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Chronophobia: On Time in the Arts of the 1960s

Lee, Pamela, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s
Lee, Pamela, M. — Chronophobia: on time in the arts of the 1960s. — Cambridge : MIT Press, 2004. — 368 p. — Includes an index.

In her book, Pamela M. Lee studies the historiography of art in the 1960s, focussing on the recurring preoccupation of artists and critics with the dimension of time in works of that era. Lee refrains from compiling an exhaustive summary of works illustrating this dimension from a pragmatic perspective. Rather, the author emphasizes the links between how these artistic practices are received and the fixation with the era's scientific forecasting in popular culture (the futurologists, the utopia of the global village, cybernetics). Her work therefore does not serve as an historical account of media practices or the technology of the 1960s, but instead compares theories on the media deployed with those on the art of this experimental decade.

In her introduction, "Eros and Civilization," Lee attests to the problematic nature of art and technology collaborations at the end of the 1960s. These associations ran concurrent to a polarized debate on the pervasiveness of technology in day-to-day life. Herbert Marcuse constitutes the figurehead of this theoretical faction, which deplored the emergence of a society dominated by technology. Inversely, projects contemporary to this, such as the 1966 "Art and Technology Program" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and "Experiments in Art and Technology", begun the same year, seemed to pave the way to a productive exchange between the industrial and artistic worlds. According to Lee's following conclusions, these exchanges proved conflicting for both camps. The author suggests that this misunderstanding was due to the emergence of artistic practices that oscillated between radical criticism of electronic media technology and the use of technology as a neutral tool of creativity.

In the first chapter, "Presentness is Grace," Lee introduces the core thesis of her work. She describes a phobia of time and duration in the reception of 1960s art, particularly among modernist critics of the previous generation, such as Michael Fried. For these critics, who were united in their rejection of minimalism and conceptual art, the present constituted the only possible time frame of the art experience, a theory that negated both history and the new media of the age. The author goes on to state that emerging artists of the era went beyond these modernist concepts through cybernetics. She identifies the discourses that served as a theoretical framework for practices aiming to align various systems (natural, social, technological) with the works themselves (Hans Haacke is one artist who represents this approach). Lee also reflects on the relationship thus established between the definition of artistic mediums and the emergence of the "new media." The second chapter, "Study for the End of the World," focuses on kinetic art and most particularly on the work of Jean Tinguely and Pol Burry, whose respective works constitute the two extremes of this movement. Lee stresses that the kinetic art of the 1960s replayed the machine age aesthetics of the historical avant-garde movement during the era of mass communications. And the author maintains that this is a necessary return. With his self-destructive sculptures, Tinguely created events where objects were simultaneously displayed and destroyed, often while the television cameras rolled. Here, Lee approaches failure as a productive phenomenon suggesting a criticism of the efficiency of technology in the 1960s. With Burry, by contrast, the movement of objects took place almost imperceptibly, with the slowness of the artwork becoming another example of the apprehension of the perceptive environment. The third chapter, "Bridget Riley's Eye-Body Problem," constitutes an analysis of the context in which Bridget Riley's Op Art was received, both by art critics and the mass media. This art form generated opposing interpretations, where Riley's body and femininity became the focus of the piece rather than the optical effects or the scientific rigor of her approach. In juxtaposition to this, Lee highlights the performance art of Carolee Schneemann, who resolved the problem of the objectification of the artist's body within a technological environment by offering the spectator a kinesthetic experience. The fourth chapter, "Ultramoderne: Or, How George Kubler Stole the Time in Sixties Art," comments on the recycling of the conservative arguments of art historian George Kubler by artist Robert Smithson in order to go beyond the determinism of modernist ideology. Lee states that this detour via Kubler's transhistoric views allowed Smithson to integrate cybernetic-based concepts into his work. Above all, this chapter emphasizes how the critical discourses circulated from one field to the next (from art to science and science to art). The fifth chapter, "The Bad Infinity: The longue durée," returns to the dimension of time in artistic practices, but reveals how historical time is deployed metaphorically in works of art. Among other topics, Lee discusses the difference between the 1960s view of the Year 2000 and the more recent millenarian misgivings. She comments on the popularity of the proliferation of works produced by futurologists in the 1960s and concludes with two references to how the concept of future is applied in the artistic milieu. The book Art and the Future by Douglas Davis, published in 1973, presents works that use technological components to forecast both the art and society of the future. Lee then examines this approach, which constitutes a re-activation of the notion of avant-garde. In doing so, she contrasts the excessive length of Andy Warhol's films with the minute recension of day-to-day life in the work of On Kawara, which, begun in the 1960s and still underway today, propels the work of art itself into the future.

Vincent Bonin © 2004 FDL