The Clock has been travelling to different museums and galleries around the world since it opened in London in 2010, challenging many conventions of film practice and spectatorship. Christian Marclay’s impressive, entertaining, and philosophical work engages tropes of found-footage film and video in a gallery installation to create a monumental form of digital cinema. It exists in the form of a hard drive and a tandem computer program that synchronizes the projection to the real time of the audience, such that the work itself literally tells time over a twenty-four hour period using close to a hundred thousand extracts from feature films. The installation also includes a specific seating arrangement of white sofas placed in a darkened room, evoking a home theater in a public space. The Clock has generated a great deal of discussion in the art world, the film world, and in the popular press. The articles presented here aim to situate the piece and the buzz it has generated in a critical perspective, contextualizing it within museum culture, moving image history, and theoretical paradigms of spectatorship, temporality, and the archive.
A common theme in the critical discourse around The Clock is the lament, even among those who are critical, that they didn’t think of it first. It seems so easy and so obvious; and in fact, as Eli Horwatt points out, it’s possible that another filmmaker—Christophe Girardet—did think of it first.1 As digital tools have made found-footage filmmaking into a practice accessible and available to all computer-users, the mash-up and the video essay have become popular forms of experimental media. From the YouTube fan tributes to favorite stars, to Oscar night homages, to sophisticated video essays in web journals such as Frames and Vectors, ripping clips from films for reassembly is now standard practice, even if [End Page 163] it often remains legally circumspect. That Marclay was able to borrow fragments from thousands of films under fair use guidelines within the rarified auspices of the art world tends to ruffle feathers, even while it contributes to the awesome statement that the work has made.
Although one critic has suggested that “this whole assembly could have been made by a computer program,”2 in fact it was a huge expenditure of manual labour. Marclay’s six assistants collected the material over a course of three years, while Marclay edited the segments together. The soundtrack, for which Marclay collaborated with Quentin Chiappetta, is a tour de force of mixing, remastering, and counterpoint. Whatever one may think of its blockbuster appeal, The Clock is a technically and formally accomplished work of picture and sound editing.3 The montage is at many points highly expressive, while at others subtly invisible, and Marclay fully exploits devices of suspense, comedy, and contrast. On these levels, the piece sustains a rhythmic pace that varies, constantly, with irregular timings and shifts in mood and tempo. There is no question that it has a seductive appeal, due in part to the extensive use of suspense effects and the proliferation of movie stars.
Many descriptions of The Clock suggest that a clock face is seen in every shot, but in fact Marclay has used a variety of techniques for telling time. The time of day may be mentioned verbally, along with periods of time that may or may not be accurately measured by the compilation, as in: “I’ll wait for just five minutes!” He also includes scenes in which characters discuss time more abstractly, as in multiple clips from The Time Machine (George Pal, US, 1960), and people asking “what time is it?” or people looking at their watch with no specific time mentioned, or clocks on which the time is slightly illegible. Marclay weaves series of scenes from a given film into the collage, not all of which feature timepieces. The Clock, in fact, includes many shots with no mention of time whatsoever, and no clock or watch-face either. These sequences are important means by which the work incorporates another sense of time besides clock time, which we might nevertheless say is produced by clock time by being outside...