The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium MAKING TIME: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage taking place from April 19-21, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “what does the phrase 'time-based art' mean to you?” in advance of the event. This posting is by Laura Richard, graduate student in History of Art at UC Berkeley.
As a description, “time-based art” has always struck me as a bit off. But not so much because its baggy scope enables a sometimes arbitrary and lazy lacing together of dizzyingly disparate works across media. In fact, this ruled but unruly interdisciplinarity seems mostly a virtue, the whole point: to think through dance, film, visual art, music, theater and performance adjacently and synchronically. To consider works primarily in relation to a shared structuring element of time, rather than diachronically according to a specific material-driven conception sprung from traditional genealogies and histories. Of course, this possibility pivots on whether we consider time to be a principle or a medium, an issue to which the hyphenation “time-based” offers little traction.
But if the term is silently indifferent to the way it might structure discourse in the humanities, it does call out a use-value in another, perhaps less welcome or intentional discipline: Business. Time, after all, is money, and indeed, in the marketplace “time-based” is the lingua franca of global information economy expounded and expanded in the pages of the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere. “Time-based strategies” focus on the reduction of time required to accomplish tasks: “time-based competition” seeks to compress the time required to propose, develop, manufacture, market and deliver products, and “time-based pricing” depends on the length of time it takes to provide a commodity or service. False-cognates between the languages of capital and culture seem no longer possible. And a loaded loanword like “time-based” functions not just as a portmanteau on which to hang a multitude of artistic practices, but implicitly smuggles in the mantle of the market. As a result, rather than enriching, “time-based” risks diluting and packaging complexity and difference across practices into a single fungible, brand-ready category born from—or based on—a lowest common denominator. The need for more precise and subtle subheaders for, distinctions within, and theorizations of “time-based art” is driven then as much by the value of acknowledging the particular ways in which duration and individual works shape each other, as it is necessary to resist cooption by the culture/entertainment industry and the flattening, time-indifferent logic of capital.