restricted access Firing at the Clocks: Cinema, Sampling, and the Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Artwork
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Firing at the Clocks:
Cinema, Sampling, and the Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Artwork

In his writing about the medium of the moving image, Walter Benjamin classically emphasized film’s role as modern man’s perceptual training tool, one that was uniquely apt to mediate, through its form as well as its apparatus, the intensified rhythm and shock of an era of accelerated industrialization and urbanization.1 Hence for the cultural historian and philosopher, the study of film offered key clues for an understanding of the construction of the modern self, its relation to time, and, broadly speaking, art’s contribution to a modern sense of identity and history—all areas of reflection that remain at the forefront of new media theory. As Peter Osborne sums it:

Film is, famously, the technology for representation most closely associated with philosophical insight into the mutual and paradoxical constitution of time and the self. For Benjamin, it was the medium in relation to which “all problems of contemporary art find their definitive formulation.”2

Today, Osborne adds, cinema’s legacy is in evidence in the practice of contemporary artists who, aided by digital technology, are appropriating and manipulating the moving image archive as well as cinema’s techniques and spectatorial apparatus, in what he describes as “a general experimental articulation of technologies of perception and patterns of artistic and social use.”3

Indeed, in the views of a number of contemporary art historians and art practitioners, the widespread vogue for found footage techniques is one of the ways in which the older medium of cinema is being offered a new lease on life in [End Page 192] the museum and gallery.4 Conversely, one may concur with Philippe Dubois and argue that in effect, it is cinema—its techniques, aesthetics, perceptual regime, and historical records—that impregnates the art world, opening new avenues for experimentation and self-reflection in moving-image-based art and art theory. Dubois calls this phenomenon the “effet cinéma.” “Diversified and multiform,” the “cinema effect” can be felt in all areas of contemporary art—institutional, artistic, and theoretical—where cinema now “informs, feeds, influences, works through, inspires and irrigates” artists’ and curators’ practices.5

Appearing at the uncertain junction between appropriation and creative hybridization, Christian Marclay’s 2010 video work, The Clock, the most popular example of the widespread practice of artists’ found footage assemblage to date, arguably stands as an exemplary instance of the way contemporary artists sift through the moving image archive in an attempt to offer new insights on the correlation between art, time, and perception.

The work’s initial conceit, realized thanks to the storing and editing capacities afforded by digital technology and with the help of a team of assistants, was very simple: thousands of film excerpts, all evoking the passage of time, edited together into a twenty-four-hour video fully synchronized with actual, non-diegetic time. The piece is effectively a clock, and the viewers’ first gratification, even before they reach the room where the work is on display, lies with the realization of Marclay’s simple and clever premise.

Selected from hundreds of films as well as a number of made-for-TV features, the extracts are mostly very brief and around the time of each hour, the pace quickens as the choice of images builds into a more emphatic sense of suspense. Whereas artists such as Douglas Gordon famously explored duration through the slowing down of cinematic flow almost to the point of stillness, Marclay resorts to quick cutting instead, assembling thousands of fragments that unravel in rapid succession, literally forsaking duration in favour of time-as-movement.

We may be captivated by it or remain immune to its attractions, but there is no denying that The Clock raises troubling questions about the relationship between cinema and the art world—and, more broadly, in the way Marclay’s piece harnesses mechanical time and the montage technique to its closed formal system, about art and commodification. Indeed, part of the fascination exercised by The Clock rests with the polarized reactions it generates, whether the piece is envisaged as a kind of “imaginary museum” in celebration of...