Vacant or slow time have become rare within a culture that has reduced waiting to a minimum. Instead, every second of the day tends to be colonised by labour, leisure or consumption. As time itself becomes one of capitalism’s ‘flows’, the field of art has also not been freed from the pressures of production, writes curator Mariliis Rebane.
When the government declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak in Finland on March 18, 2020, I was watching a documentary about unemployment to indulge my sorrow, after I had submitted my master’s thesis the night before; and rather than ending the voluntary self-isolation as anticipated, I entered lockdown with everyone else around me instead. Now that teaching had to be organised in virtual classrooms, public gatherings were limited to no more than ten people, and cultural institutions closed their doors, those who could nine-to-five it remotely were encouraged to stay at home. I soon realised that I was no longer the only one getting into bed with their work now that people were trying to find peace and solitude in an open-plan apartment, or had to overcome a lack of functional work surfaces in a small home, or were searching for the most comfortable position imaginable, disregarding suggestions for how to improve the ergonomics of a home office setup.
I remember thinking about working from bed for the first time in 2009 when my photography teacher showed an image of a sleeping man with a moustache thicker than Tom Selleck’s that artist Mladen Stilinović had called Artist at work (1978). At the time I was studying advertising and believed that I too could have it all, if only I continued to be productive and work around the clock. Arriving to the class tired after another nightshift, the image attracted me for obvious reasons, but it also got me thinking about whether being constantly occupied was actually at odds with creative work and if not, why did it feel like it was? Research shows that a relaxed state of mind makes you more imaginative1, so why not put your feet up every once in a while. I was hooked by the suggestion that dreaming – an activity that interrupts or refuses to participate in production, circulation, and consumption of goods – could be seen as a line of work. Eventually, the criticism towards consumerism that I had found in the arts steered me towards a different career path.
Rest assured, stained mattresses and worn-out sofas were a fixture of many artist studios in the school that I later attended. In the article, “The End of Art Education as We Know It” published by the artist, writer and curator Ane Hjort Guttu in Kunstkritikk a quote by a student states: “I don’t need that much, really (…) A window to look out of, and a kettle. And I would’ve liked a mattress, I need to lie down to rest from time to time”. The article voices concern over the new kinds of art school buildings constructed in the Nordic region in recent years, because of how they might affect the nature of artistic work. When students work regularly in project spaces or studios with Plexiglas floors and huge glass surfaces, it can feel like they are being constantly monitored and this ongoing self-control will eventually become part of their artistic process.2 As a result of not having the option to physically retreat, the students can be inclined to work on projects that make them look productive just so as not to seem inactive. At the same time, many other forms of labour have been going through an opposite transition; now that the office has moved into the home, a gradual shift across the past decades has become accelerated through the sanctioning of working from home.
The working bed of today
When Hugh Hefner, who was the founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy magazine, first became known for working in his infamous rotating bed, which was equipped with a tv, telephone and mini-fridge, doing one’s job ‘under cover’ was still considered a novelty. Writer Paul B. Preciado, who has studied how Playboy (re)shaped the masculine gender roles of the 1950s and 1960s, writes that the publication disrupted the moral understanding of the relationship between work, production and pleasure by introducing attitudes such as ‘take joy in your work’. This rattled the Fordist hierarchy that links the vertical position to the production of capital, and the horizontal position to matters of rest. However, Playboy did not advocate for horizontality as a radical critique of capitalism in the same way that Stilinović later did. Rather, “undoing the worker’s verticality” was simply an indication of the changing nature of economic structures.3
By working from bed, Hugh Hefner foreshadowed the shift from the Fordist system of production to an economy where information, knowledge, affect and pleasure would become the new commodity.4 Undoubtedly, by the late twentieth century the number of professions that could occasionally be tackled from horizontal positions had expanded. According to curator and researcher Giovanna Esposito Yussif, traditional art production served as a role model for the restructuring of the labour market after manufacturing had been relocated to other latitudes and the creative industries were given the task of revitalising local economies in the global North.5 Soon the attributes that were previously perceived as characteristics of artistic work, such as doing the job out of love, being motivated by passion and having almost total freedom, had become traits that most of us seek from our professions. The decision to follow one’s ‘true calling’, however, usually goes hand in hand with embracing economic insecurity.
The artist Pilvi Takala has studied startup culture as an extreme version of the environment where risks are justified by the promise of high returns. The work If your heart wants it (remix) (2019) shows that within a highly competitive climate where “the real business happens after 6 p.m.” and “you need to have more than 24 hours a day” work-related issues accompany people to bed so frequently that suffering from a lack of sleep because of ongoing anxieties is a relatable experience even among CEOs. The video mostly shows the perspectives of entrepreneurs, however, the global enterprises that have grown out of Silicon Valley have normalised job insecurity across a variety of professions.
It’s hardly news that the freelance, short term and zero-hour contracts, that had previously been implemented mostly in industries of immaterial labour, have now become common practice even in service jobs and cleaning work; both of which are seen as feminised fields that generally employ young women and those who have left their home of origin.6 Instability is sold as flexibility and legitimised across all kinds of industries by the idea that it allows for employees to combine work and life more seamlessly, while companies conveniently benefit from lowered employer’s expenses. Workers seemingly have more autonomy, while they are actually held accountable for any risks associated with the job.7
The financial pitfalls of precarious work are clearly exemplified by the covid-19 crisis, during which many people lost their income, while also other structures of ‘flexible work’ became more prevalent when nearly 60% of employees moved temporarily to working from home.8 Among other challenges, remote working showed that for some it may be more difficult to recognise whether their contribution has been enough, especially since motivation and commitment are equally valued working skills now that many people do their job from home. It has also become apparent that it is not as simple as leaving ‘work at work’ when you are already working from home. As recharging becomes more challenging employees risk exhaustion, in spite of supposed home comforts.
In this context, the words of architecture historian Beatriz Colomina, who has written about the working bed of today and believes that sleep is part of work rather than its opposite, have become more applicable than ever. Colomina writes that in the age of post-industrialism work has retraced its steps back into the home and, thanks to networked technologies, moved into the bedroom and into the bed itself as “the whole universe is concentrated on a small screen with the bed floating in an infinite sea of information”. If our understanding of the workplace has been permanently changed, then Colomina’s idea that we are “working in short bursts punctuated by rest” is coming to be fully realised.9
When work is dispersed throughout the day, then the concrete separation of work and leisure, which came as a result of the labour movements’ struggle to achieve the eight-hour workday over a hundred years ago, is becoming obsolete. Officially, working time has remained almost the same in Finland for the past 30 years (the five day work week was achieved in 1969 and the five week annual holidays were fixed in the 1980s).10 However, the psychotherapist Lisa Baraitser writes that after the collapse of the Fordist production line as governed by the clock, our understanding of time has once again changed and now every minute of the day tends to be invaded by the logic of work under the conditions of economic austerity.11
Possibly one of the reasons why there has not been an ongoing public discussion about reducing annual working hours for thirty years, although there have been different initiatives, is perhaps because households value consumption over free time. Art critic and essayist Jonathan Crary writes in the book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep that we live in a time of underlying prohibition of all wishes except for the ones connected to individual accumulation. Thus, we are encouraged to daydream about an ideal home, vehicle or a vacation, while the lack of “visible alternatives to privatised patterns of living” assures that in capitalist countries that the social structures of the past thirty years continue to dominate.12
Activist Veikka Lahtinen writes about the role of dept in achieving ‘personal dreams’ that also portray us as respectable citizens. When paying off a mortgage, all other dreams are framed by the payment schedule, which ensures that the person is not able to quit their job without a reliable alternative, or even to accept fewer hours of work when that comes with a pay cut.13 Crary sees the inability to resist the daily grind, that is an unavoidable result of being in-dept, as a collective delusion that turns “the experience of individual solitude and powerlessness into something seemingly natural or inevitable”.14
In the age of post-industrialism work has retraced its steps back into the home and, thanks to networked technologies, moved into the bedroom and into the bed itself as “the whole universe is concentrated on a small screen with the bed floating in an infinite sea of information”.
On being an art precariat
The competitiveness and opportunism that this social order propagates seeps into the structure of the cultural field, where job opportunities are few and far between, and free labour continues to be almost as common as in domestic and care work. According to an essay written by artist Hito Steyerl in 2010 exploitation and unpaid labour are the invisible dark matter that fuel the cultural sector, while addressing the conditions of art production is considered to be a taboo or blind spot.15 Although the discussion has enlivened in the course of the last decade, on an international level precarious and unstable working conditions still continue to persist.
Artist Reija Meriläinen’s solo exhibition Faint that was held in gallery Å during the 8th Turku Biennial in 2018 is one of the few examples that I can think of where mental health issues caused by overworking have been addressed in the context of art. Alongside other elements, the exhibition displayed soft pillows and blankets with embroidered text on them about being unfit for work and needing to rest. The booklet that accompanied the artworks provided an honest and touching account of the artist’s experiences while preparing for the exhibition.
Criticism towards the climate of every-person-for-themselves was raised when the covid-19 cultural aids were first announced.16 Undoubtedly, during a global pandemic there is a need for funding mechanisms that offer support to the community without creating more competition, and so would renounce the idea that every problem is personal and should therefore be resolved through personal responsibility. At the same time, the feedback survey undertaken by Kone Foundation during the home-residency17 (that I was fortunate enough to take part in) shows that recipients experienced the opportunity as a morale-boosting kind of recognition, which in itself is invaluable at a time like this.
For me, the home-residency was an experience that is comparable to what curators Taru Elfving and Irmeli Kokko describe when they say that residencies have the potential to provide “time and space for creative experimentation and critical reflection”.18 Generally, instances of vacant or slow time have become rare within a culture that has reduced waiting to a minimum.19 Instead, every second of the day tends to be colonised by labour, leisure or consumption; and as time itself becomes one of capitalism’s ‘flows’, the field of art has also not been freed from the pressures of production. Yet, artist residences are able to provide a breather from these ongoing conditions when they allow for time that is not tied to expectations of a concrete outcome. But even within these more ideal conditions it is still hard to escape the pressure that we put on ourselves to make ‘progress’ in our work.
According to Crary this desire to be productive at all times, which concerns almost every profession, not only artists, has led to a general incapability to daydream or experience absent-minded introspection that otherwise may occur in moments of delay. For Crary, sleep is the only recurring activity that allows picturing a world driven by shared goals. At the same time, dreaming also validates the realisation that the world we may really want cannot be achieved by focusing only on personal achievements; it requires working together as a community instead.20 This argument, I find attractive because of how well it fits the idea of working from bed, but I am left unconvinced as to whether sleep is the only period of the day apt for conceiving the collective future.
In support of reducing the velocity of living
While the dominant view of time as a commodity that no-one has enough of seems to hold true for most of us, Baraitser uncovers the hidden temporalities involved in forms of labour during which time stands still and pools up rather than flows. For example, the time it takes to maintain human life, connections and even art objects can feel stuck, frozen, or as if our lives are on hold. This is because the aim of maintenance work is to assure that every moment looks just like the one before and for things to continue being as they were. Baraitser writes that maintenance is a temporal dimension of care, that renews everyday life and relationships through waiting, staying, delaying, enduring and returning even when it does not seem to bring about obvious forms of change.21
The temporal dimensions that Baraitser describes, may sound familiar to anyone that has been forced to embrace slowness because of the restrictions brought on by covid-19. I relate to the experience of feminist theorist Tina Campt who describes the lockdown in following words: “I have been confronted by what seems to be an abrupt descent into what feels like an endless loop of groundhog days. (…) My world has slowed down dramatically. Minutes seem like hours while paradoxically hours seem to pass like minutes, and days seem to compress to the point that Monday feels like it is immediately followed by Friday.” While some of us have reduced the speed of living, Campt also reminds us that the lives of people in the industries that tend to be neglected, are accelerated even further, now that they work harder than before despite still receiving the lowest wages.22
My days are punctuated by the noises of the facade renovation, occasionally so loudly that the drilling causes the glasses to cling to the kitchen shelves, making sure I do not forget those who continue their work just as before. While the EU is negotiating a recovery package, it is even harder to ignore the ones that cannot rely on the state to provide for them, as global deaths from hunger are predicted to increase, among other foreseeable catastrophes. Unable to escape the thought, I read the words by Rebecca Solnit, whilst lying in bed with three pillows stacked behind my back, confirming that “comfort is often a code word for the right to be unaware”.23
At the same time I also agree with Crary when he suggests that slowing down may be what is needed in order to notice what is happening around us and to (re)imagine new shared futures, since the existing order generally leaves no time for considering the “longer-term time frame of trans-individual concerns and projects”.24 Campt also says that reduced mobility can amplify sensations and thus tune us in to the intensities of micro-perceptions. She states that during the time of the pandemic, the slowness has “amplified our attention to violence, to injustice and to the fact that it will be tolerated no more” while referring to the major protests that have exploded in the US.25
Besides attending to structural discrimination and protesting against authoritarian regimes (as is the case with Belarus), one can naively hope that the pandemic will also shift value away from consumption and perhaps revive renegotiations of workers’ rights, wages, as well as the length of the working week. Reducing time spent working would be one of the more achievable options in pursuit of ecologically sustainable living, and it could provide a solution to the problem of those with a job having too much on their plate, while others struggle to find employment. Still, the suggestion that lockdown could provide the time for imagining new realities should not be taken as a claim for the silver lining of a situation that is life-threatening to many in direct and indirect ways.
Nevertheless, tending to hope has a new value now that fears about the unknown, post-covid landscape have merged with pre-existing climate anxiety, creating the feeling, especially in young people, that the future has been cancelled. As an example of the collective exhaustion we are experiencing, curators Margarita Leonenko and Vera Kavaleuskaya organised the project Don’t Dream It’s Over 26, that is soon to launch as a website. According to Baraitser this sense of not having a future, that I sensed in the above mentioned project, in part comes from the collapse of the modernist progressive narrative of limitless growth. However, instead of imagining that we are approaching a zero-point, Baraitser suggests looking at the idea of a cancelled future as an indication of not having visual alternatives to the current social order as we are witnessing it coming apart, rather than the end of time itself.27
According to Crary a future without capitalism begins as a dream, reverie or fantasy.28 Artists – whose work Stilinović has compared to dreaming – can also provide visual alternatives necessary in keeping all of us afloat, as well as oriented towards the future. During the lockdown activities such as reading, listening to music, watching tv-series or experiencing art through online platforms have received greater significance in the lives of many in comparison to before. Baraitser defines the need to withdraw from the busyness of day-to-day life as an attempt “to take care of hope”.29 One way to do this is by creating time for art and culture that can becomes sources of new aspirations.
Nevertheless, international mega exhibitions and the curatorial work that goes into them are simultaneously being challenged.30 While the blockbuster exhibitions are usually criticised for their desire to entertain the audience in the hopes of increased visitor numbers, I am embarrassed to admit that I am also one of the visitors whose first emotion has frequently been an overwhelming boredom when I walk into an art exhibition that takes place in the white cube. Although it may sound like a criticism, exhibitions require waiting, staying, delaying, enduring and returning, before they reward the visitor. If the person persists, art can be in a good position for shaping the understanding of the collective, by reminding that the pursuit of social equality and ecological sustainability are challenges that cannot be tackled individually. It also has the potential to reflect and remind us of the changes that have happened within our society over the past century. By showing how much things have changed, it can give assurance that the prevailing social order will continue to transform, even when it may seem like current economic structures adapt to and gain from every disaster and are therefore unyielding.
This desire to be productive at all times, which concerns almost every profession, not only artists, has led to a general incapability to daydream or experience absent-minded introspection that otherwise may occur in moments of delay.
By the 10th week of lockdown, the pillows I had been lying on caused a throbbing pain in my upper back that sent a tingling sensation into my left arm as it became numb. At the same time, the stiff muscles under the left shoulder blade had blocked the blood circulation and made me feel dizzy. While my body was missing solid structures, people had gathered on the streets to dismantle the old ones and make room for a new order of things.
This text is a result of the home-residency organised by Kone Foundation and it was written during the summer of 2020.
OP-ED is a series of articles by guest writers commissioned for EDIT.
3 Paul B. Preciado, Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture & Biopolitics (New York: Zone Books, 2014), 136, 138, 139.
4 Preciado Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture & Biopolitics, 139–140.
5 Giovanna Esposito Yussif, “On the Harvesting of Creativity (or Lateral Readings to The Stroker)”, in Second Shift, ed. Kati Kivinen (Garret Publications & Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, 2018), 88, 92.
6 Esposito Yussif, “On the Harvesting of Creativity (or Lateral Readings to The Stroker)”, 90.
7 Esposito Yussif, “On the Harvesting of Creativity (or Lateral Readings to The Stroker)”, 92.
10 Jaakko Kiander, “Väestön ikääntyminen pienentää työuran osuutta elinkaaressa”, in Jos työviikko olisi neljä päivää?, ed. Marja-Liisa Rajakangas (Aksidenssi Oy, 2017), 10.
11 Lisa Baraitser, Enduring Time (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 9.
12 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, (London & New York: Verso, 2013), 109, 111, 115.
13 Veikka Lahtinen, “Velkaantunut ihminen ja nälkäinen katsoja,” in 13 katseluasentoa: miltä televisio tuntuu?, ed. Kaisu Tervonen (EU: Kosmos, 2020), 48.
14 Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 116.
18 Taru Elfving & Irmeli Kokko, “Reclaiming Time and Space: Introduction,” in Contemporary Artist Residencies: Reclaiming Time and Space, ed. Taru Elfving, Irmeli Kokko & Pascal Gielen (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2019), 21.
19 Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 88.
20 Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 88, 118, 126, 128.
21 Baraitser, Enduring Time, 14, 49–52.
23 Rebeca Solnit, Whose Story is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters (London: Granta, 2019), 8.
24 Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 44.
27 Baraitser, Enduring Time, 159.
28 Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 128.
29 Baraitser, Enduring Time, 166.
Illustrations: Robert Lönnqvist (@rakastaja_robert)