Looking at the history of design, there has always been an interest in the ongoing progress of existence, specifically methods of measurement and management, but it’s the more cultural critique of its unforgiving demands that reveal our emotional connection to the passage of time.
Time is a commodity like any other. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the language we use. We waste time, spend time and buy time. Our relationship with the ticking clock is irrevocably linked with notions of thrift, value and economy. How did this happen?
In his 1967 essay, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism (Oxford University Press), British historian E. P. Thompson argued that capitalism, with its tenets of productivity and profit, forced society to see time as a resource to be exploited for economic gain.
Sorrel Madley, Time Machine Project, 2020, photo: Femke Reijerman
However, the experience of time as a finite commodity – something to be either wasted or used – is not universal. Artists everywhere are using creative mediums to interrogate time’s dominant conceptualisation.
The contemporary Western perception of time is a distinctly modern phenomenon. For millennia, humanity relied on natural methods of timekeeping – the position of the sun or the hoot of a bird. Time bore relation to tangible events rather than abstract yardsticks of seconds, minutes and hours.
Time Writers, Edhv, Dutch Design Week 2010
Time Writers, a project by Dutch design studio Edhv, illuminates this pre-modern, sensory experience of time. Edhv describes the pieces as “living sculptures” that “make drawings because the wood reacts to changing temperature and humidity”. By reacting to the air’s changing composition, the drawings they produce are expressions of passing time. Like pre-modern humans, they record time through environmental change. Organic and relational, they challenge the vapid abstraction of modern timekeeping.
The Renaissance saw clock towers spring up across Europe. However, their early incarnations rarely had faces or dials. Instead, they were simply striking mechanisms which sounded bells at semi-regular intervals. By not recording seconds and minutes, their relationship with time was suggestive but not dictatorial.
Naama Ageisi, Calendar of Affects
Tel Aviv-based artist Naama Ageisi, notes that time measured by seconds and minutes fails to encapsulate the holism of our intimate experience of time In A Calendar of Affects, household objects are reimagined as horological devices that measure different time cycles. Their striking materiality evinces an experience which is more attuned to the fundamentally physical relationship we have with time.
Nel Verbeke, Embrace Melancholy – The Mirror | Hourglass, photo: Alexander Popelier
Anthony Leenders, Kairos
In the 16th century, pocket-watches became increasingly popular. Of dubious accuracy, they were prized for their aesthetic qualities and monetary value rather than their time-keeping utility. According to Thompson, “the timepiece was the poor man's bank, an investment of savings: it could, in bad times, be sold or put in hock”. In contrast, contemporary smartwatches boast meticulous accuracy and promise to regiment your fitness, work and leisure. Time-keeping devices have evolved to suit the pragmatism of modern imperatives.
Both Nel Verbeke and Anthony Leenders have explored the way time-keeping devices have changed form and function by modifying the traditional hourglass.
In The Sound of Time, Verbeke constructs an opaque hourglass. By concealing its contents, the device’s visual aspect is extinguished while its audible element is amplified. Similarly, Leender’s device, Kairos measures time through sound. It’s imprecise because “depending on the size of the sand grains, time will pass a bit faster or shorter”. Collectively, these devices offer a contemplative experience that, rather than measuring time, capture and embody its inherent moment.
For centuries, timekeeping remained inaccurate. Time was experienced via visual stimuli and sundials were commonly used until the 19th century. This all changed with the industrial revolution. Globalised trade demanded time’s synchronisation across vast regions leading to the UK’s adoption of Greenwich Mean Time in 1880. This would form the basis of international time zones.
Making time uniform across huge regions, although practical, bore little relation to how people truly perceived time. Time zones were, and still are, based on political affiliation and nationality rather than the realities of solar movement. Even if the sun told you it was midday, your government could tell you otherwise. Individuals’ lived experiences of time had been subsumed by the demands of the market.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the confusion of time zones. Zoom meetings, online lectures and virtual events, with their neatly allotted time slots, promise to simplify our daily routines. In reality, international time zones can make daily scheduling impossibly complicated. What time will that 11am conference in Melbourne be in London? Shouldn’t I be asleep by then?
Emmanuelle Moureaux, Slices of Time, NOW Gallery, Greenwich, photo: Charles Emerson
Emmanuelle Moureaux’s installation, Slices of Time, was exhibited at Greenwich’s NOW Gallery. Inspired by the gallery’s location near the Greenwich Meridian, Moureaux used hanging layers of coloured paper to create a vibrant, multi-dimensional aesthetic that communicated the flow of time. Careful use of space and colour created a mercurial form that questions time zones’ rigid compartmentalization.
The industrial revolution also brought mechanized manufacturing. This demanded a meticulous reorganization of labour. As a result, employers created the ‘hourly wage’ so that they could guarantee their workers’ attendance each day. With employees now exchanging hours for wages, time had truly become money.
This commodified understanding of time was imposed on wider society. Because it had an attached value, people were even criticised for using their free time unproductively. Thompson wrote how Calvinist minister John Clayton described the dinner table as a “shameful devourer of time and money”. This attitude remains prescient. In Britannia Unchained (Palgrave Macmillan), a 2012 political treatise co-authored by five recently elected Conservative MPs, the UK politicians described the electorate as being “among the worst idlers in the world”.
A Million times, Tidal, Humans since 1982
As part of their project A Million Times, design studio Humans since 1982 build kinetic sculptures that present clocks as art objects. Tidal Series features clocks that display the time in digital format once every minute. However, in between each minute, the clock hands move in ways that resemble the rhythmic flow of the sea. Through their fluidity and cyclicality, these “abstract dance-like choreographies” counter goal-orientated manifestations of time that seek to make ‘productivity’ the primary focus.
The commodification of time is having a devastating impact on societal happiness. The “UK Working Lives Survey” by the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that 60% of people said they worked longer hours than they wanted to, making it “hard to switch-off in their downtime”. In a study entitled “Beyond Material Poverty: Why Time Poverty Matters for Individuals, Organisations, and Nations” Harvard academics found that “time poverty had a stronger negative effect on well-being than being unemployed”.
Daniel Weil, Time Machines
Exhibited at the Design Museum in London, Time Machines: Daniel Weil and Art of Design was dedicated to Daniel Weil's 30-year career in design. It featured a plethora of Weil’s work including his Bag Radio and a collection of expertly crafted deconstructed clocks. The exhibition also displayed hundreds of hardback sketchbooks showing the rough pencil drawings that preceded Weil’s final creations. Outlining his approach to design, Weil describes the creative process as “the living past”. By displaying his early sketches alongside the final models, Weil formulates a retrospective narrative in which the creative process takes centre stage. The past is made indistinguishable from the present.
The contemporary understanding of time imperils our pursuit of happiness. In a world where each passing second is seen as an economic resource to be exploited, time spent enjoying the fruits of civilization is regarded as not only wasteful but blasphemous in its rejection of capitalist doctrine. It would be naive to expect a wholesale dismantling of the current horological model. It’s simply too integral to economic life to be wantonly uprooted. But if we are to achieve a happier and more fulfilled society, we must, at the very least, question it.
By Herbie Russell