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the times of all things and beings pass around and through us
9 minutes, 44 seconds, one continuous line, 1-5-002016, smudge
When we first arrived at our residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI),* we weren’t sure where or how to begin living out the first days of our year-long project, Living Deep Time Year 000001.
There was no switch that we could flip and suddenly make “deep time” accessible to us. So we began reading. Our list included Paul Kingsnorth’s essay “The Witness”, which appeared in Tricycle last spring. We had read the piece months ago, but now, on second reading, a particular section stood out. In the closing, Kingsnorth describes a personal question of what he could “do” in the face of so much environmental loss. A zen teacher offers him the following advice:
“… sit with it. Sit with what is, and what you are, and watch it. If you are concerned about the forest, go to the forest, sit with the forest, and pay attention. And then you may know what to do.”
We swapped out the word “forest” for “time.” Suddenly, this simple advice offered us seemingly obvious footing for how to begin our work this year. We copied out the following words and hung them at the entrance to our studio:
“… sit with it. Sit with what is, and what you are, and watch it. If you are concerned about time, go to time, sit with time, and pay attention. And then you may know what to do.”
Before we could make or understand anything about the project we were undertaking, we needed to sit with time itself and pay close attention to it.
In the past ten years we’ve thought a great deal about time, but always in relation to the challenges of designing for long spans of time, or the impacts human activities on planetary systems for deep geologic futures, or our attempts to imagine geologic histories. We often did this thinking while in motion, conducting research or driving through the American West.
Now, for this project, could we “just” sit with the on-flow of this moment? Hang out with the things and beings that were producing the human and non-human temporalities unfolding around and through us? Such an approach felt foreign, wide open, and fantastic.
Over the past five weeks, we’ve done a lot of sitting with spaces, silences, people and things as they produced their various temporal durations, speeds, scales, intensities, styles. We’re not sure that much of what has resulted constitutes “work.” But we are doing time in new ways. And days have felt meaningful and generative in new ways.
Some outcomes: A daily practice has emerged as the process of drawing one continuous line until a very long sheet of paper is filled. We time each line’s emergence as a way of “sitting” — and moving — with the minutes it takes to make the line. We’ve also “sat” with the concept and memory of “ten minutes” by writing the words “ten minutes” over and over until ten minutes expires on the clock. We’ve watched clouds in the New Mexico sky change shape and size radically from minute to minute, dissolve from freezing fog to crystalline blue. And we’ve intentionally witnessed a sunrise or sunset nearly everyday.
winter tree, one continuous line, 4 min., 10 sec., 12-29-002016, smudge studio
We continue to feel like complete beginners in our efforts to sit with various events of ongoing change that produce what we call time, and to “live time differently.” We quickly realized that contemporary American culture has taught us little about sensing timescapes that are other than our own habitual,”Western,” human-centric temporalities which are typically directed towards productivity, efficiency, deadlines, and punctuality.
One of our initial attempts to think outside of the steady stream of standardized time that is our usual temporal habitat was to research uniform time keeping. We realized just how arbitrary it is. The Western Gregorian calendar has been in use only since 1582. That’s just over 400 years out of the planet’s 4.6 billion year history. And it’s far from the only calendric system still in use. The wikipedia page for Gregorian calendar lists approximately 30 other calendars that are running concurrently with the dominant system. These other calendars are all, of course, human-generated as well. But their multiplicity reminds us that we humans have many, if not infinite, choices in how we might live and make sense of time. The Holocene calendar, for example, tells us that this year is 12,016 of the “Human Era.” This calendar places the first year near the beginning of the Neolithic revolution and “makes for easier geological, archaeological, dendrochronological and historical dating, as well as that it bases its epoch on an event more universally relevant than the birth of Jesus.”
Early in our residency at SFAI, we decided to make a concerted effort not to live solely on “human time.” This meant, among other things, disrupting our habits of looking at clocks and cell phones the first thing in the morning. We started to feel that morning glances at the cell phone inadvertently pulled us back onto human-centric time, that particular experience of time that is filled with self-referential narratives, rituals, functions and purposes which quickly take hold of our attention and go on to fill out the entire day in all the “normal” ways. But there’s more to time than this.
The day after we arrived in New Mexico, Roy Scranton’s latest opinion piece was published in the New York Times, titled: “We’re Doomed. Now What?” The short excerpt below made it onto our studio wall, and into our sitting with time process:
“…it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful … and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it … then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean … We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint… Most important, we need to … understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars...” Roy Scranton, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” NY Times, December 21, 2015
Scranton’s words invite us to set out into our daily lives and boldly begin to question what meanings various kinds of time might offer to us. What practices and experiences might we invent to help us sense and hold connections to nonhumans and to the multiplicities of time that they produce both “for” us and without any regard to us? We began to sit with such questions as we sat with time.
We quickly realized we would never be able to “sit with the time of the golden-cheeked warbler” if we didn’t regulate how much we allowed ourselves to be consumed by one single version of time — human time. So each day, we set aside 30 minutes to an hour and attempted to think in terms of at least two non-human scales — one “ephemeral” and one “geologic/cosmological.” We did that by trying to attune to something other than the human world. We gravitated to the things before us that we typically overlooked or took for granted as affordances that seemed to require no attention from us. Suddenly, we had strange sounding questions to ask them, such as: “What is the time of this peanut I’m about to eat?” Turns out, peanuts have been part of the planetary system for over 7,500 years. Their leaves are highly attuned to the time of sunlight and close up at night (nyctinastic). We switched our attention and questions, then, to a less ephemeral, more geologic/cosmological temporal scale: “This air I’m breathing…what is the time of the atmosphere?” Unlike the peanut, the Earth’s atmosphere is nearly as old as the planet. It’s material makeup is intimately linked to the peanut, via nitrogen. The atmosphere is composed of 78% nitrogen. Peanuts fix some of that nitrogen to the soil they grow in, “enriching” it for plants. It seemed magical to serendipitously learn that the evolutionary systems of peanuts and the atmosphere are deeply connected by the slow, evolutionary force of time on this planet. But all beings and things share in that “magic.” Right now, the time of the Earth’s atmosphere is speeding up. The speed of the changes it’s undergoing seem likely to outstrip the abilities of more ephemeral things (like many plants) to co-evolve with it.
After several weeks of these practices, now, when we look at the clocks on our phones, a “feral” thought arises: “This digital clock is keeping ‘human standard time’ – but I’m not actually living only on that anymore!” Each glance at the clock is becoming more and more the occasion for making a choice: Will I re-enlist the participation of my brain and body in the production and living of contemporary habits of time (human standard time, Anthropocenian time)?
Living according to how modern technologies are producing contemporary human standard time can be extremely useful and meaningful. It allows us to connect and align with people, places and things that we care about deeply. But there are innumerable timescapes of things and beings other than ourselves that have the potential to be extremely meaningful to human lives. Some are undergoing disruptions and disturbances —fibrillations — because of intense temporal pressures from human timescapes.
And so, the practices continue.
We’ve begun to check email less often. We’re seeking less informational “instant gratification” from our digital devices and the internets. We’re choosing to take more time with the information that does make it through. Instead of speed-reading our emails and immediately, distractedly moving on, we recently tried out a different approach. We took 20 minutes and spent those minutes looking at just one photo from a large group that our friends had sent us from a trip to Newfoundland last summer. During their trip, they had documented icebergs that had broken off of Greenland and floated past the Canadian coast as they melted. We spent 20 minutes with the image below. We looked at this singular iceberg’s contours, its colors. We imagined the time that its changing was producing: a temporality that was now accelerating, disappearing. We thought about how our friends had been there in person to see this event of change-as-time, time-as-change.
iceberg off Newfoundland, image courtesy Valerie Triggs and Michele Sorensen
Other things and beings are producing other temporalities that are now unfolding around us, concurrently with “ours,” running alongside and through us and everything else. Many of our “modern” cultural activities don’t encourage us to meaningfully note or pay attention to how our individual life’s time is enmeshed in the wildly disparate times of others’. Our project is based on the hunch that the forces and effects of feral temporalities will command human attention more and more directly in the near future. Personally-felt pressures of others’ temporalities might encourage humans to wake up to the fact that the Anthropocene is not only about human impact on the planet. It is also about a great new humbling of humanity by non-standardized temporalities and changes which are now being produced by both domesticated and untamed planetary systems.
It takes time and effort to pay deep attention to what we often mistakenly think of as the rest of the world. When we do, at first, much of the world may appear to be mute. But the planet’s uncountable temporalities deliver into each present moment a great deal of information (potential knowledge) that humans might find useful, if not crucial, if we attend to it. Much of how we humans do time is a choice and habit, not a necessity. We are all beginners at living time in, and as, the Anthropocene.
*Sincere thanks to the incredibly supportive staff and residents at the Santa Fe Art Institute. The work and quality of time that we lived during our residency has set the foundation for this year-long project. Being in-residence made it possible for us to, literally, live time differently in incredibly productive and generative ways. We are grateful.
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