UNBUILDING in words

Mermaid Arts Centre, 21st Aug – 17th Oct – 2010

‘Thinking Heads rather than Talking Heads’ (Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’)

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French Philosopher Sylvere Lotringer in Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy of Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

‘When the philosopher announces a discourse on Time, we can expect the worst.’ [1]

Jean‐François Lyotard

What is your intention? is an aggressive question, which usually dumbfounds the recipient? We all want to answer with a short fluid quip, a delivery that shows that we are confident in our view of ourselves and the exterior world’s view of us. Katherine Waugh’s introduction to the screening of ‘The Art of Time’ at the Mermaid Arts Centre was revelatory in this respect. It revealed an “intention” to confront Time, that was grounded in philosophy, and which umbrellaed multidisciplinary art practices in contemporary culture. To confront Time head-on, as Waugh and her collaborator, Fergus Daly have successfully done in this documentary-film, is an achievement that cannot be measured, like the subject that they are chasing in the film. Waugh reflected on this ‘chase’ when she spoke of jet-setting artists being hard to catch – flying from LA – New York – Berlin. When caught, the artists self-reflect in their studios and living rooms about time, and the art-mode of slowing time in their practices. They seem to all at once encompass a contradiction of imagining a world in slow motion, but living a life that compresses time and space geographically and experientially. These artist are ‘urbanites’ who have either left their homeland for the art centres of the world, or are in-between places and time in order to display their work in a space that Vito Acconci says in the film, ‘has no windows’––the art gallery. Paul Virilio, with his usual lyricism, and a degree of panic added-on, gives us a “First light” view of this new world:

‘In the 18th century the by now rather shady population of Paris mushroomed and the capital became known as the New Babylon. The brightness of its lighting signaled not just a desire for security, but also individual and institutional economic prosperity, as well as the fact that ‘brilliance is all the rage’ among the new elites – bankers, gentlemen farmers and the nouveaux riches of dubious origins and careers. Whence the taste for garish lights which no lampshade could soften. On the contrary, they were amplified by the play of mirrors multiplying them to infinity. Mirrors turned into dazzling reflectors. A giorno lighting now spilled out of the buildings where it once helped turn reality into illusion — theatres, palaces, luxury hotels, princely gardens. Artificial light was in itself a spectacle soon to be made available to all, and street lighting, the democratisation of lighting, is designed to trick everyone’s eyes. There is everything from old-fashioned fireworks to the light shows of the engineer Philippe Lebon, the inventor of the gaslight who, in the middle of a social revolution, opened the Seignelay Hotel to the public so they might appreciate the value of his discovery. The streets were packed at night with people gazing upon the works of lighting engineers and pyrotechnists known collectively as impressionists’.[2]

Virilio goes on to brutally tear a hole is his description of time-past by concluding: ‘But this constant straining after “more light” was already leading to a sort of precocious disability, a blindness; the eye literally popped out of its socket’.[3] Virilio, with intentional sloth, leads us with meandering prose to abruptly wrench it away with force and speed. The slow sojourn through 18th Century Paris hits a ‘Stop’ sign! In the past we had time to ruminate, while today a sentence, a text, a word, is a stealthy substitute for the Epic.

The Brothers Quay, in Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy of Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

‘The Art of Time’ is primarily situated in the city, except in the opening passages where Venice is presented as a geographic and temporal counterpoint – a nostalgic turn of the ‘hypermodernic’ page, a time when the passage was not so fast.[4] The film’s subjects are Time and Space, and how both are being lost, imagined, spread, leveled,  or reimagined by the multidisciplinary arts. I say ‘multidisciplinary’ with some trepidation, as the term ‘temporality’, which is the ‘lynchpin’ of philosophical discourse and contemporary art and cinema, is primarily being dealt with by the moving image rather than the traditional art object per se. ‘The Art of Time’, inadvertently asks questions about the cause and effect, or lack thereof, of contemporary art on history and time, and the philosophical discourse that continues to have a growing influence on arts formal exercises in space and time, and vice versa. If we take Martin Heidegger’s view that ‘Whenever [great] art happens—that is, when there is a beginning—a push enters history, and history either starts up or starts again’; from this ontological perspective, ‘history’ and ‘time’ are ‘grounded’ and generated by art and philosophy.[5] Today’s perception of time and space is managed by technology. The film’s pessimistic note is that technological innovation is disseminating time, space and information with ever-increasing speed. Philosopher Sylvere Lotringer’s most enduring comment in the film is ‘There is no space for Time’. The philosopher makes a convincing figure in the film, presumedly sitting  in the Ivy League College where he teaches, while Waugh and Daly juxtapose his confident reasoning against the back drop of a dizzying film montage of Time Square, New York. Speed and technology is Virilio’s thesis and his theories are becoming more salient year by year. However, half a century earlier Heidegger was posing a few questions himself on technology and time:

‘We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is. Everyone knows the two statements that answer our question. One says: Technology is a means to an end. The other says: Technology’ is a human activity. The two definitions of technology belong together. For to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity. The manufacture and utilisation of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is. The whole complex of these contrivances is technology. Technology itself is a contrivance—in Latin, aninstrumentum’.[6]

Heidigger’s text, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, is fitting in the context of ‘The Art of Time’. The german philosopher’s use of the idiom, ‘A means to an end’, is pivotal to our relationship with technology. ‘A means to and end’ proposes that the process of technology is neither enjoyed nor experienced, but denied as ‘ A means’, in order to have what Heidigger calls a causal effect, which is not known or understood yet in the present. In ‘The Art of Time’, art, theatre, cinema, animation, act as moderators of speed, or more appropriately, fabricators of a technological deceleration. Heidigger goes on to write:

‘Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, “get” technology “spiritually in hand”. We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control’.[7]

Stan Douglas, ‘Overture’ 1986, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, Image here

Throughout the duration of the film there is a move by the philosophers and artists to try and place a tentative finger on the pulse of time through language and moving image. The philosophers John Rajchman and especially Sylvere Lotringer, come out on top in this sense, as clear and concise articulators of the cause and effect of technology on time. I can understand Waugh’s description of them as ‘pet-philosophers’ in her introduction to the screening. As I am not a philosopher, but an artist, I will first look at some of the artists that Waugh and Daly have chosen to represent temporality in contemporary culture.

Stan Douglas’s dialogue in ‘The Art of Time’ is more modernist than postmodernist, reiterating structuralist notions of the ‘Real’ that are more in keeping with Jacques Lacan than Gilles Deleuze. In saying that, Douglas represents the artist ‘caught in time’, reflecting back on past events in order to escape the ‘loop’ through re-representation in the present, a technique that Douglas has used since the 1980s. Speaking on his work ‘Overture’, Douglas explains:

‘”Overture” was dealing with this conflict of “mechanical time”, which is all about repetition. Machines are meant to do the same thing over and over again by spacialising a temporal process. As opposed to the more “organic time” of the subject, which is the person who comes into the gallery space, uses the images they see for a certain amount of time, and walks away when they are done with it’.[8]

This is a common theme in the film, artists using methods, such as looping and repetition, to secure time in some way or another. As the artist David Claerbout discloses, he wants to occupy the time of his audience as little as possible. This is especially ironic considering the durational aspect to his works, but can also be seen as a testament to the artists’ effort  to show that there is not enough time.  This is where art fails and succeeds all at once. Alone, art is a signifier of some kind of absence experienced by the individual making it––an obsessive exercise in method rather than functional production, the Brothers Quay are an example of this symptom in the film. Coupled with the viewer, art, especially the moving image, which is the preoccupation of ‘The Art of Time’, presents a series of events that are continually fighting against what is outside in the ‘real’ world. Virilio writes and the artist Laurie Anderson  (who was asked to be part of ‘The Art of Time’ but fell-through), comments on this phenomenon:

‘Thanks to work like that of W. R. Russell and Nathan (1946), scientists have become aware of the relationship of post-perceptual visual processes to time. The storage of mental images is never instantaneous; it has to do with the processing of perception. Yet it is precisely this storage process that is rejected today. The young American film-maker Laurie Anderson, among others, is able to declare herself a mere voyeur interested only in details; as for the rest, she says, ‘They use computers that are tragically unable to forget, like endless rubbish dumps’.[9]

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, ‘Einstein on the beach’ 1976.

In the film, Robert Wilson represents another aspect of arts slowing down of time, that is literal to the extreme. But it is a mistake to see art as a de-literalisation of the world. In fact, it is easier to recognise art as a super-literalisation of the ‘object’ and the ‘subject’ in the real world. Wilson’s collaboration with the minimalist composer, Philip Glass, produced an opera titled ‘Einstein on the Beach’, 1976. Snippets from the 1976 original is shown at sporadic moments in the film. For me, this is the winner of the race to capture time as a tautological production, that had no narrative only an ‘Icon’ and a ‘Place’. It is chance that Einstein, and not Hitler or Charlie Chaplin took the role as the Icon in the title. The ‘beach’ in the title acts like a adjunct to a non-existing narrative, a deliberate absurdity. Anti-narrativity is presented in ‘The Art of Time’ as another strategy that destabelises linear time. In a way, it would be better if the viewer was ignorant of all these modus operandi, by revealing them, the audience realises the simplicity of arts’ operations in time and space. What  the artist really wants is a viewer that is linear, in order to manipulate and confuse, momentarily bullying them in and out of time and space.

Chantal Akerman, ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

Chantal Akerman is the ‘Ethical’ chapter of ‘The Art of Time’. As a Jewish artist and a second generation survivor of the Holocaust, she exhibits an openness that is part biography––part art. She in a way separates herself from philosophical discourse, but in another sense is connected with 20th century philosophy on a humanistic level; a relationship that is experienced rather than read. Lotringer at one point of the film questions if ‘we are human enough to be humanistic’, I have to say, Akerman presents a positive case that we are. Her film ‘From the East’ perpetuates a cyclic fiction of an event that could be in real time and space. People are lined up at a Moscow train station, dressed in clothes that could be from 1950’s Germany, or 1991 (when the Wall had recently fallen but the displacement was still happening from west to east). Akerman’s subtitle for the work shows her ‘intention’ to illustrate an ‘unsure’ presentation of history in all its factual and fictional slippages: ‘Bordering on Fiction; (D’est: Au bord de la fiction). Virilio describes this displacement in Time and space as “delocalisation”:

‘With confusion setting in between the real space of action and the virtual space of retroaction, all positioning is, in fact, beginning to find itself in an impasse, causing a crisis in all position forecasting. This “delocalisation” also leads to uncertainty about the place of effective action, so that pre- positioning becomes impossible, which then undermines the whole principle of forecasting. When WHERE loses its priority to WHEN and HOW, a doubt remains–not about the effective plausibility of “virtual reality” so much as about the nature of its location and thereby about the very possibility of controlling the virtual environment’.[10]

Chantal Akerman, From the East, 1995, Film Still from ‘The Art of Time’; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly

Without a comment to give at the end of the screening of Waugh and  Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, I am left with one word – ‘beauty’. ‘Serious’ Contemporary Art doesn’t like this word, I am suspicious of it myself, it’s like the word sublime––it’s commercial, sincere and nostalgic. This is what is called Art with a capital A; the exterior force that keeps art in its place and doesn’t let it veer into the very arena that it reveals in bit-parts to the viewer, the fast-track capitalist world. Art is ‘FRAGILE’, a word that Vito Acconci uses in his disavowal of art in the film. I see Acconci’s view of art in ‘The Art of Time’ as comedic rather than damaging. In the film, he is the art jester to Lotringer’s sage. It is especially revealing when Acconci discloses his attitude to his own enduring mark on art, which was the part-authorship of the repositioning of the viewer and the art object in the gallery, events that had a pivotal role in the development of conceptualism and contemporary performance, but which he is cynical of now. Back to this word ‘beauty’, it can also mean a ruling of the heart over the head. With such philosophical intensity, which the film offered, maybe the mind shuts down for the heart to take over? A humanistic ideal, where feeling conquers intellectualism, where art is unspeakable, where life is not concerned with meaning––just being.

As I write in the first person, which seems appropriate after watching a film that was so generous in how it revealed art and philosophical perspectives on time from individual viewpoints, sometimes in the first person (the artists), and other times with objective distance (the philosophers), Waugh and Daly’s sensitive edit offered the audience a layering of perspectives and a desire to see more. These differing viewpoints shared insights that could not be revealed wading through a cryptic philosophical text. Just like Wilson and Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’, the opera would sound or appear self indulgent if one of them was missing in the work. It is with such polar views, articulations and formal expressions that sets-up questions rather than a dialectical conclusion; Waugh and Daly’s intention from the beginning. I would like to conclude where the philosopher John Rajchman (one of the interviewees in ‘The Art of Time’) begins in his article ‘Thinking in Contemporary Art’, who writes:

‘I’d like to start from the principle that there is no art – and in particular, no ‘contemporary art’ – without a search for new ideas of art, of what it is and of its particular relations with thinking itself. For what is new is in fact not what is in fashion, but what we can’t yet conceive, can’t yet see, or have the sure means to judge’.[11]

Vito Acconci, Film Still from ‘The Art of Time’; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

Rajchman’s simple premise for a meeting between ‘thinking’ and ‘art’ is succinct perfection. His use of the word ‘fashion’ in the context of art is usually voiced by the begrudger. Indeed, it could be added that ‘fashionable’ trends in art could be the tell-tale sign that the art work is already stale, rather than fresh. ‘Fashion’ could also be a signifier for money and capital, and the involuntary disappearance of the trend before it is consumed, the last hurrah. It is apt that ‘The Art of Time’ begins in Venice where you can imagine Virilio’s ‘lanterns’ still lighting and ‘Art’ being a very different thing than its contemporary equivalent. Maybe Acconci’s position is correct, one that has evolved from being digested over and over in books and reappraisals. As he said himself, people were doing what I was doing in the gallery ten years earlier–in the streets. Maybe arts continual ‘distribution of the sensible’, digestion and reworking through discourse is its own undoing. Or, this is our ‘intention’, and art should be undid before it gets ahead of itself, and is left to its own devices in the big bad capitalist world, its chief and consort.

In ‘The Art of Time’, Waugh and Daly have directed and produced a film that questions the “lynchpin” that holds the fabric of philosophy, art, music, the event, life and death together. This “Lynchpin” is Time, and what an exhilaratingly elusive thing it is!

James Merrigan is an artist

Works cited

[1]   Jean‐François Lyotard, ‘Emma’, in Misère de la philosophie, Paris: Galilée, 2000, 57‐95, p. 68.

[2]   Paul Virillo, The Vision Machine, Trans: Chris Turner, Verso books, New York, 2000,  p. 9.

[3]   Ibid., p. 10.

[4]   Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society), Sage Publications Ltd; 1 edition (November 13, 2000).

[5]   Martin Heigegger,  Poetry, Language, Thought. A. Hofstadter, trans. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

[6]   Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, Harper Perennial, 1992.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Stan Douglas, from ‘The Art of Time’, film by Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh, 2010.

[9]   Paul Virillo, The Vision Machine, op.cit. p 11.

[10]   Paul Virilio, ‘The Art of the Motor’, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 133-156.

[11]   John Rajchman, Thinking in Contemporary Art, For Art Journal, The Institute for research within International Contemporary Art, Date ?

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Written by James Merrigan

October 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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