on Time, edited by Amelia Groom (MIT Press)

In my early teens I took drum lessons after school from a local jazz and standards band leader. I would go to his house where he set up two kits in his drafty basement. Affably half-drunk by four o’clock, he would say, “We don’t keep time, son, we make time.” Keeping time was for bass players whom he also accused of poor hygiene. The drummer controls tempo, emphases and punctuation. He has a proprietary attitude about time.

Soon I discovered that poets often insist on having the last word about conceiving time. The purpose of meter is not to keep time but to take full responsibility for making time. Osip Mandelstam wrote, “For Dante, time is the content of history felt as a single synchronic act, and inversely, the purpose of history is to keep time together so that all are brothers and companions in the same quest and conquest of time.” But time and history are up for grabs; poets have faced competition – and sometimes lethal resistance -- from the most entrenched centers of power.

RomanClock.jpegIn his 2007 book Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History, Denis Feeney observes, “If you were a Greek or Roman moving between ambits of two or more states, it was impossible to have any kind of time frame in your head at all if you could not handily correlate disparate people and events.” Each city promulgated its own calendar. How could you run an empire without clocks to synchronize time? Julius Caesar took the initiative by revamping the Republican calendar, establishing commemorations, festivals and anniversaries to be observed throughout the territories.

In what we now call the fifth century A.D., Dionysius Exiguus dreamed up the exact moment of Jesus’ birth while trying to fix an appropriate date to celebrate Easter. History began to accumulate and press forward. Synchronization of time standards became necessary with the increase of speed in connecting places by coach, but also to organize mass labor. By 1500, clocks in the city square were tolling on the quarter hour.

But the artist believes that people inhabit different frames of time, often simultaneously – cyclical or recurrent, linear, seasonal, social, historical, private. Eugenio Montale spells it out in his poem “Time and Times” in this translation by William Arrowsmith:

There’s no unique time, rather many tapes
running parallel,
often contradictory, and rarely
intersecting. But then the sole truth
is disclosed and, once disclosed, immediately
erased by whoever runs the recorder
and spins the dials. And then we fall back
into unique time. But in that instant
only the few people still alive
have recognized each other in time to say,
not be-seeing-you, but good-bye.

AmeliaGroom.jpgFor the art critic and curator Amelia Groom, “the contemporary” is the adversary of the artist. In her essay “Sisyphus,” she writes, “This is the paradox of the Modernist notion of ‘progress’: with the indefinite postponement of closure, it demands that we strive for it but never reach it ... Because there is always more to acquire, the arrow of time loops back on itself. The treadmill makes us run in place, so step-by-step becomes step-on-top-of-step.”

TimeCover.jpgGroom’s animus toward capitalism provides the impetus for Time, a wonderfully varied collection of 57 essential essays. But time is the preoccupation and province of every serious artist in every genre, whether or not one creates work with overt subversive intentions. A reading of Time is bound to be richly rewarding through its articulation and qualification of time-ish notions that hover over our work. It is an invaluable sourcebook, selected for foundational thinking and edited for impact. Although the selection is biased toward statements of the past few decades, there are older texts by Augustine, Dogen Zenji, and Bergson. Rooted in art and design, Time is deeply literary and philosophical in its references. There are pieces by Borges and Calvino, Deleuze and Agamben, Filipovic and Abramovic.

Groom works to discredit “the notion of artistic production as a conscious, heroic, step-by-step execution from an idea to a predetermined end,” asking us to consider time from the perspective of the artwork itself. There is a latency of moments in writing and art, “a thickening of the present to acknowledge its multiple, interwoven temporalities.” Quoting Giorgio Agamben, Groom says “the ‘true contemporary’ is someone who can perceive the obscurity of the present … To disrupt the notion of a homogenous, uni-directional time made from a string of separate instants is to undermine the hubris of the present.”

A sampling of Time:

George Kubler, 1962: “Time, like mind, is not knowable as such. We know time only indirectly by what happens in it, by observing change and permanence, by marking the succession of events among stable settings, and by noting the contract of varying rates of change.”

Jean-Luc Nancy, 1997: “Not history as a grandiose or confused movement of the destiny of peop0les, nor as the monumental heaping together of culture and barbarity, nor as an adventure of events, but history as the simultaneous presence of its millions of histories, present history, presentified history.”

Elizabeth Grosz, 1999: “Time tends to function as a silent accompaniment, a shadowy implication underlying, contextualizing and eventually undoing all knowledges and practices without being their explicit object of analysis or speculation.”

Boris Groys, 2009: “The present has ceased to be a point of transition from the past to the future, becoming instead a site of the permanent rewriting of both past and future3 – of constant proliferations of historical narratives beyond any individual grasp or control.”

Adrian Heathfield, 2009: “… to times that will not submit to Western culture’s linear, progressive meta-narratives, its orders of commodification; to the times of excluded or marginalized identities and lives; to times as they are felt in diverse bodies. Time, then, as plenitude: heterogeneous, informal and multi-faceted.”

Giorgio Agamben, 2009: “The present is nothing other than this unlived element in everything that is lived. That which impedes access to the present is precisely the mass of what for some reason (its traumatic character, its excessive nearness) we have not managed to live. The attention to this ‘unlived’ life is the life of the contemporary. And to be contemporary means in this sense to return to a present where we have never been.”

ClockSwirl.jpegNot only does time not “pass” in the same way for everyone, but the difference suggests that time does not pass at all. Nevertheless, if you want to make a souffle, you have to watch the clock. The poets know this, of course, and it is why many poems about time are tragic even as time is reclaimed by the poet in the measures of the poem. Think of Emily Dickinson’s ferocious poem “A Clock stopped,” usually read as an extended metaphor for death, but even more provocative when taken as a disempowerment of conventional time and its reincorporation as the poem’s testy duration:

A Clock stopped –
Not the Mantel’s –
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing –
That just now dangled still –

An awe came on the Trinket!
The Figures hunched, with pain –
Then quivered out of Decimals –
Into Degreeless Noon –

It will not stir for Doctors –
This Pendulum of snow –
This Shopman importunes it –
While cool – concernless No –

Nods from the Gilded pointers –
Nods from the Seconds slim –
Decades of Arrogance between
The Dial life –
And Him --

For the poets, dropping out of time is often serious business even when it is liberating. In “Come, Break With Time,” Louise Bogan asks, “You who were lorded / By a clock’s chime” to reject the conventional hours. But in the fourth and final stanza, she leaches out any remaining rising spirit:

Take the rocks’ speed
And earth’s heavy measure.
Let buried seed
Drain out time’s pleasure,
Take time’s decrees.
Come, cruel ease.

ClockNoHands.jpegAmelia Groom tells us that “art can show us how our understanding of time has always been something fabricated and shifting rather than pre-existing or ‘natural.” Walter Benjamin devised the term Jetztzeit or “now time” and “called on us to stop ‘telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary’ and instead grasp ‘the constellation’ which the present forms with the past.” All art has been/is contemporary.

Playing Julius O’Hara in John Huston’s 1954 film Beat the Devil, Peter Lorre put it this way: “

“Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians want it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook.”

[Published October 23, 20-13. 240 pages, $24.95 paperback. In the Whitechapel series of “Documents in Contemporary Art.”]

Re Time

Time obviates
what time cannot tell
at 12 noon
I am 2 days before
at dinner
wondering if
she'll stay the night