MAKING TIME: Darsie Alexander

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium MAKING TIME: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage taking place from April 19-21, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “what does the phrase ‘time-based art’ mean to you?” in advance of the event. This posting is by Darsie Alexander, Chief Curator of Walker Art Center. 

The phrase “time-based art” suggests a bygone era when ephemerality, duration, and process were the attributes of a radical new art that found its outlet through performance and its documentation through the camera. “Time-based” conjures the live experience attempting to find a permanent form in something tangible (and also, preferably, “time-based”) like a photograph or raw video footage. These two things — the live performance and the documentation it engenders — have inherently different relationships to time, of course.  A performance (dance, spoken word, improvisational jazz, etc.) can expand or accelerate time, occurring in relationship to the human clock ticking off the minutes in states of rapture, boredom, or distraction. The camera deployed to document these events parses time in increments, measuring time or “freezing” time for posterity (i.e. another time). Many sixties event-based artists hated having their work calcified by the camera, arguing that “there is probably no defense against the malevolent powers of the photograph to convert every visible aspect of the world into a static, consumable image” (Robert Morris, “The Present Tense of Space,” first published in Art in America in 1978). Live or “time-based art” was designed to be experiential and resistant to commodification, and therefore the marketplace.  Time was not something that could be bought and sold, only inadequately “captured.”
The struggle over how to navigate documentation (physically? philosophically?) seems to have subsided today, however, as our relationship to recording time has become so much more casual and fluid. Instantaneous streaming, blogging, Twitter feeds, etc. allow live events to be experienced as they occur through an array of simultaneous platforms activated by media-savvy participants/observers. Has the availability and ease of live image-capture disturbed the “allure” of firsthand experience?  Certainly there’s not the pressure to witness “time-based” events in person as there once was in a pre-digital era. At the same time, it could be argued that sharing an experience – be it in the theater, gallery environment, or alternative site — has taken on even greater meaning in this climate of enhanced mediation. Maybe the best way to understand “time-based art” today is to imagine the state of being together in time (and space) rather than a particular genre that now feels decidedly historical.