Michael Snow in Conversation with Christian Marclay: The Clock and the Role of Improvisation

(The article is based on a conversation between Michael Snow and Christian Marclay held Monday evening, November 7 at the Enwave Theatre at the Power Plant in Toronto).

Michael Snow and Christian Marclay strolled onto the Power Plant stage Monday night and spent the next couple of hours casually discussing and reminiscing on the role of improvisation in film and sound to a sold out crowd.

Michael Snow

Snow began the conversation by attempting to place The Clock in context to 100 years of recorded sound and music. Recorded sound and images are now at everyone’s fingertips with computers redefining our relationship to this media he said.   Marclay’s work is always a reaction to that history and the creative challenge for him is creating something “else” out of it.  “It is archived—all of it is there.  Memories of stuff…”  Marclay said.  Both Snow and Marclay have collaborated over the years with improvisational music and both enjoy live sound.  It might appear disruptive, said Marclay, but it is in fact a creative act much like taking fragmented images and sound and unifying them together.

Christian Marclay

While the conversation for the night was on Marclay’s award winning video project as he prefers to call it, the conversation touched on the idea of improvisation in sound and the temporal concept of film and how it fits into both artists’ body of work.  Marclay described The Clock as a form of improvisation in relationship to other structural concepts.  Many installations use film and project them as items of nostalgia—The Clock however plays with the concept of time, past and present.  “Once something is filmed it is automatically defined in the past,” said Marclay.  Yet the experience of viewing the Clock makes the film genre work in the present and creates a unique interactive experience in the present moment for the audience and the individual viewer. Time as a construct is played with throughout the video.

Marclay and Snow have collaborated in the past on sound projects.  While their sound projects appear disruptive, Marclay said, “They are in fact quite creative enterprises.”  Marclay was ahead of the hip hop era — in the 70s he would use turntables as instruments of sound, re-inventing them and giving them a different purpose.  The Clock can be placed in the continuum of Marclay’s work as a natural progression of themes already well developed in his body of work.

Marclay is known for his distinctive fusion of image and sound. The Whitney in the summer of 2010 devoted an entire floor to his work –visitors such as myself were invited to mark up a wall-sized chalkboard, with musical notes, people of all ages democratically and communally creating a collective musical score that different musicians interpreted and performed throughout the run of the show.

Marclay’s “Festival” at the Whitney Museum

The show included the premiere of a new vocal work forty feet in length with three scores conceived as projections—it was continually on view and performed on a regular basis.  World renowned musicians and vocalists, some of whom have been regular collaborators with the artist for three decade such as Michael Snow, interpreted a dozen scores, enabling museum audiences to experience a less well known aspect of Marclay’s varied art practice.  Both artists touched on the Whitney show in their conversation.  The Whitney show proved to be one of the more memorable visits to New York that year for me as well.

Images from “Telephones”

For another example of his interest in fragmented images and sound, one only has to watch his 1995 “Telephones”, a 7 1/2-minute compilation of brief Hollywood film clips that creates a narrative of its own on the idea of the telephone and linking disparate scenes into a narrative that create a cohesive conversation. Time moves back and forth and discontinuity disappears in the process –the clever conceit of the phone unites the whole in a playful and technically flawless manner. To view this 7 minute video just click on Telephones.

Marclay spoke to Snow’s work as well, commenting on his approach to film which he views as structured but often playful and seemingly improvisational which Snow said was not the case.  “My film projects are planned but unintended things happen in spite of themselves.”  Snow responded.  Music is a source of improvisation for both Snow and Marclay and they have collaborated numerous times over the years—a mutual admiration society of sorts has evolved and Marclay clearly has much respect for Snow’s pioneering work.  They view sound as full of creative potential and they both embrace the surprises of the process.

Film without sound is a very different experience that with sound Marclay commented —as witnessed when you watch the films on planes without the sound or view it elsewhere in a storefront window.  Any film is an image from the past.  Snow mentioned that he tried to make film capture the present but found it challenging—“sound or music is needed so that you can experience it in real time.  The syncing of image and sound is expected or else it proves unsettling…People constantly seek the narrative and try to draw out meaning.” he said.

Sound editing glues the fragmented images together—it provides the illusion of coherence and follows the traditional use of sound in cinema, Marclay said.  A question from the audience focused on the predominance of North American movies in The Clock.  The Western obsession with time definitely predominated said Marclay, since most of the clips found were from Hollywood—a western bias came through simply because it was harder to find time references from other countries such as India or Japan in the same way.

Another question from the crowd came from the obvious issue of appropriation that arises from The Clock.  Marclay dryly responded by saying “If you make a good piece of art everyone wants to be in it.”  He did not ask for permission but just went ahead and did the deed.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.

Marclay is currently at work on a project involving improvisational music and is enjoying the change of pace.  After the three years of working on The Clock he is quite ready to move on.  Editing, while somewhat improvisational is a more technical process and while challenging, soon became tedious and “not fun” after the hours of editing that was required for The Clock.  “You never knew what the researchers would bring —the clips were continually being revised and the challenge was making art with it and turning it into a cohesive whole.  The project began easily enough in the beginning with a few clips but as the project grew with more clips it became more challenging thematically and creatively.  The toughest times of day to find clips for were 4:30 a.m. – 5 a.m.   Nothing seems to happen as well between 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. oddly enough,” Marclay commented.

Christian Marclay with Golden Lion award at Venice Bienniale 2011

“The novelty of The Clock is that you are living in the same times as the Clock time or rather the Clock is reflecting the daily cycle of life.”  Marclay says.  “It is not intended to be a 24 hour marathon but rather it is a statement and reflection on of life becoming entangled in the film and you becoming a participant in the event.  People will think to themselves—how much longer should I stay, I have a doctor’s appointment to go to, a dinner date, or a child needs to be picked up. The sense of time permeates every aspect of the experience and that is as it should be.”  Marclay said. Specifically dictating the setting and viewing space of the video is integral to this experience he added.  People come and people go as part of the viewing and that is as it should be—no one is obligated to stay.

It was quite a relief to know that burden of obligation was now lifted –being a keener, I naturally wanted to see it all but knew it would be impossible –I only managed about 4 hours.  Snow said he managed to watch about 5 hours in total.  So Snow gets the B+ and I manage a solid C.

The evening felt like two seasoned colleagues getting together to chat– it is clear that it is mutual admiration society, with Marclay often deferring to Snow for his commentary and insights in to the process of film and sound.  It worked for the audience who were already won over by The Clock and two highly articulate and iconic artists.

The Clock is at the Power Plant until November 25.  It then goes onto New York and the MOMA where it will run from Dec. 21 through Jan. 21.  For a detailed review on the making of The Clock check out my previous blog post “Time is the Clever Conceit:  The Clock Considered”.

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