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 Nora Alter, Chair and Professor of Film and Media Arts at Temple University.
Don Delillo’s 2010 novelPoint Omega opens and closes with a lengthy meditation by a nameless character on Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, 1993. The first section plunges the reader into a detailed observation of Gordon’s video-sculpture as it was installed on the sixth floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in September 2006. An anonymous man (who turns out to be the narrator) describes the darkened, seatless setting in which he encounters the work, the impassive guards, the bewildered tourists, and the effect of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 suspense film re-projected as a twenty-four-hour-long art work. In particular, DeLillo’s narrator ponders the effects of slowness, the changes in perception brought about by the manipulation of the speed of projection. He contrasts the conventional understanding of Hitchcock’s classic to the meanings produced by Gordon’s version in which every movement is amplified and each detail made more apparent. This is at the core of what separates art and entertainment, muses Delillo’s protagonist. The difference between an art installation and a Hollywood movie has largely to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows down and complicates viewing in order to challenge the spectator to rethink and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment does the opposite–accelerating and simplifying viewing so that the observer before the spectacle does not have to think about or feel very much of anything at all.
From the point of view of the protagonist in Point Omega, 24-Hour Psycho underscores the concept of time in the cinematic. However, one integral component of the time-based medium of film is left out of this equation: sound. The latter is an element that, since 1927 at least, has been mobilized to measure, regulate, order, suture, and structure movement. But sound, unlike images, is much more difficult to slow down, to speed up, or to still, without a significant loss of coherency and a fundamental alteration of meaning. This, presumably, is why Gordon felt the need to project 24-Hour Psycho silently. Sound is unforgiving. It is the time-based sense, reliant on movement for its existence. As the narrator reflects in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1991 Allemagne 90 neuf zero (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero):
Peut–on raconteur le temps, le temps en-lui meme? Non, en verite ce serait une folle enterprise. Ce serait a peu pres comme si l’on voulait tenir pendant une heure une seule et meme note ou un accord, et comme si on voulait faire passer cela pour de la musique. [Can one recount time: time as such, in and of itself? No, in truth it would be an insane undertaking. A bit like holding one single note or chord for an hour, and trying to pass it off as music.]
The question I want to pose at this conference is: What is lost (or gained as the case may be) when the ephemeral, movement- and time-based phenomenon that is sound is framed, channeled, and put on display in an art context?