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 Liz Kotz, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at UC Riverside.
I’m not sure how useful the concept of “time-based art” is. It lumps together things that have nothing in common, and artificially separates things that do.

For me, one of the places where this kind of practice emerged is the series of concerts that La Monte Young organized at Yoko Ono’s loft in 1960-1961. It included work by composers and musicians (Henry Flynt, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Richard Maxfield and others), with experimental dance (Simone Forti), poetry and theater (Jackson MacLow), and a sculptural installation (Robert Morris). The space was not a gallery and not a theater. Many of these “time-based” projects were indeterminate in nature and refuse to create a set sequence or control the way the audience encounters the work. The notion of “interdisciplinarity” at play was more about working in spaces between and beyond disciplines than an additive or mixed-media structure. Much of the work came out of an expanded sense of music that occurred in proximity to the visual arts.

Forti’s “Dance Constructions” were placed throughout the space, allowing audience members to walk around and among them. In “Huddle” – “a dance that’s in a way a sculpture” — a basic structure sets the piece in motion, but the specific movements and duration are generated by those doing the piece. Young’s realization of his “Compositions 1961 #1-29” entailed carefully drawing a line across the space 29 times, a process that took a several hours. Morris’s “Passageway” was a room-sized environment, a gradually narrowing spiral passageway, open five nights in a row from 9pm-midnight. These works all occur over time in a relatedly unstructured way. They allow (or even force) viewers or listeners to create their own relation to them. You focus on this, or that. You pay attention, or you get tired. You walk around, or sit still.

This proto-minimal moment of 50+ years ago still seems very relevant. I was talking with a painter friend about a work we had just seen, “Passage,” a collaboration between the filmmaker Madison Brookshire and the composer Tashi Wada, “an installation in color and sound for two 16mm projectors.” Produced by two looped 16mm films projected onto a single field, the event went on for over five hours. You could sit still and watch or walk around the space, experiencing how the mix of the two sound and light sources shifted and created different effects. The abstract field of the film created a kind of immersive, bodily experience. “It’s up front, you can’t really go there, but you naturally go into it—just like painting.”