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Almost Anything Can be a Clock

I asked my friend, the artist Steve Bishop, to write some words on my film 'Memory Foam' and he very kindly did so. This is what he wrote.

The oldest surviving prehistoric art object made by humankind’s Palaeolithic ancestors are rock carvings consisting of round indents, called ‘cupules’, which have been found on every continent except Antarctica. The oldest known example is the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, created at some point between 290,000 BCE and 700,000 BCEin Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh state in India. These predate the earliest ‘painting’, which dates 70,000 years back, found on the walls of Blombos Cave in South Africa in 2018. Scraped and chipped out of rocks, these marks are relatively common, sometimes consisting of one or more outer rings surrounding an inner cup. Little is known about what these marks were intended for, other than they appear not to be utilitarian, or the result of some other process such as grinding or milling. They might not even be art, at least when judged by today’s ideas of what art is. Still, their ubiquity across the globe suggests that the desire to make these marks was somehow a shared exercise, intrinsic to our ancestors, a global aesthetic shared across the planet, almost telepathic in its universality.

In the year 2023, a bored person sat on the toilet pulls out their phone without thinking and resumes their instant connection to the billions of the rest of humanity spread over the globe. This form of connection is now a kind of reflex, something we do without thinking, a subconscious muscle memory of getting a computer out of a pocket and looking at it. Free from modern technology, the caveman in Jack Jelfs’s video Memory Foam is oblivious to the context in which he is placed. Blissfully unaware of all modern technology, including social media, the caveman is portrayed underneath a layer of continuous slick video effects that infiltrate the screen and float on top in an attempt to distract us. Viewers passively watch the caveman’s daily routine which includes getting food (hunting seems to have more integrity than ordering from Deliveroo) and getting intoxicated. The lack of structure of a Palaeolithic life makes life seem so beautifully simple. Cut back to the toilet, and I see a post on Instagram that reads, ‘If we stripped away the familiarity of daily life, a trip to the supermarket, a place where pre-grown food sits alongside tens of thousands of available items waiting to be taken home, we would be simply overwhelmed with joy.’

This lack of joy when doing a weekly shop is a defence mechanism that occurred during humankind’s evolution and is as intrinsic to being human as is our shared behaviour of laughter. Our brain subconsciously constantly filters out stimuli without us even realising it. Had it not done so we would have been incapable of functioning as our brains would be constantly overloaded with a chaotic array of full-scale information coming at us at all times. Had we been stunned by the vast arrays of food in the aisles every time we went to the supermarket, we would be susceptible to tripping over or being eaten by prey in our distracted state, let alone actually buying anything. Without boredom we would never learn or adapt to our surroundings.

Another example is how our eyes see a small section of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light, whereas some animals see a wider spectrum, edging into infra-red and ultraviolet. The ability to detect such wavelengths helps them avoid prey and find food, whereas for a past ancestor of humankind it would have been counterproductive or unnecessary for survival. We didn’t need to see infra-red, and equally we didn’t need to see radio waves. Radio 4’s frequency of 92.5–96.1 MHz and the colour blue are both part of the same spectrum; both are waves of electromagnetism, except one of them we can detect with our bodies and the other we can’t. If you nudge your radio’s dial away from Radio 4 and hear static in between stations, that static is partly made up of cosmic microwave background radiation. We are constantly surrounded by this, but it never benefitted us to hear this constant chatter and so our brains evolved in a way that shields us from it.

The ending of Memory Foam is the ending of the universe itself – that of a ‘heat death scenario’. Heat death is the logical theoretical conclusion of the second law of thermodynamics, where all energy in the universe will become totally ordered to a point when there is no deviation, and after all of the estimated 200 billion trillion stars have exploded for the last time, the universe will become the same temperature absolutely everywhere. At one point during Memory Foam, a decomposing bird is shown and the narrator tells us how ‘almost anything can be a clock’; the arrow of time only goes in one direction, and the breakdown of the bird’s organic matter homogenising and becoming absorbed into the soil sets us on this journey to the end. It is the part of the journey that we can see and experience. Our experience being just a small slice of a total so vast we can’t comprehend it. Instead, we all go together to the supermarket, marked with decision paralysis over which Dorset cereal we should get, and then sigh when we see even an iota of a queue.


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