Watching “The Clock”

Christian Marclay, THE CLOCK, 2010. Image accessed at

At SCMS ’13 in Chicago this weekend, I noticed a panel entirely devoted to Christian Marclay’s 24-hour, single channel computer program, The Clock. The artwork is a massive compilation of sequences from film history which feature time-keeping and time-breaking: clocks, watches, alarms, bombs and digitized displays as silent witnesses and narrative fulcrums. I missed the panel, as one is forced to do at a conference as massive as SCMS, but I thought I’d use it as an impetus to write some thoughts on the artwork that I had had earlier this year.

I read the glowing portrait of Marclay and the project that Daniel Zalewski had painted in a 2012 issue of the New Yorker, and (contrarian by nature), immediately knew I had to see it for myself. I did so during its run at the MoMA (December 21, 2012–January 21, 2013). I chose the worst possible time: at closing on a Target Free Friday Night. Stomach growling, wait time estimated at one hour, my partner and I shrugged at each other. At least we were getting the full experience.

After a faithfully estimated hour of chit chat and eavesdropping on the decreasingly interesting chit chat of surrounding art goers, we entered the darkened gallery space. By the light of the screen, I saw (much to my loathing and delight) that the vast space was ordered with rows of IKEA KLIPPAN sofas. Is there a better candidate for a penultimate Benjaminian dialectical image/object of the early years of the 21st century?

I thought it was interesting that from its installation concept, Marclay’s Clock seems to place itself more in a history of TV viewing than movie-going (the relatively small size and low placement of the screen, the unraked floor, cushy seating). Several spectators were sprawled out on their backs or stomachs like children in front of a giant set. We sat on the floor in the crowded makeshift theater for about ten minutes, then finally a sofa freed up.

As I had expected, I didn’t like the piece, but I found it fascinating. For a film and media studies scholar (especially one trained in a more conservative fashion) the cinephiliac mode of trying to identify each sequence used was taxing. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a qualifying exam. As I let myself slide along the endless montage of graphic matches, I started mentally playing with common themes and parallels from minute to minute. We were there from about 9pm to 10:45pm, long after nuclear family dinnertime and too soon for the 2am phone calls with bad news. During this stretch of Movieland night, three principle activities take place: 1.) bodies are discovered. 2.) women get stood up for dates. 3.) people don’t come home, and whomever is expecting them paces nervously.

In this segment of The Clock, Marclay’s army of young, vision-ruined assistants were using overwhelmingly English-language, Hollywood, genre-based films as their raw material. That was disappointing–I would have liked a little armchair tourism with my time travel. Perhaps, I thought, there is something about Anglophone culture (capitalist industrialization its hallmark) that makes its cinema rely more heavily than others on codified and disciplined segments of day for narrative meaning. Productivity, efficiency, quota fulfillment, happy ending!

After an hour, I was restless. For me, the sensation of watching The Clock was one of enervation. I felt mildly depressed at the virtual drain on my nightlife. My partner, however, didn’t want to leave. In fact, relatively few people seemed to leave during the our stay–everyone seemed absorbed, transfixed. By what?, I wondered. Perhaps they, like us, wanted to watch at least as long as they had waited to watch? Of The Clock, Rosalind Krauss writes that Marclay turns to “suspense as the extended dilation of [Hüsserl’s] ‘now effect,’ transforming the reel time of film into the real time of waiting.” (Krauss, “Clock Time,” October 136, Spring 2011, pp. 213–217.) While it makes for a nice pun, I disagree with Krauss–I don’t think The Clock is about the filmic, unless its about film’s afterlife. To me, the piece diffuses suspense and is instead about an ecstatic seriality, endless citation. It is about the soothing pleasure of the familiar unfamiliar. About knowing what will happen next but not knowing how, exactly.

The most rewarding thing about the experience was the walk to get dinner afterward. All of a sudden, every idle gesture of looking at clocks in building facades or at our wrist watches or cell phones had become overdetermined. Like a dramatic kiss or a particularly good insult hurled, the glance at the time was now cinematic for us, part of a catalogue of experience for which moving images condition us. We had never noticed before.