation which constitutes the very fuel of true social change can be redirected safely around the network, avoiding any dangerous surges of radical activity.

Dominic Pettman

This has changed now as the world has changed, seeing a pandemic and protests spread across the globe, with actions fuelled by what has been shared online. As we wrote - almost a year ago now - in the publication accompanying the exhibition, 24/7 - “much of the thinking about tuning out and turning off is not about abdicating responsibility to fight the systems, but a call to action which starts by at least recognising them, and creates regular, recurrent routines which might resist or impede them”. Our work and our leisure, on screen and off, is interrupted, by the real world, and that’s a good thing. We turn our attention to those systems to better serve us. 

The image of the artist as dreamer is nostalgic compared to the picture of the artist as activist, more befitting our current technological and political age. Either way, artists are often referred to as bellwethers, or canaries in coal mines, alerting us through their work to changes in the atmosphere, causing us to look at the world, and our potential shared futures, anew.


A photo of a paste-up poster on the side of a phone box. It reads Me + You like two clock hands waiting for our moment
Photo by @Joan0fsnark


In response to our invitation, Jonathan Crary, whose 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep inspired the exhibition, wrote of this political imperative and capacity that artists have to release us from our sleep mode

"Realistic strategies of resistance require the invention of new ways of living. There has to be a radical rethinking of what our needs are, of rediscovering our own desires beyond the flood of destructive and shallow cravings that are promoted unremittingly. Not only must we stop buying what we are told we need, we must disavow the role of consumer altogether. There must be a refusal of the deathliness of billionaire culture, and all the debilitating images of ownership and material affluence with which we’re surrounded. For those with children, it means abandoning the many desperate expectations they now carry to compete for individual success, and instead providing them with anticipations of a livable future shared in common. But these changes would be just the beginning, preliminary to the larger and more difficult challenges ahead."

These are tasks that cannot be imposed from above by existing institutions or programmed by ‘experts’. [...] The visionary and pragmatic capabilities of artists will be crucial for the reorganisation of cities, for the reclaiming of derelict spaces and broken ecosystems, for fashioning new uses for existing tools and materials, for reconceiving the bonds between humans and animals, and for the amelioration of psychic and social fragmentation.

Jonathan Crary

And so now, here, in the week of the year with the longest day and the shortest night, you are invited to give your attention to works of art that respond to ideas about time, inescapable connectivity, the gig economy, surveillance and the balance between public and private. In the context of the current inter-related crises in public health and political empowerment, you might want to give up living in sleep mode, and instead pause, and reset, not go back to your 24/7 life. What new habits and routines have you learned during lockdown and how will those influence your desired ‘new normal’? Perhaps, like Hyphen-Labs' Creative Director, you also now spend your Sundays protesting. The exhibition Sleep Mode was intended to address our diminished capacity to pay attention in a world based on a ceaseless cycle of production and consumption. We hope that now, for many, these works might suggest how we can address the temporal conditions that require our urgent attention (the uneven cultural politics of time) in ways we didn’t consider before.

Related reading

24/7: A Wake-up Call for Our Non-stop World, edited by Sarah Cook, published by Somerset House. The publication includes new essays and existing texts adapted by the authors:

Why lockdown is a lot like insomnia: a philosopher of sleep explains by Patrick Levy

Regarding Artists Regarding Labour by Ana Torok

Never Alone, Except for Now by Kris Cohen 


This long read is part of the special Sleep Mode week, connecting to themes of ‘always-on’ culture and the future of work and play in a post-lockdown society.

Sarah Cook is curator with NEoN Digital Arts and Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Glasgow. She worked with Somerset House and Jonathan Reekie to curate 24/7.

The exhibition Sleep Mode was originally proposed for Glasgow International and is additionally supported by the University of Glasgow