Slownessby Chris Dercon
First published fifteen years ago, Dercon’s essay anticipates several topics that later writers engage.
In 1986, I conducted an interview with Paul Virilio, published on Belgian Radio and Television as well as in the Canadian magazine Impulse about the speed space. Virilio said: “When we think of speed, we say it’s the means of getting from here to there fast; it’s the means of seeing the antipodes live when there’s a game, or of watching the Olympics in Los Angeles. But I say no to this. Speed is a milieu, and a milieu in which we participate only indirectly through the videotape machine after recording, through information, science and ‘robotized’ systems.”
Back then it didn’t come to mind to ask Virilio about slowness; instead I asked: “You have mentioned fugacity. Another very important concept in the functioning of the magnetoscope is that of establishing a program of absence.” Virilio responded: “Today we are living in an era of intensive time: that is to say that new technologies lead us to discover the equivalent of the infinitely small in time. In previous times we were conscious, with telescopes, of the infinitely large and with microscopes, of the infinitely small. Today, high-speed machines allow us to comprehend the same thing in regard to time. There is an infinitely long time which is that of history... Then we have an infinitely short time, which is that of technology’s billionth of seconds. I think the present finds us squarely between these two times. We are living in both the extensive time of the cities, of stories, of memories, or archives or writing and the intensive time of new technologies. That is the “program of absence”; that is how we program our definitive absence, because we’ll never be present that billionth of a second.” Thus spoke Virilio.
I would like to propose that we urgently develop new notions of slowness in order to avoid such a “definitive absence.” It is certain that more and more artists today, be they filmmakers, architects, designers, show interest in “slowness,” 24 Hour Psycho, created in 1993 by the British artist Douglas Gordon, confirms this. In this video installation there is no film-movement in the traditional meaning of the term. Moreover Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho seems to bring movement to a stop altogether.
This process may be produced in the work itself through certain technical means; it can also be produced—an effect/affect—in the observers’ cognitive process of perception. Luckily enough, our view of the world is not solely determined by machines, but by certain modes of perception, long since internalized, that form the basis of the current acceleration as well as deceleration of things. This observation leads us back to Heidegger’s ideas about time. We can find his “influence” in recent videos and films by Jean-Luc Godard, from Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) to Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988), inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), which is equally fascinated with acceleration and deceleration. For Heidegger, Cocteau, and Godard, then, art is a form of resistance, resisting . . . time. Slowness is an important part of this organized resistance as it performs a new kind of subjectivity, just as today, organized stopwatch time has nearly disappeared from everyday life. Photographer Ari Marcopoulos recently documented in a photobook the daily life of a group of snowboarders, Orpheus characters of the 21st century. They told him: “Our world is moving at a cultural speed which cannot be measured by traditional chronology . . . Who wants to look at watches when it’s time coded anyway. . . ?”
In his 1995 novel Slowness, Milan Kundera asked, “Why has the pleasure in slowness disappeared?” I would say that pleasure not only has come back; slowness is also a new strategy and an important tactic for the practice of everyday life! My friends travel around the world to enjoy “slow” holidays full of underwater activities; scuba diving becomes a rite of passage. How slow do you go? I would also like you to appreciate Marc Newsons’s or Zaha Hadid’s designs as “slow” morphologies. “Slow” designs for new sportswear reflect the massive media attention for slow motion effects—occupying nearly 75% of every sports broadcast. The tempo of Japanese noise music gets unmistakably slower! Some of my composer friends find that their music, too, tends to be “slower.” As “slow” as the time architecture of Toyo Ito? Is “thickness” the same as “slowness?” Wong Kar-wai’s films, among other Asian films, celebrate slowness. In such films we get confronted with fewer cuts as well as much “longer” screenings.
With regard to the new Asian cinema, slowness turns out be “sexy.” As sexy as the slow, rigid, yet elegant movements of Martin Margiela’s and Ann Demeulemeester’s models. Richard Hamilton’s “readings” are yet another expression of “slow histories.” And what about the slow movements of refugees—innumerable people!—waiting in camps in order to get transferred to yet another camp. Recently, business newspapers herald, in view of the rapidly changing/devastating economy, the arrival of slow management techniques. In all these examples physical movement is literalized as a conceptualizing metaphor of moving-as-affect, evoking stains in the surrealist sense—think of projected art works by James Coleman and William Kentridge. The double image of the verb “moving” is literally at work when we speak about slowness. Speed, then, is the false liquidation of art; instead, slowness seems a becoming of utopia. Slowness is “thought” time. “Our love grew slowly!” Such a train of thought presupposes the existence of time as an empty vessel that can be more or less filled, just as one can live a “full” or “empty” life in the same amount of time, or can use the time available for solving a problem. “Our love is endless!” It is as such that we should be able to think of slowness as a logical continuation or logical expression of Virilio’s intensive time. Maybe slowness will then become a new theatre of thinking and thus a theory.
Chris Dercon is Director Emeritus of London's Tate Modern. This autumn he assumes the directorship of the Volks Theater in Berlin.