Time, Un-metered

Once upon a time there was a this, then there was a that, and finally, the end. In today’s Western world, this is how most stories are told. Children’s fables, blockbuster action movies, and even pop songs follow a linear, predictable chronology. And the everyday physical surroundings in our flat, paced, rated, labeled, bounded world are equally predictable. City planners arrange streets in rectangular grids; stoplights turn on, off, on, at timed intervals, to tame the flow of traffic; taxis charge by the mile; buildings are labeled with numbers, and jut from their foundations at 90-degree angles.

James Rouvelle, an artist and technology specialist at the Maryland Institute College of Art, says this metered world affects the way we live, manipulates us, in fact, to behave in a predictable way. “We are wired to scan our environment and adapt to whatever we discover,” he explains, “in other words, we train to the medium.” So we navigate those orderly streets, stop and go when we’re supposed to, wear watches on our wrists. “Our time is monochromic,” he says, “everything is ordered and dictated by a watch.”

And for Rouvelle, this metered sense of time is worrisome. “My concern,” he says, “is that we—Western culture—have, over the past few hundred years, chosen to develop along a trajectory of reductionism, trying to understand things by breaking them down into individuated, component parts whose behaviors are often described as relating to other unique components sequentially, and verified metrically – and often visualized.”

The visual description of time, at least in Western classical art, is often a sequential one. In many of the great Piero Della Francesca's pieces (like The Queen of Sheba's Visit to Jerusalem, above), for instance, the progression of the action is achieved by the viewer looking from left to right. First, then, finally—story told.

But many contemporary artists and architects are looking to break free of this metered perception of time. Rouvelle encourages this change, as he believes an un-metered temporal perspective can enhance both our aesthetic and social experiences. “There are complementary experiences, non-linear experiences,” he says, “where time, for example, is not moving in a specific direction, yet change is evident. I believe that these non-sequential experiences are equally real, however, and that if I could contemplate them more fully my experience overall would be significantly different.” And artists, he says, have the means to create less metered descriptions of the world, and thus make the world a better place. “I believe that if we could improve our understanding of our experience through better and more accurate models,” he argues, “we would experience greater empathy with others.”

Here are a few examples of recent art and architecture that flaunt a non-linear expression of time, and in this way, force their audiences to experience time un-metered…

The Site of Reversible Destiny

On the other side of the world, in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, two New York artists created an external environment completely unlike the ordered grid in the Big Apple: The Site of Reversible Destiny. In October 1995, architect Shusaku Arakawa and his creative partner, poet Madeline Gins opened this “experience park” of lushly vegetated mounds, inclined planes and maze-like interiors to offer visitors, as the website states, “opportunities to rethink their physical and spiritual orientation to the world.”

If you look at a map of the park, the names of the featured sites sound like some kind of metaphysical Disneyland: the Gate of Non-Dying, the Exactitude Ridge, the Zone of the Clearest Confusion, the Kinesthetic Pass, and even the Destiny House. Then there’s the Critical Resemblance House, which has a labyrinth of hallways with furniture arranged on the floor, under the floor, and on the ceiling. Outside the buildings, scattered throughout the green outdoor landscape, are 24 species of medicinal herbs “that give it a gradually changing complexion from season to season.”

The park also—like Disney’s rollercoasters—disturbs balance; a warning on their homepage, written in red text, reads: “Because the Site of Reversible Destiny-Yoro Park has many steep slopes, we advise that you wear rubber-heeled shoes.” Indeed, since the park opened in 1995, Rouvelle says it has had to set aside funding specifically for medical bills of the dozens of visitors who, just from walking around the disorienting landscape, have fractured or broken bones.

Clearly then, the Site of Reversible Destiny creates an endlessness that we don’t normally experience. Psychologist and art critic Rudolf Arnheim argues that this endlessness, especially when experienced outdoors, grants art and architecture “a high aesthetic value.”

Rouvelle would agree. He says the Site of Reversible Destiny—without flat surfaces, street grids, or 90-degree angles—“forces us to come to terms with physical angles that are becoming less and less common” in Western city life; in other words, it’s exactly the kind of art that can help us break free of a metered sense of time.

Expérience de la Durée, Biennale de Lyon 2005

“Experiencing Duration” was the theme of the 2005 Lyon Biennale, a contemporary art show with venues in Glasgow, Frankfurt, Paris, Milan and Vilnius. The show’s curators, Nicolas Bourriaud and Jérôme Sans, wrote they hoped the hundreds of paintings, film, video, light, and sound installations would “eschew the current temptation of a return to the traditional categories of painting and sculpture and video. We wanted to stress the fact that art is an experience that engages the spectator.”

Echoing the words of James Rouvelle, Bourriaud and Sans explained on the exhibition’s website why time is such a provocative theme to explore in art: “Addressing time was a way for us to draw up an inventory of the 1990s, when art began to function as a sort of editing bay on which artists could reconstruct everyday reality.” These artists, the curators explained, “tweaked the tempo” of their art—displaying videos and sounds that had been paused, looped, or synchronized in unexpected ways. “Time is more a building material than a mere medium,” Bourriaud and Sans argued. More than a static oil painting or stone monument, they wrote, “art is first and foremost an event.”


Both the Site of Reversible Destiny and the exhibits at the Lyon Biennial use art to manipulate the viewer’s experience of time. But other forms of contemporary art—like interactive sound projects—are themselves manipulated by time. One such dynamic project, designed by Rouvelle and Berlin-based artists Innes Yates and Judith Bieseler, is called Research, Instructions, Programs, and Logic for Trans-Robotic Adaptive Networked Environments, or RIPLTRANE. Launched in March 2004 and still going today, RIPLTRANE allows participants in both New York and Berlin to step or dance on pressure sensors in a tiled floor. Their stepping patterns go through a computer, which then creates accompanying sound and lighting effects and relays the patterns, through the internet, back and forth between both cities. In this way, the art is manipulated by the participants themselves (and the time lag between the transatlantic transmissions). As Rouvelle writes about the project on his website, RIPLTRANE is an experiment of layering a physical environment “with information and events occurring locally and at distant geographic and temporal locations…Our intention is to start something that will take on a life of its own.”

Remove Your Watches!

Changing our experience of time—that is, un-metering it—is not an easy task. It may be worth the psychological (and in the case of the Site of Reversible Destiny, physical) effort for an artist who wants to create and appreciate art in new ways. “Artists can definitely contribute to the creation of better models [of time],” Rouvelle says. “The content of our models and their presence in our common spaces is an aspect of our collective development. We must, I think, take the role of objects and their affect seriously as we build our world.”

But even those uninterested in art, Rouvelle continues, should make the attempt. Experiencing un-metered time, he says, will help our interpersonal relationships, help us to better empathize with others. He argues that, “the general public can benefit by having aspects of their lives made more available for their own consideration via aesthetic creations that explore the complementary senses and experiences of non-linearity.”

To Rouvelle, all of human development, in fact, is about the way we choose to perceive and influence time. “If we want to develop along a different trajectory we must take action and do so. We have a responsibility to do so.”

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