Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Report on The Clock

How even the NYTimes was allowed to take this photo, I have no idea.
Well, today and tomorrow from 8AM to 10PM will be your last chance to see Christian Marclay's The Clock at Lincoln Center. If you did see it already, you may have spotted me on the line welcoming visitors and chatting with them. With the exception of our regular Crazies who showed up to harass us at all the most inopportune moments and the incident with the fire alarm going off, I'll have to say I had a ton of fun doing it. I got to speak with so many interesting and really nice people (and some of them cute, too). The question I probably answered a thousand times: "What's the best time to come to avoid the line?" The answer was "earlier is always better." The earlier in the day you can get there, the shorter the line will be. For the weekdays, 7:00 to 7:30AM probably.

Despite the fact that I clearly love coming up with puns and wordplay to title my posts, all the ones I might have for this post are understandably corny, clichéed, nauseating, or all of the above. So this is a mere "report."

For anyone who doesn't know about the piece, it took Marclay and his six assistants three years to put the whole thing together. He said he probably could have done it without assistants, but it would have taken more like ten years. The assistants' job was to do nothing but sit around watching movie after movie after movie all day long. It sounds like kind of a cushy job, but when I thought about it, I decided after about ten films, you'd be like "ugh, I don't want to be watching movies anymore!" The other thing about this project is how closely they had to have been paying attention to the screen. Some of the clips show clocks so tiny or so briefly you can barely catch them. In many of the clips, they must have had to freeze the frame and zoom in on it, even use a "sharpen" filter, to see what the clock even said. At the end of each day, they would report back to Marclay with all their findings. One of the assistants only seemed to be finding clips of people getting their heads blown off, so he was fired.

They scoured the entire history of cinema, from every part of the planet, going back 110 years or whatever. The final piece includes over 10,000 clips in all. In each of the clips, you either see a physical clock or watch showing the time, or a character in the film references a specific time of day. When that happens in the piece, it will be that exact time of day in real life. So it's actually a twenty-four-hour long "video collage" that operates as a working timepiece. It always tells you the correct time of day. It is quite seriously one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

Evidently a Wikipedia page has been building that catalogues every movie clip that viewers have identified and at what time they appear in the piece. I've been unable to locate it, but when I do, I'll edit this post to link to it.

The only films that produced no results, oddly, were Bollywood movies, which it was claimed had absolutely no clocks in them. We had a few guests from India on the line, so I mentioned this to them. One woman recalled a song that started out with "tick tick tick tick," but she couldn't remember what it was. She may have been thinking of this scene from Kal Aaj Aur Kal (1971), which does quite prominently have a clock in it. There's also this song from Shukriya (1972), and he's obviously holding a watch. There was evidently another similar song in a Bollywood film from the 1990s, but unfortunately all I could keep bringing up was the Ke$ha song. Another woman from India decided she would make it her mission to find clocks in Bollywood movies to prove this wrong. In any case, it may be that when clocks are mentioned or appear, they aren't shown clearly enough or don't accurately reference a specific time of day in the film's narrative.

In doing my research, I was reminded that I knew Christian Marclay's work already. Many, many, many years ago, I'll never remember where (possibly London?), I saw his Tape Fall (1989), wherein a reel-to-reel tape player plays the sound of trickling water as the tape trickles down to slowly form a cone-shaped pile on the gallery floor. At the time, I thought that was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, despite it being a bit of a one-liner.

Marclay has done a lot of different kinds of work including avant-garde music. As a DJ, for instance, he would break a few records, tape them back together again, and then play them on the turntable, which would cause the stylus to bounce around madly and likely destroyed a needle or two. He apparently does not want to be known exclusively for The Clock. A struggling up-and-coming artist might be inclined to recommend he not resent the world-wide success of this piece, which has put him quite decidedly smack in the middle of the map of Contemporary Art. I can also understand his fear of being considered a one-trick pony, however.

I think the great appeal of The Clock, perhaps in contrast to some of his other more unusual works, comes from the fact that it is an astonishing, sophisticated, and mesmerizing work of Contemporary Art, but at the same time, to enjoy the piece the layperson really needs only to like movies. And who doesn't like movies? Sure, there are tons of obscure French black-and-white films from the 1930s and whenever else. But in a one-hour segment, you'd be likely to find five to ten films you've seen before and easily twice as many actors who you recognize.

There are six copies of The Clock in existence at the moment. It's sold on a disc for $150,000, which I realized is about what you'd probably pay for a rare antique Cartier watch when I thought about it. The copy shown here was purchased by a Lincoln Center board member as a gift to the Museum of Modern Art, with the provision that it could be shown at LC first. The MoMA plans to show it again this fall, but I don't have any details about that.

A few people asked if you'd be more likely to see different parts of the twenty-four-hour piece if you were to see it in, say, Sydney, Australia (where it was shown, in fact). The piece is actually a program that you load onto your computer. Once loaded, it locks onto that computer's clock, which is synched to the correct time via the internet. For anyone who's never looked up the atomic clock in Greenwich, England, your computer will be synched to it down to the very second. So when you start up The Clock program, it will automatically go straight to the part of the collage to show the correct time wherever on the planet you happen to be. If you start it running at 3:37PM, it will automatically show you 3:37PM. It's one of the things I found most awesome about the piece, and many people to whom I described that felt the same.

Marclay has a lot of rules for the way this piece may be shown. It may not be shown in a movie theater, but should be shown in something closer to an art gallery. Light and sound must be controllable and controlled. The white couches are to his specifications, rather than chairs. Viewers must be allowed to stay for as long as they wish. And while the artist does make $150,000 a copy, it must always be shown for free, which I suspect was to some degree his copyright loophole for the use of all these clips. He also hinted at the idea that, to paraphrase, if you're doing something great with the material (which he has), people tend to kind of look the other way and not make a legal fuss. The other thing I mentioned to people who asked about this is that his use of the clips is almost blandly neutral. He's not making any particular statement by putting them into this new context, much less anything defamatory or politically sensitive. It feels much more like what you see is what you get. The statements it makes about the rhythms of daily life or our perception of the passage of time are on a higher plane of comprehension entirely.

It's not just chopped together like some amateur series of clips in a YouTube video. It's fully edited together extremely seamlessly. He worked with a sound designer, as well, so the sound overlaps from one edit to the next. Some musical backgrounds overlap several video clips from different movies. I think it's one of the main reasons the work is so very hypnotic. People would go in planning to stay only an hour and would depart three, four, five hours later entirely shocked that they had stayed so long and hardly even realized it.

One of the questions we would often get was somewhat funny because the answer was so potentially confusing, especially on the weekends when we were running The Clock continuously from 8AM Friday until 10PM Sunday: "How long does it last?" "Twenty-four hours." "No, no, I mean what's the length of the video?" "Twenty-four hours." "No, I mean from the start of it to the end of it, how long does it last?" "The piece actually has a duration of twenty-four hours. You can literally sit there and watch it for twenty-four hours and not see the same thing twice." "Oooooohhh...wow!" At last count that I heard, we had about six people who stayed for the entire twenty-four-hour work. A few of them were film students, not surprisingly.

Other people would come back over and over again, not just our regular Crazies who camp out at the Atrium every day, but people who had planned to visit The Clock only once. They got so hooked that they simply had to come back again to see different times of the day. I started to recognize familiar faces after a while. This really nice little kid, maybe nine or ten, who helps his dad run the food cart at the end of the block, stood on line a few different times. "You're back again. It's really cool, isn't it?" I asked him. He grinned and nodded enthusiastically.

One woman told me that over the past year or so and in different cities (she was from Los Angeles), she'd seen all twenty-four hours of The Clock minus one eighteen-minute segment starting at 8:53PM. At around 8:40, she was still easily a half-hour away from getting in. We were ordered to restrict admittance to this thing as if it were Fort Knox, and several of the managers tyrannically stuck to this to an irritating fault. The one on duty that night, thankfully, was much more pleasant, and I really wanted to help this lady complete her impressive twenty-four hour journey there at Lincoln Center. I was sort of vicariously excited along with her. So in a hushed conversation with the manager, I asked if it wouldn't be possible to bend the rules a little. Happily, he snuck her out of the line at which point I gave her a quick grin and a thumbs up. She can now say she has seen the entire piece. Congratulations! Had all but the most heartless, petty person on that line known what was happening, I can't believe they'd have protested knowing how close she was.

I didn't work the front door very often, but it felt like a cross between the velvet ropes at Studio 54 and the pearly gates, depending on how long the line was. All the Crazies were particularly attracted to this spot. At one point, a gentleman passing by stopped to inform me that he had been harassed by the attendants inside the gallery and was very upset about it. He had been sitting there quietly watching and minding his own business, and the gallery attendants had had the nerve to hassle him for having taken his pants off. "Usually the ladies are begging me to do that," he said later. He'd evidently visited twice and took his pants off both times. After he'd walked away, someone in the line who'd overheard his complaint asked, "boxers or briefs?" But the answer from one of the reps who'd been there that day was almost as bad as "neither." 

A jock strap.

I had intermittently been announcing the rules inside the gallery to each group of people as they approached the door to go in, so I stepped out and addressed them a second time to say, "ladies and gentlemen, pants are required at all times inside the gallery." Everyone had a good laugh over that. Henceforth this individual was unofficially referred to as "No Pants Guy."

There were quite a few celebrity sightings, including Anjelica Huston and Stephen Sondheim, both of whom I missed. I did get to see actors Joel Grey and Wallace Shawn and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who was wearing blue. I'm not sure you could call LC president Reynold Levy a "celebrity" but he certainly wields power.

One of the best things about working there while this was going on is that I myself was able to see a total of about nine or ten hours of it on and off. I would have seen some of it regardless, but very likely I wouldn't have seen quite so much if I weren't getting paid to be there at the same time. I had heard the rumors that the best time to see was Midnight. The lady who had seen all of it but eighteen minutes confirmed this with no doubt in her voice. For most of the piece, Marclay wanted the most banal aspects of daily life (why Heads-Blown-Off Guy was fired). In other words, he didn't want a bunch of car chases, explosions, and gun fights, although there are a few of those here and there. I think it was a wise decision, because what you get in the end are these sort of pulsing rhythms of life and the currents of what we most often do at specific times of day and night. Even at Noon, although he could hardly have left out High Noon (and a brilliant movie that remains on my Top Ten list: Once Upon a Time in the West), and the tension of waiting for the clock to slowly and finally strike Twelve, he allowed no payoff to that tension. At 12:01, nothing major happens, life kind of just returns back to normal.

At Midnight, on the other hand, for pretty much just this one small section of this huge work, he allowed himself to do something big. It's a reason that when pressed for an answer to this question, I went with the suspicion that as the piece was laid out by Marclay in linear fashion, the beginning would actually have been 12:00:01AM. The clips come rapid fire. There are explosions. It pays off. I did get to see it on Friday, but unfortunately I was still on duty and somewhat distracted. I also didn't stay to see much more, because I didn't think I'd need to. The plan was to stay after my shift on Saturday to watch it, and once and for all really study it. I even asked a coworker to save a spot for me on the floor.

As my luck would have it, Saturday the 28th was the night that, at pretty much the most perfect moment to ruin Midnight for everyone, the fire alarm went off and everyone had to be evacuated. I can say no more about what happened than simply that or LC will hand me my ass on a platter. Up to a certain point, the hope was still buzzing that it might be cleared up and we might get back in before Midnight. Sadly, it was just not meant to be. At around 12:05 or so, I left the disappointed faces in the "already inside the gallery" line and returned home. I overheard the suggestion being made that they play Midnight for the crowd and then fast-forward again to the correct time, but since the program is set to work as a clock as I described above, this never would have been possible. Other folks were murmuring about Lincoln Center changing their schedule to show it again overnight on Sunday, but that would have been all but practically impossible to arrange. There is a small chance that I may try to get in to see Midnight when it shows at the MoMA, but the showing where I already work was clearly going to be infinitely easier for me and less time-consuming. Such is life, I suppose.

For anyone who has not yet seen this epic masterpiece, I urge you to please go. Earlier is better. Whatever length of line you find when you get there, I can genuinely say it is worth every minute.

©2012, Ryan Witte

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