Anxiety and backlash against the ever-quickening pace of modern life has become increasingly pervasive. The proliferation of models for ‘slow living’, mindfulness apps, recipes for digital detox and articles offering advice on how to ‘apply the brakes’ are just the latest in a long lineage stretching back to earlier examples, such as the international Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, a general sense (and rejection) of time’s apparent acceleration seems to have spread across the Western world, insidiously entering the realm of general acceptance. But should we be so fixated upon slowing down, or is this sense of yearning unhelpfully misdirected?
This is the question I was left with following a visit to the exhibition, From Slow to Stop, at Manchester’s Holden Gallery in December of 2016. Arriving in a rush, ironically, with not nearly enough time for a proper look, I was struck – brought to a halt even – by a line from the introductory text, which drew attention to a simple but significant point. From the nineteenth century through to today, we have grown so accustomed to the feeling of never quite having enough time that whenever the word ‘speed’ is mentioned, we tend to interpret it as meaning quick or fast. In fact, speed objectively denotes pace. Pace can also be slow. Essentially, the exhibition encouraged visitors to step back and remember the role of perception in both enabling and shaping our human experience of time. The prevailing conditions of contemporary life have coloured the emotional lens through which we view this independent reality to such an extent that we feel a spiralling sense of quickening. Time, however, has remained unaffected. It obeys its own laws.
This may sound obvious. After all, no one is seriously suggesting that time has actually slowed down or sped up (if anything, human lifespans have lengthened in the Western world). We simply have more pressures, demands and distractions than before, and the ability to do more things at a faster pace. But the almost-revelatory effect of From Slow to Stop’s simple framing of this point – capturing the continued existence of stillness, slowness and excess amounts of time within everyday experience – drew my attention to how often we forget this important distinction. In particular, I’m thinking of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s extraordinarily long, poetic shots of businessmen peacefully asleep whilst travelling at great speed aboard a Japanese bullet train, and Hannah Starkey’s striking image of a woman temporarily disengaged from the quiet corner of the world around her, lost in a moment of elsewhere contemplation. Conversely, in Coffee (1999), Hans Op de Beeck reminds us that boredom (the experience of having ‘too much’ time) is still very much a feature of contemporary life; the whole film made up of just one painfully long scene in which an elderly couple silently fidget and clock-watch their way through a seemingly interminable cup of coffee – perhaps the only ‘event’ of their day.
By highlighting this gap between our perception and ‘real time’, the exhibition achieved two things. Firstly, it enabled visitors to rid themselves of cultural myth and move beyond a simple veneration of slowness into a far more interesting consideration of time itself. Secondly, and more vitally, it created enough room to start objectively questioning what gave rise to this broad sense of acceleration in the first place – where it comes from and what changes to our experience of contemporary life we actually crave. Indeed, rather than relying on mindfulness apps, surely it would be better to identify and address the reasons behind why we’re downloading them?
So, what’s really behind our obsession with time and when did it begin? The answer is complicated, yet, as the exhibition’s accompanying text hinted, a lot can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. It is the point when (paraphrasing historian E.P.Thompson) society in England shifted from being predominantly ‘task-orientated’ to ‘time-orientated’. Before the factories, labour was mostly agricultural and governed by seasonal rhythms; the rate and nature of productivity fluctuating according to crop yields and demand. The arrival of standardised mechanical production changed this. Lost work hours meant lost profit; time sheets were introduced, strict punctuality enforced and idleness was chastised by authorities with intensified zeal. Watches and clocks entered general ownership and local time was replaced by Railway Time – the first standardised time arrangement recorded – to enable a more reliable, synchronised system for transporting goods and materials.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and capitalism’s hunger for ever-increasing technological advancement and wealth accumulation has sunk its teeth in far deeper. Numerous inventions, from electric lighting and ever-faster transport routes to the arrival of the internet, as well as the introduction of universal time zones, have helped construct a global infrastructure of continuous work and consumption. Ultimately, as Jonathan Crary argues in 24/7 Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013), we have reached the point where the human need for rest and regeneration is now becoming ‘simply too expensive’ for capitalist forces to tolerate, making its elimination an area of intense scientific investigation. The last two centuries have programmed us to work, consume and demand at an exponentially faster pace.
Recognising these conditions is one thing; actively challenging them is another. Yet this spirit of resistance is exactly what inspired the Lancashire-based feminist arts organisation, Idle Women. Its founders, Rachel Anderson and Cis O’Boyle, have previously described their decision to leave the capitalist, profit-driven, adrenaline-fuelled race of the London art scene, almost as an act of self-preservation. But relocating to the ‘slower’ austerity-hit climate of Lancashire’s post-industrial factory towns, to work with some of the area’s most marginalised, disempowered women, takes things a conscious political step further.
Idle Women’s model offers an example of how patriarchal capitalism can be challenged using slowness, but not (crucially) through its simple veneration. Their physical premises and transport – two working canal boats – were chosen as a means of claiming safe, independently owned space amidst increasing land-privatisation, and of creating the freedom to travel to as many communities as possible. Their three-month long rotating artist residency programme, meanwhile, counteracts the capitalist monopolisation of creativity by making no demand for a material outcome at its end. This in turn removes the time pressures associated with production, allowing artists the space to focus on enabling moments of meaningful human connection to occur, often through group activities such as cooking, gardening, walking or simply sharing a cup of tea.
For many of the women and girls that Idle Women reach (who often lack jobs, money, security, access to the internet or even basic English language skills), the passage of time can indeed feel very slow, just as for the elderly couple in Coffee. Recognising and attempting to change this through the reintroduction of community, support, purpose and possibility into their lives is perhaps what forms the most important part of Idle Women’s work. Parallels can also be seen in the projects carried out by their funding partner, Super Slow Way, which uses the same network of canals as a site for co-producing new meaning and experiences through creativity, in an area where the decline in traditional forms of manufacturing has led to high unemployment and eroded communities.
In a way, it seems apt that the same Lancashire canals that helped power the Industrial Revolution (fundamentally altering our relationship with time) should today be home to a de-accelerationist movement. Disparities in wealth across the North West (and beyond) mean that time is experienced differently by different people and communities. Government and commercial investment continues to merge our largest Northern cities into a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, whilst smaller, less metropolitan areas are left to cope with increasing cuts to basic services. With Brexit signalling yet another brave new world of uncertain economic and trade transition; perhaps now, here in the North, is the time and place to stop lamenting a romantic notion of lost slowness, and instead begin addressing the conditions that fuel our cultural discontent; both for those desiring more speed as well as less.
Sara Jaspan is a writer based in Manchester.
Feature Image: Idle Women, Camp Fire at Shifting Loyalties Gathering, 2016. Photo: Wendy Barnett courtesy Idle Women.