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The Clock: Art in the Digital Age

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On a recent visit to Ottawa, I went to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at The National Gallery. Very basically, The Clock is a 24-hour film, comprised of short clips of movies and TV shows, each of which shows or refers to the time: a character looks at a watch, we see a clock on the wall, etc. The clips are culled from all eras of film, and from multiple genres. The achievement is, of course, amazing enough in its obsessive sourcing of material, but the astonishing thing is that the time displayed in each of the clips is the same time as it is in the actual world. I have to admit up front, I only watched about 40 minutes of The Clock. We would have stayed longer, but we were expected at dinner, and returned to Toronto the next day. I would happily have sat there for hours longer, though, it was so captivating. Occasionally (at least if you happened to be watching when I was, between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m.) it’s quite funny.

Part of the fascination is obvious: you can hardly believe what you’re seeing, you wonder how long it must have taken to create, or indeed how it was created. Also, although there’s no ‘story’, there is a kind of internal rhythm to it, and a playfulness in the way the clips ‘talk’ to each other. For instance, we see a character look up, presumably towards a wall clock, and then we see a wall clock, but it’s a clock in a different scene. The way it plays with our own sense of time is fascinating. We’re all familiar with being at a movie and losing track of time, or being at a bad movie, where time seems to slow down. Here, in virtue of watching The Clock, we are ‘watching the clock’ – we’re aware of what time it is in the non-movie world. And yet, amazingly, it’s so compelling that even still, we lose track of time.

What I’ve been puzzling over, though, is what it is about The Clock that feels so digital, because there is something very much of our time about it.

I started thinking about this because some time ago, I interviewed the poetry critic and academic, Marjorie Perloff for my show, Spark. She argues that in poetry at least, we can talk about something she calls “unoriginal genius”, meaning that we can claim as art the skillful re-using of other source material in poetry. In the full, unedited interview (not online) she raised The Clock in the context of this kind of repurposing and remixing, and specifically in the context of a digital, internet-enabled era. Her observation about The Clock is that this is how we experience time now, in this same sort of collage way. For example, she noted, we move through time zones, we click on news stories that take place on the other side of the world, many hours ahead of us. We access information pulled from multiple points in time. Fascinating observations.

There’s clearly a more pedestrian, or practical sense in which it’s a digital work. It’s hard to imagine how you would make it in an analog era. I assume that at least Marclay had access to online databases of scripts to search for mentions of clocks/time. Certainly editing it digitally would have been less crazy-making a task than in an earlier era. But I can’t help feeling there’s something uncanny about The Clock that feels very much a piece with who we are now. It feels like something outside of nature, as though the very order of the natural world (the unfolding of linear time) is being played with. It’s like he’s created an alternate, virtual reality, running alongside our everyday reality. It’s a feeling that you don’t get from simply watching a film which takes you out of your everyday experience of the world to another place. This parallel reality feels, as I say, uncanny. Charming, but also a bit creepy. I wonder if there isn’t something in this that at least feels like what it means to be digital.

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