Thinking back on time

Like John Wood (Deaf School and Goldsmiths) said “It’s all about time!”.

Perhaps more recently networks have afforded a better framework with which to understand relational temporalities, but nevertheless a lot of my research remains about time. And since a number of projects have popped up recently in which time is a central concern I’ve decided to recover five pieces of ‘critical design’ that pointed to the legacy of a clock-orientated society.

There are a few papers dotted between the pieces, some written over ten years ago so forgive their simplicity!

The Looking Clock, 1999

Ricoeur’s ‘the time of the soul’ and ‘time of the world’ have become one of many mechanisms to explore what the impact and clock time has had on us as a society, and whilst we may criticise and explore the resulting tensions and slippages few attempts have been made to reconcile some of the consequences. The ©Looking Clock is a digital art piece that could function as a product but at present represents an alternative to delivering time and ultimately moving between lived time and universal time.

The ©Looking Clock

Very simply it is an analogue clock that only reveals the time and continues working when a person is looking at it. Once a person moves away from it, then the clocks movement stops immediately. However, as soon as another person looks at it, it restarts and quickly catches up with universal time.

As a consequence of the experience of using the Looking Clock a number of changes occur in the relationship between ourselves and our notions of time. Immediately it becomes clear that it is now the job of the clock to tell us THE time and not for us to understand and catch up with it. This empowers ourselves in the traditional equation of universal time over lived time, and although we do not replace or reinvent the ‘time of the world’, our ‘time of the soul’ becomes acknowledged and I would suggest elevated to the same status.

In the process of arriving at the clock and observing the hands move to catch up with itself, we also expand the time between the instants of it being used to tell the time which must be the present, and enable ourselves to acknowledge history and future as the difference between the time past, an otherwise impossible phenomenon with a clock that is always located in the instant.

Excuse the quality – it will settle down after a couple of seconds. It’s a long movie, but watch as the person on the right waits for 2 minutes whilst the clock hands are still, then moves into view of the clock and the clock hands speed forward taking him to the actual time (see the actual time on the video frame).

Lastly and possibly the most sensitive aspect of the experience is the discovering of other peoples lived time. As we approach the clock it has clearly stopped, and will only restart when we are directly in front of it. Once we understand that it is catching up with us to tell us the time, we understand that the former time displayed was someone else’s lived time, their present. A concept that goes beyond touching archaeological artefacts and memorabilia and is much closer to meeting an apparition from the past.

In the context of keywords such as Participation and Connection, The Looking Clock and it’s potential research identifies an everyday event that seems to be at the centre of an experience through which the individual is affected in a phenomenological and conceptual manner. In the moment of reconciling our lived time against the universal we are both choosing to connect and participate at the same. Although it can be said that this process of engagement is a regular occurrence for the human, reading the time and in particular having it read to you by the Looking Clock makes us keenly aware of the separation between a conscious moment of our own and one that is shared or acknowledged by the rest of the world.

A short paper was written on the Looking Clock for the Problems of Participation and Connection conference in 1999: http://www.cict.demon.co.uk/problemsof.html#anchor4043091

Norton Park – Temporal Navigation Project, 1999

The Norton Park project presented an opportunity to take a space and manipulate the anticipated currency for both time and space as we are expected to navigate through a building. Traditionally we would expect to use maps, diagrams, directions and signs to move through space in order to get to meetings and appointments in time. And indeed although we are monitoring our watches and timepieces to ensure that we get to a meeting on time, we are not used to using them to aid our navigation.

The Norton Park project sets out to alter this precondition and exchange the currency of navigation from metres and landmarks, to minutes and seconds. Something that the Time-Geography modelling approach makes relatively easy; simply assume that within a given place, people will be walking, take an average speed of their walk and describe the building from where they enter as a series of increasing times as they walk through that space.

The work was done for the Albion Trust, a charity who is part funded by many large Scottish companies. They had been developing a scheme to convert a large Edwardian school into a business centre for Charities for two years, and was due for completion in May 1998.

The buildings three floors were built on top of each other, each a replica of the other with a central corridor through the middle connecting each room to a central staircase linking the floors. Such a building represents much of what is two dimensional about the classical architectural approach to design; although tremendously three dimensional in scale, the facade and the plan have no relationship and were designed in separation. Consequently, the corridor becomes the means of getting around and with the high windows, a child would orientate themselves via a mental map that was extremely linear – into the building, along a corridor, up stairs, along a corridor and to a room. The routine could be easily played out backwards and forwards, making it easy to remember, but completely detached from the architectural environment.

Upon analysis of this particular construction of space it soon became clear that it was not a representation of space and that in fact it was a model of time. Any visitor has little option in terms of direction and movement, and in fact will struggle to see much of the outside world until they are inside a room, the only thing to do is to travel to a destination. Therefore a navigation scheme should not use maps or spatial directions, but instead temporal ones.

It was recognised that the reception was the primary starting point of any journey around the building for business clients and workers. Consequently the reception represented zero minutes and zero seconds for any journey to an office. The proposal integrated the time it took to move through the building within a design for the carpet, whilst clocks became the means of long distance signage.

The floor of the reception was patterned with concentric circles radiating from a point just in front of the reception desk (Fig. 4). The distance between the edge of each circle denotes a regular distance from the centre of the circle that is calculated in walking time not in an arbitrary measurement.

For example, the radius of the first circle is located at a distance from the central point that is the average distance that it takes someone to travel one second (just over a metre). This convention continues inside throughout the entire reception; concentric circles at one second average walking speed, until the circles reach the corridors where the arcs of the broken circles begin spacing out a further three seconds, effectively nearly 4 metres apart.

The full length of the corridors carpet was broken up at ever increasing increments as the shallow thin arcs, in a colour appropriate for the floor of the building, continue to radiate out from the central point in reception (Fig. 5). To make the concept of time evident and explain the role of the arcs, where they meet the walls in the corridors, the time that each represents is discretely but clearly written on the wall in vinyl.

A final metaphoric touch was the addition of office specific signage. Running down the corridor walls are modified clocks, large school type clocks that are fixed in pairs, back to back with the inside faces replaced with clear white acrylic sheet containing the vinyl lettering and graphics of organisations.


Reception area at 0’0’’ time                             First floor corridor with time arcs

As an experience the Norton Park temporal navigation project certainly locates you within the Time-Geography moment. As you are walking up and down the spaces your project and its trajectory is clearly projected in front of you through the timings on the walls.

The spatial moment that is so rich within Lefebvre’s writings comes under stress within Norton Park, because the spaces are timed as instants, and although the experience is clearly made up of protracted ruptures you cannot help carrying with you a consciousness of time that is so visible.

As an interesting alternative to the traditional form of ‘space’ the project has revealed an experience that is extremely unusual and thought provoking. Probably not a model that should be followed too often to prevent the opportunity for businesses to account for the time people are travelling between spaces of work. But an adjustment to the traditional equation of places that embody time, space and money.

A short paper was written on Temporal Navigation that featured the Norton Park project for the Habitus 2000; A sense of place conference, Perth, Western Australia 5-9 September 2000

Weather Clock 1999

The economies and interests of new media technologies on a global scale have clearly had an impact on the relationship between time and space. With out any apparent struggle, time has become the currency for telematic transactions and interactions within cyberspace, and the role of space has been reduced to a romantic expression with little relevance to capitalism’s colonisation of the electronic landscape. As a result of this, the map that was traditionally an essential tool in describing space appears to have changed roles as increasingly its utilitarian value has diminished.

In contrast the various manifestations of timing systems that have flourished to compliment the bells, whistles and ticks of clocks that escorted us through schooling and smoothly into the workplace, suggest that there are new alternatives to the map. From status bars to rotating hour glasses our models of time that inform and direct our navigation through virtual and real space are beginning to render the map entirely obsolete.

This work explores the role of the map in tension with the clock and proposes a redefinition of the map as new media spaces distort the traditional balance of time and space. The author references a recent experiment in the delivery of Weather News that was broadcast via satellite to Northern Europe. The experiment substituted the traditional ‘weather man’s’ map with a clock, and it is suggested that this was more effective at providing clearer and more appropriate information regarding the forthcoming days weather.

In doing this, the author explores the possibility that we are increasingly not using maps for spatial or geographical information but instead to secure alternative epistemological systems. The work addresses the questions of ‘where do we think we are’ and ‘when do we think we are’. And suggests that since the total conquering and mapping of our world through Global Information Systems, a security in space has evolved that has upset the presumptions of time as the same technology provides us with speeds beyond the bounds of space.

The Random Lift Button 2002

Central to all of the author’s research is capitalism’s conversion of time and space into economic currencies. From land ownership that has shaped our society, to the domination of the clock through schooling and into the workplace we are forced to equate our time and space against profit. However, with the advent of digital media technologies, the familiar relationship between time and space is becoming distorted, and more interestingly adaptable, allowing us to question these economic pressures.

The Random Lift Button project was conceived as an opportunity to exemplify further the role of space at the mercy of time. Certainly in large commercial buildings lifts are implemented to squash space and enable people to move more quickly from one work activity to the next. Lifts become a temporal slippage in the experience of a building as a whole, we skip space and avoid people, places and the opportunity to see the ‘whole’. Indeed corridors and stairwells are recognised as the most important social spaces within businesses and many more negotiations and affairs occur between office spaces than within them. Just like in hypertext our choice of destination is provided to us with the minimum of ‘journeying’.

It is this temporal problem that interests the author most about lifts and the chance to explore not the travel or the journey but the lack of one; the lost space, being in the hypertext moment and offering alternatives to allow us to reconcile the lifts economic efficiency.

It embodies the notion that not knowing where you wanted to go, and relishing the uncertainty of the navigation is a valuable human disposition and important act. The random lift button would place us directly in the centre of a non-linear moment, its outcomes uncertain and unpredictable. A sensation that would be both rewarding and entropic. Random Lift Buttons are currently being installed in a new building at Portland Place at the University of Plymouth, UK.

A short paper that featured the Random Lift Button was written for the 4th International, CAiiA-STAR Research Conference. Consciousness Reframed 2002. Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia. Part of the BEAP [2002 Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth] Published on CD-Rom, ISBN 1-74067-272-0

SpaceLapse 2003

Satisfied that digital video had been able to express different socio-spatial relations with a street through Places of Difference, the author worked with a graduate to develop another three minute short movie that explored socio-temporal relations with space. Using time lapse technology, each shop along a small part of Mutley Plain was manipulated in post-production to portray how many people visit it on a daily basis. By playing back each shop’s time lapse at different speeds, according to its popularity, the collective image was of the street as it changed over time.

The sky and pedestrians remained in real time and the result is a startling model of how social activity affects the temporal balance of a street. Pedestrians tend to see a street of shops as a connected unit, and when things alter along the street – such as the shopfronts – it is accepted as part of the street’s dynamic nature. By speeding up and slowing down the rate of each shop’s time lapse the viewer has an opportunity to see the street as a series of components, each with its own time according to its use. The result is a pulsating array of multiple time lapses that gives the viewer an insight into the complexity of a simple street.

The style of the film used a voiceover and took on an educational tone in order to make sense of the complex image that was built up. The author at this point was making a reference to the narrative techniques present in Ray and Charles Eames’ films such as the Powers of Ten, in order to provide an antithesis to their Newtonian model of time and space. ‘SpaceLapse’ articulated relational properties that were impossible to see with the eye, and could only be traced through the distortion of time. Publicly aired on HTV, SpaceLapse has been well received like its sister movie Places of Difference, and has subsequently been seen in a wide variety of academic contexts.

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