Why you can’t see great video

February 14, 2011
The Clock. Christian Marclay's video masterpiece is currently on show at the Paula Cooper gallery in New York, and is also part of the British Art Show, which is touring the UK and will open in London on Wednesday.

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I spent a large chunk of Saturday looking at The Clock. Christian Marclay’s video masterpiece is currently on show at the Paula Cooper gallery in New York, and is also part of the British Art Show, which is touring the UK and will open in London on Wednesday.

Still, like a lot of excellent video, it’s very hard to find. Wayne Rooney’s bicycle-kick winner on Saturday is out there, although the copyright holders were being very aggressive in taking it down from YouTube for most of the weekend. And the Grammy performances from last night are still pretty much nowhere to be found.

In the case of expensive entertainment media, I kindasorta understand what’s going on — or at least I would understand, if they had any strategy for profiting from the viral nature of these videos themselves. But in the case of the artwork, I’m just depressed.

Marclay’s work is truly magnificent — but it’s 24 hours long. It’s basically the world’s most expensive clock, laboriously pieced together from thousands of film and TV clips, each of which tell the time in some way. It’s synced to the actual time where the film is showing, so that if a clock shows 3:45pm on screen, that means it’s 3:45pm where you’re watching.

It’s an amazing work, beautifully edited. Like much high-end contemporary art, it marries a striking conceptual purity with a no-expense-spared perfectionism when it comes to technique — the film quality is first-rate, the edits are carefully put together so that you get whole sequences which echo each other and create mini-narratives within the narrative-free whole. And while it certainly works extremely well in a gallery context, one can’t help but think that its ideal presentation would be as a permanent clock, on the wall in one’s house, where you’d look over to tell the time and then get completely distracted and be late for whatever it was you were trying not to be late for.

After all, the main reasons that the piece is so hypnotic has nothing to do with the gallery setting. Instead, it’s just the nature of what’s known as “tick-tocks” in financial journalism: the deep-seated human desire to know what happens next, and which explains why so many people got all the way through Too Big To Fail. The film is comprised mostly of high-end Hollywood product, made by people who know how to keep you watching. Which creates a kind of surfing sensation: you never find out what happened after any given clip, but you’re already engrossed by the next one. According to one of the gallery assistants, people tend to spend a huge amount of time between getting up to leave and actually leaving: they can’t quite bring themselves to tear themselves away.

I would dearly love to be able to have a copy of this piece at home, getting to know its nuances — look, it’s the sequence with a whole series of dropped-in bits from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man! — and looking out for the more subtle or hidden clocks and watches in scenes where they’re not immediately apparent. It wouldn’t be too hard, I don’t think, to set up a website where the film was constantly streaming in various timezones, and which you could just play, full-screen, in any web-connected home. And the amount of pleasure and wonder that website would generate would be enormous.

But I doubt that’s going to happen. The Clock is being sold in an edition of six, to museums around the world who will sometimes have it on show but who normally won’t. And museums, for all that they nominally serve the public, still like to jealously guard their work. Noah Horowitz, in Art of the Deal, tells the story of Anri Sala’s Intervista, a 26-minute video projection which was sold to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2001. When the museum found out that Sala intended to release a single-channel edition for private use, in the form of 220 VHS tapes, the museum worried about its own version’s “diminished singularity, reinforced by the disparity in price the museum would be paying for the installation versus that spent by owners of the single-channel VHS edition. In the end, the museum won out, with a final contract annulling the proposed edition.”

Marclay and his gallerists want to cement his position in the institutional art world, and as it’s going to be unnecessarily difficult for the world to enjoy The Clock — just as it’s unnecessarily difficult for people to see Lady Gaga’s Grammy performance from last night. At some point, we’re going to break through these barriers. But it’s not going to happen any time soon.


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