Time of the Clock and Time of the Encounter

This AHRC funded project investigated the difference between the time of the clock and the lived time of experience. We live in a world dominated by the time of the clock, yet many aspects of life have a different rhythm and temporality. The time of community, especially, is very often more complex and differentiated that standardised clock time. Researchers from a range of disciplines in the arts and humanities and practitioners in community organisations are exploring ways by which communities can acquire a more open and diversified relation to time; they approach this question both from a theoretical point of view as well as from a practice and intervention based point of view. As such the project makes a significant contribution to developing a concrete ethics and culture of temporal diversity.

This blog entry reflects on interventions with teachers and students at two schools: the Holmewood School, North London, and North Queensferry Primary School, in Fife, who helped us understand how young people experience time. The work plan was developed with Dr. Maaike Engelen, The Holmewood School, London and Dr Johan Siebers,  University of Central Lancashire, and the interventions were designed by Larissa Pschetz and myself, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh.

Clock Time

“[A clock is] a device that signals change in order for its users to maintain an awareness of, and thus be able to coordinate themselves with, what is significant to them.” Michelle Bastian, Fatally Confused: Telling the time in the midst of ecological crises, 2012.

It is hard to imagine life without a clock. Many aspects of our lives involve the use of clocks to coordinate the relationships that we have with other people. We use clocks and clock-time to arrange meetings, to plan for lunch and coffee breaks and of course to know what to do when the school bell rings.

Before clocks were invented we used other ways to tell the time such as sundials that tell the time of day by the position of the sun, and waterclocks that controlled the flow of water into a bowl to tell the time. In Britain in the 11th Century the village church began using bells so that it could tell people who lived nearby what the time was. By ringing the bell people could be told that it was time to start and stop work, time to come to church and to celebrate certain events. By the thirteenth century mechanical clocks started to appear on churches and people began to use them to organise their day in more and more complicated ways.

In 1761 John Harrison invented a portable clock so that sailors could take time with them on long voyages. They used the clock to help them find out where they were and to navigate long distances. Since Harrison’s first portable clock, we have seen clocks get smaller and cheaper to make. In the nineteenth century people carried pocket watches, by the 1920’s wrist watches became even smaller and even more popular. Since the development of the computer, clocks have continued to shrink and now they are part of the software that we use on our desktop computers, laptops, iPads and mobile phones. Clocks are now everywhere and the world runs on them, from the time of trains to the time of television shows, the tick, tick of the clock is the time of the world. Many people carry the time with them so that they can meet people, organise events and make sure that they are not late.

School Time

‘The activities and the interactions of all its participants are orchestrated to a symphony of buzzers, bells, timetables, schedules and deadlines. These time markers bind pupils and staff into a common schedule within which their respective activities are structured, paced, timed, sequenced and prioritized. They separate and section one actvitity from another and secure conformity to a regular, collective beat.’ Barbara Adam, Timewatch, 1995.

Schools are one of the first places that we are taught about clocks and clocktime. Even before we could tell the time we learnt what to do when the school bell rang and the importance of being at school on time. The Holmewood School runs on clock time and somebody is always watching the clock to decide when to ring it to tell students about when break time is over, when classes should finish and when it is the end of the day.

At nine o’clock in the morning, all over the world, the school bell rings and signals the start of another school day for many teachers and students. For most children the rhythm of the day is very similar to the working day that adults take part in: a first session of work, a morning tea break or playtime, more work, lunchtime and a further work session until the end of the day. These patterns of activity and rest teach us about the time of the world and help organise everybody into the same patterns of work and play. They often feel like they are natural because we know them so well, but of course they were invented and they remain the most common way of organising our time. Even the weekends were invented in the 1800’s in Britain, and in 1938 in America, Henry Ford who ran the Ford motor car company, introduced the 40 hour working week for his factories.

Once the working week has become standardised everything else we know also begins to work around it, the times of trains and buses to move people around are organised around the working week. The time that shops open and close are all planned around the same times. What we learn at school about time and how the day is organised helps us understand how rest of our world works. But school time is different to time at home. At home there are often less clocks and the only bell that goes off is the alarm clock that tells people that it is time to wake up and get ready for school or work.

Bags of Time

“In high technology cultures today, everyone lives in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clock or watches or wall or desk calendars.” Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982.

We wanted a way to introduce everybody to a day in the life of the two Schools. We did this by giving students and teachers a special back pack. In the back pack was a small white clock and disposable camera.

We asked everybody who received a back pack to take photographs of their day, but most importantly we asked them to make sure that the clock featured somewhere in the photograph. This allows us to see what time the photograph was taken. When all of the photographs were developed we pinned all of the pictures that had clocks in them in a long line on the walls of the main hall.

The pictures showed us something about what the students of Holmewood and North Queensferry Primary do and the times that they do them. Many of the photographs were taken with friends, and many of them were taken in school – see examples above of students and staff with clocks.

Time Lines

Inside the main hall at both schools we gathered all of the photographs that were taken by the students that had a clock within them. We worked with the students to organise them all from morning until evening. The first photograph was taken at breakfast time before school had begun, and the last photograph was taken at the end of the school day. In Holmewood the line was stuck to the wall to make a huge timeline, in North Queensferry we used the floor.

The line of photographs described the different things that students and their families do and what time they do them. It was easy to see at what time each photograph was taken because we had the clocks in each picture. It is easy to see what time some of the activities are taking place, for example lunchtime and playtime.

Printer Clock

The Printer Clock was designed to help people think about the many different times that people experience at schools. When we read the time from a traditional clock, the clock doesn’t give us any clues as to what other people are doing at that time. If it was twelve thirty we might think that other people are having their lunch, or if it is six o’clock we might think that many people are stuck in traffic jams trying to get home. But mostly when we look at a clock we just think about ourselves and where we have to be next.

The Printer Clock was designed to help us think about what other people are doing at the time that we read the clock. The clock is made of a clock face, a printer and a computer that contains the photographs of Holmewood students that contain clocks in them and other pictures of people collected from the internet.

Pulling the cord that is inside the clock activates the computer, which prints a picture taken of a fellow student doing something at that particular time, in the past. For example, if we were to pull the cord at eleven thirty we might find out that a student was playing in the playground at that time.


Time Bots

The Printer Clock was meant as a way of connecting individuals’ ideas of time with other activities of people at the school by showing students what they were doing at particular times. We wanted a final piece of work that would bring everyone’s individual times together in one big performance.

From looking at the routine of Holmewood and North Queensferry through the photographs of all of the students we could see that you all have different activities at different times of the day. Sometimes people seem to be doing slow things such as eating or talking to other people, at other times people seem to be doing very fast things such as running in the playground.

It seemed to us that all of the students have different routines for the day – some of them seemed to be slow in the morning and then get faster toward lunchtime, whilst others are fast in the morning and then slow down later on.

Using time sheets students were asked to decide on their own temporal pattern of a day. Assigning times (fast, medium, slow) to five time slots across a day the students developed their own program for their time bot.

With time sheet in hand the students were given Time Bots. Time Bots are small programmable robots that can be taught to change their speed as they move around a room. After decorating their Time Bot each student programmed their bot with the time of their own day.

When everyone is ready the Bots are released and the students are able to stand back and reflect upon themselves and their friends temporal characteristics.

The work is partly inspired by the work of the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima who released a lot of toy electric cars all running at different speeds into the Hayward Gallery in London, in 1994. His cars ran around like little people but were not connected to real people, the Time Bots were programmed by students and moved in time like the students.



A huge thanks to all of the students and staff of The Holmewood School and North Queensferry Primary School:

Holmewood School Project Participants:

Dr. Maaike Engelen, The Holmewood School, London
Larissa Pschetz, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh
Dr Chris Speed, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh
Dr Johan Siebers,  University of Central Lancashire

North Queensferry Primary School Project Participants:

Miss Sinclair, North Queensferry Primary School
Larissa Pschetz, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh
Dr Chris Speed, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh

The Time of the Clock and the Time of Encounter project members:

Dr Michelle Bastian, University of Manchester
Prof Anne Douglas, University of Aberdeen
Ruth Ben-Tovim, Encounters Arts
On the Edge (OTE) Research
Mark Hope, Woodend Barn Arts Centre
Dr Kathleen Coessens, Orpheus Research Centre in Music (ORCiM) and Champ’D’Action
Chris Freemantle, Ecoarts Scotland
Dr Elena Fell, University of Central Lancashire

For more information about the project please visit our website: http://www.timeofencounter.org

This project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Connected Communities programme.

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