Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s
By Pamela Lee
MIT Press, 2004
336 pages, $34.95
stills from Andy Warhol Empire 1964
16mm film, black and white, silent, 8 hours, 6 minutes (approx.)
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Pamela Lee defines chronophobia as “a neologism that suggests a marked fear of the temporal.” It is an insistent struggle with time – the will of both artists and critics to either master its passage, to still its acceleration or to give form to its changing positions. This preoccupation, she claims, illuminates the emergence of new information technology in the post-war years and serves as a prelude to our current fixation with time and speed within our digital culture. On the first count, she does an exceedingly astute job of proving; the second she illuminates just as well.
In the 1960s, there existed a sociological view of two cultures – the sciences and the humanities, and there was much discussion on how to bring the two together. The use of technology in the arts was meant to help seal this fissure and resulted in the collaboration between artists groups and technology companies. (Experiments in Art and Technology, or E.A.T, being the most well known.) Artists used the technological advancements of companies like IBM and the RAND Corporation to create their art in a seemingly symbiotic relationship meant to bring these two cultures together.
Technology in the 1960s, however, was not the stuff of invention or a new way to create things, but rather, an “increasingly organized administrative logic.” This logic functioned at all levels of society and lead to a change in the consciousness of society at large – especially in art. Through the administration of images, mainly their reproduction and display on a massive scale, art became accessible to all, and as such became part of the “culture machine” it at many times railed against.
In this sense, art was a tool of technology – not the other way around. “Who’s using who?” was the underlying theme of these collaborations as the artists suspected the companies of using art to “soften” their image as warmongers, and the companies suspected the artists using their technology to have a laugh at their expense.
Part of this friction stemmed from a distrust of technology itself and society’s funneling toward technocracy, a term coined by Theodore Roszak meaning a “social machine in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration” by modernizing, updating, rationalizing until it becomes one homogeneous whole. While Roszak tasked his counterculture to rise up against technocracy, the speed at which this process was progressing was so great that it obliterated the ability to look back and reflect.
This, Lee says, is the central issue artists grapple with in the art of the 1960s. There was no time to assess one’s place in history, one’s presentness within the greater scheme of events to gain perspective on where one was going or where one came from. This leads to a radical reworking of historical models and provides a concise explanation for the emergence of postmodernism. This struggle time and presentness manifested itself in several forms, which Lee describes throughout the text.
She first provides an analysis of Michael Fried’s seminal essay “Art and Objecthood” in which he challenges the notions of minimalist art’s objecthood and theatricality. Fried dislikes the minimalist art object Lee explains, because it places too much emphasis on the viewer and his experience of it in time. Minimalist objects could seemingly go on and on. They “produce an experience that is at once anticipatory and repetitive” to use Lee’s phrasing, because the object has been “waiting” for the viewer to activate it, and once he does, the experience of it is repeated because there is no one idea, no uniqueness the viewer can latch onto and see through to completion. For Fried, presentness was key. Being able to grasp a work wholly, finitely, in a clear instant was key and created a sense of intimacy with the object.
But with different media coming into play, presentness could not be applied across the broad spectrum of what constituted art in the 1960s. By turning to film, performance, and other non-object media, objecthood had no relevance. The dialogue had to shift, and the dialogue came increasingly in the form of “systems speak.” Formed from the notions of recursion, systems theory, and cybernetics, this dialogue allowed the artist to move beyond the formalist legacy of modernist art criticism, which emphasized the autonomy of the discrete object, to one that took into account any number of influences that addressed underlying structures of communication and all at once, singularly or repetitively, shaped the course of art history.
Lee employs examples of these non-object based work and the artists who create them to reinforce her point. Hans Haacke’s displays of institutional critique point to the networks that accord both meaning and value to art. Much time is given to Jean Tinguey’s "Study for an End of the World, No. 2," a film whose condensation of time and destructive end reveals the Heideggerian notion that only when something breaks down do we realize how connected and how fragile our history, our world, really is.
That leads to a discussion about kinetic art, which Lee points out, was made of contrasts. There was the notion of technological advancement embodied in the actual workings of kinetic pieces. “Contrasting this ‘seriousness,’” she states, “was its sense of entertainment or play and humor” – or one that primitizes it, takes it back. These contrasts create a double history – one that looks forward and back with no clear balance in the present. This creates a sense of historical uncertainty that is a principle of chronophobia.
This push-pull of past and future is reinforced through an analysis of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film "Empire," in which time is recorded in excruciatingly slow motion. Lee points out that the slow pace and duration of the film emphasizes the present, forcing the viewer to deal with it, but the viewer cannot sustain his/her own presentness because it is superseded by boredom. One anticipates something happening (futurity), while considering what hasn’t (past), and is thrust into the present. With no perspective on what the present means in relation to either the past or the future, the viewer gets bored and leaves.
In the middle of all of this is an engaging discussion of the work of Bridget Riley and Carolee Schneemann in relation to what Lee calls the eye/body problem. She uses Riley as the poster girl of Op Art (a distinction Riley herself rejected) and discusses her work in the context of Op’s ability to assault the eye with virtual motion and its later transformation into fashions that were literally set in motion by the body. Riley’s description of her own work as a kind of performance segues to a discussion of Schneeman and her desire to use her body and her perception as a way to engage with the present.
The book concludes with a discussion of Robert Smithson’s essay “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space” and the artist’s relation to the historian George Kubler and Norbert Weiner, a founder of cybernetics. Kubler’s book "The Shape of Time" was extremely popular among artists of the era. Lee tells us that Kubler felt artists had an interest in his work because “it freed them from the rigid hierarchies defined by the textbook industry in the history of art.” Kubler provided a new way of describing historical change, one that was organized around the concepts of “form class.”
A form class is described as a problem that occurred across time and was represented as a series of objects that reworked that problem over and over. The objects were versions of that problem. The prime object and its versions became a linked chain that was in itself history. Important to note is that form classes are by nature analytical and divisive, there was no one trajectory in which the “problem” could be directed. Lee points out that in this, Kubler is making a claim for the exhaustion of new discoveries in art, or “aesthetic fatigue”; in other words, the end of the avant-garde.
With this in mind, Lee analyzes Smithson’s essay “through the lens” of cybernetics. Cybernetics is a science that takes account of the flow of information and its influence on futurity and probabilities in an attempt to control an outcome. It is focused on future results, but tries to control them in the present. This process is controlled through the continuous “feedback “ of messages into an existing system – a process that mimics Kubler’s form class.
Smithson’s essay addressed both of these notions using, in Smithson’s words, “reproduced reproductions” strategically placed around the main text. These and accompanying notes, usually meant to clarify what is being stated in the text, serve as a kind of “feedback” that informs the text but also muddies it. Each recurrence muddies it a little more until the system falls into entropy. Origin and end become indistinguishable from one another and the system collapses in on itself – as do linear modes of tracking its history (voila, postmodernism). For Smithson, this process was a given and lead him to believe that the new technology was no better or more advanced than other ways of making art. It was merely a system that would eventually fall into its own state of entropy.
One is hard-pressed to find anything truly negative about this text, but there are some difficulties. This is not light reading. There is much philosophy, the majority of which is thoroughly explained, but not all of it is easy to grasp. Once the focus shifts back to the art, things hum along nicely again. Much of the discourse is fatalistic in its tone, indicating that the general feeling at the time was exceedingly bleak and perpetuated a “spy culture” as if it were all part of a big conspiracy. In addition, there are some questions she raises that deserve some further discussion. For instance, have we exhausted the avant-garde? If so, what does that mean? Granted, that is likely another topic for another book, but just a footnote on this would have been interesting reading.
These things are trivial for what Lee does well she does very well. Her ability to distill this much information into a coherent theme is enviable. It would seem, however, that she is of a privileged few who have this ability. The majority cannot always take the time to grasp this breadth of information and organize it into a coherent picture, nor is it obvious how different points network to provide a greater historical perspective.
This is an issue born of the 1960s that still perpetuates today. We still move too fast, take in too much information, so much so that we find linear, simplistic connections between things easier to tolerate. Too often we take at face value the information fed to us because its easier than taking the time to consider its repercussions. We might well consider this book a warning then. Any phobia gone unacknowledged eventually controls him who ignores it. We need to slow down. As Lee puts it, “It is in slowness and in the capacity to parse one’s own present that one gains ground on what’s coming next.”