For their new performance 40 Temps, 8 Days, artist collective They Are Here employed forty temp workers at an hourly rate of £10.50 to do activities normally done in one’s spare time. Gallery visitors might join the activities, which ranged from browsing the internet to fortune telling. The piece prompts discussions about the rise of temp labour, the ever-collapsing boundaries between work and private life and the outsourcing of humans for traditionally non-professional services for convenience’s sake, for example, Postmates and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. These trends characterise a neoliberal society that puts enormous pressure on the value of time and recall Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7, in which he writes: “Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation.” (1)
They Are Here recruited the temps through Adecco, a Zurich-based multinational recruitment agency and the largest staffing firm in the world. This decision gives the piece an added facet of context specificity, as Tate Modern also contract Adecco to hire administrative workers. In this way, They Are Here use Tate’s pre-existing Adecco account as a sort of found material to make invisible labour practices visible within Tate’s own galleries. As the artists state, “site specific should attend not solely to a site’s spatial elements and its history, but also to the less visible economic and structural relationships at play”.
Collective Time Observation and Individual Time Observation are two software-based works running in tandem with the performance. They have been developed in collaboration with engineering students from Imperial College: Abigail Howell, Alessio Incitti, Amelia Crowther, Andrew Hill, Priyanka Shah and Ria Jha. Collective Time Observation displays the cumulative amount of time all visitors have spent in the space throughout the performance, while Individual Time Observation measures the time each individual spends, making visitors hyper-aware of the temporal quantification of their experience in the gallery.
Individual Time Observation utilises OpenFace open source facial behaviour analysis software. Upon entering the gallery, cameras capture your face and transform it into a unique numerical signature particular to your face. Thanks to open source culture, the Imperial College engineers were able to appropriate OpenFace, software yet to be privatised by companies that would undoubtedly use it for affective surveillance and advertising. This also begs the question as to whether this software should really be available for anyone to (ab)use and what ethical frameworks could be coupled with the conditions of its use.
Upon exiting the gallery, the programme looks to match your face to the unique numerical signature it generated and stored at the entry point. It then states the amount of time you spent in the gallery, but the software is not faultless. At the beginning of its learning routine, it was recognising two British-Indian women as the same person. The engineers discovered its inbuilt training used images of only six white celebrities, so the software was programmed with a racial bias. This issue was solved by additional ‘training’, using 6000 images of a wider range of faces to give it a sample of people more representative of London’s population, highlighting the importance of acknowledging the fallibility of technologies touted as neutral.
The three works use of found economic and open source coding structures allow them to speak from within existing systems. In an openly leftist and anti-hegemonic art world, we are often met with hopelessness when it comes to the task of actually dismantling systems of inequality around money and labour practices. While some curators and artists create smaller ecologies that adopt alternative systems of sustainable funding and collective practices, another tactic for resistance is to take the role of the irritant or virus that works within the system to critique it. 40 Temps, 8 Days stems from the artists’ own experiences working on zero-hour contracts, with temp agencies and as freelance artists. The piece provokes discussion and awareness of temp labour as a means of building solidarity, recalling the Precarious Workers Brigade or Temp Slave! Zine, which aim to provide support for and air frustrations about precarious labour characterised by a lack of health benefits, exploitation, insecurity, invisibility and class stigma.
On leaving the gallery I am asked to fill out a survey form – do I have time? I rush from Tate Modern - so I don’t miss the next train and see a bubble blower on the street being told to leave by men in uniform.
(1)Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013), p.39.