The giornate, an art historical term referring to the amount of work an artist could do in a single day, factors the capricious nature of the materials used into the equation. Essential to the technique of Buon fresco mural painting, the giornate is calculated by setting the physical energy the artist has against the time it takes for the wet plaster she or he is painting on to dry. The word fresco means ‘fresh’ and indeed a good state of freshness or liquidity is essential to the process, in which the paint binds to the plaster only once it dries. The amount of plaster applied to the wall each day was the giornate, with the fresco itself divided into sections, so that a day’s work would end at an edge (the outline of a face, draping or some other object). This ensured that the difference between each day’s work – the drying marks – would not be visible. A measurement of human labour is thus embedded in artwork dating from the fourteenth century.

In everyday usage, the phrase ‘a day’s work’ might simply signal the end of a task. However, it could also be the amount of paid labour you need in order to survive. The quantification and value of a day’s work became a pressing issue during the industrial revolution. By the late 1800s, as factory production became increasingly mechanised, humans laboured alongside machines that could run all day and night. Often expected to work for up to 18 hours at a time, workers fought for a legal definition of a day’s work, with the Ford Motor Company (in 1914) the first to establish a limit of eight hours. This had a surprising outcome: increased productivity.

Industrial mechanisation also changed the relation to the object being worked on, which might now be divided into small parts, distributed along an assembly line. Workers along this line would perform the same repetitive tasks, as if they themselves had been automatised. Time and motion studies, such as those conducted at the end of the nineteenth century by Frederick W. Taylor, governed their movements. The 21st century worker, caught between the benefits of flexible working practices and zero hour contracts, alongside new ideas about productivity that take rest and leisure into account, also operates in an environment where (self) tracking and the daily measurement of physical efficiency is widespread.

No longer solely subject to the limits of materials or technology, a day’s work never ends because everything is work. In this climate, artists might choose to employ themselves unproductively, so to speak; to think about wasting or using time differently, with the idea that they might claw back some of their own time, time that is not subject to calculation and not immediately subsumed under current, all pervasive, systems of value extraction. Thus the giornata might involve little more than a trip to the studio and back – a cigarette or coffee whilst there, perhaps. Time snatched for thinking and for failure as well as, hopefully, for end points when the work is done and something is completed.