Duration, Consciousness, and Cinematic Perception: Christian Marclay's 'The Clock'

The Clock

As a time-based art, cinema allows for multiple and complex artistic forms that use the passage of - and manipulation of - time as the essential element. Most cinematic features lead the viewer towards an illusory experience, what Baudrillard would refer to as the "hyper-real" – where time is an entity to be escaped, and simultaneously forgotten. Friedrich Kittler claims that since its inception, cinema has been responsible for the manipulation of the audience’s optic nerves as well as their perception of time1. This exploitative tendency has led to the deceit of the audience and their perceptual capabilities. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) is a monumental cinematic production in that it attempts to exceed time and space – reflecting the viewer’s fetishization and dependence on time.

As there are 1,440 minutes in a day, Marclay provides over 6,000 clips of movies, both past and present, that visualise humans’ obsession-driven relationship with temporality. The Clock is a montage of cinematic time throughout history, displayed in a real-time format, where the flux eventually becomes parallel. The Clock’s rigidity and dependence on what we consider to be one of the most logical phenomena in history, lends towards an abstract narrative form, and essentially a constant flux of parallel time and consciousness. Aside from the intricate technological workings of The Clock, I find it to be of paramount importance to draw parallels between the conscious experience of The Clock with the central philosophical discourse on the perception of cinema and temporality. Henri Bergson’s theory of duration of the universe and Bernard Stiegler’s argument that all thinking is cinematic2, are two interesting considerations when moving past the logistical tactics of The Clock. Bergson states: 

There is no doubt that our consciousness feels itself enduring, that our perception plays a part in our consciousness3.

This belief, based in large part on continental philosophy, regarding the incessant duration of consciousness and perception distinctively molds with Stiegler’s view on the mechanism of cinema, and perceptual processes. For Stiegler, cinema is both an industrial and temporal object – an object not of “its time”, but one that is in constant flux.

Duration, perception, and consciousness are all fundamental components of Marclay’s The Clock. The subjective viewer experience and the complex interplay of multiple layers of consciousness at work are imperative to a comprehensive understanding of Marclay's monumental work. My argument is that The Clock’s incessant duration of cinematic montage is conscious of its own endurance – and proves its self-awareness through the West’s fetishization of external time. The specificity and longevity of cinema made explicitly visible by The Clock, directly correlates with Bergson’s theory of perpetual duration, in that it mirrors the daily abstraction that every viewer knows as time. 

Bergson’s conception of the 'duration of the universe' works between the link of impersonal consciousness and individual consciousness that humans experience every day. In Bergson’s view, duration functions through simultaneity, rather than unlimited instances. As we choose to experience objects at a distance, there are simultaneous perceptions and multiple vantage points through which we experience the world. The concept of universal time arises from our own “proper” concept of time, or the “experience” of time in our immediate environment4. Bergson drew attention to the concept of the simultaneity of flows. Our experience of simultaneity, he observed, arises from our experience of multiple flows within a single flow5. For instance, in Marclay’s The Clock, we experience a complex succession of scenes within a designated twenty-four hour time frame. Although this frame sets our “proper” or “experienced” time in the immediate viewing environment, the simultaneity of clips is in a constant flow with our inner consciousness. In order to fully understand Bergson’s conception of the duration of the universe, we must address the theory of special relativity, proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein in his work ”On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”.

Intending to bear out the idea of time, common to all things6, Einstein proposed that time was always relative according to the laws of physics. In Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, Jimena Canales attempts to use space travel as an example of how Einstein’s special theory of relativity works: 

According to the Theory of Relativity, two twins, one who traveled outside the earth at a speed close to that of the speed of light and the other one who remained on earth, would meet each other and notice that time had elapsed differently for each of them. Their clocks and calendars would show disagreeing times and dates. The twin who had stayed on earth would have aged more rapidly; time would have slowed down for the one who had traveled.7

Bergson deeply despised the concept of the finality of time, believing that, “we don’t limit duration to the immediate vicinity of our bodies, we send it out into the world of the external physical things as well.8 The most profound implication of Bergson’s theory, and major disagreement with the special theory of relativity, was Einstein’s lack of acknowledgement of the idea of a constant flux, and therefore a continuum of consciousness. Bergson believed that there is a multiplicity of durations at play in the physical universe. Bergson continues: 

The theoreticians of relativity never mention any simultaneity but that of two instants. Anterior to that one however, is another, the idea of which is more natural, the simultaneity of two flows.”9

When confronting the underlying differences between Bergson and Einstein, it should be noted that Einstein’s theory of special relativity is best suited for the realm of physics and moving objects, whereas Bergson’s epistemological system is most relevant when considering the philosophical study of the state of being and ones inner consciousness. Of course, during the early 20th century, when scientism and rationalism were the key foundations of credible intellectualism, fellow scientists and physicists who claimed that philosophy had no role in the sphere of modern science, denied Bergson’s theory recognition. Despite being pinned as a philosopher, rather than a real scientist, several key phenomenological and philosophical figures have supported Bergson’s claim, including Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze.

However, before returning to The Clock, we must first attempt to understand and rationalise one of the most abstract phenomena in history - time. Before the advent of modernity and industrialism were represented in the creation of timetables and stopwatches – time did exist. It was psychological, natural, and understood in accordance with passing seasons and accumulated days. The division of years into days, days into hours, and hours into minutes, etc; as an attempt to isolate moments and provide a divided, segregated flow is where the abstraction of time begins. It is this very isolated continuum that Bergson wished to dispel. It is imperative to explore how The Clock more appropriately functions within Bergson’s theory of duration and simultaneity, than within Einstein’s theory of relativity. One may claim that The Clock is demonstrative of Bergson’s theory in that the film replicates the twenty-hour clock whilst also playing in real-time – functioning within two streams of consciousness, and two simultaneities at once. The three courses at play during one’s viewing of The Clock are 1) the individual’s inner consciousness, 2) the impersonal consciousness, (which displays the viewer’s relationship between their inner consciousness and things outside of it e.g. literally watching The Clock), and 3) the creation of a parallel flux between The Clock’s montage of cinematic time, presented as real-time.

Our inner perception and consciousness are always aware of our position outside of The Clock’s replicated time machine – yet we are projected within real-time. Real-time and the time that exists within The Clock are parallel, as we understand that these moments have passed in both the history of film and before us as fleeting images. With multiple levels of consciousness working on the viewer’s perception, combined with the fetishisation of physical time, a valid question begins to be raised. Which part of The Clock is, in fact, reality? 

Today, perversions of time are seen everywhere, whether it's a colossal timetable at a train station, itineraries that detail down to the very minute, or the incessant checking of one’s watch.

These are daily instances in which our dependence on time is obvious. Marclay utilises the viewer’s dependence on time and visualises the rigidity that one lives within everyday. Upon catching a fleeting image of Sean Connery wearing a stopwatch as James Bond, or the extensive amount of scenes where the only representation of time is the sound of a ticking clock, an acute sense of self-awareness purges the viewer of any logical conception of time. Through dramatic fetishisation, time is seen for what it truly is – an industrial mechanism for control.

Another consideration is whether the opposite of self-awareness occurs for some viewers. It is the narrative play of cinema that awards viewers the option of fantasy and escape, however, as previously argued, The Clock projects feelings of self-awareness and acute sensitivity to time. This may not be the case for every individual viewer. Having the opportunity to view The Clock at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio in January 2013, after two hours of blatant viewing and observation, I felt exhausted if not inebriated at the sight of a clock. The realisation of society’s dependence, cooperation, and infatuation with time was intriguing, yet oppressive. The Clock is redundant and repetitive. Its compulsive use of time creates a vivid self-awareness for the viewer, allowing them to recognise that although external time may endure; psychological, inner time will also remain.

Taking clips from over one hundred years of films, Marclay simultaneously creates a dynamic history of cinema while revealing cinema’s dependence on time. As the history of cinema is a visualisation of the manipulation of time, one might wonder if Marclay’s project is a statement of irony. Created to represent cinema’s eternal contingency with time for its very existence. Another contingency of cinema is its audience. It seems that cinema, more so than any other media, seeks to define the experience of the collective whole, rather than the individual. Indeed, individual subjectivity will create a sense of autonomy in the viewing experience of any film. This is particularly evident in the work of Marlcay, where the individual is sought out, only intensifying the subjective experience. The uninterrupted unfolding of The Clock remains distinct from the divisible track it leaves in the near past. As the compression of a multitude of scenes unfolds in real-time before the viewer, the moments between scenes magically disappear unnoticed.10 Cinema allows an audience to simultaneously transcend from one time to another, and conceptually travel between locations, eradicating interval time and the impossibility of moving backwards through history. The Clock makes any subject hyper aware of time unfolding onscreen, as well as the time spent viewing the film – an element that most visual art firmly lacks.

For Marclay, it was possible to capture time within the image11 and through scoring thousands of films from the past one-hundred years, Marclay found the most explicit way to represent time through the visual image; by capturing images of numerous clocks. However, manipulative in his accumulation of images, Marclay utilised Western society’s fetish with time in order to create his interpretation of the representation of time. The ‘unfolding’ of time is another characteristic of cinema that Marclay utilises in order to disorient viewers. Time and temporality are one of those metaphysical entities that humans believe they have a physical grasp on, however, as time continually unfolds, the realisation occurs that we can only conceptually grasp and count time. Through The Clock, Marclay demonstrates both the unfolding of multiple levels of duration and consciousness, as well as the literal unfolding of cinema. For Deleuze and Bergson, duration, simultaneity, multiplicity, and constant flux are the courses that define human existence. As temporality is one of the most ostensible realities of the West, these concepts seem slightly more accessible and intelligible, especially in the context of time-based performance and video art. The theory of special relativity as proposed by Albert Einstein and the theory of duration presented by Bergson, are fruitful considerations in the new era of performance and video art.

Time, the most monumental limitation on cinema, is for the first time in cinematic history being observed as such. It is through this lens, that Christian Marclay’s The Clock is well-equipped to perform an extensive and critical analysis on the West’s conception of time, which is no longer psychological, internal, nor qualitative – but mechanised, external, and quantitative. According to the evidence presented here, The Clock is a montage of cinematic time throughout history displayed as realtime, which eventually causes the flux to become parallel. The Clock’s rigidity and dependence on what we see as one of the most logical phenomena in history, contributes toward an abstract narrative form and essentially a constant flux of parallel time and consciousness. Through works such as The Clock (2010) and Video Quartet (2002), Marclay has formulated a new genre of time-based artistic practice that employs what were previously considered limitations in order to establish what it means to embody a sense of being and consciousness.

1. Kittler, Friedrich A., Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, 115.
2. Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time III: The Time of Cinema and the Question of Ill- Being. Paris: Edition Galilée, 2001.
3. Bergson, Henri, Leon Jacobson, and Herbert Dingle. Duration and Simultaneity, with Reference to Einstein’s Theory. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,
1965, 45.
4. Bohm, David. The Special Theory of Relativity. New York: Routledge, 1996, 26.
5. Robbins, Stephen, E. “Special Relativity and Perception: The Singular Time of Psychology and Physics.” Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research 5 (2010): 1.
6. Sherover, Charles, M. The Human Experience of Time: The Development of Its Philosophic Meeting. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1975, 221.
7. Canales, Jimena. “Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations.” MLN 120.5 (2006): 1171.
8. Bergson, Henri, Leon Jacobson, and Herbert Dingle. Duration and Simultaneity, with Reference to Einstein’s Theory. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, 45. 9 Ibid.,52.
9. Ibid.,52.
10. Taylor, Mark. “Telling Time with Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”.” KQED Public Media for Northern California, April 6, 2013. Accessed April 23, 2013,
http://www.kqed.org/arts/movies/article.jsp?essid=118979
11. Ibid., xii.

* This is a condensed/shortened version provided by the author for digital publishing. For the full version, contact Chloe Hines.