The Habitat of Time

Time-travelling, Then and Now, Again

Time is pivotal in determining how we produce reality—and produce it we do, by the cloud-full—yet as a medium, it is difficult to examine as it never simply appears. While countless traces of its presence exist in and around us, time is a thingless thing that remains fundamentally elusive.

As we move through the world, multiple temporal currents combine to guide our actions in conscious and conditioned ways. We draw on pools of personal memory and cultural representations of the past, present, and future, as our body’s ancient circadian rhythm competes with the staccato of contemporary life. Almost without thinking, this chemistry of the biological and historical combines and conspires within us, enabling us to apprehend change, to adapt and survive. In his 1895 novel The Time Machine, H.G. Wells sums up the role of time in human evolution, remarking: ‘There is no difference between time and any of the other three dimensions of space, except that our consciousness moves along it.’ (1)

The shifting sense of time as a limit or potential directs our life, and this experience is central to understanding the values and events of an age. Contemporary art is playing a crucial role in exposing the deep and enmeshed set of interests that orient the perception of time today. The social, physical and life sciences study the individual, cultural or physical realms of time at specific scales. Artists, by contrast, are often interested in configuring relationships between conceptions of time that span the global and the intimate, engaging: phenomenological time, as we feel it unfolding subjectively in consciousness; historical constructs of time; and the temporal forms and forces of matter.

As I write, scientific research underway at sites as disparate as Geneva and Perth promise to transform our understanding of reality in ways worthy of the accounts of Wells’ Time Traveller. From investigations into the quantum realm where sub-atomic particles may occupy two spaces at once, to the capture by astrophysicists of gravitational waves originating in the minutes following the Universe’s creation, the parameters of time are being pushed at microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. While the repercussions of such research have yet to have a tangible impact on the day-to-day reality that we inhabit most of the time, it is clear that in this realm too rapid transformations are afoot. In this age of acceleration, digital technologies enable space to be crossed at phenomenal speeds by bodies, images, and information. (2) Systems of mass communication, consumption and the rule of economic productivity multiply stimuli, drive competition and compress time. As the present empties out and fills up in ever-more rapid cycles, there is a sense of forwardness that tends to shorten our thought processes, generating short-termism and cultural amnesia.

As a field of aesthetic and critical inquiry, art has the capacity to sensitise us to the conditions of the age because, like ideological views of time, it works with images, symbols and narratives. Since the late 19th century, with the entrenching of industrialisation and the ensuing World Wars, artists have felt the urgency to interrogate the dominant forms of order and outlooks that political and economic ideologies seek to inscribe. (3) The spread of mass media and mass production in the 1960s and 1970s intensified artists’ engagement not only with time but with the processes of temporality. This inspired durational approaches to the space and the body in Land Art, installation, performance and site-specific practices.

The interest in connecting phenomenological and historical time deepened from the 1990s onwards as the changing interaction between digital technology and culture cemented network reality. Since then, artists have adopted wide-ranging strategies to explore the temporal fabric of life, working with anachronism and futurism, ruins and archives, urban, landscape and media spaces. They have curated new collections of the ancient and contemporary (Mark Leckey); created and burned down a museum of paper in a day (Alfredo Jaar); critiqued the hegemony of Western-centric modernity through artefacts and bodies (Brook Andrew, Guillermo-Gomez Pena and Coco Fusco); realigned Hollywood-time with the cycle of the Earth’s day (Douglas Gordon); created portable horizons to insert into landscapes (James Geurts); and presented visions of a future digital economy that feeds off the energy of the sun and the body (Hito Steyerl).

In this article, I continue the exploration of art’s capacity to scale seemingly disparate aspects of time—its mental, social and physical dimensions—in ways that expand beyond our era and our species. I do this through the lens of two exhibitions that I visited in 2017, beginning with Pierre Huyghe’s After ALife Ahead, in the fifth edition of Skulptur Projekte Münster in Germany, and moving on to The Life Of Images, Gerhard Richter’s first retrospective in Australia, presented by QAGOMA in Brisbane. (4)

Reconfiguring Time, Recollecting the Body

There is little need to rehearse the importance of Skulptur Projekte Münster in the calendar of the art world. Staged every ten years since 1977, it has gauged the changing conversation between art and society in a world that has witnessed: the launch of the first space probe, Voyager 1 (1977); the signing of the patent for Prozac and the deal for Disneyland Paris (1987); the return of Hong Kong to China and the repercussions for evolutionary theory of new analysis of Neanderthal DNA (1997); the naming of the first International Polar Year (2007). (5)

In 2017, the year the USA withdrew from UNESCO and the pioneering Cassini spacecraft nosedived into Saturn, Skulptur Projekte Münster’s website described the focus on exploring, ‘thresholds of interaction’ between ‘fixedness and temporality’ through foregrounding ‘(t)he presence and disappearance of entities, temporary installations and performances.’ (6) In adhering to a ten-year window, the Münster event sidesteps the economic imperatives and cultural politics of the new that drive some biennial and triennial cycles. Its timing presents a commitment to the longer view and an unhurried refraction of the changes gestating in society.

To catch a flight out from London to attend the event, I had set an alarm on my iPhone to wake at 5 am. The disruption to my circadian rhythm was compounded as in the next four hours I crossed London’s sprawl, the North Sea, France and a bit of Germany, using a rapid succession of technological mediums: taxi, train, and airplane. I finally arrived at Munster train station and made my way through attractive Medieval architecture so picture-perfect that I felt faint echoes of a never-seen-in-person Disneyland. (7) In a super-modern hotel, so managed it felt futuristic, I hired an old-style, brand-new bicycle and set off along a major radial road heading out of town to visit Pierre Huyghe’s installation.

The abandoned ice rink looked innocuous from the outside. On entering the building, the light was low as the main means of illumination—skylights in the ceiling—opened out onto a densely-clouded, post-sunset sky. I cast my mind back to the last time I was in an ice rink, images as a child in the late 1980s came to mind. A remote spark of memory flashed and established an intimate thread of personal time through the atmosphere of the space.

Looking around, some things appeared familiar, the bare architecture, the empty stands. However, the focal point of the site, the rink floor, had been disrupted by seemingly catastrophic events. Moving down into the pit that Huyghe had excavated by slicing up the rink’s concrete base, the discontinuity was palpable. Standing in a void of earth which the mind recalls as solid and sealed creates a feeling of hollowness, a haunting. In the sunken ground, the giant slabs and shards of broken concrete that had once made up the ice rink floor jutted out of mounds of the earth, their painted line marks still visible in places, referring now to a broken schema.

A tank form resembling an aquarium settled on a risen body of earth illuminated intermittently. This operation seemed to dialogue with the movement of mechanical shutters on the skylights, which were retro-futuristic in appearance and moved with digital precision. Some areas of the uneven ground bore pools of water with algae-like life forms in them. Larger columns of earth suggested termite mounds or some other insect colonies within. The overall atmosphere was one of uncertainty, as narratives and agency were unharnessed from established patterns of order and meaning. The icon of the ark and the idea of the sacred had morphed into a mundane biotechnology aquarium. So-called primitive life forms were restored to a state of advanced intelligence, given their ability to survive the excesses of human systems, embodied in the ruins of its leisure industry. The historical foundation of progress as an ideology that liberates time for the human had broken down, time had been set free in a different way.

After a while, my thoughts revisited the flashback that I had experienced on entry, and this time a different chain reaction was set in motion. Personal images of the 1980s and 1990s meshed with a flood of cultural narratives. Floating within this was the memory of chlorofluorocarbons, soon to become known as CFCs in relentless news reports of thinning ozone layers. The concept of Climate Change was catapulted into the foreground and with it an increasing preoccupation with glaciers melting invisibly away in the shadows of the imagination and in the abstract poles of the planet too. The scene hummed with the transformative power of technology and thoughts of how economic interests had turned the world into a ‘resource’ for humans. Thoughts of ice core samples came to mind and the stories they tell of the last Ice Age, even as fossil fuel giants conduct surveys to drill in the Arctic. The evolutionary image of the primordial swamp appeared along with the distant idea that water arrived on Earth from outer space in a comet. A vague impression of an ice rink being built even now in a desert in the Middle East came to mind and the recollection of having seen this in an in-flight magazine.

The experience of Huyghe’s installation exposed the degree to which emotional, cultural, and technological narratives of time compete in our thoughts, the extent to which our mental image of the world is shaped by economic and political interests. As I wandered across the dirt floor in the soft light, the situation felt both still and volatile. The void in Huyghe’s work cast the visitor into a realm where images of time fold in on one another. I was reminded of the 17th century painting technique of ‘mis-en-abyme’—repeating a scene within a scene—used to remind the viewer of the continuum of time and humble the pretensions of the gaze. The sense of unearthed perspective brought to mind the philosopher Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) recollection of the idea that ‘all novelty is oblivion.’ (8)

I wanted to remain in Huyghe’s broken ice rink, to see what images would come in the night, but the norms of visitor hours and Health and Safety did not allow it. When I did leave, my absorption in the experience had been such that it no longer felt like the same day outside.

From Sunken Foundations, Frames Within Frames

Some days later, I negotiated the near 24 hours of flight-time from London back to my home in Sydney. There, I had the familiar experience of a physical recovery from time-zone travel that occurs at a much slower rate than the mental adjustment enabled by our powers of abstraction.

In early December, I set off again on a research trip to Brisbane, where I visited Gerhard Richter’s retrospective The Life of Images at QAGOMA. Staring at the title on the wall, I was struck by the tension between the poignancy and the flatness of the statement. This feeling directed me to thoughts of the vast and instantaneous agency that images wield, their disembodied presence waiting to generate emotional energy or be transformed into political and economic power.

Since Richter’s birth in the 1930s at the dawn of mass-media reality, the production, spread, and availability of images have grown at an exponential rate. This growth is mirrored by many currents of amnesia and loss, from a historical perspective to biodiversity, digital decay to fractured attention span. Richter’s oeuvre foreshadowed the image economy made possible by information technology, before emerging as a lightning conductor for its excesses.

The arrays of images that filled the gallery spaces spoke of the fate of the monumental in the age of mass atomisation. Images of news and personal items taken from various decades of Richter’s life meshed with paint in applications that echoed Abstract Expressionist or Suprematist techniques. Figures appeared photographed in rooms as the ghosts of other scenes encroached. Richter’s signature blur paintings rendered the imagined effects of photographic speed and distorted focus in textured paint. The image of a candle aflame seemed to offer a classic symbol of transcendence, however, Richter had created a mirror image of the source of light, the icon had acquired a doppelgänger. Bodies impacted by events of sex and death were exposed and veiled in the paint. Collections of images amassed in sequences for the Atlas project ran the length of a corridor gallery, spanning eras, idioms, geographies, and genres: from nuclear families to architecture and fashion magazines, from the portraits of world leaders to images of lovers. The exhibition resounded a contradictory message of heterogeneity and regulation as though in the array of the image world there is a message of conformity.

Beyond Canons and Crisis

As Michel Foucault explained in his 1966 publication The Order of Things, the act of re-animating the world through language and categories of knowledge establishes power relations and specifies degrees of agency between things and bodies. Jacques Derrida observed a similar relationship between the act of inscribing the past and prescribing the present when he asserted that the ‘archive’s commencement is also a commandment’. (9) The practice of taxonomy is directly appropriated in Richter’s image sequences and archival grids. However, both Richter and Huyghe demonstrate contemporary artists’ interest in aesthetic experiences that map a meta-taxonomy of time by connecting its movement through interior, social, and physical spaces.

The artists share the archaeological method that has gained ground in contemporary art since the 1970s, influenced by the critical project of deconstruction associated with Derrida, Foucault, and poststructuralism. This has seen artists turn their attention to excavating canons and reconfiguring archives, unpacking the mythological and ideological content of society and history. In an age of proliferating messages and fleeting time, artists have emphasized absence as an active field of signification.

In the conditions of the Network Ages, many of the canons that originated centuries even millennia ago, and the regimes of political and cultural authority that they underwrite, are unable to manage the meaning they once generated and directed. Meanwhile, new platforms come online daily and the digitisation of the past and present advances, increasing the power of algorithms and their owners to define what appears and disappears. Against this backdrop, the work of both Huyghe and Richter seems to speak of the collision between industrial and digital worlds, and the combination of erosion and proliferation that ensues.

We live in an era where the power to generate and transmit images of the past, present and future is overwhelming our ability as societies to gather and coordinate impressions into a stable sense of time in the world. Developments in network technology and digital devices are profoundly transforming the means of memory making that are so critical to the making of order and meaning. Foucault noted the radical asymmetries between power and knowledge that characterise the modern world of systems and their impact on the body. The ruptures and discontinuity of which he spoke have developed into a condition of multiple and competing versions of time that has been described as the condition of ‘contemporaneity.’ (10) This observation of dislocation is reflected in Münster’s 2017 thematic focus: Out of Body, Out of Time and Out of Place.

While Richter appears as a witness to his times, Huyghe’s installation conjured an atmosphere of something beyond, a world where the human is no longer centre stage. However we position ourselves in relation to the politics of posthumanism, the challenge is evident of making time for the world that we want to inhabit and which others are able to inhabit. (11) Two core and related concerns appear crucial in envisaging such a reality. Firstly, the need to reimagine the conditions of duration, which Einstein’s contemporary the philosopher Henri Bergson suggested is not only a psychological experience, rather it is the very material of individual creative action. (12) Secondly, an underscoring of diversity as the principle through which life endures.

In the 18th century, scientists began using the term habitat to describe how the settings in which flora and fauna live change over time. What happens if we switch the focus and see time itself as a habitat? The shift of emphasis that I am proposing—a provisional reading of the world through temporal relations over spatial—shows reality up in a different light. In a habitat of time, species, technology, society, materials, systems, and cosmology appear as an ensemble of temporal phenomena. Contemporary art has the capacity to draw out such a vision, by sensitising the viewer to diversity in all its aspects: formal, cultural, temporal. This effect is heightened by artworks that are made or curated in ways that directly engage with the rhythms, conditions and embedded histories of space and sites. Viewing network reality in terms of temporal habitat both reinvigorates our sense of the intensity and fragility of life on different scales, and conceives of a greater role for the non-human in events. What we make of reality as an ensemble of durational, interacting, and diverging forms—with varying interests and capacities to sustain or arrest life—will define the time of the human to come.

(1) The Time Machine, Ed. John Lawton, 1995, p.4.
(2) Paul Virilio was an early theorist of this condition, see Speed and Politics, 1977.
(3) From Dada onwards.
(4) Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017 took place from 10 June to 1 October, and was curated by Britta Peters and Marianne Wagner, with artistic director Kasper König https://www.skulptur-projekte-archiv.de/en-us/2017/). For images of Huyghe’s work see https://www.skulptur-projekte-archiv.de/en-us/2017/projects/186/
The Life of Images was curated by Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow (Curatorial Manager, International Art, QAGOMA) and Dr Rosemary Hawker, and was on show from 14 October 2017 to 4 February 2018 (https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/gerhard-richter; accessed 17 March 2018).
(5) This choice of markers is compiled from a range of websites that offer chronological summaries of years according to events in science, politics and popular culture.
(6) https://www.skulptur-projekte-archiv.de/en-us/2017/; accessed 17 March 2018.
(7) I read later that, ‘After World War Two, Munster’s Hanseatic architecture was reconstructed…nearby Marl chose to rebuild in the then-current modernist, international style.’ https://news.artnet.com/art-world/brief-history-skulptur-projekte-muenster-968450; accessed 17 March 2018. The towns chose to invest their future in different forms of historic capital by using technology to reconstruct an aura of authenticity.
(8) From ‘LVIII. Of Vicissitude of Things’, in The Essays of Francis Bacon, 1908, Ed. Mary Augusta Scott. Full quote: ‘Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.’
(9) See Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1995, p.1.
(10) See Antinomies of Art and Culture, Eds. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Nancy Condee, 2004.
(11) The priority of human interests is reordered in Posthumanism, which emphasizes the production of reality through non-human forces. Huyghe’s work has been discussed in relation to posthumanist discourses of Object Oriented Philosophy and Actor-Network Theory.
(12) See Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, 1946.

Levis X Jordan 6

sp17_Huyghe_Rogge-3619.jpg

Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead, 2017.
 Concrete floor of ice rink, logic game, ammoniac, sand, clay, phreatic water, bacteria, algae, bees, aquarium, black switchable glass, Conus textile, GloFish, incubator, human cancer cells, genetic algorithm, augmented reality, automated ceiling structure, rain. Installation view:
 former ice rink, Steinfurterstraße 113–115, D-48149 Münster, Germany.

Henning Rogge, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur (Westfälisches Landesmuseum)

sp17_Huyghe_Rogge-3664.jpg

Pierre Huyghe, After ALife Ahead, 2017.
 Concrete floor of ice rink, logic game, ammoniac, sand, clay, phreatic water, bacteria, algae, bees, aquarium, black switchable glass, Conus textile, GloFish, incubator, human cancer cells, genetic algorithm, augmented reality, automated ceiling structure, rain. Installation view:
 former ice rink, Steinfurterstraße 113–115, D-48149 Münster, Germany.

Henning Rogge, LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur (Westfälisches Landesmuseum)

GOMA_GerhardRichter_installationview_20171012_nharth_060.jpg

Gerhard Richter,
 Atlas, 1962-ongoing.
 Mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view at QAGOMA, Brisbane. Image courtesy the artist and Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

GOMA_GerhardRichter_installationview_20171012_nharth_062.jpg

Gerhard Richter,
 Atlas, 1962-ongoing.
 Mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view at QAGOMA, Brisbane. Image courtesy the artist and Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

GOMA_GerhardRichter_installationview_20171012_nharth_067.jpg

Gerhard Richter,
 Atlas, 1962-ongoing.
 Mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view at QAGOMA, Brisbane. Image courtesy the artist and Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

GOMA_GerhardRichter_installationview_20171012_nharth_074.jpg

Gerhard Richter,
 Atlas, 1962-ongoing.
 Mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view at QAGOMA, Brisbane. Image courtesy the artist and Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

RICHTERgerhard_CR50_PhantomInterceptors1964_001.jpg

Gerhard Richter, Phantom Interceptors, 1964. 
Oil on canvas,
140 x 190 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany.

RICHTERgerhard_CR499-4_TwoCandles1982_001.jpg

Gerhard Richter,
 Two candles, 1982.
 Oil on canvas,
80 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea.

RICHTERgerhard_CR937-4_Birkenau_001.jpg

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014. Oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm.
 Image courtesy the artist.

Julie Louise Bacon is an artist, curator and writer. She is a Lecturer at UNSW Art & Design in Sydney, following directorship and curatorial posts in art centres in England, Northern Ireland and Québec. In addition to presenting her installation and performance works in galleries and festivals worldwide, she has curated international exhibitions and conferences investigating the layered time of archives, media, historical and social space (Per-forming the Archive 2007, Signal 2012, Tone 2014) and completed a PhD in this field (2006). She has published widely on contemporary art and cultural theory, is editor of the anthology Arkive City 2.0 (2019), and heads the development of the international research project The Habitat of Time (2018-2020) in collaboration with Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in the UK.

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