Life/Time: Rhythmanalysing Working Life in Time and Motion

Can our wearable devices such as pedometers, heart-rate monitors, and Fitbits be repurposed to challenge the relationship between the user, the quantified-self, and our understanding of the workplace and beyond?

“One aim of the project was to make visible and tangible the flux between the material specificity of our labouring bodies and the immaterial world of data which represents their concrete abstraction.”¹

Work is the most highly valued time in our culture and computer-based work is becoming the dominant model, but the physical experiences and effects associated with what is commonly imagined as ephemeral ‘immaterial labour’ are barely addressed.

There are a myriad of internal and external rhythms present during work time, many of which are ignored or imperceptible: rhythms in the work space (e.g. a computer monitor refreshing at 75hz, a fluorescent light flickering at 60hz, the quiet chugging of a printer, the irregular rhythm of emails coming into an inbox); of the working day (e.g. start time, lunch and finish time, time monitoring, intensity of work during different periods); calorie and stimulant input (coffee, cake at 4pm); and physiological rhythms (heart rate, glucose levels, body movement).

Sociologist Dr Harry Pitts and artists Freddie Fogg and Yas Clarke created a sonic and visual performance overlaying rhythms to map these many temporal factors acting on and within the body. This performance was attended by a paper documenting the practice-as-research piece and the further implications of their findings.

What did the project involve? 

“The project involved exploring the possibility for quantified-self and self-tracking wearable devices and apps to be repurposed for an individual and collective process of self-understanding in the workplace and beyond.

The study collected data from a range of wearable devices over the course of a week. The data was gathered from off-the-shelf self-quantification devices and apps widely available to the buying public: a FitBit counting steps, sleep stages and heart rate; a continuous blood glucose monitor running from a Bluetooth-enabled arm implant; a heart rate variability (HRV) monitor used to measure ‘readiness’ for athletic training; an app-based survey which prompted the researchers to tell it when they ate, drank, exercised or went to the toilet; and a mood rating scale.

The technology was used to record their data over the course of a week. The data collection and analysis took Lefebvre’s concept of ‘rhythmanalysis’ as a methodological anchor point. This guided the project’s search for a way to reveal the internal rhythms of the body in relation to those of the work environment. The biosignal data they each collected across a working week was then selectively ‘sonified’ with synthesisers and drum machines combined with audio recordings of their bodies and work environments to produce a forty-minute electronic symphony performed to a public audience at the Cube Microplex.” (‘Sonifying the quantified self’, pp.228-9, paraphrased). 

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Dr Harry Pitts (Sociology, University of Bristol) is a sociologist of work who researches the experience and measurement of working hours in the changing economy, with specific focus on professional, creative, and clerical work environments like design studios, advertising agencies and call centres. Theoretically and methodologically his work reevaluates the legacy of Marx’s materialist understanding of the metabolic relationship between humans and things for the study of contemporary work and economic life. Pitts applies this understanding empirically using Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis to inform a qualitative approach based upon interviews and ethnographies. Frederick Harry Pitts’ Website.
  • Freddie Fogg (Artist, Freelance) is working between performance, sound and video whose work makes internal/imperceptible experiences visible. Freddie makes compositions with body sounds using heart sensors and contact mics to capture the internal body. They are interested in experiences of temporality and often performs in slow motion or changes the speed of the composition while performing choreography or lipsync. Freddie’s work uses ‘drag’ and hyper costume to create highly visual, surreal stage worlds which amplify and ‘make strange’ elements of the everyday.
  • Yas  Clarke (Sound Artist, BEEF) is working primarily as a collaborator with performance makers and live artists. He is interested in the human relationship to nature and the intersection between human and natural processes. Current research involves exploration of the space between organised sound and organic rhythms through the use of musically generative algorithms. Yas Clarke’s Website.

What were the results?

“Dr Harry Pitts, Freddie Fogg, and Yas Clarke performed their biosignal symphony to an audience. The outcome involved an affective relationship with the audience through placing their bodies on stage to bring attention to the material infrastructures through which the data was being produced and performed. They each performed their own subset of the three overlaid datasets to progress through the seven days of the study simultaneously on stage. A key feature of the sound composition was that they could change its overall speed – slowing down to ‘zoom in’ on the detail of a few seconds, or speeding up to power through the last 3 days in 10 minutes, observing longer-term patterns by condensing time.

The researchers selected which sounds to assign to which data parameters, based on subjective associations of their own qualitative feelings. They assigned a high, whining sound to blood glucose which ‘felt’ like the feeling of having eaten too much sugar. In the slowest mode, ‘Microsound’, self-captured audio recordings of their work environments were slowed down until they became ‘microscopic-sounding’ data artefacts. In the fastest mode, a driving techno beat carried on regardless of their data states. They each had a synth line and a drum part – hi-hat, snare or kick – to bring in and out of the mix, the qualities of which were controlled by parameters in their data, resulting in a semi-improvised composition between their individual parts which played with the tropes of techno music. These spaces in the performance for improvisation through ‘solos’ and ‘jams’ allowed for in-the-moment sonifications, expressing their present individual interpretations of the real, past events the data captured.

During the performance the researchers sat in a row at desks, facing the audience, each with a laptop, a sound controller and a desk lamp. The latter’s illumination controlled automatically via MIDI by each of their respective volume levels, to give a visual cue as to whose data/sounds were active in the composition. The large cinema screen behind the researchers showed a visual where their heart rate, glucose and steps were represented by coloured line graphs. A marker ticked through the week, showing the day, time, and speed.

By placing their bodies onstage and foregrounding the physical devices they used to perform the data, the researchers aimed to disrupt the apparent immateriality of the medium and reconnected their physical forms to the data they created. Moreover, the sound itself had a materiality, travelling and vibrating through space and destabilising the notion of the immaterial unpinning the world of data by establishing an affective relationship between performer and audience. The performance made explicit that the data was once generated by a body, using a device made by a body. The sonic form it assumed in performance was mediated by bits of information moving through a physical computer system, and the audience and participants could hear it because the speakers translate information into vibrations picked up by their bodies. Sound, in this way, is affective.” (‘Sonifying the quantified self’, pp.229-30, paraphrased). 

A small snippet of the performance Rhythmanalysis can be accessed here.

Following the performance the researchers cowrote and released a paper expanding upon the findings of their practice-as-research. The above description of the project has been taken from this paper.

Sonifying the quantified self: Rhythmanalysis and performance research in and against the reduction of life-time to labour-time

A second paper was then released: Rhythmanalysis, Concrete Abstraction and the Quantified Self , as well as a follow-up chapter: Cecchinato Gould Pitts 2021 Self tracking and sousveillance at work-libre.



¹ Frederick Harry Pitts, Eleanor Jean, & Yas Clarke. ‘Sonifying the quantified self: Rhythmanalysis and Performance Research in and Against the Reduction of Life-Time to Labour-time’. Capital and Class 44.2 June 2020. 219-239.