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Stealing our Time


12 October 2020
This month's topic: Work, Stimulant, Insomnia

Stealing our Time

In the Middle Ages, stealing time was considered a crime because, typified within the sin of usury, it attempted against the values of the time. Jacques Le Goff in Your Money or Your Life explains who the usurer was and how he was punished. Whoever committed the crime of usury was condemned like any other thief who committed a robbery or a pillage. The usurer received a good of others granted against the will of its owner, who was ultimately God: «Usurers are thieves, because they sell time that does not belong to them, and to sell the good of others against the will of the owner is to steal».[1] In medieval times, the difference between day and night, between light and darkness, was much more evident and involved a marked judgment of values between the activities that took place in each of these two time periods. The theft of time at night, a moment destined for rest, relaxation, recollection, and spirituality, had an even more negative connotation; as Le Goff says: «Moreover, since they sell nothing but the delay of money, that is, time, they sell the days and nights. But the day is the time of clarity, and the night is the time of rest. Therefore they sell light and rest. It is not therefore right that they should have light and eternal rest».[2]

In such a monotonous time, in which each day was the same as the previous one and the only thing that broke the repetitive cycle of days was the few annual festivities and celebrations, appropriating the time of another was even more unfair. Teresa Vinyoles explains the enthusiasm with which the few festive breaks that alternated in the regular work calendar were lived.[3]

Contrary to what happens now, temporality was well defined and separated; even the seasons of the year were more evident, and the hours of sunshine of each of them caused great differences in the same work day: with long summer days and winter nights that seemed to have no end. In this perfectly regulated medieval world, there were many citizen regulations that stipulated the end of the working day at sunset and prohibited night work. The Parisian El Livre des Métiers[4] specifies how only craftsmen and workers working for the king or the bishop of Paris could continue working at night.

When we succeed in taming light, we approach the homogeneous temporality so inseparable from our present. Jonathan Crary, in 24/7, situates what he considers to be the first image of night work in ‘Arkwrights Cotton Mills by Night’, a painting by Josep Wright that shows the first factory that opened uninterruptedly in the U.K.[5] In this work, Wright tries to represent the lighting of the first spinning that was organized in two 12-hour shifts. This fact was supposed to be so novel and special that it seems that Wright does not know how to represent it: the sky is dark but in the middle there is a big white cloud that breaks the black night. It seems that this artificial light begins to anticipate, somehow, the erosion of cyclical and seasonal temporalities. Day and night are approaching. They will come closer until the line between time of rest and productivity, between work and leisure time, between pleasure and rest, is blurred.

Joseph Wright, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, 1782


The photographs of the series ‘Overbudget’ by Josep Fonti evoke this rest so exhausted that it seems that sometimes we live. They are self-portraits that show the moment of rest and pause in a journey of more than 6,000 miles from New York to San Francisco. A series of nocturnal self-portraits in American city motels. The journey is a kind of flight forward where the road seems to become a refuge and where the motel embodies the depersonalised rest by autonomy. Perhaps it is nothing more than the search for escape from the great trap of 24/7, of having everything available at all times.  Crary says: «However, in the rich countries of the world, what was once consumerism has become an activity, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, related to techniques of depersonalization, individualization, interaction with devices and compulsory communication».[6]It seems that in this world that never stops we continue to seek this rest in circles, an almost desperate suspension in a society without pause.

If artificial light dilutes temporality, the new technologies stretch it and dilate it even more. Cristina Garrido in ‘Clocking In and Out’ is photographed every day for a week when we get up and go to bed, exploring the relationships of productivity of our time, of cognitive work and of rest. It seems then that all time and all action are capable of being productive: what if there is no longer space for rest; what if you no longer know how to take a picture?


Cristina Garrido, Clocking In and Out, 2015 Source:


In ‘Produciendo tiempo entre otras cosas (Producing time among other things)’ Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorkum take as their starting point an anecdote from Klaas’ grandfather, who after his retirement asked his workshop colleagues to make him a turnstile so that he could continue making pieces of wood. They say that he belongs to a generation that considered that free time should be invested in doing something productive. Perhaps the difference between his generation and ours, in which leisure has become productive, is in the diverse conception of leisure time. We, on the other hand, think about enjoying leisure time without guilt; but we find ourselves, sometimes, in the same situation as Cristina, taking pictures of ourselves and making ourselves productive, monitoring ourselves, even sleeping hours through applications.

Iratxe Jaio + Klaas van Gorkum, Produciendo tiempo entre otras cosas, 2011 Source:


Who knows if we might consider stealing our time with good intentions. Like, for example, Mario Santamaria’s website that is operational 23 hours a day, instead of 24 hours. Perhaps the only way we might be able to free ourselves completely is to take this hour, canceling access, bringing the server down and forcing us to take a 60-minute break.


Mario Santamaría, Also this website is Available 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, 2017 Source:


This theft, contrary to the sin of usury, seems to be the only way to give us back the time of rest and quiet. Today, perhaps the most precious time is idle time. We will continue to try to find time and hours within the space of 24/7 light and connectivity; we will continue to think if time belongs to us, if we control it, if we steal it or if we sell it and, as long as we don’t know how to make it a little better, perhaps it is better to have it stolen, to have some hours stolen to make a real rest.


(Featured Image: Josep Fonti, Overbudget,  2017. Source:


[1] Jacques Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages, translated by Patricia Ranum. (New York : Zone Books, 1988)

[2] Ibídem.

[3] Carme Batlle, Teresa Vinyoles, Mirada a la Barcelona medieval des de les finestres gòtiques (Barcelona, España, Rafael Dalmau, 2002)

[4] Étienne Boileau, Livres des Métiers (1210-1270) (Edició a cura de René de Lespinasse i François Bonnardot) (París: Imprimerie Nationale, 1879)

[5] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London, New York, Verso, 2013)

[6] Ibídem, p.81.

Clàudia Elies graduated in art history from the University of Barcelona and the Università degli studi di Bologna and in art theory from Goldsmiths, University of London. She has worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) for the exhibition POESIA BROSSA and as coordinator of the Galeria Estrany – de la Mota. She currently combines her tasks as head of the Visual Arts program at Can Felipa with other curatorial projects. Among her projects are A Script Proposal d’Abel Jaramillo at Galeria Estrany – de la Mota in the marc of Art Nou (2018), ¡Perder el tiempo y encima procurarse un reloj para este propósito! at Can Felipa (2019), Agencia en porvenir: No todos visibles nada transparente, in the context of ON Mediation: Platform on curatorship and research at Centre d’Arts Santa Mònica (2017).

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"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)