Holly Willis

Let’s take a quick look back: Over the last decade, we’ve seen an array of movies that play with time. There was Tom Tkywer’s Run Lola Run in 1998, which repeats three different temporal pathways offering alternate paths through the story with each iteration. Fittingly dubbed a “Nintendo narrative” by scholar Sue Scheibler, this film, and several others like it, replicate the time structures of video games.

Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) both reverse the linear temporal flow of their respective stories, asking us to piece things together from storylines played out in reverse. Where Nolan has us consider issues of memory, Noe lets the full weight of cause and effect reverberate as a violent crime and its aftermath take on different meaning with each step backward in time.

Then there’s Mike Figgis’ TimeCode 2000, with its four continuous and contiguous frames of linear real time with links and crossovers among the four spaces, and the TV show 24, with its emphasis on real-time, parallel action and split screen effects.

More recently there’s Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), which fractures its narrative into three sections, showing through the repetition of one otherwise innocuous sequence that the film’s apparently linear and chronological temporal organization is actually a tripartite bifurcation that indirectly suggests different pathways, possibilities and alternatives.

There are other examples, but the prevalence and inventiveness of these temporal experiments suggests that we’re hungry to re-think time, and these films illustrate a desire to represent a new temporal consciousness. But why now?

First, we can look at what has been called the “shortening of temporal horizons” by Ursula K. Heise in her magisterial account of temporal experimentation, Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative and Postmodernism (Cambridge University Press, 1997). She lists as a second factor our experience of radically different time scales, from the seemingly instantaneous functioning of computers to the huge expanses of geological time. And a third factor has to do with the radical changes in information technologies, which emphasize simultaneity and instantaneity.

So how are issues of time addressed in moving images? And how does the temporal organization of postmodern media re-conceive or visualize a new temporal consciousness? To answer that question, let’s look at a few examples of temporal experimentation.

Liisa Lounila and the Instant
Between 2001 and 2003, Finnish video artist Liisa Lounila made three short videos (Play, Flirt and Popcorn) using a 360-degree pinhole camera apparatus that could take many photographs from slightly different directions simultaneously; the images were then scanned and digitally stitched together and edited.

In some ways, her project returns to the experiments of Eadward Muybridge in the nineteenth century, when the now famous photographer arranged a battery of still cameras in a line to divide the movement of various subjects—horses, people—performing everyday activities. Muybridge’s experiments are often celebrated as precursors to the invention of cinema’s moving images.

But what makes Lounilla’s work so interesting is its differences from Muybridge’s studies. Where Muybridge is aligned with a larger cultural imperative to divide time into usable units in order to mechanize and standardize an otherwise unruly temporal flow, an activity aligned with the Taylorist regimentation of the factory in the early 20th century, Lounila’s videos look at a moment as a microstructure of time, and her technique highlights not necessarily an inevitable progression forward, but rather the potential for alternate directions and differences in the moment itself. Time for the subjects in the footage becomes suspended as point of view continues to move, creating in effect two separate temporalities.

In writing about the modernist fiction of Alain Robbe-Grillet, focusing specifically on the objective narration of Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy, Roland Barthes says that “time is constituted as a series of slices which almost exactly correspond to each other, and their temporality lies precisely in this ‘almost.’” The same could be said, perhaps with even more accuracy, of Lounila’s videos, which depict movement across stasis while allowing for change to occur in the seemingly static “moment” of time being traversed.

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Play | Liisa Lounila | 2003 | 3:00

Chris Cunningham and the Open Flash
There have been many similar experiments, especially in recent work, that divide and then reconstitute movement in time, with the key technique centering on the dissociation of the temporal realm of the pro-filmic with the temporal realm of the camera. These two times are generally linked—indeed, the entire goal of cinema is to marry the time of the pro-filmic with that of the camera. The camera achieves this in shooting images, and the projector replicates it during exhibition. However, in separating the two, one can create an array of effects.

Dayton Taylor, for example developed what he calls the “Timetrack” system in 1994. He was inspired in part by Chris Marker’s film La Jetee, and the relationship between still and moving images. Fascinated by the idea of capturing the same moment from different points of view, Taylor eventually came up with a series of small 35mm still cameras locked onto a slightly curved track, with the cameras situated about an inch and half apart; the cameras were triggered simultaneously, capturing the subject at the same time but at a different spatial point.

In 2003, Taylor worked with Chris Cunningham, who made a commercial for Orange Photo Messaging using the Timetrack system and its “open flash” capability. In the commercial, we see the camera move through space that has been stopped, catching everything mid-motion—the figures are ghostlike in their blurriness. While we can see the blur of movement, the movement of the camera exists in a temporal realm separate from that of the scene being photographed. However, the idea with flash photography is to freeze action, while a long exposure creates a motion blur, which is interpreted as the movement of time. Combining the two techniques creates a tension between stasis and motion, which in turn suggests a kind of time that simultaneously halts but moves. The result of the technique is that we do not understand the “moment” necessarily as a single instance, but as a point at the intersection of numerous possible temporalities, a reading made possible by the simultaneous freezing and blurring.

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Photo Messaging | Chris Cunningham | 2003 | :30

Doug Aitken, Michel Gondry and Reversible Time
Focusing on the permutations of the instant, and on the tension between stasis and motion, are two examples of time consciousness; a third example is the depiction of reversed time, in which time unspools seemingly in reverse.

In Doug Aitken’s 9-projection video installation Blow Debris (2000) there is a sequence in which time is not only slowed, but it flips into reverse at the moment of catastrophe. It’s as if time here becomes detached, and the present breaks down to become recursive, as if the catastrophe somehow demanded reiteration.

Michel Gondry has also played repeatedly with time, but perhaps the most compelling example of reversed time occurs in his video titled “Sugar Water” for the band Cibo Matto. Here, he uses single shot takes for both the left and right frames of the split-screen image, with the left starting out in forward motion, and the right in reverse; half way through the video, the time frames reverse, and yet the story continues. The characters also break the frame of their respective stories, crossing the boundary from one narrative world into the other. This is a common characteristic of postmodern novels, in which the crossing of boundaries between diegetic levels raises questions about time and causality, as well as the role of the narrator. Here, however, the reversal and crossing back and forth creates a narrative and temporal palindrome, and the time frames seem to loop around each other.

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Michel Gondry | Sugar Water | Cibo Matto | 1996

Michiel van Bakel, Francois Vogel and Pieces of Time
As we’ve seen from the examples above, separating the time-base of the camera’s point of view and the time-base of what is photographed allows the camera to become virtual. Artists Michiel van Bakel and Francois Vogel hint at the possibilities of the virtual camera and its more radical depiction of time in recent projects.

Michiel van Bakel’s Equestrian (2002) was inspired by the growing number of surveillance cameras dotting urban cityscapes. The short shows a person on horseback trotting into a public square, with the image captured via numerous cameras surrounding the subject. However, Van Bakel not only stitches the images together to create the bullet time illusion, but he also plays with the images as slices or layers to be placed together on a single plane or dispersed along numerous, divergent vectors.

Similarly, Francois Vogel, a French media artist best known for his HP commercials (in which live action becomes still picture images), creates in his short film Readymade (2004) a scene in which each character inhabits a separate layer of time, which is then mapped over a continuous space. The piece is set on the spiral staircase of an apartment building, which offers a nice visual corollary to the temporal play that follows. Various denizens of the building perform a series of tasks—carrying groceries, setting up a ladder—but the actions are depicted within separate frames, which in turn are placed over the space. The depiction of time here is fully dispersed, and only held together only by the spatial realm, which in turn is slightly skewed by the temporal disjunctures.

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Readymade | Francois Vogel | France | 2003 | 5:00

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“You and HP” ads | Francois Vogel | 2003

An Uncertain Becoming?
In his two books Cinema I: The Movement Image and Cinema II: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze divides the history of cinema between two key moments: The first is 1924, and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., in which time is subordinated to movement and measured dynamically.

The second key moment is 1962 and Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a film composed almost entirely of still images. In this film, Deleuze argues, the Newtonian conception of space is displaced. Movement is drained from the image, creating what Deleuze calls the “crystalline image.” By “crystalline image,” Delueze refers to an image that not only bears an increased sensitivity to time, but one that opens up an interval, or what Deleuze, borrowing from physics, calls a “bifurcation point,” where we are unsure the direction time will take. The older idea of the movement-image from early cinema falls apart, allowing for the emergence of an image “of uncertain becoming.”

While this hasty, oversimplified description of Deleuze’s work can hardly be fair, I hope it offers suggestive correlations between a radical rethinking of temporality and the kinds of temporality being experimented with in contemporary media. As we catapult into new forms of networked subjectivity, how can we not be hungry for new ways of considering temporal consciousness? These short projects not only verify a larger cultural need, but they begin to articulate a few of the possibilities.