Lisa Hsiao Chen

“The sort of tragicomic concept of the quote-unquote project is one of the things my novel grapples with.”

Lisa Hsiao Chen was one of our guests to our first Lab roundtable. She shared an excerpt from her debut novel, Activities of Daily Living, published in 2022.

The novel is partly about the durational artist Tehching Hsieh. A short video about his Time Clock Piece (1980-81) is available here. 

Making Time 

The Artist made a film of Time Clock Piece. It’s stitched together from photographs he’d taken of each time he stood in the same spot when he punched the clock every hour on the hour for an entire year——a total of eight thousand six hundred and twenty-seven clock punches. (He missed a hundred and thirty-three of them.)

The film works like time-lapse photography: one hour is collapsed into one second, so the Artist appears to be shuddering slightly in place, the creases and wrinkles in the gray uniform he wore every day rippling as though a parasite were crawling underneath the surface of the cloth. His hair sprouts from his shaved head and grows past his shoulders. Next to him is the punch clock itself, the hour and minute hands spinning wildly around the dial like an out-of-control time machine. From beginning to end the film is about six minutes long. 

When life is reduced to its minimum, he said, time emerges. 


Alice at the bodega, deliberating over brands of beer and distracted by the resident cat, gray with yellow eyes, licking furiously between his toes on top of a stack of delivery boxes. Near the register a customer called out his order for a ham sandwich on a roll, pickles, provolone, no onions. She was late for a dinner party at Nobu’s. His latest project involved collecting grocery lists that he’d found during his walks through the city. He’d buy the items on the list and take photographs of each arrangement. The dinner party was a way to use up all the perishables he’d accumulated——eggs, nopales, half-and-half, tomatoes——before they went bad.

“I’m making the food up,” he warned Alice. “It’s too crazy for a real recipe.”

Alice told Nobu that the project made her think of the gig economy shoppers she sometimes saw at the grocery store, identified by the cheerful carrot on their polo shirts and the intensity with which they stared at their phones and raced from one display to another.
“Except, of course, you’re not getting paid and no one’s expecting to receive your groceries on the other end.” 

“Maybe I do gig shopping if my art doesn’t sell,” Nobu said. Was he joking? Sometimes it was hard to tell with him; his aspect was generally absurdist, which both charmed and mystified her. Alice wasn’t sure how Nobu made a living. She knew he sometimes taught art classes to children and earned a commission here and there. The children, he once told her with good-natured resignation, made fun of his English. 

She’d first met him years ago at an after-party for a mutual friend’s art opening. At the time she was working on a photo project (since abandoned) of chairs discarded in the streets of the city. They talked for a long time about their shared admiration for the artist Yuji Agematsu’s miniature trash dioramas——exquisite mucks of hair, gum, candy wrappers, and dead bugs that the artist, a pack-a-day smoker, found on his daily perambulations, then arranged in the cellophane sleeves of cigarette packs. 

Earlier that morning, Alice had read a news item about a New Jersey woman who’d been found dead in her car in a convenience store parking lot. There was no foul play: at the time of her death, the woman was working three part-time shifts for a donut conglomerate that used workplace efficiency software to configure her schedule. She worked mornings at the Newark train station, overnights in Linden, and weekends in Harrison, bagging crullers, mixing iced macchiatos, warming up chicken biscuits and ham and cheese flatbreads, for $8.25 an hour. On the day she died, the woman did what she often did——crank her car seat back so she could catch a short nap between shifts, keeping the engine running for the heat. Except this time a gas can overturned in the cargo hold of her SUV. 

Was this a death by algorithm? For the purposes of the Project, Alice had been researching the effects of sleep deprivation. As a method of torture, sleep deprivation goes way back, at least to the sixteenth century. The Scots found it useful to shake out the witches among them. It was standard operating procedure in Stalin’s gulag. In Guantánamo, it went by the code name Operation Sandman. 


Three days into Time Clock Piece, the Artist would have begun feeling the effects of lack of sleep. First, a fog descends. As his brain mulched, the slightest irritant would set him on edge. Next, delirium seeps in like gas in a windowless room. As the months wore on, the Artist would have found it harder and harder to keep his eyes open, and when they were open, his dulled brain would barely be able to process the sensory information his eyes took in. 

Which was why he eventually had to rig a system of twelve alarm clocks to go off all at once. Still, that was not enough. He set the alarm on his wristwatch next to a microphone and attached that to a loudspeaker. Still managed to sleep through more than a hundred clock-ins.


When we sleep, we can’t work, we can’t shop, we can’t eat or drink, we can’t download, surf, or stream; our movements can’t tracked be by a global positioning system; the movement of our eyeballs can’t be mined for data. Human beings used to sleep an average of eight hours a night; now it’s down to six and a half. 

The punch clock was invented in 1888 by an American, a jeweler who lived in Auburn, a town off the tip of the Finger Lakes. From her volunteer gig, Alice recognized Auburn from the return addresses on the envelopes sent by people in prison.

When the clock was invented, time was too.

Although the Artist’s dreams were constantly being interrupted, his dream life was where he experienced the greatest freedom from the project, even when the dreams were bad. I dreamt I didn’t want to be an artist anymore. Many times my dreams were about my illegality and the immigration authorities trying to catch me. Or sending me back to Taiwan, and I would try to cross the Mexican border to come back again. 

Punch clocks aren’t necessarily punched anymore. The new systems are biometric: you clock in by submitting your fingerprint, finger vein, palm vein, iris, or retina. Sometimes it’s your entire face. 

Time monitoring with a human touch is how one manufacturer puts it. Which is some bullshit. With biometric time clocks, you can’t, for example, punch in for a friend who is running late because of a child’s doctor’s appointment or who is hungover with his head over a toilet.


The punch clock did not invent time but its surveillance.


You could be friends with someone in New York and for years and never see the inside of their apartment. The dinner party was the first time Alice had been to Nobu’s. It was a dark one-bedroom railroad that he shared with a roommate in Ridgewood. The guests were piled around the aluminum table in the kitchen. Yusef Lateef’s light-footed Eastern Sounds blew from a laptop. Alice sat nearly in the lap of a woman in a scalloped white dress that reminded her of cake frosting. The woman was showing Alice her favorite app against wasting time. 

“First, you set a timer,” she explained in a vaguely Slavic accent, displaying her phone. “Then, look, you can see, this tree sprouts on your screen. What is so cool,” the woman continued, “is that the app is connected to a real-life tree farm—in Chile, I believe. The more time you spend on your activity, the more trees get planted.” 

“What happens if you get distracted?” Alice asked. 

“The tree, it gets sick and dies until there is nothing but a dead stump.” The woman shrugged. “I maybe kill an entire forest shopping for shoes and doing Tinder.” 

“Is there a version with a garden?” Nobu asked. His glasses were fogged up from the pot boiling on the stove, which made him look like a mad scientist. “I’d rather grow vegetables.” 


The same year the punch clock inventor filed a patent, a Buffalo man became the first person to be legally executed by electric chair. The theory was that being shocked with a high-voltage electrical current would be less painful and more humane than death from hanging. But it took two tries and eight minutes for the man to die. 


The first execution by electric chair took place in 1890 at Auburn State Prison, the second oldest state prison in New York. Auburn was also the first penal institution in the world to profit from prison labor. Historically, the men imprisoned at Auburn made clothes, shoes, boots, nails, carpets, buttons, carpentry tools, combs, harnesses, brooms, and buckets. They manufactured steam engines and boilers. 

They also made clocks. 

People on death row aren’t allowed to enroll in educational or vocational classes. This is because they’re understood to have no future, so such classes would be a waste of taxpayer money. 
But at San Quentin, the men on death row are permitted to take one type of class: art. 

The Artist is often asked how much he suffered to make the piece. He replied that he didn’t suffer. I have pleasure to do the piece. Some who have written about Time Clock Piece point out how exhausted the Artist looks. Yet when Alice looks closely at the Artist’s face——in the film, in the photo stills——she doesn’t see it. What she sees is the will of a man stitching himself into time. Only after the piece was completed was the Artist disconsolate. He felt that way after all his pieces ended, he said, because it meant returning to the life of an ordinary man. ❑


The sort of the tragicomic concept of the quote-unquote project is one of the things my novel grapples with, and the project being this thing that many of us work on that isn't remunerated for financially, but is sort of our soul.

And what do we do with this thing, this project that we want to make, that we can’t seem to not make or maybe feels scarily sometimes that we can all too easily discard because it’s like, this isn’t being——I'm not getting paid for this, et cetera, et cetera. 

So how do we make our project time, our art time, essential, not only for ourselves, but for a lot of our friends who make art and are always kind of waffling? How much time they’re able to spend on it, how much they want to pursue it . . . It strikes me as a lot of the caregiving that artists and editors give to each other, because we’re sometimes the only people cheering each other on through the really hard patches. So I think the Artist is really great to think of for that because of his intense devotion to his own work, which was largely ignored at the time that he was making it.

A photo of a black and white cat sitting on a wooden stool. A pink and blue party hat is drawn on it's head and the year 2023 is written in blue next to it.
Lisa Hsiao Chen is the author of Mouth (Kaya Press) and Activities of Daily Living (W.W. Norton), a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and Gotham Book Prize; longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize and the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction; and selected by the New Yorker and Vogue as a Best Book of 2022. Born in Taipei, she lives in Brooklyn.