Marclay’s The Clock

Before I went to see The Clock at Tate Modern I wondered how it could be made interesting, and, specifically, how the sound track was managed so that it wouldn’t just be a jumble of truncated dialogue, snippets of music, and meaningless noise.

I also wondered how he had managed the process of ‘ripping’ bits of film - relatively easily done, though tedious, in the days of VHS tape, but seemingly impossible now with digital media - though I realise it only feels impossible to me as I try to get a few clips for a film of my own as I don’t want to have to buy the appropriate software.  I also wondered about copyright, and how the film people felt about having snippets nicked for this new composite film.

Being the social scientist at heart that I will always be, I also wondered how he recruited his volunteers, who watched and tagged possible clips, and wondered what happened to the aberrant volunteer who mostly tagged people having violent things done to them rather than clocks.

“Over the course of the next three years, a team of assistants watched hundreds and hundreds of films, grinding through videocassettes. “My assistants had an account at the store, renting all these VHS films. We instructed them on how to ‘rip’ the part. Some assistants didn’t last very long, because they just didn’t get it. There was one guy who just kept on bringing me clips of horror movies, people getting decapitated. He had me really worried.” ” Marclay, in The Guardian 

I thought aha! At least it was VHS, and then I read this in the New Yorker.

At Marclay’s request, White Cube posted a “Help Wanted” sign at Today is Boring, a cinéaste redoubt on Kingsland Road. Six young people were hired to watch DVDs and rip digital copies of any scene showing a clock or alluding to the time. (Sophia Loren to Marlon Brando: “I can’t appear at eleven o’clock in the morning in an evening dress!”) Files were logged with search-friendly titles: “1124—kid waiting on streets/old man checks watch—Paper Moon.” The assistants recorded their discoveries on a Google spreadsheet, to avoid overlap. Since a rival version could be hastily crowd-sourced on the Internet, the assistants signed nondisclosure agreements.

Does it not matter to anyone but me whether the originals were DVDs or VHS tapes? 

I was being ambivalent about going.  Its a bit of a traipse, especially since health issues mean public transport is difficult.  It seemed banal and gimmicky.  If I was going to go, would it be be better to attend one of the 24 hour screenings that were being made available to Tate Members- stay in a local hotel and wander in and out at leisure?  What if I went to do this and the room was full?  A friend whose opinion I value  (thanks Dora) said she enjoyed it, and was going back to see more, and a free ride became available, so I went.

Having sat in the room, for an hour and a half the first time and another 45 minutes later when my friend joined me, I know now the answer to some but not all of my questions, and have developed a few more questions.

First, yes, it is interesting, once you relax into the process. I got mildly irritated by the people next to me who insisted on yelping every time they recognised a clip.  Identifying every torn scrap in a Rauschenberg Combine would be a strange preoccupation, and proving one knew seemed a way of separating from the intended experience.  It seems audience behaviour in different places varies considerably, but overall people were quiet, with just an occasional ripple of laughter at the film, and an even less frequent vocalisation by an infant.  

Fretting about spotting the clock would be a foolish approach - there are so many, they are so common, that they could be seen as a simple vehicle for moving the film along, like a train travelling through countryside.  What an horologist would make of the film I do not know; there were certainly many different time pieces shown, including a fantastical one where for the first time ever (in the original film) a device to accurately tell the time was being shown off to the potentate.  They commentated on how dangerous it would be if the common population could get their hands on such a device.

It would be interesting to see the film in the dark hours of the morning, as it was apparently a lot more difficult to find footage.  I wonder how night workers feel about the world, when they never get to fit into the normal expectations that this film makes so apparent.

The film includes footage from non-English films, which do not require subtitles, as the meaning is in the movement and the clocks.  Scouring Bollywood films for time references was abandoned as there were few references to time.  Another query - what do different groups make of this experience?  Do people in time-obsessed societies like this movie as they can both abandon clock watching and at the same time know absolutely how much time they have spent on this non-task?

Marclay talks about how personal experience of time varies depending on how interested one is.  Even with the absolute measure of time on the screen I still left the room feeling I hadn’t been in there long.  I do know the elasticity of time - my sat nav gets stuck now and then, and on long roads I sometimes find myself fretting that I am not moving at all only to realised that the display has stayed static for twenty minutes. Reality and technology conspiring to trap me.

Mini-narratives are developed all the time.  Someone looks up when you hear a bang, but the bang is from the next clip, glances mesh across movies.  Each of these devices helps give a sense of wholeness, of intentionality.

What really makes the piece work as more than a ragbag of clips spliced end to end to fill the day with tricksy cleverness is the sound track. I couldn’t imagine how cut and pasting the sound would produce anything but an uncomfortable and disjointed experience.   By carefully combining sound from within the displayed film (diagetic) such as a door slam, a sentence spoken by the person we can see here, the chime or tick of the clock,  with bleeds into adjoining clips, and then weaving them together with a subtle music track, the whole thing becomes just that, a whole thing.   

“It is through the sound editing that The Clock achieves its trance- like effect, engaging and seducing the viewer into spending time, passing time, and losing  track of time, even while always insisting on the precise time of day.”(Catherine Russell Archival Cinephilia in The Clock p246)


The friend I sat with said he thought the sofas were black.  I presumed they were cream.  They are actually specified white sofas from Ikea (another source says cream) ( will galleries have to maintain a stock of Ikea sofas if this version goes out of production? Or pay expensive artisans to recreate cheap Ikea sofas in their dozens in the future to meet the artist’s display criteria). I immediately wished I’d asked people leaving the show what colour they thought they were - I wonder if an internet survey would generate any interest the way the storm over the black/blue or white /gold dress did a while ago.