Raqs Media Collective are self-styled critics and polemicists of the globalized world, urbanization and political representation, making work that is multi-faceted and hyperactive, including installations, exhibitions (most recently a section of Manifesta 7) and publications. Escapement (2009), their installation at Frith Street Gallery, comprised 27 almost identical clocks, each allocated to a city and the hands set to their respective time zones. However the clock hands marked emotions rather than time – epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, awe, fatigue, nostalgia, ecstasy, fear, panic, remorse – as if each city was on a Nietzschean treadmill, doomed to an eternal return of extreme feeling. The cities represented were a combination of world economic and cultural centres (such as New York, Tokyo and São Paulo) and war zones (including Baghdad, Grozny and Kabul), as well as three fictional cities (Babel, Macondo and Shangri-La).
The installation was sparse and visually bland, albeit intentionally, in an attempt to create a condensed equivalent for the ‘non-place’, theorist Marc Augé’s term for the anonymous spaces that characterize the endless movement of ‘supermodernity’ (the airport, the motorway service station etc.). The clocks hung on the walls like the vector of a graph, undulating at certain points, surrounding four plasma screens attached to a pillar, across which an image of a teenage girl’s head slowly moved, blinking as she reached the end of each screen. This was accompanied by a soundtrack, including dripping water and an old-fashioned modem dial-tone, underpinned by a slow beating heart. At the front of the gallery sat a low plinth holding a clear Perspex mould of the exterior of the clock. Inside this were squeezed multiple round and square opaque-crystal shapes, of different heights, which in various lights either looked like a miniature city of skyscrapers or, more bizarrely, sushi. If intended to be some kind of symbolic future-city, or generic dystopia, it felt trite and underwhelming.
In general, Raqs Media Collective’s project is earnest and devoid of cynicism, which is both rare and admirable, yet the selection of cities and heartbeat soundtrack veered towards the cheesy sentiment of a mobile phone advert, telling us that wherever we are we are all the same. Described in the accompanying text as an ‘exploration of the fast and jet-lagged pace of global life, seeking to question what it means to be living in contemporary times’, in reality this interpretation felt forced.
The choice of fictional cities (for which the words on the clock faces were reversed) was more intriguing. As told in the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel (designed and built to celebrate a united humanity) functioned as both the reason for God’s creation of many languages and a symbol of communication failure; Shangri-La is a fictional place in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, a Utopian paradise on Earth, that has provoked serious interest across the political spectrum, from the Nazis to Franklin D. Roosevelt; Macondo is both a fictional town in Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and the name of a refugee camp outside Vienna, Austria, that has existed since 1956. These imaginary cities function as both cultural metaphors and failed Utopian gestures, but their inclusion here appeared tokenistic, like clever signposts towards a hidden meaning.
Escapement was an attempt to pass comment on a very contemporary form of existential crisis – one familiar to BlackBerry-obsessed, airport-bound, biennial addicts – that would feel more at home in a 1990s anthropology reader than in a commercial art gallery and that bears scant relationship to most people’s lives. Nicolas Bourriaud’s recent ‘Altermodern’ manifesto also explored similar themes, as he set out his vision of cultural hybridization, perpetual travel and a new universalism, each a manifestation of contemporary globalization, to him signalling the end of Postmodernism. Could the clocks in Escapement ironically symbolize Postmodernism’s own 12-step recovery programme? As the clocks strike ‘epiphany’ (if you’ve managed to make it through the heart-racing 12 hours that preceded this), the enlightenment of altermodernity is presumably attained.
First published in Issue 126