Culture  The shape of things to come

Time Forms explores the links between art and time

The first thing to be seen upon entering McGill’s New Music building on September 18 was a collection of middle-aged artists dragging box-mounted tablets around the front foyer on strings, filming the ceiling. They walked, writhed, and rolled across the floor. To the outside world it would have looked like madness, but in Time Forms this was just part of the norm.

This strange performance marked the launch of Time Forms, a four-day conference exploring the relationship between the experience of aesthetics and the fluctuation of time. The workshops focused on art as a manipulator of temporality and challenged the concept that time can be cut into convenient and discrete units. The works strove to break free of the mechanical “clock time” by which modern humanity abides, while investigating how art can make “time felt.” Clocks are seen as the fundament of time. They are made up of hours, minutes, and seconds, and consequently, are measurable constants in the world. What then accounts for those moments with friends when time seems to flow by effortlessly, or those days in class when the hand on the clock seems hardly to move at all? Time Forms aims to delve into this notion of fluctuating time, and explore its connection with the aesthetic experience.

Despite the slightly esoteric nature of its premise, the curators of Time Forms – McGill professors Alanna Thain, Stephen McAdams, and Eric Lewis – made accessibility a goal when organizing the conference. “We want not only everyone to be able to get in, but to feel like they belong here, too,” said Thain. The structure was also important. Time Forms was designed to counter the typical conference-style layout, in order to stress the inconsistent nature of time. The pace of activity was in constant flux: for one hour, a participator could be sitting down listening to a talk on multitemporalities, and the next, chasing a dancer down Prince Arthur.

Putting together Time Forms was no easy task: it required the hard work and time of many people who were interested in the concept, and that turned out to be a surprising number. Lewis estimates that a few dozen parties from McGill were involved. “We’re all interested in breaking out of the traditional academic silos,” he says. Thain continues, “We were also lucky to have good community partners.” These partners ranged from the PHI Centre, where the events on September 21 were held, to the Performing Arts Fund of the Netherlands, which funded the Vloeistof dance group’s visit to Montreal and hosted the dance experience titled, “Am I Here Now?”

One workshop, called “Maintenant” (“now” in French), was led by McGill music professor Eleanor Stubley and sculptor Joël A. Prévost. “Eleanor [Stubley] spends a lot of time theorizing about touch,” said Lewis. “If you want to do more than just theorize about it, engage with a sculptor.” In June, Stubley began collaborating with Prévost, a self-taught sculptor from Montreal. The two got together over a three day period during which Prévost would sculpt Stubley’s hands as she conducted her original compositions. The fundamental shape of the sculpture was based on the position of Stubley’s hands at the start of the piece, with details added as the sculpting process continued. During “Maintenant,” videos played behind them on a screen, artistically arranged to stress different aspects of the collaboration: capturing movement and emotion with sculpture, a conductor bringing life to notes, the materiality of togetherness, and metaphysical versus clock time, just to name a few.

These sort of deep philosophical ponderings were not rare in Time Forms. There was a performance of the legendary trombonist, scholar, and pioneer of electronic music George Lewis’ piece “Mnemosis.” As explained by Lewis in the discussion that followed, “Mnemosis” was based on two philosophical concepts: Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s concept of timelessness. Nietzsche postulated the idea that the universe is a recurring entity that will continue to recur in a similar manner an infinite number of times, while Wittgenstein said that whoever lives in the present lives for eternity. As a result, “Mnemosis” itself has repeating portions, and is laid out in a way in which the listener can cognitively enter and exit the piece at will. It was terrifying by most standards. The pianist dragged a jar against the inside of her piano, and at some points it was as though the wind instruments were just being blown on rather than actually played.

During an event called “Lunch Beat” in the basement of the New Music Building, food was given out on one side of the room while the rest was transformed into a giant dance floor. The lights were low, the trance music was loud, and several art installations lay around the room. On one screen, glitchy films flashed, while another screen showcased phrases like, “make this moment last” and, “now………won.” As Thain described, “What do you normally do at lunch? […] There’s something about daytime dancing that’s a different way of feeding yourself and feeding your body and feeding your soul. […] There’s something about taking an art break in the middle of the day, and particularly a body-based art break. [It] gives you just a different experience.”

The Vloeistof dance tour “Am I Here Now?” played on imagination in daily life. Small groups followed a dancer around Montreal while listening to an mp3 recording of the dancers’ ‘thoughts.’ She made remarks on pedestrians’ weight, the state of the neighbourhood, and sometimes referred to the group itself. The dancing was unconventional: it involved raw movements that seemed out of place in the middle of busy Montreal. The dancer ran, zig-zagged, and threw herself into bushes. At some points she would stop, and repeat abstract movements so that the group would have to stop and watch her (along with some people who just happened to be passing by). It was not a performance that had been rehearsed and presented countless times before, but rather a new and unique work every time, one that was co-created by the audience.

All in all, the organizers were pleased with the outcome of the event. “It was a huge and complicated undertaking; it required a lot of elaborate technical support because of our strong emphasis on performance and media, the coordination of a lot of people who had never worked together before, and a group of participants, both presenters and audiences, who were willing to take risks with novel forms of engaging with research [and] creation,” said Thain. She also expressed hope that another Time Forms conference would happen in the future, albeit not any time soon. In the meantime, the organizers are involved with the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas and plan to run several workshops through it. Thain explains, “We’re still working [the workshops] out, but one may involve a visit to the beehives at Macdonald campus with a mobile cinema, others may involve looking at how ‘slow food’ movements intersect with contemporary political practices and critiques of labour under neo-liberalism.”

While it may be difficult for some to do serious philosophical reasoning with such quirky distractions, the participators in Time Forms seemed to do just fine. No one batted an eyelash when musicians plucked at their instruments during presentations, and everyone was still paying attention on the dance tour when passers-by took pictures and giggled at the dancer. It didn’t seem like eccentricity was a goal of the conference, but rather a symptom of gathering so many like-minded artists and thinkers. The Time Forms conference effectively brought together people of different backgrounds and different ages, and allowed them to connect based on a shared desire to think about time, think about art, and be a little bit obscure.