Counterclockwise: on Marclay’s Clock (2012)

As promised, the summary of what I spoke about at the Power Plant, October 7, 2012 regarding Christian Marclay’s The Clock. More elaborations to come, but I trust this will provide critical entry points for now. This is a work-in-progress, many areas not completely fleshed out yet. Comments welcome.

Recording here.


The Clock has to be dealt with because of its monumentality and scale, which immediately inscribes it into (art) history and ensures that it will constitute a benchmark for future investigations.

PROVISO: Independent of value judgments regarding The Clock, the work offers the opportunity to deal with certain problems and to examine certain contemporary conditions, or pathologies more accurately. It has its use-value in that sense.

3 aspects: tensions between coexisting conceptions of time, the status of appropriation and the montage in late capitalism, and (briefly) the institutional framing of the work.


Not the first 24 hour work: Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho and Leif Inge’s 9 Beet Stretch (recently presented at Nuit Blanche, Toronto 2012 edition). The experiences made possible by these new works are predicated on prior relationships with the originals (Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony respectively). These new works exist in a constant push and pull tension with them.

Seemingly insignificant details are dilated into monumental events, climaxes are defused, post-climactic letdowns drag on interminably and invite perceptual sinkholes and distracted thought, anticipation and apathy, unfocus and attention all coexist and never leave each other’s company for long. And all the while, only a part of the narrative will be available to the viewer.

In contrast, The Clock is throughcomposed, constructed by fragments from thousands of pilfered filmic and televisual materials, none of which repeat. However, despite the lack of material repetition, the work is animated by editing rhythms which are themselves repetitive (it’s as if Marclay’s 1995 work Telephones, 6 minutes long, is replicated on a 24-hour scale).

The Clock is not the first film with REAL-TIME as a subject: High Noon (1952), Timecode (2000) and the TV show 24 (with a loss of 18 minutes every hour, when the narrative lets its too-full content spill into commercial-time) are a few precedents. Despite claims made as to the coincision of the time of the film to real-time, High Noon performs certain elisions and compressions (100 minute narrative-time is compressed into 85 minutes of actual time). Timecode compresses four interlocking narratives within one frame, all shot simultaneously (4 cameras, at times overlapping) without a single cut.


Henri Bergson (1859-1941) distinguished two kinds of time:

Clock time = QUANTITATIVE, SPATIAL, MEASURABLE, HOMOGENEOUS. Think of temporal divisions (seconds, milliseconds, any division) like pearls on a string—each one occupying a discrete position, a separation which makes COMPARISON possible.

Bergson took great pains to insist that the spatialization of time was a fundamental error and instead proposed his concept of lived time, “durée” (duration):

Duration = QUALITATIVE, CONTINUOUS, FLUX, NON-MEASURABLE, PROCESS. Time stretches and compacts itself as a result of the interaction of external stimuli with internal states. As we have all experienced, time passes differently when in action than in repose. In Bergson’s conception of time, nothing retains self-identity over time. Life is change itself. Due to the continuous INTERPENETRATION of temporal layers, it is impossible to nail down (spatialize) the boundaries of any particular duration.

More simply, clock time is EXTERNAL (something imposed on our bodies and minds), while duration is INTERNAL.

(For a much more detailed and nuanced elucidation on Bergsonian temporality, see Elizabeth Grosz “The Nick of Time“, Chapter 7.)

Clock time is intrinsically associated with labour, work time. This is Steven Shaviro speaking about Tehching Hsieh‘s One-Year Performance 1980-1, which constituted of the punching of a time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year:

“The time clock is an artifact of the workplace, after all. It doesn’t just measure time. It changes the way we experience time’s passage. It divides the day into small, precise, homogeneous units. These units accumulate, one after another. So much time equals so much work equals so much money. Pick up your paycheck at the end of the week. Work time is not our time. It is alien to our bodies. It takes no heed of the rhythms by which we wake and sleep, and have sex and eat and go to the bathroom. But still, we must submit ourselves to this mechanical time. It’s part of the discipline of having to work for a living. Hsieh took up this discipline in his own performance. He chose to do what most of us cannot choose not to. He reduced his life to work, and nothing but work.”

Think of the Time and Motion studies carried out in Fordist England, carrying out careful measuring of the time it takes to accomplish a specific task, and the motions that compose it, with an eye on improving efficiency. (Combining the Time Study work of Frederick Winslow Taylor with the Motion Study work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth).

Or think about the melting of bells in the Revolutionary France of the 1790s. Bells were traditionally associated with the life of a community (births, deaths, seasonal events), church and rural time, marking the passage of  longer spans of time. Clocktowers would now mark out the progress of the day as rationally divided time. (Hegarty, A Chronic Condition: Noise and Time)

THE CLOCK reflects a Western world of total control and administration: time is the mechanism that binds one to a rational order.

Bergsonian duration has affinities with cinematic time, remembering that cinema began in the late 19th century while Bergson was elaborating his theories—with the proviso that Bergson himself thought cinema was externalizing and spatializing (his opposition centered on the materiality of the film strip, 24 spatially discrete frames per second), and thus incapable of producing durational time.

Since Bergson, Gilles Deleuze (especially in Cinema 1 and 2) and Mary Ann Doane (in The Emergence of Cinematic Time), among others, have reconciled durée with cinematic time, taking the illusion of the persistence of vision for granted, and focusing on the viewer’s relationship with the projected image. (How one might reconcile this conception with more materialist/structuralist conceptions of film—which return perception to the material conditions and apparati which produce the illusion—is the subject of a much longer digression.)

Bergson: “With intensity, measure is lost”. Time is experienced as a tactile material: viscous, sludgy, solid, aetherial.

Where are the Bollywood clocks, some of Marclay’s assistants wondered, befuddled. If that question had been pursued, the Western/Caucasian bias of The Clock might have had to be uncomfortably negotiated. Non-Western cultures have other relationships with time which might not fit the spatialized conception.

(Denzel Washington appeared frequently in the 8 hours I witnessed—the most prominent non-White figure in that period whose potential for illustrating cultural difference is neutralized by his character’s continuous race against the clock, in the expedient films of Tony Scott).

Both conceptions of time, though opposed on the face of it, coexist in our daily lives (each gains power from resisting the other).

I’m certainly not suggesting that cinema’s capacity to act as refuge from mechanized time should be idealized. (After all, the maintenance of a space where internal time can take hold is extremely useful within late capitalism. One only need spend a few hours in the darkened room to recover enough internal energy to reenter the world of total administration).

(Not to mention that the invocation to “discover your inner time” as a resistance to universalizing clock time implies the separation of individuals from one another and the obscuring of what might constitute a shared basis for collective action.)


Indeed, THE CLOCK ATTEMPTS TO SUBMIT CINEMATIC TIME TO CLOCK TIME through the coincision of subject matter (clocks, nothing but clocks, visualizing clock time) with a context which makes possible durational, internal, (cinematic) time. Marclay seems to be suggesting (consciously or not) that there is no possible escape from clock time, so why not embrace it. Enjoy your symptoms, pace Zizek.

But we are already highly regulated individuals. How many times have you stirred into consciousness exactly one minute before your alarm was to toll, in order to shut it off in time? (The fact that I can consistently preempt it by one minute is proof that my body has become enslaved to a conception of time which is external to it.)

THE TYRANNY OF THE TIMELINE: This forcing of one into the other is something that we do all the time, thanks to DIGITAL technologies: the timeline in Youtube (and any other media player) measures time SPATIALLY. You always know what position you occupy in the whole. On DVD / CD players, you see the seconds advancing in equal, spatialized increments. Cage’s 4’33″ also impels this chronometric counting, by virtue of its title and the stopwatch used in the performance of the three movements of the work. (Seth Kim-Cohen has talked about this in In the Blink of an Ear.) SoundCloud makes instantly available – in the blink of an eye – the entire waveform of each soundfile.

The first 20 minutes of my experience with The Clock were strange. I couldn’t understand why the onscreen clock was lagging behind real-time to that extent. It had to be 8:40 at least, yet the time was moving granitically forward in the image: 8:33…8:34…8:35. I was wrong of course. The time on screen was perfectly synchronized with my cellphone time. It’s just that cinematic, durational time had taken hold of me the minute I entered the dark room and the welter of details present in each clip had to be negotiated as such, their density overwhelming, accelerating my sense of clock time. (Another viewer might have felt a slowdown of clock time in relationship with screen activity). We’re always evaluating how long it takes to do something. Performing our own time and motion studies. The distortion of time we’re experiencing in cinematic time is always a distortion of the normalized standard of clock time which Westerners have more or less internalized. (“That was a fast five minutes.”) Given that the experience of duration is one which has no spatializing measure, it’s somewhat difficult to manage in this day and age.

The acceleration I felt happened because each clip seemed to offer a surcharge of virtual potential ripe for actualization, but almost always impeded by the incursion of the next clip, equally alive with possibility. After 20 minutes, I had been fully indoctrinated into clock time. (Notice how this short circuiting takes place while you’re slowly synching up your internal clock with the onscreen clock.)

Even HIGH NOON isn’t accurate. Cinematic time still wins over. Why are cinematic countdowns never as accurate as they could be? Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to map clock time onto the spatialized cutting board (or the blocks of files in any digital non-linear editing system (sound or image) today). But cinematic time is not clock time and so even the presence of real-time as a subject need not be enacted chronometrically.

For the first project in my Video in the Expanded Field class at York University, I asked students to make two one-minute videos, both shot in one take without edits, and without any temporal stretching or compression. The catch was that I wanted one of the videos to enact a conception of “expanded time”, the other “compressed time”.(Interestingly, the ones which used clocks were still subjected to strange temporal, durational distortions, because there was room to manoeuvre within the duration/frame. Room for anticipation (of the secondhand coming full circle) and boredom.) After a period of looking at many of these propositions, the idea of arriving at a consensus as to which video expressed either state became a laughable venture—one conception could easily flip into the other. Internal time can’t be generalized into a standard measure (for it would become spatialized time once again).

In The Clock, Marclay keeps you moving from one clip to another, never long enough to establish a bodily, internal sense of time. Each clip effectively SYNCHS YOU UP with the clock, keeps you from drifting. (One exception: Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt watching the entire last minute of his working life elapse between 4:59 and 5:00 PM, the longest take of the entire 24 hours).

The work of Oswald Store, a video installation artist who worked in the American Southwest in the early 70s, provides a potentially compelling counterpart to The Clock. His work November 22 1963 12:30 5:30 PM CST ABC WFAA CBS NBC consists of the coverage (on the three major US networks) of the first five hours following the shooting in Dallas of John F. Kennedy, synchronized on three television monitors.

The three sets of coverage are fraught with temporal inconsistencies (which Store occasionally notes in the coverage breakdown in the published catalogue for the work, not without humor), mostly due to the inability of information to be successfully relayed, to mistakes made by broadcasters under severe stress (time zone errors, inaccurate reports, inability to read a clock properly etc.). (The palpable instability of communication relays is heartening to watch, and somewhat shocking in this era of ubiquitous, horizontal media—another way in which Store’s work anticipates current art discourse around failure). Mostly, this work asks what it means to reconcile two conceptions of time, one inflexible and impermeable (accuracy for the history books), the other radically embodied, subjected to intense emotional and somatic inflection, of consequently varied quality, from the painfully slow trickle of anticipatory time in the first hour to its suspension once the news of JFK’s death hits, to lapses and inertias which bore holes into continuous time as the effects of the event sink in and repetitive information becomes too much to bear. (While today’s media world “keeps the energy up” by providing constant distraction, the affective sinkholes jointly produced by trauma and technical insufficiency are given time to expand, take hold in our viewing bodies.)

Store’s work engages in a radical exploration of affect avant-la-lettre (affect studies now being a cutting-edge research area), by attempting to induce in the viewer a complex concoction of intense emotional conditions, infused by anticipation, dread, shock, disbelief, which cannot but trouble one’s sense of time.


Appropriation (the stealing of materials from prior cultural projects) has long been a key contestational strategy within art, in its potential to subvert the function of cultural commodities and perform a critique of mass media: the Situationists’ Détournement; William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-ups of newspapers stories enabling the “future to leak out”; the Pictures Generation appropriation of the language and materials of advertising, low-cultural images— Richard Prince, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman.

But CAPITALISM THRIVES on RECYCLING: “culture jamming” is now research & development for advertising—ADBUSTERS uneasily straddling the dividing line. The political capital of disruptive sit-ins and anti-institutional performance art are warped into spectacular flash mobs which disempower.

(to be continued…)

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