Vital practices: Self-experimentation as artistic and scientific form
Ana María Gómez López
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BSecluded time

Perhaps the most considerable component of Inoculate was the extended period of waiting for a sign of life to emerge. This completely reoriented and altered my daily routine. Lying down while staring at the autumn sun, I was restless and fidgeting for the first few days, trying to find comfort on the flat surface of a table in my apartment that I adapted into a bed. Yet gradually, I transitioned into a calmer pattern of wakefulness, absorbing the subdued sunlight or the dim night sky, and falling into more regular (albeit shorter) patterns of sleep. Regardless, by the end of Inoculate, I did feel my 24-hour cycles fluctuate outside of naturally recurring periods of light and dark. This alteration was not a goal in and of itself, but the secondary effect of attempting to physically condition my body to sustain internal plant growth—a routine I fashioned for myself that proved effective as an anchoring method, as well as one of plausible benefit for the seed’s cultivation.

However, radically modifying a corporeal sense of temporality has been an enduring ambition among artists and scientists alike. In 1962, French speleologist Michel Siffre remained in total isolation for two months inside the chasm of Scarasson, a subterranean glacial formation in the French Alps. During his stay 130 metres below the surface of the earth, he examined the effects of living without access to sunlight or any artificial time-keeping devices, such as clocks and calendars. Keeping a written record of his activities, Siffre communicated his periods of waking, sleeping, and eating via a one-way telephone to his colleagues above ground, as well as his pulse rate and other measurements. He attempted to track the passing of days through his sleeping patterns alone, staying underground until what he believed was August 20, the date set for the end of his study. He emerged to the surface only to learn that it was actually September 14—almost an entire month later. Siffre’s study in temporal perception proved ground-breaking for the emerging field of chronobiology, or the study of cyclical physiological phenomena. With his time underground, Siffre demonstrated that the human internal clock was independent from the terrestrial day/night cycle, disproving that human circadian rhythms are inherently and exactly 24 hours long.23 In the following years, Siffre also guided other researchers through similar studies (largely funded by research for military and aerospace industry applications), including Josie Laures and Antoine Senni, who in 1964 lived for 85 days and 126 days underground, respectively, in caves near Nice, as well as a man only known as J. P. Mairetet, who in 1963 also spent 174 days inside a cave in southern France.24

Siffre himself would later perform this self-experiment again on two different occasions. In 1972, he stayed alone for six months in Midnight Cave, located near Del Rio, Texas, the longest scientific experiment in sensory deprivation and human isolation ever undertaken. Monitoring once more the effects of remaining underground in his heart, brain, and muscle activities, Siffre set a dedicated camp where he kept detailed records of his activities and vital functions, both sleeping and waking; for a documentary showing the conditions of Siffre’s experience, see also Midnight Cave: The Time Experiment. Again, Siffre was in contact with his research team throughout the day, without his colleagues ever exchanging information about the day or time. Although at a physical level he was able to function normally, his eyesight was left permanently weakened by the prolonged stay in the dark, and the psychological implications of his 205-day isolation proved emotionally demanding. Despite this, Siffre would return to Scarasson for his third and final experiment between 1999 and 2000, in order to examine the effects of aging on the circadian cycle.

Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh also offers a dedicated practice centred on a personal relationship to timekeeping. Between 1980 and 1981 he carried out Art/Life: One Year Performance (Time Clock Piece), where he punched a time card every hour on the hour for a year. In addition to the series of hourly marked time cards, documentation for Time Clock Piece consisted mostly of photographs Hsieh took of himself each moment he documented the central activity of this piece. These images were subsequently placed together into a single film, a spasmodic visual experience that reduces one year of Hsieh’s life to approximately six minutes—a fixed, if somewhat fitful portrait that allows viewers to see the hands of the clock face moving unfailingly. In order to more visibly document the passage of time, Hsieh also let his hair grow out entirely, having shaved his head prior to beginning of the piece (for a brief portrait of Time Clock Piece. Hsieh’s isolated practice in his studio was open to the public on specific days throughout Time Clock Piece. In both the documentation photographs and his in-person appearances, Hsieh always wore the exact same personal jumpsuit uniform.

Between 1976 and 1986, Hsieh did several Art/Life: One Year Performances, which like Time Clock Piece were bound by a specific set of rules.25 His other year-long performances entailed remaining alone in a locked cell furnished only with a bed, a sink, and a pail (Cage Piece, 1978–1979); living entirely outside without entering shelter or transportation of any sort (Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982); tying himself by the waist to fellow U.S. artist Linda Montano with a rope (Rope Piece, 1983–1984); and spending one year without looking, producing, or interacting in any way with art (No Art Piece, 1985–1986).26 Hsieh always included a signed, written statement listing the rules for each piece, as well as letters from lawyers bearing proof of witness to his performances.27 These accompanied the extensive documentation of his works through photographs, films, maps, and artefacts. Time Clock Piece, 1980–1981 is no exception; together with the snapshot portraits and the time cards, Hsieh also kept a table divided by month and year, where he marks the number of times he failed to punch a time card (133 out of a total of 8,760 punches), as well as the reasons for these omissions, such as oversleeping, having a meal, punching the time card early, etc.

Siffre and Hsieh engaged in heightened examinations of time, be it living in the total absence of temporal cues or under the relentless submission of hourly tracking machinery. These self-imposed rules allowed Siffre to adapt to the most natural bodily rhythms determined by context, and in Hsieh’s case, to continuously act against them. What becomes most salient in both, however, is their formal dependency on conventions of daily segmentation. Be it by comparative omission or exaggerated enforcement, Siffre and Hsieh underscore the relatively recent human practice of conforming to international temporal measurements (such as Coordinated Universal Time, which came into effect in 1972) as well as their unusual exigencies when applied to human bodies. Siffre’s self-experiment preceded the adoption of Coordinated Universal Time by ten years, while Hsieh’s took place less than a decade after its implementation. Although not exclusively dedicated to this purpose, Siffre and Hsieh draw attention to subjective forms of adaptation to the larger social experiment of living under this new global chronology.

  1. 23

    For a detailed account of this experiment, see Michel Siffre, Beyond Time: The Heroic Adventure of a Scientist’s 63 Days Spent in Darkness and Solitude in a Cave 375 Feet Underground (London: McGraw Hill, 1964), the English translation of Michel Siffre, Hors du temps: L’expérience du 16 juillet 1962 au fond du gouffre de Scarasson par celui qui l’a vécue (Paris: Julliard, 1963). 

  2. 24

    For a detailed account of these studies, see John Rasmussen (ed.), Man in Isolation and Confinement (New Brunswick (U.S.A) and London: Transaction Publishers, 2009 [1973]), 86–97, under the section “French Cave Studies.” Siffre published multiple articles analyzing the data on underground life, both from himself and other members of his research team. Three examples from several co-authored papers include Michel Siffre et al., “L’isolement souterrain prolongé: Étude de deux sujets adultes sains avant, pendant et apres cet isolement,” Presse Médicale 74 (1966), 915–919; Jean Colin et al., “Rhythm of the Rectal Temperature During a 6-month Free-running Experiment,” Journal of Applied Physiology 25, no. 2 (1968): 170–176; and Franz Halberg et al., “Human Biological Rhythms During and After Several Months of Isolation Underground in Natural Caves,” Bulletin of the National Speleological Society 32 (1972): 89–115. 

  3. 25

    Further analysis of Time Clock Piece and Hsieh’s other One Year Performances is provided in Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (London and Cambridge: Live Art Development Agency/ MIT Press, 2009). See also Shalson, Performing Endurance, 109–145. 

  4. 26

    For more images of Time Clock Piece and Hsieh’s work, see

  5. 27

    For elaboration on Hsieh’s use of legal documentation, see Joan Kee, Models of Integrity: Art and Law in Post-Sixties America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019), 129–162.