Timekeeper interview

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JOURNAL:

An interview by Jessika Green in TiP (Thinking in Practice, Balmond Studio, June 2013).

As she prepares for the installation of A Storm Is Blowing at UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, Cathy Haynes shares her thoughts on resisting mass synchrony and how our pictures of time influence us, and invites us to reflect on the kind of future we want to make.

In her role as its Timekeeper in residence, Haynes has been commissioned by the Petrie to make on multi-disciplinary research project that explores how time is modelled, mapped, measured and lived. Developed from a series of conversations with the public and time experts from a diverse range of academic fields, A Storm Is Blowing will connect 35 different historical pictures and models in an improvised 3D diagram of time.

The dream of Nebuchadnezzer
For a while now I’ve been collecting historical material and ephemera around how we picture time and the installation will be based around these. The centrepiece is a five and a half metre Victorian history of the world mapped onto a measured line figured as a stream. It contains an astonishingly dense quantity of data, including historical models of time that differ more or less from its own. One of these includes the biblical story of the dream of a statue that King Nebuchadanezzar had and forced Daniel to interpret under pain of death. The statue had a gold head, a silver chest, brass hips, iron legs and clay and iron feet. Daniel said it stood for the future decay of empires, from Nebuchadanezzar’s own empire (gold) to End Times (clay and iron which don’t stick together well). Generally today our visual metaphors of time seem immaterial – even if we think of time as a stream or an arrow, what’s most significant about them as models is their movement and direction, more than what they are made of, I think. So to me it’s fascinating how heavily material the dream statue is. What it’s made of, not just what it looks like, is key.

Time in relief
The Petrie Museum is completely amazing. A tiny space with tens of thousands of objects displayed in traditional cases, often with hand typed or even hand written captions. To have the chance to make an installation there feels extremely lucky. In a way, the material I’m adding is a response to (an amplification of, even) the overwhelming intensity of history you get when you walk through the Museum’s doors. The process of making it is in the tradition of amateur collecting and enquiry, out of which the discipline of archaeology developed.

The installation is a collection of some of the ways that we picture and model time. It’s very partial, drawing together a scattering of moments in history. There isn’t the Kalachakra of South-East Asian thought or the Mayan calendar, for example. But there are reflections on ancient Egyptians ideas about time which are somewhat ungraspable for us, and much debated by Egyptologists. What we do know is that the early Egyptians had a different understanding of time from us. Some would argue that the early Egyptians didn’t have a sense of pastness – or at least not as we conceive of it. But how do you gesture to that in a museum display? How do you give visitors a contemporary framework to make sense of the order and cause of events, while also showing that its subjects wouldn’t have understood, ordered or measured history in the same way? How does any museum represent how the people whose history it displays conceived of history themselves?  A Storm Is Blowing doesn’t offer an answer. But by raising these questions I’m hoping it will put our own sense of time into relief so that we become more aware of how our own models of time aren’t universal.

I’m a big fan of chronological timelines – maps that visualise history sequentially and mnemonically so we can comprehend it better. They’re such a useful, vital tool. But they are just a tool. And they have a history and a politics of their own. Part of that history comes from a fairly new idea that history is progressive. (Up until the eighteenth century and beyond the majority view was that we’re in decline and awaiting the End Times).
That marvellous book Cartographies of Time by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg gives a glorious visual history and analysis of how, in the mid-eighteenth century, the timeline (as we know it now) was introduced as a new form of graphic organization of history. It unified and measured all of history in a novel way. And because the names of great men seemed to cluster closer to the present than the past it appeared to be an objective picture of historical progress. I imagine this picture also helped gradually replace the dominant idea that history is driven by divine will with the idea that the causal relationship between historical events is intrinsic, and can be shaped by human will. But that graphic device quickly became taken for a picture of truth – an objective, inarguable representation of how the past was and how the future should and will be.

So the installation is also an invitation to reflect on what assumptions come with our linear, sequential, progressive picture of history. If we take that image — of history tugging us along of its own accord towards a better future — to represent objective truth, does that give inappropriate force to the idea that technological innovation will save us of its own accord, or that markets have to be about limitless growth? And does that way of thinking and imagining history hamper our sense of power to help create the future? Do we end up replacing our own visions of a genuinely new future with a faith in innovation for itself? If we reflect on those themes, does that prompt us to really think about what kind of future we really want to help make? In a gentle way this project is to ask some of these questions of myself as much as anybody else.

Fixing time
To ‘think’ time, we visualise it. But by making pictures and models of time, we turn it into space and matter. In other words, to try and think of time we turn it into what it is not. Reading Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory I thought about the implications of fixing time so it becomes space. Bergson is warning us that that way of thinking can lead to quantifying qualities of life that exceed measurement, that are bigger than the mechanistic. That’s because we start to confuse the metrics for the life, taking the data to be more tangible than the thing.

One of the ways, I think, that way of thinking affects us with a light touch on the day to day level is when we feel subordinate somehow to the clock even though it’s just a tool. Those are the times when we feel the pressure to force our own exuberant, slower or irregular rhythms into time with the clock, to reduce ourselves to its beat. I’ve heard the clock ticking away on the wall described as an uncanny thing that seems somehow more alive than we are. We have to match its rhythms, rather than the other way around. Obviously that happens for lots of sensible, practical and logical reasons but at the same time there are areas of life where that becomes unnecessarily trapping. For example, in how we evaluate the worth and productivity of what we spend our ‘free’ time doing.
Bergson encourages us to release our habit of fixing time in space and instead to experience time as something which isn’t measurable or predictable but diffuse, multiple and fluctuating. During the event Revolutions In Time the artist and musician David Toop had a fascinating response to Bergson’s idea. If I understood him right, he made the point that the music score is not the performance. The score is a totality, a managed, ordered, measured map of what should happen, and the performance is something quite different. The relationship between the players, their experience of time and the experience of time that they produce, are much more complicated, fluctuating and fluid. I find this model liberating to think with because, as I understand it, while the score forges a collectivity by creating shared time, each musician maintains their own singularity, their own time, while performing it. To force the performance to match the score utterly, however, is to edge towards the totalitarian – where the individual is absorbed into the mass, marching to the beat in unison as one body without difference. That’s the extreme. But there are times at the other end of the continuum when we feel our own time is being taken from us in less dramatic, oppressive ways.

Resisting conformity to mass synchrony
The picture of time as a line, of course, reduces the complex and multiple qualities of life, and that’s the other question being raised by this project: how do we map a life in a way that gives space and value to our actual lived experience — to the knots, ruins, dead ends and failures as well as the triumphs and the leaps?

The timeline is one of a number of new time-measuring tools – like the mechanical clock – that first started becoming a part of everyday life in the mid-eighteenth century. For some I sense even this fairly low-key movement toward mass synchrony would have come as a pressure to conform to someone else’s time. My favourite example is Laurence Sterne’s fictional autobiography of Tristram Shandy. Its first volumes came out at the time that the thin black biographical line was introduced as a device to represent the lives of great men along a timeline. The novel is a satire on that thin black line, and on its answer to the question of how to map a life. Tristram Shandy’s form as a story and as a material object is so absolutely knotty, complicated, elusive, unmeasurable and unmappable that it is a brilliant counterpoint to the progressive linear model of history. Tristram Shandy seems to me provide the anti-image that resists over-conforming to mass synchrony.

The Angel of History
One of the images of history the installation responds to comes from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History. The text itself is incredibly rich and gnomic, with many hugely important readings (a lot of which read it as being more pessimistic than I do). I’ve chosen just to reflect on a part of that essay. I’m fascinated by how visual it is. Benjamin warns us about how we turn our graphic devices into truth: imagining events as if they are beads on a rosary or a stream pulling us along. He also gives what I read to be two elusive counter models. The main image is artist Paul Klee’s print Angelus Novus which Benjamin acquired in 1922 and names the ‘angel of history’ in his essay. The angel is being blown by a storm backwards into the future whilst looking into the past. Benjamin writes that this ‘storm is what we call progress’. Where we see progress the angel sees destruction and catastrophe. I take that to mean we too often take catastrophe and waste as necessary side-effects to progress and productivity. Benjamin’s text proposes an elusive model of the constellation that blasts ‘a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history’. Benjaminian scholars have made much more sophisticated and subtle readings of this idea than I can. The simple galvanizing idea I take from it is the importance to see outside of the picture of history that tells us how things are meant to be and instead imagine what a genuinely new future would look like.

The project began as a series of conversations, with eight multi-disciplinary events. It felt important that during the discussions and workshops we weren’t always ticking to the same beat — that we weren’t all synced up, telling the same story, interpreting and responding to questions about time the same way — and I’m hoping that spirit will also come through in the installation:  it is out of time with itself.

Cathy Haynes is Timekeeper in residence at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (University College London, Malet Place, London WC1E 6BT) where her installation A Storm Is Blowing will be on display from 12 June to 2 August 2013.

 

Image: detail of a 19th-century history map in Cathy Haynes’s collection.