From factories to computers, broadly speaking the technosphere can be defined as all man-made built structures. This is the stuff we have put into the world, but in the words of Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, who was one of the lead authors of a research paper published in the Anthropocene Review in 2016:  “we are not always as much in control as we think we are, as the technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flow”. In different ways, the impact of the technosphere is a link between the 24/7 exhibition and the Foto/Industria Biennial, which shows artists responding to our physical, digital and technological lives and the merging of these forms.

Will you be able to read this article in its entirety without picking up your smartphone, reading a message, downloading emails, opening Instagram? It’s a rhetorical question that is not meant to be judgemental. We live in a world affected by what is increasingly seen as a public health epidemic, a psychological pressure that drives us to check our phones every 12 minutes on an average calculated over 24 hours (including evening hours). A shocking statistic that reveals our inability to turn off, even while sleeping. It shows the loss of down time due to the pressure to stay connected, to produce and consume 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by night, painted 1780s

All this began with the Industrial Revolution. A depiction of a Derbyshire cotton mill by Joseph Wright painted in 1782, its lights burning in the middle of the night suggesting workers doing shifts around the clock, is believed to be the first representation of every hour, every day culture. Visually this is the starting point of 24/7, an exhibition currently on show at Somerset House in London. Curator Sarah Cook was inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso, 2013) and focuses on the tensions of our non-stop world, where new technologies have blurred the boundaries between day and night, work and leisure, the individual and the collective.

More than two decades before the non-stop world we experience today, Swiss artist Roman Signer visualised this scenario in Bett (1996), a film of him sleeping in a bed while a remote-controlled helicopter frenetically hovers over his head. Netflix’s CEO Roger Hastings has said words to the effect that sleep is the company’s biggest competitor – a remark that surely rings bells with binge-watchers. Companies like his are guided by an endless desire for growth at our expense. That is the point of Order of Magnitude (2019), a video by the American artist Benjamin Grosser, in which he created a supercut of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg saying some of his most often repeated words in interviews, like "more" and "grow." Maybe one day someone else will sleep on your behalf, as the British artists and film-makers Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard propose. Their immersive installation Somnoproxy (2019) centres around a futuristic bedtime story written by Stuart Evers about a conman who offers his services to sleep on behalf of wealthy executives who are too busy and stressed to sleep themselves. It’s a piece of art, but…

Pierre Huyghe, Les Grands ensembles, 2001 © Pierre Huyghe

Another exhibition in Bologna last winter also began from the Industrial Revolution to talk about the present. Organised by the Mast Foundation, whose focus is art, technology and innovation, the event is devoted to photography related to industry and work. This fourth edition was titled Technosphere: Humankind and the Built Environment and included 11 exhibitions in 11 historical locations in the city. Some of the exhibitions documented industry from the early and middle years of the 20th century, while others drew attention to the incredible amount (estimated to be in the trillions of tons) of waste created by the technosphere.

The drive of the entire scope of industry and its consequences on our lives is shown in the exhibition Paesaggi Della Ruhr (Ruhr Landscapes). Featuring the photographs of Albert Renger-Patzsch, a pioneer in the photography of objects and the material world, here we see the landscape photographs he took on a journey through the Ruhr region of Germany between 1927 and 1935. Against the background of the rural landscape, with its typical timbered houses, the first industries with their smoking chimneys stand out, showing the beginning of the accelerated process to which mankind has not yet decided to brake.

JooYoun Paek, Pillowig, 2005 at 247 at Somerset House (c) Stephen Chung for Somerset House

FotoIndustria 2019 Matthieu Gafsou

Other photographers have documented industrial production with a more celebratory spirit, like André Kertész in America in the 1930s and 40s or Luigi Ghirri in Italy in the 1960s. Lisetta Carmi, on the other hand, underlines the social consequences of uncontrolled development. In a 1964 reportage on the port of Genoa, which was then closed to access, but which she managed to enter by pretending to be a worker's cousin, the Italian artist documented the precarious conditions of workers and the risks to their health. The same spirit of denunciation inspired another series by Carmi, this time shot inside the iron and steel factory Italsider. Its gravity is amplified by Luigi Nono's music La fabbrica illuminata (The enlightened factory), a composition made of sounds recorded inside the factory.

If the focus of 24/7 demonstrates the endless impact of the technosphere on human behaviour, the Biennial addresses the further stratification of the theory and the ways people try to navigate within it. This is the case with the Italian artist Armin Linke who deals with constructions that are invisible but at the centre of complicated geo-political intrigues: those at the bottom of the oceans. In this case the difficulty also concerns the possibility of representing something that is not visible, therefore the artist collected a series of documents, videos, contracts, laws, interviews, research and conferences related to this question. His approach to information in Prospecting Ocean clashes with the place in which it is displayed, the venerable University Library of Bologna, where the visitor can perceive the stratification of knowledge throughout the centuries and also the transformation of knowledge from a linear narrative to a network of information.

Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st century, 2019 © Douglas Coupland

In Spectral City, the American artist Stephanie Syjuco uses technology to navigate through time and space. Using Google Earth, she retraced the itinerary in San Francisco filmed by the Miles Brothers in 1906, just four days before the terrible earthquake that destroyed the city. Just like the images by the Miles Brothers, recorded with a camera mounted on their car, Syjuco's journey through Market City exposes another catastrophe taking place, this time a social disaster caused by humankind. Because of the influx of startups and tech industry companies into the city, the area recorded in the movie was completely transformed, pushing many residents to other parts of the city and destroying the social balance.

The effects of technology on the human body are even scarier. Swiss artist Matthieu Gafsou shows some beautiful and disturbing images in his documentation of transhumanism, a techno-prophetism and movement that believes in technology as a way of overcoming human limits, both physical and psychological (in his description of the three-year project, Gafsou speaks of the “latent violence involved in the technological transformations under way”). The setting of this exhibition, H+, could not be more appropriate: the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande, where the frescoes on the ceilings depict the deification of Hercules in the Olympus.

by Silvia Anna Barrilà

24/7, Somerset House, London, until 23 February,

This article appeared in DAM75. Order your personal copy.