A Forever Full of Fleeting Moments
Deep time and daily practices
Something that cheers me up whenever I’m down is thinking about the 10,000 Year Clock. It’s being built in a mountain in Texas by the Long Now Foundation. Here’s the site’s vision statement for the project:
There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody.
Danny Hills, the clock’s creator, says: “I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it.” The clock is a tremendous engineering challenge but one not without whimsy; Brian Eno designed the chimes, and the best part: IT’S A CUCKOO CLOCK. (Cuckoo comes out every millennium, don’t miss it.) Okay, is it a bit of a silly way for the ultra-rich to invest? Perhaps. But when I don’t think about the millions of dollars it will cost and what else they could be spent on (curing cancer? making mousetraps that actually work?), I love a tangible reminder that the long now is made of individual moments.
The infinite is implicit within the ongoing. Oftentimes a Long Haul creative project becomes a daily practice, and the dailiness of it, the small building blocks that become the big thing, is entirely part of the appeal. A Vermont artist I know named Judith Taylor spent two years writing her journal entries on long rolls of 3-inch wide paper, which she rolled into a large ball. She then used large wooden dowels as needles to knit the ball of paper to create a kind of fabric. She told me, “The lush quality of the soft brush loaded with ink and the broad gestures of my writing arm influenced whatever I wrote on the ribbon of paper. Writing and knitting became many kinds of fabrication.” She worked on the project every day, although as a busy mother and rabbi’s wife (and therefore responsible for a fair amount of public living), she noted, “Whatever work I do at home usually gets interrupted, or sometimes I briefly abandon it to unload the washing machine or stir whatever’s on the stove.”
She reminds of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the performance artist who among other fascinating projects took on one she called Touch Sanitation. Over the course of a year, Ukeles met all 8500 employees of the New York Sanitation Department, shaking hands with each of them and saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” Since 1978, Ukeles has become known for her 36+ year role as the official, unsalaried Artist-in-Residence at New York’s Department of Sanitation. That’s a long time to sustain an idea, and the idea of trying to connect art with municipal management is kind of a large paradigm shift to take on as one’s responsibility, but it began with, every day, going to shake some hands.
These days Instagram is a treasure trove of artists taking on daily projects — painters who produce a still-life a day, draftspeople who draw something every day, even mothers who take a picture of their kids and their household routines every day, marking off which day of 365 each is, hashtagging #pictureaday or #celebratingdailiness. Ukeles understood this urge in the 60s, when after giving birth she declared herself to be a “Maintenance Artist,” claiming that her daily work as a mother was indeed a form of sustained performance art. I get the urge to document, with me in fact it’s almost a compulsion: I’ve always kept a journal, somewhat obsessively, a long term project masquerading as a daily practice. Sometimes it’s full of ideas and emotions, and other times it’s strictly accounting: Today I went to the grocery store, I brought home fresh croissants from the bakery for the children, I took a walk in the cemetery and saw the forsythia in bloom. I was here.
Something that fascinates me though is projects that record a moment, acknowledge the art in the everyday, while at the same time erasing themselves, or acknowledging how the moments erase themselves. Taylor wrote her journal entries every day, recording daily life, but then by knitting the entries the way she did, made them unreadable.
Another great artist of the ephemeral is the writer Shelley Jackson. Every winter, I catch up, through Instagram, with her project “Snow.” She writes out a short story, one word at a time, in snow, in real time, then posts a picture of each word. Each snowstorm brings a flurry of posts, and we see the story progress, until the snow canvases get smaller and sadder. Then, a long drought between words, until the next snow falls. The story melts and disappears (while its imprint stays, of course, on the ‘gram).
I think as creative people we have to get comfortable with the fleeting moment, with sometimes letting it, well, fleet. How can we remember, like children do, that the making is the part that matters? This is something I especially want to remind myself everytime I get tangled up with a novel I’m writing, or start to wonder why I even write them, what the point is, what rewards will ever be reaped.
I thought of this as I watched my then-9-year-old daughter create an incredibly detailed drawing of a cast of characters for a play. H spent hours on this drawing — crucially, naming each character with a first, middle, and last name — and when it was done, she tossed it aside, unconcerned with what happens to it. The play, in her mind, was complete. The cast had been created. The people had been named. Another time it is a phone book she creates, endless lists of alphabetized invented names, with ridiculous many-digit phone numbers alongside them, an almanac of ways to not reach people who have never existed. The absurdist poetry of it all!
I want to remember how to create this way, the way children do; I want to remember how to write without imagining the sales pitch or even the end result. How to play. How to experience the joy of doing. I want to remember how to think big even when I’m scared or nervous, how to think long even when the future seems uncertain.
The 10,000 Year Clock, by the way, will be tucked deep into a cave, so that a visitor would have to devote an entire day to hike in — it demands a pilgrimage — and has to be activated — wound, sort of, like a gigantic watch — in order to display the time. It is being designed “to run for 10,000 years even if no one ever visits (although it would not display the correct time till someone visited),” and “each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years.” It’s meant to outlast everything, to make us think about the vastness of time — and how within that time, each moment is unique.
And every once in a while, there’s even a cuckoo.