​The duration of the now

When I am in spaces full of curios, artworks or books, I often think of a room that Sandor Marai described in his book Embers: ‘…between old furniture and instruments, on shelves and in cupboards, sheet music lay everywhere. In fixed symbols, silent music, printed chatter, the music of the world lay in this room, silently lurking.’ The presence of the silent symbols makes the absence of the audible music all the more spectacular. It is an almost magical room, in which different times and sounds are preserved in the silence of the moment.

Being in the exhibition space, we are surrounded by Ola Lanko’s (1985) project All Year Round, whose subject transcends our human imagination: the duration of an entire year. The presence of 365 photographic depictions refers to the absence of the fundamental miracle of the start and end of each day. The 365 sheets of semi-transparent photographic material that encircle the viewer make those fluctuating and transient days tangible. An apparent paradox arises regarding the tangibility of time: in All Year Round, in photography and between the piles of sheet music.

From Lanko’s window and with its lens focused on the far bank of Amsterdam’s IJ river, the camera automatically took 2,000 digital images a day. Lanko subsequently edited these images in chronological order, as a result of which the quadratic border of the standard photo format disappears. The arrival of a new day determines the frame of the total image rather than – as is usually the case – the camera lens. By automatically registering concrete moments, Lanko tries to capture and emphasise the abstract concept of time. The same happens visually: an abstract pattern of coloured stripes appears, framed by the black of night. Only when we look closely does an overview of everything that passed along the camera on a specific day unfold before us: the sunrise, cargo ships, a yacht, four maintenance boats around noon, several motorboats, three fishing boats at the end of the day, waves, clouds, rains and the night (see 7 May 2013).

A photo is a cut-out, a frozen fragment from the continuum of time. Consequently, a photo rarely succeeds in visually and physically describing the flow of time. The mobility of time eludes the camera’s lens. But Lanko’s editing seems to make this shortcoming disappear and a day is revealed in its entirety. The immediacy of each recorded image now extends to the length of a whole day, which recalls Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) notion of time as duration. His view acts a counterpoint to physical time that manifests itself as a series of homogenous and discrete instances: our seconds, minutes, hours, days… He believed that one moment flowed from another and real life – human life – is uninterrupted. The clock thus does a poor job of portraying time. The same applies to a pre-programmed camera. Lanko removes the interruptions by connecting the isolated fragments of time in a single flowing whole.

The more one thinks about it, the more theoretically incomprehensible the temporal merging of all those thousands of individual images seems. The representation of time in All Year Round transcends the parameters of an instantaneous photograph, but also questions the way in which time is formed. How can we grasp the presence of so many different present times as one and the same time in those photos?

According to art theorist Thierry de Duve (1944), time is always a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, but also a ‘not yet’ and a ‘no more’. “It is the sudden vanishing of the present tense, splitting into the contradiction of being simultaneously too late and too early, that is properly unbearable.” (De Duve, 1978, p.121) His concept of time is lateral, a time that simultaneously exists as the one and the other. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) uses a similar concept of time to further elaborate on the work of Bergson. In his books about cinema, for instance, he uses numerous idiosyncratic film analyses to explain time as simultaneity. He views time as a coexistence of past, present and future, whereby virtual time ‘in the making’ (becoming) and clock time (being) exist simultaneously. Their ideas about duration and simultaneity make Bergson, Deleuze and De Duve worthy of attention when considering Lanko’s work. And indeed, All Year Round’s photo strips encompass the ‘before’, the ‘after’, the ‘not yet’, the ‘no more’ and the ‘during’. But ultimately it is an absolute coexistence of all time between 1 March 2013 and 28 February 2014 that we see here. And now that this circle of time is complete, time has become ‘being’.

Sheet music offers a similar topographical image of the absolute coexistence of time. It typically shows the movement and passage of a piece of music, even though the annotations of notes and bars are static and stationary. The time strip on Lanko’s motionless photos reveals the progression of the IJ and the day. The music is like the water in the river that flows by from second to second. Bergson often used music as a metaphor to express time as duration. Music is able to make duration tangible, because it ‘does not separate the current and past states, but places them in an organic context, just as we can sometimes remember the notes of a melody as if they were fused together’. (Hermsen, Time on Our Side, p.93)

The piece by Lanko has been written down and seems to be finished. The fixed view on the same stretch of IJ leads us to expect the same margins and repeated tones. But our expectations are defied by the irregular appearance of boats and ships, of different lengths and sizes. Sometimes several vessels pass in quick succession, interspersed by short and long silences. The daylight determines the timbre. And the rain and wind add a different texture to the undulating soundscape. The accidental concurrence of all these elements produces countless harmonies between the staves.

It reminds me of November, a minimalist five-hour piano composition by Dennis Johnson (1938) from 1959. More than five decades after it was written, the piece was reconstructed by Kyle Gann and performed in New York in 2013 by R. Andrew Lee. Quietly, steadily, unpredictably yet forcefully, Lee produces a series of tonal combinations around a subdued G minor, from which no discernable rhythm or melody emerges. It is impossible to anticipate which chord will follow from the preceding silence or sound. Each melodic cell stands alone as it is produced and then fades. The notes circle around a single point: a five-hour-long now. Like November, Lanko’s All Year Round brings us close to a tangible realisation of the duration and simultaneity of a now. Regardless of whether we zoom out on the whole year or a day or zoom in on a specific detail, we are always faced with an idea of a now as before, after, during, not yet and no more. In order to capture this complex interplay of time photographically, Lanko devised a systematic framework in advance.

Her methodology is reminiscent of the way in which John Cage (1912-1992) wrote his music. He had a kind of empty container in his head, which he used as a musical basis to start composing. For each composition he installed proportional units of time that were defined by precise numerical calculations. Once this abstract container structure had been determined, he could put every sound into it, confident in the predetermined proportional relationships, the temporal and/or rhythmic framework. Although Cage had carefully determined both the specific tone material and the time structure in advance, the relationship between structure and material ultimately remained arbitrary. Lanko’s methodology, her system of automatically recording 365 days with her pre-programmed camera and displaying the results on the website 1year365days.com, has gathered together all the random events of a year and thereby made them tangible as a whole.

In contrast to Lanko’s work, Cage has frequently reduced music almost to silence, with individual notes that are so far removed from each other in time that silence and notes are heard as isolated events. Lanko, on the other hand, emphasises cohesion as a supporting factor, whereby the disruptive elements of boats and other phenomena are intended to become part of the causal and linear relationship of the preconceived timeline. All Year Round thus exists as a moment, a day and as 365 days, elements that can stand alone but that simultaneously refer to the overall image of a year’s time. And where has that time gone? It fills the exhibition space with its absence.

Joke Hermsen. Time on Our Side – Manifesto for a Slow Future. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2009

Thierry de Duve. ‘Time Exposure and Snapshot: The Photograph as Paradox’, in: October, Vol. 5, summer 1978, p.113-125

Dennis Johnson. November (1959), in fullon YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-FeQsujHaw