24/7 at Somerset House examines the perils of non-stop culture

Over 50 installations feature in the new London exhibition, which exposes the relentless rhythms of modern life, without lecturing us about phones

The ramifications of our hyperconnected culture have been widely reported, but they’re mainly been framed within the context of big data and global corporations. Yet, as a new exhibition in Somerset House points out, just as important is privacy in the sense of peace and quiet, dreams, and switching off – not just from the outside world but your own body too.

24/7 examines how, or indeed whether, people can disconnect in the modern world. The exhibition is informed by Jonathan Crary’s 2013 book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and reportedly marks the first time an exhibition has been wholly dedicated to artworks addressing this subject.

The exhibition is broken down into themes, which essentially cover notions of time, daily rhythms and sleep cycles, the influence of machines on our patterns, and the blurring of business and pleasure, before concluding with a collective call-to-arms on how society can respond.

Slogans for the 21st Century, Douglas Coupland, 2011-2019 © Stephen Chung for Somerset House

Much of the show is based on the natural bodily rhythms that were once marked by daylight, but are now all but erased in a society that operates around the clock – including in the working world.

This is highlighted in Liam Young’s short film Renderlands, in which developers in Bangalore, India pick up where designers on the other side of the planet left off, creating a new kind of virtual city. Young’s film may be fictional, but it bears remarkable parallels with the true origins behind Sprites I-IV by Alan Warburton. The large-scale lenticular print depicts workers asleep in an office, inspired by his own experiences of seeing colleagues in a Beijing studio attempt to sleep at work in order to remain in keeping with Western schedules.

Alan Warburton, Sprites I, 2016
Installation view of Hasan Elahi, Scorpion W2, 2019 © Stephen Chung for Somerset House

The exhibition naturally sees some artists take on the more specific systems and corporations that perpetuate constant connectivity and activity. Hasan Elahi’s video installation draws on a staggering personal database of footage of himself carrying out daily activities, which he compiled for the FBI following 9/11 when he was wrongly put on a ‘no-fly list’. Just around the corner from Elahi’s nod to a surveillance state is the Diary Room chair from series one of Big Brother, illustrating how the public too have a taste for keeping a watchful eye over each other.

Given its prominence in our lives, the subject of social media is surprisingly absent from the exhibition. However, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t quite escape unscathed, thanks to Benjamin Grosser’s supercut film made from 14 years worth of clips that demonstrate how much of Zuckerberg’s discourse revolves around ‘grow’, ‘more’ and ‘millions’. Rather than the glaring denunciations of Facebook and co that might have seemed an obvious approach in this kind of exhibition, the curators opted for artworks like these to serve as a quiet reminder of the addictive models that lie behind these platforms. Likewise, one display features not a philosophical quote but an infamous tweet from 2017: “Sleep is my greatest enemy” from Netflix.

Some artworks operate on a more personal level, encouraging reflection about our own activities. Nastja Säde Rönkkö presents material relating to a six-month period of having no internet access, which she carried out as part of her residency at Somerset House. Handwritten letters reveal the rewards of the offline experiment but also its tribulations – one friend took two months to a reply to her letter, a delay unheard of in the era of WhatsApp. Meanwhile, Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos’s sculptural installation Fifteen Pairs of Mouths highlights how thumbs have replaced voices in communication, by replicating the positions commonly used when using a smartphone.

Fifteen Pairs of Mouths, Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos, 2016-19 © Stephen Chung for Somerset House

Yet the impact of connectivity is perhaps best exemplified by several of the more distracting installations, like Thomson and Craighead’s flap sign, which broadcasts real web search queries on an ongoing basis and operates in the same noisy manner as a traditional departure board. Whether intentional or not, louder, attention-stealing works like these actually help to demonstrate society’s perpetual state of inattentiveness.

The exhibition, thankfully, resists becoming too preachy or radical. Of course, there are more extreme propositions in Pillowig, JooYoun Paek’s humorous cushioned headgear, or Catherine Richard’s Shroud/Chrysalis I, which invites visitors to lie down in the centre of the room and enclose themselves within a copper blanket protecting them from the outside world (including electromagnetic signals).

There are no lectures or overbearing demands that we all put down our phones and accept no less than eight hours of sleep each night, however. Instead, it’s a collective invitation to assess and challenge our own lifestyle choices where we can, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

At the very least, the exhibition provides a few hours of respite from the connected world, tailing off with a calming segment that looks at sleep and rest, before the visitors are sent out of the door and back into the cycle all over again.

Catherine Richards, Shroud/Chrysalis I, 2000 © David Barbour
Sam Meech, Punchcard Economy, 2013 © Stephen Chung for Somerset House

24/7: A Wake-up Call for our Non-stop World runs at Somerset House from October 31 – February 23. Tickets cost £14; somersethouse.org.uk