For more than a decade, the DJ has been hailed as the artist most in tune with the streets, in sync with the rhythms of global life, and in advance of the latest technologies. Every cultural worker, from the poet to the filmmaker to the philosopher, claims to be a kind of DJ, employing the diverse montage strategies of the 20th century, whether they are called collage or bricolage, appropriation or sampling, plunderphonics, plagiarism, or détournement. In the mid-1990s, the DJ’s celebrity ascended from the basement clubs of Detroit, Manchester, and Berlin onto the world stage with the rise of digital technologies and the Internet, and in no small part, because of a brilliantly talented turntablist and conceptual artist named Christian Marclay.
As Marclay sliced and scotch taped his dollar-bin vinyl finds, and prodded his records with a needle dropped at random, he also articulated the revolutionary underpinnings of a practice aimed at overturning passivity. If every technology runs a program without calling upon the active input of its user, Marclay creates art by turning his objects against their conceived purpose.
Marclay has employed similar strategies of assemblage for the last two decades, finding like elements from different sources and combining them into conceptually unified and rhythmically structured new works. His latest video, The Clock (2010), is the most monumental piece to use such a technique. It is a 24-hour video that assembles thousands of film clips making reference to time in conversations, or through shots of clocks or watches. At Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, the viewer could accurately keep time all day—and during weekend screenings, all night too—by watching the film. The effect is enervating and beautiful, both an escape from time and a reminder of how bound to it we remain at every moment, even in the amnesiac chamber of the film theater.
There is a recurring sense of epiphany to this video of startling correspondences, evoking the final volume of Proust’s novel, Time Regained, in which the narrator’s theories of temporality and art cohere around a few repeated sensations. As I watched The Clock, I also thought of the Surrealists, who used to go to the Paris cinematheques and watch a film only as long as its narrative elements remained foggy, then shuffled over to the next theater. Marclay’s video is much more conventional than the drifting practices of Proust’s narrator, the Surrealists, or the Situationists, in that dislocation and distraction are now the norm, but I still think there is something emancipatory in his temporal realignment. As the “real-time” video streams of corporate media embed transfixing images of what’s “happening now” onto TVs and laptop screens, it is important to recognize that the construction of monolithic time in the 24-hour news cycle does not enhance, but rather displaces reality. The familiar fictions of Hollywood, literally displaced and transparently modulated by an artist, provide insight into contemporary processes of mediation and end up truer to life in the last century. Documenting the passage of time in the dreams of the cinematic era, then, is both a critical and an oneiric gesture—a crucial opening of the imaginary.