December 18, 2013

What Time Is It?

This fall, Open Space has featured a series of reflections by artists, writers, and curators on “the contemporary.” Today’s piece, “What Time Is it?” is a concluding note.

In 2011′s My Common Heart, Kansas City poet Anne Boyer writes a poem titled “Questions for Poets.”  The text opens, What time is it in Sydney? What time is it in Tallahassee? What time is it in Cincinnati? What time is it in Helsinki? What time is it in Philly? and continues in this form many more times, asking what the time is in many places, and, finally, what kind of time it is (“is it a good time?  is it a bad time?”). Reading through the list, the nature of the question itself becomes problematic. As we read the static text of a poem, it becomes obvious that the question, if read literally, can never be answered — or it always can, but never fully, never finally. As the places connote geographical immovability and immutability, the question “what time is it?” becomes all the more suggestive and open-ended. Time . . . for what? one might ask.

It has been such a pleasure to edit the series of blog posts that appeared on Open Space this fall under the rubric of “the contemporary.” I am grateful to the artists and writers who took such care in creating thoughtful and rich contributions. Each of the posts constitutes a response to an initial question, and so I suppose it’s unsurprising, reading them all together now, that I’ve been thinking again about my original call for reflections on the contemporary. What it meant in the first place.

The writers who answered my call frequently staged their inquiry into the contemporary in terms of time. That may seem obvious — after all, time is literally embedded in the word “contemporary” (it’s the “temp”). Moreover, while one might think that a question about the contemporary is a question about the present, whatever that is, these pieces, time and time again, are concerned with other times, the past and future.

In Frances Richard’s “A Few Names,” contemporaneity is analyzed in terms of a commitment to the future. In other pieces, the contemporary seems to assert itself by inquiries into and analyses of the past. Not just one past either: Suzanne Husky’s “Eclogue” ranges through centuries-old agricultural communities only now on the brink of major transition, spanning the liminal zone between disappearance and the appearance of something new. And there are other pasts in these posts: modernity (as John Cage’s appearance in erica kaufman’s “The Leaves Changed”), postmodernity (as in Matt Sussman’s “Who Wore It Better?” and Gastón Colmenares’s meditation on identity and subjectivity), the nineties (as in Kate Zambreno’s “Reality Bites”), the fabulous brink of the early oughts which preceded and foretold the forms of social networking that inflect our present (as in Francesca Lisette’s “Instant Nostalgia” and Sofía Córdova’s “No Time To Be 21″). But what’s interesting to me, reading through them now, is not so much that they frequently use time as a way to frame the inquiry, nor merely that different times are used to interrogate the present. What I think is interesting is how many times there are. How rich and stratified the contemporary appears as the question is asked again and again by these writers.

And also, not only time, but place. In these posts, too, are many different kinds of places. The farmhouses of rural France, the art gallery and museum, the park. And of course, the internet — but many different kinds of internet: the jerky Sisyphean gif, the viral video, the social network.

Which brings me back to thinking about Anne’s poem, what it asks and how it does it.

Asking writers and artists to describe what the contemporary means is a daunting and, finally, impossible request. The contemporary is so many times, including the future; it is so many places, including those that we can’t touch with our hands; it is always eluding our attempt to fix it down. Finally, telling the present is as unlikely as telling the future – the meaning of Miley Cyrus singing in front of a teary cat, the meaning of a single twerk, the meaning of a brick breaking the glass of a police car. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking the question. What time is it where you are?


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