At the beginning of this week I returned to work with Juliet Robson in her studio in Oxfordshire. Before we met she sent me some photos of the wild primroses beginning to flower where we had buried the watches in her garden, heralding the beginning of Spring. The day we were meant to meet two snow storms arrived in the UK (and much of Europe) bringing deep snows, even in London which creates it’s own warmth that mostly prohibits snow from settling these days. We had to cancel and wait until the unexpected extreme weather- called the Beast from the East by the ever dramatic UK press – receded.
When I finally made it to Wyfold Studios the birds were singing, the ice melting and flowers poking out amongst the sodden grass and leaves.
We wanted to continue our experiments with time, with a mixture of practical making and doing and thinking. We had done some research in the follow up to our meeting, mainly thinking about different ways to keep time. Juliet started looking into Water Clocks and we decided to make a simple water clock of our own using this method. Our research into water clocks took me back to Delphi and Ancient Greece as many of the threads of this project seem to have done, where a combination of a water clock and sundials kept time in the temples and Sanctuaries as described in this fascinating paper.
We also attempted to dig up the watches we had buried in the Autumn. This was so much more exciting than I had expected and began to feel like a quest of some sort.
Unburying the watches
Watch 1: Metal
Our first attempt was unsuccessful and we realised the map we had made of where each were buried wasn’t as accurate as it could be and that I forgot to say if it was 30cm or inches. After the first attempt we realised that it was buried 30inches from the tree and not 30cm from the path. On the second attempt much to our delight we found the watch beautifully encased in soil. We dug it up at 13.09. The watch was still working but showed the time as 14.05. The watch face had patterns of condensation on the front and rust growing on the back. Interestingly although the watch itself was in the place we expected it, the zinc tab with the date and time it was buried (which was lighter than the watch) had moved from underneath the watch to the right and took some more digging to find it.
Watch 2: Wood
We followed the map but no matter what we tried the watch and zinc tab were nowhere to be found! We began to re-enact the photo from when we buried it to see if we could find it but the rain started to fall heavily. We are not sure where it could have gone. Could it have decomposed, but then where was the zinc tab? Could it have been dug up by a squirrel, fox or bird? Could the shifting life of the soil with worms and roots heaving and pushing in the dark through the winter months have transferred them to another spot?
Watch 3: Plastic
The plastic watch was easy to find as we had buried it close to the path. It was dug up at 13.43 and continued to work but showing the time as 17.00. The watch was relatively untouched but the plastic seemed faded somehow, as we know plastic overtime seeps out and starts to attach itself to other molecules in the environment around it.
We decided to return the watches we found to the ground and unbury it again at the end of Spring when we meet for the final time.
I was reminded of Hansel and Gretel retracing their steps.
We timed Julie’s hourglass. The sand took 31.10 minutes to move from one end to the other. We timed it with my mobile phone that had been automatically updated by the phone company when I returned from Chile the week before.
We remembered ringing the speaking clock on dial up phones when we were younger. A quick web based search reveals the first speaking clock service was created in France in 1933. The UK service began in 1936 and varied across cities but in the largest cities you dialled the letters TIM. Contrary to what we originally thought there is still a speaking clock service in the UK if you dial 123 on most mobile and BT’s network (and across the world see wikipedia for numbers) but it seems to cost quite a bit to ring it. It is an odd act to ring up on a device that includes a clock to find out what the time is from the speaking clock, this article has some interesting perspectives on how and why people still use it. I am still unclear whether the different services provided by our mobile providers all get the time from atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory as does the BT service.
We set up the water clock we had bought on Amazon. It worked as soon as we poured in the water and seemed miraculous. The ions from the water powered the clock, alarm and thermometer.
We began making our own water clock and realised that the lids were made of a strong plastic that we couldn’t drill into so Juliet used one of the zinc tabs to separate the two bottles using plastic straws. We left the glue to dry and started to think about how the basic water clock might then power a digital clock for our next session but also how the different time keepers using sand, water, sun, metal and digital might represent different experiences of time.
The Ice Filled Pond
On the way to the studio from the house we came across Juliet’s pond which appeared to be filled with solid ice, capturing the pond life, algae, weeds, leaves, air bubbles and possibly creatures. A time capsule from the extreme weather.
More reflections and ideas on this to come…
One of the elements of this work that I am particularly finding interesting is the materials that we are using and the materiality of time – echoing the early experiments in clock making of Ancient Greece, Egypt and India where a combination of water, sun and complex calibrations between night and day, the seasons and the stars were required.
If we are thinking about the future then surely we should think about materiality and sustainability hand in hand, the materials that are at our disposal (plastics, metals and wood) and the methods of finding them (via Amazon and Ebay’s web of warehouses, underpaid workers and worldwide delivery, as also the local supermarket) are very much of our time. Quick access to these cheap materials make many things possible particularly with limited mobility, resources and extreme weather, but of course leaves long lasting and costly traces in return.
In contrast, playing with the ice in the pond and tracing our felt experience of Spring has a different timely-ness and materiality and sensorality, these natural forms and experiences may potentially be influenced by us (particularly if the severity of the storms were impacted by climate change), with our relation to natural materials and phenomena inducing a different sense of beauty, time and space.
These experiments are beginning to represent something of our personal and universal experience of time and possibly narratives on how we experience time when we heal, when we make, as we age and when we watch seasons change.