Art and Technology
Glitching Time and Time-Based Media
“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”
—Samuel Beckett in an interview with Tom Driver,
Columbia University Forum, 1961
Time is a socio-technological system with profound organizing qualities. It feels, these days, exceedingly oppressive. There’s never enough time! For anything. Calendars are the earliest containing device with the purpose of determining a social order; the history of the Roman calendar reveals the role of international and national politics that play out across each new temporal infrastructure. Ours have been designed through the global proclamation of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 by colonial empires, the apocalyptic anxiety provocations of the doomsday clock established in 1947, the insistent instant-ness of digital time since the 1970s exacerbated by strings of video chat meetings of the last couple years, and the frenetic branding of our social/professional lives demanded by transnational corporate technology’s mediation of everyone and everything, all the time. It’s a mess.
Temporal orders produce certain affects and engagements, ideas and beliefs. Now, we find ourselves living time across different scales in different contexts, from our own physiological cycles to overnight software updates to the long term consequences of ecological well-being. The scholar Achille Membe succinctly articulates how the layering of time has become more explicit of late:
More than any other time in our brief history on Earth, we are experiencing a clash of temporalities: geological time, the deep time of those processes that fashioned our terrestrial home; historical time; and experiential time. All these times now fold in on one another. We are not used to thinking of time as simultaneous. We think of time as linear: past, present, future. So how do we begin to think about time in a way that takes these concatenations seriously?
Achille Membe, How To Develop A Planetary Consciousness
In layered time, we can get confused about which scale is leading, guiding, and why. We often don’t think about time, however, until something goes wrong. As Legacy Russell writes in Glitch Feminism (2020), “A glitch is an error, a mistake, a failure to function. Within technoculture, a glitch is part of machinic anxiety, an indicator of something having gone wrong.” As she continues across the book, the glitch therefore acts as a form of resistance. I’m suggesting it can also disrupt the gasping sense of too much, too soon, too late of time. Here’s the thing. No authoritative regime is going to suddenly grant any of us more time. To hope for more time is even, perhaps, to default again into capitalist excess. This is our time. Glitching it is a punk move to assert your own pace and engage alternatives.
Glitching produces a sense of wrongness that may be productive to countering hegemonic orders. We accept the ordering that time projects, until seeing it altered, manipulated, reset allows us to consider how our time might be conceived of differently. Artists formalize the cultural mess in their jabs at time and remind us to question what we mindlessly accept as the order of things.
In fall 2020, Sean Kelly Gallery presented the exhibition Existential Time by Joseph Kosuth, a canonical figure of conceptual art who frequently works with language, meaning, philosophy, and here brought our attention to temporality. Pandemic alienation made the show all too prescient. In contrast to many of Kosuth’s installations where words and objects intertwine, the works in Existential Time felt startlingly distinct. The eight quotes about time were spaced along the long gallery wall and none of the glow from the white neon lettering overlapped. That separation invited a slow pace, a meditative contemplation, while on the opposite wall, each 16” clock was stuffed with a similar quote and the hands spun at various rates. The rapid cycling disrupted a certain kind of self-seriousness that conceptual art can sometimes evoke and tempered the privileged pretentiousness of thinking about time in such philosophical terms. Standing between the two, I could laugh at my own effort to establish one time for all things. Time varies according to the moment.
As early as 1965, Kosuth was disrupting any stable notion of time with Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version. The five-part work presented an object, its copy, and textual definitions: a photograph of a clock in proportion to the actual clock placed next to it, and three texts on “time,” “machination/machine/machinery,” and “object” seemingly photocopied and enlarged out of an English/Latin dictionary. The work doesn’t exemplify time-based media–typically delimited to video, film, slide, audio, or computer technologies—but as conceptual art, its engagement with temporal representations and infrastructures aligns it.
Kosuth’s photograph of the clock is an indexical appeal later expanded upon by Christian Marclay in The Clock (2010), a wonderful 24 hour film excerpting displays of clocks from cinema for each moment of the day. The media work makes evident the persistent representation Marclay's media work makes evident the persistent representation of time in our lives, especially screen based lives, and its organizational influence. Time looms every minute of the day, with drives to be ever more productive, professionally and even personally. The notion of “free” time aims to distinguish it from the constant assignment of labor, except now we fill it with self-enhancing, self-improving labor. It’s never enough.
Contemporaneity is inherently an issue of time, of being with time. Typically assigned the same starting period of the 1960s, time-based media arts come to the fore with contemporary art. And yet, so was it to be modern, from the Latin modo “just now.” It is worth noting that this compulsion to be present appears as a guiding concept at the end of the Victorian period’s strictures to be timely. This modernity, this being here now, would however launch a constant disruption of that order.
Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed (Objet à détruire) (1922-3) is a metronome with a photograph of an eye on the pendulum. He would set it to go faster and faster. One day its silence irritated him and he smashed it. In 1933, he remade it but it was lost in the exigencies of World War II. A reproduction in 1958 got a new title: Indestructible Object (1933). There is no destroying what captures the cultural imagination, even if a physical artifact might be smashed, lost, exploded, or eliminated. We can bring criticality to these influential imaginaries, however, and glitch what doesn’t work for us.
Time is a knowledge regime and industrial clock time was integral to colonization. Missionaries were donated clocks by wealthy patrons to ensure that people around the world would adopt and conform to the Protestant (and capitalist) virtues of timeliness, the organizing principle behind industrial labor. Charlie Chaplin opens Modern Times (1936) with a clock to launch his somewhat comical (depending on your perspective) depiction of automation’s requirement of punctuality, the increase in speed with any form of success, and the body’s inability to match progressive machine time.
Michael Mandiberg appropriated Chaplin’s classic by hiring gig workers from Fiverr to reproduce scenes for Postmodern Times (2017). Mandiberg's new media work makes a kind of Allan Sekula-like move to position art and its practices within a social and technological history attached to labor relations. Fiverr is a global site for one-off jobs introducing an international element into this film and a reminder that industry’s response to desiring an inexhaustive labor force was to expand around the world for a 24 hour labor force. By splicing scenes together, the film also enacts the cut and paste exactitude that is crucial to film as a medium and made me consider the fracturing of thought I can accept due to the cut and paste nature of writing now.
In 1970, UNIX time provided a centralized international standard for digital timekeeping that organizes all computers when they come online, except its failure is set for January 19, 2038. If you remember Y2K, this is similar as UNIX time uses a 32 bit integer system that can't compute past a set number of seconds since the launch on January 1, 1970. I have argued elsewhere how digital time, represented in the Pulsar Time Computer wristwatch that launched in 1972, abandons duration for the instant and so atomizes our experience contributing to an alienated and hyper-individualist culture. Media culture emerged amidst that tension between centralized hierarchies and atomized individuals, and the artists of this period did wonders to showcase the effects we now decry.
Nam Jun Paik’s T.V. Clock (1963/1981) presented an electric line across 24 televisions, each screen showing one hour of the day, in an allusion to the global technocratic connectivity enabled by this device even before the global broadcasts of Our World (1967) or the moon landing (1969). Lynda Benglis interacts with a prerecorded image of herself in Now (1973), dissolving the audience’s ability to distinguish between the real and the virtual, which ironically occurs despite the fact that both are mediated. To be now, to be present, to be current is to be mediated. Even in person, we carry with us the mediated encounters of our shared histories. The static effects in color and sound of Benglis's work produce that glitch effect that problematizes the real we want to ascribe to the virtual and invokes the real that is in the virtual anyway. It’s remarkable to think that Benglis made this work 50 years ago.
The writer Jeremy Rifkin wrote in 1987 about the impact of computer programs in Time Wars, arguing that astronomical timekeeping introduced the notion of cycles, mechanical timekeeping produced the concept of fixed, linear time, and computers unraveled that for associative relations, “It is a stepchild of psychological consciousness, just as the concept of linear time was a stepchild of historical consciousness.” Mandiberg’s Quantified Self Portrait (One Year Performance) (2016-7) includes the line “I worked late, got caught in loops, and had a meltdown; zero progress, but no way to let go” which speaks to the free associative wandering that the internet encourages with hyperlinks from which we force ourselves to return to the original point. How many have bemoaned lost time in a YouTube rabbit hole. Yes, it was designed that way. The quote also points to the cultural value of the looping aesthetic found in some digital art.
The LA-based artist Raphael Arar produced a sculpture called Capitalist Clock (2022) that uses a punch card metaphor for the labor we produce through our activity on social media sites. A live search pulls idioms including "time well spent," "serve time," "time is money," "invest time," "get time off," "borrowed time," "free time," "save time," "a waste of time," "no time to lose," "best use of time" to put it into a queue. It's displayed on the LCD screen and subsequently punched in by the solenoid, registering the labor of the tweeter for the data driven economy of social media. All the components are made visible to counter the opacity of tech capitalism’s black boxes. It’s a necessary reminder for NFT-Twitter whose quasi-anarchic stance against federal bank systems and global capitalism while “shilling” their works on this data capitalist platform is, at best, ironic.
Now, I see digital artists working with blockchain producing works about a variety of temporal orders in no small part because that emergent technology introduces and establishes an entirely new system of time, eloquently described by the artist Anna Ridler. These artists are glitching this temporal order by introducing other experiences of time. They reinstate corporal somatic time (Lauren Lee McCarthy’s Good Night 2022), transform the three months of corporate dividend quarters into a gift economy (Sarah Friend, Lifeforms 2022), remember the persistent cycle of even obsolescent satellite surveillance (Xin Liu, Atlas 2022), and more. They compelled my musings on these times in which we live.
Shu Lea Cheang, LES MUTANTS, #2. Video (color, sound), 1920 × 1080 pixels. 1 minute, loop. Edition of 40, 1AP.
In an interview with The Observer, Kosuth noted how Existential Time "is a reflection on how we make meaning with the experience of our lives.” The tension between the temporal disordering caused by quarantining alongside our newly zoom-ified connectivity was perfectly present in that exhibit. Making meaning has always been hard but it has been a notably existential period for many.
To be contemporary is to be with these times, convoluted as they are. The existentialist Camus wrote amidst the disorder of World War II in 1942 that “the absurdist is one who is not apart from time.” To be here now demands acceptance of our own absurd position. To avoid the oversimplifications of optimism or pessimism, of moral grandstanding or ends-justifying-the-means solutionism requires glitching hegemonic orders, including temporal systems. Some artists working with time-based media have a particular call to do this: to glitch, to move out of tune—the root meaning of absurd, to mobilize instead their own rhythm. But, we can all find ways to glitch the temporal orders that subsume us. The times perhaps even call for it.