Theory and practice are inseparable in the work of Raqs Media Collective, and their highly researched essays and lectures are an integral part of their artistic output. In their text Now and Elsewhere, published in e-flux journal in 2010, Raqs write about time and the apparent lack of it in contemporary lives. “In the struggle to keep pace with clocks,” they reflect, “we are now always and everywhere in a state of jet lag, always catching up with ourselves and with others, slightly short of breath, slightly short of time”. When possible, Raqs suggest, “escape is up a hatch and down a corridor between and occasionally beyond longitudes, to places where the hours chime epiphanies”.
In this essay, Raqs reflect on the history of horology and the ways in which clocks have shaped and distorted our understanding of time. In contrast to the ancient timekeeping devices that marked temporal passage with things like sand, water or incense, mechanical clocks started to slice the continuum of time up into neat, standardised units. And according to Raqs, the ticking hands of this clock “rendered a conceptual barricade between each unit,” making the past seem surgically cut off from the present. But Raqs also observe that while clocks introduced a false sense of clean separation in time, our international time zones simultaneously fabricate a notion of temporal unity. In capitalist modernity, all places are swept up into a single time-system, regardless of the real differences in the lived experience of time around the world. Places which might be very distant from each other—geographically, historically and culturally—can be assigned a shared time, simply because of their arbitrary longitudinal placement. As Raqs write, “clocks in London and Lagos (with adjustments made for daylight savings) show the same time. And yet, the experience of ‘now’ in London and Lagos may not feel the same at all.”
In contrast to the ancient timekeeping devices that marked temporal passage with things like sand, water or incense, mechanical clocks started to slice the continuum of time up into neat, standardised units.
Raqs have often attempted to account for the ways in which time feels different in different places. Their clock works, in particular, have gone against the idea of a homogenous, globalised time, reminding us that the rhythms, paces, effects and demands of time are, in important ways, context-specific. A day in the life of Kiribati (2014), for instance, is a clock that represents daily life on Kiribati, a small island nation in the Central Pacific Ocean where residents are preparing to become some of the world’s first environmental refugees as a result of climate change. As sea levels continue to rise, the island’s evacuation looms. What does the impending human-made disaster do to the experience of time on Kiribati? The clock is ticking—but rather than moving regularly between numbers, Raqs Media Collective’s clock moves erratically across and between a range of emotional states, including guilt, duty, remorse, awe, anxiety, indifference and panic.
The Ecliptic (2014) is another custom-made timepiece which refuses notions of numerical measurement and the global homogenisation of time. The word ‘TIME’ appears in LED lights on the right-hand side of the clock-face, while other words light up along the left, intermittently spelling out ‘fix TIME’, ‘free TIME’, ‘fun TIME’, ‘fold TIME’, ‘figure TIME’ and ‘freeze TIME’. What are these flashing alliterative phrases doing in place of the fixed numbers that usually divide the clock’s uni-directional time up into neat units? Fold time could be read as a time for folding, or a folding of time itself—just as freezing, fixing and figuring might be things that happen in time as well as to time. What, then, is free time? Time free of obligations, time given without charge? The adjective is also a verb: to free something is to release it from confinement, so we can read the words free time in the imperative, as a direct call on us to free our time—to liberate it from its imposed representation, and instrumentalisation. Time, then, is no longer pinned down and measured, but released as an active force of change, and escape.
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Image 01. Escapement, 2009. 27 clocks, high gloss aluminium with LED lights, four flat screen monitors, video and audio looped. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective and Frith Street Gallery.
Image 02. Photo by Srinivas Kuruganti.
Image 03. Coronation Park, 2015. Central Pavilion, Giardini, ‘All the World’s Futures’, Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective.
Image 04. Coronation Park, 2015. Central Pavilion, Giardini, ‘All the World’s Futures’, Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective.
Image 05. The Ecliptic, 2014. Clock movement, aluminium, acrylic, LED lights. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective and Frith Street Gallery.