Becoming is the Movement of Being

by Riley O'Keeffe

 

I can’t believe it’s only three thirty!  He said, looking at the clock for the first time.
I can’t believe it’s already three thirty. He replied, incredulously.

While talking to a friend over coffee about music, we were both distracted by a tangent about and how we measure, predict and perceive it. The conversation was meandering and amorphous, never truly making any real enlightening progress but drifting through a number of loosely connected questions, ideas and experiences. What is it, we wondered, that allows the invariable passing of time to distort and break down, to stretch and collapse on itself, to condense an event into a split second and expand a moment into a lifetime? And how do we define these events in relation to the subjectivity of time?

Slowly, we recovered the initial trajectory of our conversation, but with some renewed perspectives and enthusiasm.

So how does music distort our perception of time? He asked rhetorically, trying to grasp the issue at hand before it slipped away. How does it speed up and slow down, disappear and reappear?

Without a way to tell the time, or to watch each second pass into the next, we rely on certain cues to give us some kind of temporal bearing – to know how far we’ve gone and how far we have to go. We take in our surroundings; the light, the temperature. We feel hungry or tired. Our days (weeks, years etc.) are broken up into events, as mundane as sleeping and eating and as significant as a birthday or a holiday. Time sits either side. Slipping away until the familiarity of an event provides a marker in the flow of time. Dividing the endless stream into manageable fragments.

How do I recognise an event? He asks.

When or how is the event an event? And not just time passing? How can we define it’s beginning or ending, or if the said event even has a beginning or ending?

We meander back to music. We discuss performance as an event – an event with a designated beginning and ending, taking place within a time frame. We discuss, more specifically, events within the music – a crescendo, a reprieve, a dramatic key change.  

It’s all event! He says emphatically.

What is?

Every moment designates an event or series of events. They are fleeting and extended, ordinary and grandiose, subtle and obvious. These events occur somewhere and everywhere in linear time, every miniscule moment. It’s all event! Each transient moment, however dull or stimulating, defines our time perception.

He takes a sip of coffee, a temporarily pleased look on his face.  

Vladimir: Well that passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes but not so rapidly.

- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot, a seemingly endless (and perhaps meaningless) wait is punctuated with a series of events, both dull and absurd. Beckett embellishes these events, imparting significance on their tedium. While unremarkable, the absurdity and monotony of the events circumvent time, masking the eternity of the futile wait for Godot. ‘We always find something’ exclaims Estragon ‘…to give us the impression we exist.’

Estragon: In the meantime, nothing happens… nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!
Pozzo: You find it tedious?
Estragon: Somewhat.

Estragon’s tedium is always short lived, as the space between incidents and conversations is scarcely noticed. Beckett, by placing worth in the fortuity of the interactions, seems to condense time, or, if it weren’t for the sun periodically rising and setting, eliminate it altogether. The enduring wait for Godot pulls the characters (and viewer) so far out of any normalcy that they are left to live through and even depend on the monotony that surrounds them. It whittles the hours away. 

During the same period as the conversation with my friend, I was working on a series of two metre canvases, each of which comprised a uniform grid of over a thousand small squares. I spent hours a day (seven, eight, sometimes ten) routinely carrying out the same repeated steps – clean brush; chose colour; paint the square; repeat. Each square constituted a series of small brush strokes, all similar but never the same, overlaid until the square was entirely filled. Every stroke, every movement from one end of the canvas to the other, every completed square or row, marked a timeless moment that divided and sub-divided the seemingly linear flow of time.

No longer was my day governed by the passing of minutes and hours, but by the succession of moments, colliding and overlapping, each subject to their own unfolding and intersecting duration. Each moment marked an event, an event that while seemingly repetitious and tedious, offered a unique virtual perspective on the present. The moment reveals the past and the future as a single construct – not marking a point on a line but dissolving the line, perceiving the moment itself and not the ‘time’ it took to occur.

Time must be understood as an infinity,
stretching both backward into the past forever
and ahead indefinitely into the future, a passage
with no beginning or end.

- Elisabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time 

To engage in a process-based practice, is to spend an extended period being subject to and taking notice of these events. They slow us down and make us hold our breath, they raise our heart rate and make us dizzy, they freeze us and simultaneously throw us hurtling into the future. These moments distort our linear understanding of time so as its passing becomes untraceable and inconsistent. In Sounding the Event, Yve Lomax describes this as ‘…a time that throws the present of itself into question’. If the present is the only way we can exist in time, when we question how present each moment is, time begins to distort and hang somewhere out of reach.

Being interviewed about Eva Hesse, critic Mel Bochner stated certain art looks back at you with the time the artist has spent looking at it.' Bochner was referring particularly to the made quality of Hesse’s work, the visual evidence of prolonged and tedious labour, the unmistakable echo of a repeated process over time. This is to consider the time spent making as a significant component of the work itself, communicating the dedication and commitment to such a task.  

In abandoning the idea of ‘time spent’, we can consider the artwork as a succession of disordered, over-lapping events where time is irrelevant and the moments appear and recede at their own perceived pace. We grant the work an ability to manifest the time perception: to accentuate the moments, the events, that pull you out of the progression of seconds and minutes and manifest time as a subjective phenomena; a becoming of events. Anthropologist Tim Ingold describes it as '...drawing out or bringing forth of potentials immanent in a world of becoming... one path or trajectory through a maze of trajectories'. To make a process evident in a work of art is not to show how long the making took, but to highlight the emergence and synthesis of events, emphasising the timelessness of each unique manifestation. A Deleuzian point of view would deem this emergence as 'actualisation' - a movement from a virtual unrealised state, to an actual recognisable one. Massumi, a Deleuzian disciple, contextualises this emergence within the actual and the virtual

They do not begin or end at any particular,
locatable points in empirical space. They are
actual but nonlocal and immeasurable. They  
are the manner in which the virtual phases into
the actual...

Artistic practice (be it visual, aural or otherwise) establishes an environment wherein the coming together of these events is granted significance as the becoming of the work. Practice is a consolidation of moments, some fleeting and understated, some draining and exaggerated. The emergence of these moments is extricated from our accepted notion of time, iterating an absence of completeness and emphasising a state of constant transition and becoming: materials, methods, tools and ideas, in a perpetual state of variance and emergence.  

Being isn't the state that one arrives at after 
the becoming, rather becoming is the 
movement of being. As for this moment, 
let me say that it is the movement that
comes with time. 

- Yve Lomax, Sounding The Event

So these events don’t take place in time? He asks, hesitant, but certain he has the problem grasped.

Right. I respond matter-of-factly.

So where is the time then? What passes? What is it that drags on and on and rushes past unnoticed? What governs our movement forward through… through…

Time? I ask, smiling.

Well, yeah. He says, confused again.

If we can accept the idea of the event, I begin, then we accept the superiority of these events. We recognise them as the most consistent and primary movement – in sound, art or otherwise.
So…
he begins, staring to his right, at something not there, time takes place within the event, time manifests because of and as a result of the event. He looks back to face me.

Without the brush strokes, the lines, the oscillations, the reverberations... without the events, everything is static and motionless.

I smile.

A recent theory of particle physics proposes time as an emergent phenomenon, a bi-product of entanglement (the idea of two particles experiencing almost simultaneous change despite geographical separation). These kinds of theories however, pose multiple problems for physicists and remain difficult to validate. Yet, within an artistic spectrum we are granted a suspension of belief in the physical laws of the world. We establish methods, processes and approaches that attempt to circumvent accepted conditions. We allow and create a universe built upon fleeting interactions, between thoughts and materials, between the actual and the virtual. While these interactions appear to culminate into a completed form or thought, they merely set in motion a procession of events. They continue to become. 

Unknowingly, our conversation had completely eaten away the last part of the morning and almost our entire afternoon. We spoke a lot about particle physics and painting and the shared chaos between mathematics and analogue synthesis. But mostly we spoke about becoming: how all the chaotic moments of our existence come to be and more significantly, how we are supposed to perceive and acknowledge them.  

What’s the time? I finally asked my friend.
Does it really matter? He replied.

 

 Riley O'Keeffe,  ...A Brief View  (detail), 2014, glass, steel, LED, courtesy of the artist   

Riley O'Keeffe, ...A Brief View (detail), 2014, glass, steel, LED, courtesy of the artist

 


Riley O'Keeffe is an artist, musician, writer and curator in Adelaide, South Australia.