Standardly Variable Time
11.23.2015, 3:48 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

0001570618_0000293070_OGThree different times at once, Geneva 1865, image: Bibliothèque de Genève (thank you to Clay Eicher for the reference).

Geneva 1865.  Timekeeping was still a little leaky, a little imperfect and a little feral.

We love the above image.  It’s a perfect illustration and timely reminder of how recently humans standardized time. Just over 150 years ago, even “modern” humans lived in an imperfectly timed world. As the image shows, 11:30 in Paris was ten minutes to noon in Geneva and 11:55 in Bern — simultaneously.

Standardized time has enabled incredible cultural and technological innovations, including global travel and logistical systems. Yet, standardized time, so recently laid over human life and experience, remains one of those aspects of modernization that many people struggle with.

Time is one the most fundamental of all human experiences.  And it also can be one of the most mercurial.  For us humans, time can “pass” quickly, slowly, or fall out of sync with the hands on the clock face. People describe drifting in time, losing track of time in conversations and activities, and transcending time with each other. But a simple glance at the clock can pull us back “onto” standardized time – and out of embodied time.

Most of the time, most of us try to sync our daily live rhythms with standardized time. We try to arrive “on time” for 9 to 5 jobs.  We try to remember future appointments and we try to eat and sleep at “regular” hours.  And we try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to rationalize and adapt to the extra hour that comes and goes each year around an event called Daylight Savings.

A modern jet-lagged traveler arrives disoriented and confused. She looks to the clock in her new environment for grounding, only to realize she has arrived in a place that’s already living tomorrow. Her yesterday has been lost to standardized, gridded time, whose expectations, limits, and invested interests are rarely scaled to individual human lives and their locales.

Today, more and more humans can relate to the distracted, even feverish “running out of time” sensations that dominate modern experiences of time. Contemporary life can feel like a race against deadlines and the endless distractions along the way. Many of us have tried to “detox” from our addictions to speed and almost instant results, made worse by various digital devices. Time during this Great Acceleration barrels forward and compounds up the Keeling curve.

As artists, we’re concerned about how time figures as a force of change in the Anthropocene.  We sense an urgency about its real, material repercussions in our daily lives and planetary futures. With many of the Anthropocene’s threats to human and nonhuman lives, time is of the essence.  Surely, activists urge, we must work even faster, ironically, to somehow slow down the earth-magnitude changes underway.

But, perhaps our most vital task and opportunity as artists|humans is to put ourselves on something other than accelerated, standardized time.

What if, even as forces of the Anthropocene tip and accelerate, we directed our brains, bodies and minds toward time’s varieties – its many particularities that are always available to our actions and imaginations and always close at hand?

Arguably, generations of acculturation to life on standardized, measured time hobbles humans’ abilities to acknowledge and appreciate our own species’ place and scale in relation to time’s manifold powers and effects.

It might seem counterintuitive to want to try living daily life according to various scales and speeds of time just as the urgencies of “running out of time” in the Anthropocene (extinctions, CO2 levels, rising sea levels) are sweeping us up. Yet, this might be the perfect moment to try to do time differently as geo-shaping inhabitants of this planet. After all, our newly available understandings and emerging global awarenesses of time’s pressure on planetary systems give us unprecedented ways and means to relate to time as humans.

One potential outcome of the Anthropocene could be that we humans gain deeper realizations of varieties of time as they concurrently unfold — including geologic time. We know that plastics take immensely longer spans of time to decompose than do organic materials. We know that tectonic plates jerk forward or backward at intervals that are scaled to hundreds and thousands of years of human time. Trees? They have their own internal and external timeframes. Seasons regularly, and more and more “irregularly,” do not conform to our modern gridded calendar systems. Many of the material conditions of contemporary life are not exactly timed (birth, death, hunger, sleep, pleasure, harvest) and will never meet the expectations of standardized time.

Time doesn’t always compute.

Our Deep Time Calendar Year 000001 project will explore just this:  the simultaneity of many scales, tempos, and rhythms of time.  And we will address the necessity – for cultural and psychological moorings, physical health, environmental policies, politics, economics – of acknowledging that the faces of time are variable, poetic and strange.  There are uncountable crossings and twists of time that contemporary clocks and calendars can’t measure or account for.

Over the course of one Earth orbit around the sun (aka one human year), starting winter solstice 002016 we will set out into non-standardized time and we will conduct field research there.  We’ll explore how to access and illustrate un-grid-able experiences and sensations of time, how to appreciate and co-exist with aspects of time that can’t be plotted on standardized clocks and calendars, how to allow time’s vagaries to be real for us even as they remain independent from us. We want to design a truly contemporary calendar that opens up our imaginations and our daily lives both to deep time’s vast cyclical sweeps and to ephemeral time’s intimate and immediate shaping of each here and now–and we want to notice how each reshapes the other.  

Some human cultures attuned themselves incredibly well to vast cosmological flows and alignments that are related our species’ diverse conceptions of time (Chaco Canyon, Stonehenge, Mayan pyramids). They scaled collective life to the comings and goings of sunlight as our spins through space produce cycles of sunlight and darkness, seasonal change, and ice age glaciers.

But in 002015, more is at play.

In addition to living within the temporal cycles of the Earth’s solar orbit, we live within the temporal spasms of the Anthropocene.

An ability to experience and attune to how time on Earth has become the entanglement of cosmological and human-made tempos is key how our species will set up its global futures.

It’s time to live with the strangeness of standardly variable time present and future.

What skills and capacities might we want to have at hand, as individuals and societies, 50 years from now when much of our own species’ habitat is unrecognizable to those of us living today?

We (smudge) are setting out to conduct field research into feral ways of being-in-time.  We’re going to try to notice and imagine time in ways that our current calendars make extremely difficult for us to do. We’ll design, live out, and then share daily life practices that have the potential to unleash time from our current calendars.

Maybe like us, you think it’s time to change the way we humans are living time on this planet. Maybe like us, you think art and design can be a mysteriously powerful vehicle for doing just that.

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