SUN DIAL : NIGHT WATCH

Series of tapestries woven directly from data recorded on an Actiwatch (a device for measuring sleep/wake patterns and concurrent light levels). Begun in January 2010, the final set of works, generated from five years of continuous recordings, were exhibited at CentrePasquArt, Switzerland, as part of Morris’s solo exhibition SELF MODERATION.

This page gives information about the work at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford; a public engagement project funded by the Wellcome Trust.


my actiwatch

For Sun Dial:Night Watch I recorded my sleep/wake patterns for five years, using a medical-scientific device called an Actiwatch. Worn on the wrist, and used in the field of Chronobiology, the watch collects data that I then send directly to a Jacquard loom in Flanders, Belgium. Here the minute-by-minute numerical values are converted into coloured thread, with red for high levels of activity, black for little or none, with a gradient of colours between. Large amounts of the colour blue, for example, may indicate ‘awake but not very active’– i.e. that I was probably working on my computer.

Chronobiology looks at how organisms adapt to solar and lunar related rhythms. Accordingly, the watch has the capacity to record natural and artificial light levels in the wearer’s immediate environment – which I did for three years. The tapestries, which trace a subject living in a northern european city during a period of high capitalism, have been described as a form of displaced self-portraiture (see Iversen). Works that record light levels only take this displacement a step further, but still show evidence of a body trapped within artificial structures such as clock and calendrical time, public transport schedules and 24/7 working practices, as well as light pollution and its accompanying sleeplessness. (See eg Crary, J, (2014), 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.

The early stages of this body of work were supported by the Wellcome Trust, who funded the production and installation of three large tapestries for permanent display at the John Radcliff Hospital, Oxford, as part of a public engagement project run by artist Susan Morris, Chronobiologist Dr Katharina Wulff and Ruth Charity, Arts Coordinator, Oxford Radcliffe NHS Hospital Trust.

Katharina Wulff is the lead scientist of a team of researchers investigating biological rhythms in humans at Oxford University, UK. Her research is aimed at understanding cross-linked mechanisms of sleep and biological timing in relation to the neurobiology of mental health. As an artist, Morris tries to find expression for that within the body that can’t easily be measured or represented; that perhaps resists or falls outside of such systems of categorization and measurement.

Wulff and Morris started working together after discovering their mutual interests; not only in quantifying time but also in questioning how time is structured and organized; not only in identifying and representing patterns of human behavior, but also in questioning social conventions such as the trend towards working around the clock, with productivity valued over sleep or play, and with sleep itself frequently snatched between morning-time stimulants, such as coffee, and night time sedatives such as alcohol or sleeping pills.

For the public engagement project at the JRH, both artist and scientist were motivated by the opportunity to introduce their ideas to audiences outside their respective fields. The management of foreseeable health problems arising directly from a socially imposed 24/7 timetable that runs counter to our inner ‘body clock’ is a biomedical, ethical and societal issue. The aim of installing the art work in the environment of a research hospital is to draw the public’s attention to these issues. We also hope to suggest that a choice exists: between leading a balanced healthy lifestyle that embraces sleep, or following a society that, for example, encourages shift work, early school starts, and daylight saving time, even as scientific evidence indicates that sleep deprivation can make us unproductive and, worse, cause severe mental difficulties.

Morris is interested in experimenting with new forms of mark making, drawing on a tradition within art practice – established by the Surrealists in the early 1920s – of using unconventional forms of technology to trace a bodily unconscious. Her tapestries can be thought of as very large automatic drawings, but they also suggest ways in which an alternate (artistic) vocabulary can be made available for scientists to communicate their ideas.

The Jacquard loom was one of the first inventions to mechanize human labour. However, in taking that which is made by hand away from processes of production, we have become harnessed to machines that work faster and for longer than we can. Tapestry is therefore an appropriate medium for art that draws attention to the way a body might resist certain aspects of socialization.

Morris first came across Chronobiology, the field of scientific investigation into biological time-keeping within organisms, when she saw a ‘Sleep/Wake chart’ in a newspaper article about the lone yachtswoman EllenMacArthur. During her record breaking circumnavigation of the globe, and while passing through different time zones, MacArthur wore an Actiwatch, which tracked her sleep patterns.These were represented in diagrams (Actigraphs) that resonated with work Morris was making at the time using year planners. Morris’s interests in how a body is represented in relation to time and in mapping bodily responses that can’t be registered by the conscious subject alone had long been at the centre of her practice.

The MacArthur Actigraphs were generated by the same type of devices that Wulff uses in her research to distinguish pathological from healthy activity patterns in various patient groups.Morris was intrigued by the way a resisting and ungovernable body – going its own way, in its own time – can be revealed by these recording devices. The Actiwatch’s data can show us when we are awake and when we are sleeping but it also reveals moments when we are not necessarily in control, when our bodies break from their typical patterns and reactive processes. Here, as T.S. Elliot put it, ‘falls the shadow’.

Morris is grateful for the interest in these ideas shown by the researchers at Oxford – initially by Professor Russell Foster – who, since 2005, very generously loaned equipment and donated time. The curiosity and trust shown by the scientists led directly to the development of this project, and to the substantial funding by the Wellcome Trust.

Art that takes the form of something very familiar and perhaps rather pedestrian, such as a graph or chart, can – paradoxically – appear strange to the viewer. Morris is interested in the potential beauty that exists in these everyday, utilitarian things. There is a certain kind of poetry in objects such as timetables, spreadsheets and year planners, which never manage to ‘catch’ and organize all the information they address. Visualising the Actigraphs in the form of woven tapestries – as coverings, closer to rugs or blankets, as opposed to works on paper or canvas – makes apparent how these works invent a new kind of drawing, one that represents both work and sleep; by embodying both.