Culture Editorial: Artwork Unfolding at a Glacial Pace

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In a small town named Halberstadt in Central Germany, an empty stone room reverberates with noise. Over the 950 years of its existence, the St Burchardi Church has served variously as monastery, barn, distillery and pigsty, but since 2001 it has played host to a performance of John Cage’s composition ‘Organ²/ASLSP’.

The performance is scheduled to continue for the next 627 years.Cage, the mischievous experimental composer, decreed that the composition should be played ASAP: ‘As Slow As Possible’. The record for the longest performance by single person stands at an entirely respectable14 hours and 56 minutes, but the mechanical organ in St. Buchardi’s Church pushes the work to its limits. The next note change in the current 78-year movement will not sound until 2020.The piece demands that we contemplate the bounds of human endeavour.

There is no upper limit to its longevity except that defined by our technical ingenuity and the transience of our existence. ‘The Clock of the Long Now’ is a similar fusion between the artistic and the mechanical, designed to keep striking for 10,000 years without recourse to digital programming. As well as testing the artifice of its engineers (the $42,000,000 project is still ongoing), it is intended to serve as an “icon for long thinking”.

French undergraduates determinedly chewing their way through the 3000 pages of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu will be well aware that its gross length is a result of the author’s endlessly rambling and discursive style rather than a deliberate attempt to challenge the fortitude of his readers. The 17th-century novel Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus is four times as long as Proust’s half-arsed attempt, and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar stretches ten times longer even than this, running for some 20,000,000 words in its totality. There is a distinction to be drawn between works of art which are long for the sake of being long, and those such as Artamène or the Epic, whose scale is simply a by-product of their complex narratives.

This is largely because written works are not performed or experienced in continuous, unbroken duration in the way that the visual or aural arts are. The world’s longest film, a plotless and deeply disturbing art-house venture which splices heavy metal and clips from pornographic films with a poetry reading over the course of 87 gruelling hours, is notwithout reason entitled A Cure for Insomnia. Theatre is doubly limited by the energy and patience of both audience and actors, and neither of the two performances cited as the longest in the world (The Warp and The Bald Soprano) break the 24-hour mark. Film, installation art and music test our endurance as consumers in a more relentless fashion than books, which are absorbed at the reader’s own pace.

The creators of ‘The Clock of the Long Now’ hope the installation will “do for thinking about time what photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment”. The steady beating of the mechanical oscillator at the heart of the Clock of the Long Now and the relentless dirge of the organ in the Church of St. Buchardi serve the same purpose: they set the brevity of our lives against the enormity of time.

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