Experimental Arcades

1 Constructing time

In the course of the 19th century, a variety of apparatus and instruments were constructed to measure, calculate, record, and distribute time. In addition to the ever expanding clock industry, “inventors” such as Charles Wheatstone and Matthäus Hipp developed innovative precision chronometers that quickly found their way into the laboratories of physiologists and psychologists. In his research on the velocity of the nerve impulse propagation, Helmholtz used experimental set ups from physics and ballistics (Breguet, Pouillet, Siemens), adapting them to his specific needs as a life scientist. Many physiological and psychological time-experiments employed objects that, generally speaking, belonged to the realm of art. The tuning fork, developed and used mostly by musicians, became a prominent instrument for experimentalists in the life sciences in the 1860s. Carl Stumpf, Edward Scripture and Alfred Binet used tuning forks not only to produce sounds, but also to register time. Controlled by a “tonometer,” the constantly swinging fork could precisely record fractions of a second on the revolving drum of a kymograph.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the sequencing of traces was one of the decisive procedures in the scientific and artistic construction of time. This is evident in the series of pictures that permitted scientists as well as artists to generate knowledge. When Eadweard Muybridge promoted “chronophotography” (which in its technical details was more than a ‘picturing of time’), he was developing only one aspect of extended technical and cultural work on and with time. As is well known, Muybridge improved the technology of camera shutters, but he also constructed a pneumatic clock system that would deliver time throughout the city of San Francisco.

When arranged in series, other things besides images could produce knowledge. For natural historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, the collection and disposition of objects into “formal sequences” (Kubler) became the firm ground on which those scholars could establish knowledge about the development of styles or cultures. Such series of “time related objects” were not just consciously constructed in museums and archives. The history of material culture shows that these series could construct and deconstruct “themselves”, i.e. independent of the intentions of human actors. This is not only true for fossils and other sediments. When clocks, images, and sculptures were subjected to use, aging, and eventually ruin, they turned again into potentially interesting indices of time.

What kind of materials proved to be “good” generators and conservers of time? And which turned out to be insufficient or defective in the construction of time? What practical knowledge went into constructive work with or on time? In what kinds of circumstances did artists or scientists deliberately take the time in order to construct objects that were apparently meant only to return time, although in more precise or more attractive form? How and by whom were the objects collected and the traces fixed that through serialization made time processes accessible that would be qualified as epistemic or aesthetic? These kinds of questions illustrate the first aspect of the conference topic.