Last summer I went on an intense Breaking Bad binge. As the meth-and-morality epic headed into its final episodes on AMC, I tore through the earlier seasons on Netflix, desperate to catch up.
And then I was caught up -- which meant, suddenly, after having everything my own way, I had to wait days for the next instalment. My first impulse was to go into a Walter White-like rage, stomping around the living room and roaring, "I am the one who decides when to watch."
Forced to surrender my on-demand viewing model -- which is increasingly the way we experience media these days -- I gave in, at first grudgingly, then gratefully, to the slow pleasures of anticipation, to the exquisite build-up of suspense, to the weight and heft of a communal cultural experience.
This is one of the modern paradoxes of time. The technologies that increasingly offer constant connectivity and endless information, which allow us to control and carry around and individualize our media, all add to the illusion that we somehow order time. In fact, time orders us, and the effect of these technologies is to make most of us feel even more pressured and distracted, hurried and harassed.
Our culture's peculiar, passive-aggressive relationship to time is examined in The Clock, an astonishing masterwork that's on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. This 24-hour single-channel video by Christian Marclay, a Swiss-American artist now based in the U.K., is made up of thousands of movie clips featuring watches and clocks. Since its 2010 London debut, The Clock has been a massive popular and critical success all over the world, a fabulous love-child of blockbuster cinema and high art.
There are only six editions of The Clock. Each is shown only under highly regulated viewing conditions. The work is precisely keyed to local time. If it says 2:17 on the screen, it will say 2:17 on your watch. And yes, that means if you want to watch what's going on at 3:48 in the morning, you have to attend one of the WAG's 24-hour screenings, which have been mandated by the artist. There was one at the start of this month, and there are two more to come.
The work is shown in a darkened, muffled room, a kind of platonically perfect hybrid of art gallery, living room and old movie palace. You can recline on one of 12 IKEA couches, another requirement specified by Marclay.
These parameters aren't just control-freakery on the part of the artist, but an integral part of the work. The Clock is beautifully, brilliantly about cinema, as Free Press movie critic Randall King has written. It's also about time. It forces us to reckon with time, not just in its content (clocks and watches galore) but in its form. The Clock shapes time in its minute-by-minute chronological dissection. It's also shaped by time, given a complex, cumulative power by its 24-hour run. This is a work that demands duration, and there's no way to sneak around this.
Because of its synched time, The Clock means watching without shortcuts. There is no fast-forwarding, no skipping, no rewinding. You can't view it on your phone or catch bits on YouTube. (Well, you can hunt down a couple of clips, but they're meaningless in their massacred form.) You can't cram it into your multitasking workday or binge on the weekend on some pirate site from eastern Europe. The Clock isn't user-driven.
It is addictive, though. Once you hand yourself over to The Clock's temporal strictness, you're immersed in a profoundly pleasurable, almost erotic viewing experience -- a long-drawn promise that is endlessly deferred, a series of overlapping, ongoing stories that never quite tip over into resolution.
With its relentless (and literal) clock-watching, the work has a tick-tock urgency, an inescapable sense of time racing past. But, weirdly, it also offers an absolutely luxurious sense of suspension, of time somehow set apart from the daily crush of demands and deadlines. Viewers of The Clock commonly relate that they intended to stay for maybe 20 minutes and somehow ended up cocooned on those cushy couches for hours -- appointments and obligations and parking meters be damned. In today's overscheduled, overloaded world, The Clock offers a rare and irresistible opportunity to just sit and watch time pass.
So far, my own viewings have been reluctantly ended not by waning interest but by the impingement of external commitments -- a family chore, a job or just the usual press of the day. When I knew I finally had to leave, the clocks on the screen seemed to become bigger and louder, the characters' watch-checking anxiety seemed to become my own, as movie time started slipping over into actual time.
And once I was back in the busy-busy-busy-ness of my typical 21st-century life, I was suddenly, sharply aware of the constant reminders of time -- on my phone, on my computer, on the dashboard of my car. These digital readouts seemed both uglier and more insistent than The Clock's (mostly) analogue versions.
The modern world measures and standardizes time in the belief that we can control it. Time, meanwhile, has a sneaky way of getting its own back. Marclay's work is an extraordinary expression of this eternal stand-off, and that's a very good reason to stop watching the clock and start watching The Clock.