The unimaginable expanse of everything else

Sam Raimi, the director of the Spiderman movies (and the far more interesting Evil Dead) has said that he wants to set up cameras in US cities that will shoot a single frame at noon every day for the next 1000 years:

“It’s the same idea of all time-lapse photography, but over an outrageous amount of time,” Raimi told The Associated Press in an interview to promote “Spider-Man 2.” “So you could watch the city of Los Angeles rise, and maybe an earthquake might come in 300 years or a tidal wave.”

This reminds me of a Douglas Gordon proposal to show John Ford’s movie ‘The Searchers’ so that the projection time was as long as the narrative time in the movie – in this case 5 years.

Slow art like this is a very underappreciated concept in a society that fetishises speed. During the 60’s and 70’s, artists interested in, to use Lucy Lippard’s phrase, the dematerialization of the art object, used long durational periods to escape the inevitable commodification of art. On Kawara’s Today Series – a series of identical paintings made every day, showing only that day’s date – has been ongoing now since 1966. In a recent seven-day performance in London – Reading One Million Years – Kawara positioned two actors in a glass box in trafalgar square, reading alternately from a list of past years (998,031 BC to 1969 AD) and then the future (1980 AD to 1,001,980 AD).

Its no accident that these projects echo the rythymical industrial time signature of our post-industrial world. The click of the camera shutter or the repetition of diary dates demonstrate how our contemporary understanding of time is marked not by the pliable warp and weft of nature, but by the monotonous sussuration of machines.

On Kawara leaves only this repetition, making a statement about either the futility, or continuous renewal, at the core of our existence. Douglas Gordon is more poetic, showing us how film has compressed narrative time, and how by returning them to their correct duration we open up a completely new experience. When I saw his earlier piece, 24-Hour Psycho, at the Tramway in Glasgow, each frame of the film was viewable for a few seconds at a time. I watched an early section in which Janet Leigh drives away from her lover towards the Bates Motel. What fascinated me was the detail in the (rear-projected) street glimpsed behind her car – a film within a film that seemed alive with change and event, in contrast to the relative stillness of Leigh driving in the foreground.

Raimi’s proposal is primarily conceptual; it will produce just over a second of film a month, meaning that it will take over 4 years to produce a film as long as the Lumiere Brothers’ first shorts. The audience that would actually be able to watch Los Angeles rising and falling in these films will not be born until the next millenium.

There’s something poetically optimistic about projects with such a long time frame. They’re like a message in a bottle, cast with hope into the unknown oceans of time that stretch before us. There is something vertiginously sublime about contemplating timescales that are exponentially longer than our own lives. Having just had our first daughter, I’m even more curious about things that I know I will never be able to experience.

Is there a digital equivalent to this mechanical time? Phil Gyford’s Pepys Diary maps the narrative back on to real time, and has, like 24 Hour Psycho, opened up the text to new kinds of readings and discussion. The hit-and-run attention span of the blog has been turned to produce a definitive ongoing piece of research.

But the Pepys Diary project should still be completed within Gyford’s lifetime. My favourite piece of online art is John F. Simon’s Every Icon. It’s breathtakingly simple – a computer programme that started in 1997, from the top right hand corner of a grid of 32 X 32 squares, and is systematically describing every possible combination of black and white squares. In time, every possible picture within that grid will be described – arrows, boxes, faces, hearts, logos. It took 1.36 years to cycle through the possibilities of the first line of squares. The next line, at an average CPU rate of 100 icons per second, will be finished in 5.85 billion years. The whole project will likely take trillions of years to complete.

Thats longer than the known existence of the universe. Represented as a grid of 32 X 32 squares.

Raimi’s project, like Gordon’s, use the mechanical ‘click click click’ of the camera shutter to show how we take for granted the ability to re-present time in stretched and condensed versions. But both these projects are within the expanded memories of our technological societies. Every Icon shows us a completely alien notion of time – remorseless, logical and impervious to even the inevitable natural limits of the known universe. It is so far out of our understanding of time that we can’t possibly understand it, the mute white expanses of the grid standing as a metaphor for our impermanence – a blank memorial stone for the whole of civilisation.

I’ve decided that I want a gravestone that will have engraved on it the precise condition of Every Icon on the moment that I die. It will have nothing else, just the grid. Rather than defining my life within the boundaries of what I knew – from my birth date to death – my ‘Every Icon’ grid will show the unimaginable expanse of everything else.

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One comment

  1. ChrisL

    You’re assuming that Every Icon will still be running come your death – which runs counter to your pessimism about the continuity of digital media in your April 4th post.

    If you go before I do, I’ll make sure the image on your grave is you holding the FA Cup.

    ; )

    Chris.

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