City Gallery

Peter Galison and William Kentridge, ‘Give Us Back Our Sun’, originally published in William Kentridge: The Refusal of Time (Paris: Editions Xavier Barral, 2012). Abridged.


The Refusal of Time developed out of discussions between William Kentridge and science historian Peter Galison. The following conversation occurred late in the development of the project. It makes reference to a live performance, Refuse the Hour (2012), that occurred in conjunction with The Refusal of Time.


Peter Galison: Let’s begin with the title. What’s being refused here?


William Kentridge: At one stage, the project was going to be called Three Times Table, it being about three different times: Newtonian time, Einsteinian time, and then time disappearing into a black hole. But, as we went on, it became more about trying to resist the imposed order that time supposes.


Peter Galison: For physicists, time was always more than just a technical concept or technical issue. Not every profound scientific issue escapes the bounds of the theoretical. Physicists, for example, debated whether parity was a valid part of fundamental physics—could any process of nature also occur in its mirror image? But parity never ignited passions. Time is something more immediate, not just to the person on the street but also to Newton, Einstein, and their successors. The huge emotional and political upset that changed our ideas about causality indicates that time was never just a technical, engineering, or physics issue. It has always been related to mortality, and questions of social and individual control.



William Kentridge: I understood the project when I realised it was about fate. Everybody knows we are going to die, but our resistance to that is at the heart of the project. As individuals, we resist mortality less to escape it than to escape the pressure it places upon us. In colonial terms, the refusal of time was a refusal of the European sense of order imposed by time zones. This refusal also referred metaphorically to other forms of control.



Peter Galison: In 1894, anarchist Martial Bourdin decided to attack Greenwich Observatory. This represented an attack on the supposed neutrality of time (the ‘zero time’ of longitude) and the centre of the colonial order. Joseph Conrad responded to Bourdin’s plot viscerally in his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent. Back then, the British cable system distributed time and information across the world. It was a global machine, a web of tens of thousands of miles of underwater and overland cables. From that one observatory on a hill, it mapped and controlled the empire. Here was an image that entranced us both.


William Kentridge: There’s a sense that time is too large a force to comprehend, however it becomes humanised in the form of the Greenwich Meridian, becoming something you can tackle and resist. You can’t stop the earth revolving and turning around the sun. But resistance to British colonial arrogance is possible, because you’re blowing up a meridian rather than blowing up the sun. That resistance also refers to huge political questions, which are manifestations of privately felt anxiety and rage.



Peter Galison: A slogan we kept coming back to was ‘Don’t take away our sun!’ Previously, your local jeweller determined midday, calibrating his best clock to the moment the sun reached its highest point. Later, clocks were synchronised by signals travelling through telegraph lines or undersea cables. These electrical pulses fixed time to a central clock, ordering the world into twenty-four time zones, each covering fifteen degrees of longitude. It was practical—useful for railway scheduling, mapping, weather prediction, and stock trading. But it also dealt a symbolic blow to autonomy. An American Rear Admiral and observatory director bristled: why should his country accept British time—why not the other way around?


William Kentridge: It’s a combination of things. On the one hand, there’s this completely cosmic scale. When the sun in the heavens is directly overhead, that’s the time we call noon. We take our time from the stars and bring it down to the scale where it is incorporated within our individual bodies, where our heart, lungs, and pulse turn the body into a kind of a human clock, a breathing clock. The refusal of time is a futile attempt to resist the earth spinning on its axis and its orbiting the sun. But, it also reduces time to a level where it’s as though it were being invited to a dance and refused to take part. It is time that refuses.


Peter Galison: The intensity of that refusal is repeated elsewhere, in other episodes that have interested us throughout the project. In 1905, Einstein said, ‘There isn’t a time, there are times.’ Suddenly, people became agitated by the idea that every moving observer has their own time. People had only just adapted to the idea of a worldwide set of ‘mother clocks’ and now they were hearing that there was no such thing as ‘absolute time’. The order of things was dealt another blow: your twin could fly off, then return, decades younger than you.



William Kentridge: When Einstein said there are multiple times, it was difficult to understand logically, scientifically, or mathematically. How can twins age at different rates? But internally, this was so much closer to our sense of time not being Newton’s single fixed-speed clock but instead being bound up with psychological states—with excitement and fear, with time expanding and contracting, and with time being both extremely slow (like the passing of a year) and fast (how quickly ten years pass). Destabilisation, which was rigorously demonstrated through science, corresponds to our internal experience of the instability of time.


Peter Galison: Einstein said, ‘There is no universally audible tick-tock.’ Before that, there was something reassuring about Newtonian time, where time was universal and absolute, and then distributed. Yet, this shift to ‘times’ clashed with our shifting intuitions about what time really was and how we fit into the order imposed by absolute time.



William Kentridge: The more science is discussed, the richer its metaphoric associations become. The metaphors and associations multiply. For instance, we hear about things not just disappearing into black holes but also leaving attributes of ‘information’ in vibrating ‘strings’. The representations of such ideas in my performances, films, and drawings don’t have to be accurate—I am not trying to turn the work into a science lesson. I’m exploring science’s metaphorical abundance.


Peter Galison: Dealing with the physics of time, historically and in the present, the stakes are high. Physicists—and the public at large—were upset by the new Einsteinian idea of time. But Einstein insisted that our intuitions are historically determined and are constantly changing. What was intuitive at the time of Copernicus differs from what was intuitive at the time of Galileo, of Newton, or in the present. We are exploring these intuitions, and the shock of having them challenged, by thinking about how time registers in people. Is all information lost when an object fails into a black hole or is some trace preserved? This debate has preoccupied leading physicists. It seems to matter more than just a correction to an equation, or a formal alteration of a term used to express entropy. In The Refusal of Time, we tried to enact these themes in myriad ways, from zoetropes and melodramas to machines and music.



William Kentridge: You talk about Einstein’s twins, with one twin aging faster than the other. That relates to the question of simultaneity. How do we know things are simultaneous? What happens when they start getting out of kilter? Throughout the project, I have been thinking about Duck Soup, the scene of Groucho Marx being out of sync with his reflection in the mirror. Realising the installation, should we play on the idea of metronomes dividing the space, starting in time then becoming increasingly out of sync? Could we use sound as a metaphoric representation of time? With sound, it is easy to talk about things being simultaneous or not. It’s obvious when a beat falls exactly at the same time, or when it’s syncopated or out of sync.



Peter Galison: There’s something tremendously funny about the idea that there could have been quarter-inch pipes underneath Paris that pumped time, pushing air to reset the clocks. We started thinking about this and wondering what it would mean to take an abstract notion of time and pump it through a pipe.


William Kentridge: Because the work was commissioned for Documenta, we thought we could have pipes all over the building. Instead of pumping honey, as Joseph Beuys did at Documenta 6, we would pump air. This also led to a lot of the music being based on wind instruments: tubas, trombones, panting people, megaphones. The body as a clock, a musical instrument, an engine. In The Refusal of Time, we have a huge set of bellows (‘the Elephant’), which stands in for the human lung. You see these mechanical bellows but hear human panting. We shift back and forth between the theoretical, the historical, the mechanical, and the human.


Peter Galison: We kept coming back to breathing, time, communication, and signaling; to air pumps and electrical and optical signals. We thought about Galileo in the church using his own heart as a clock, as he watched a lamp sway back and forth. We thought about Einstein talking about clocks and railroads and how to synchronise time at distant locations. We talked about Hector Berlioz, who dreamed of using telegraph lines to remotely conduct an orchestra.



William Kentridge: Remote control and telegraphs make me think of signals being sent from hilltop to hilltop, relaying news of the fall of Troy. What started as a personal conversation between us has become a form of signaling. It developed into visual signals, semaphores, and mechanical telegraph machines that we could place on stage to duet with human performers.


Peter Galison: For the performance, we have drums banging away at a distance, remote-controlled through cables. The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century period fascinated both of us prior to our collaboration. The project of modern technology and science had begun, yet everything was still visible. You could see mechanisms working, before they disappeared into the microchip, beyond our visual grasp.



William Kentridge: With nineteenth-century mechanical technology, like switchboards and pipes, you can see, feel, and hear pulses being transferred. Now messages are sent invisibly by hidden chips, when cellphones make contact. The mechanical metronome of the eighteenth century can stand in for an atomic clock. They’re doing the same thing—counting. But only one is visible to us and understandable mechanically. Our conversation set a series of images, machines, stories, and strategies of thought in motion. It was about every idea being manifest in some way, whether this took the form of text, a piece of music, an instrument, or a choice of mechanical objects. With this vocabulary of images and machines at our disposal, it became a matter of constructing what was to become The Refusal of Time.


Peter Galison: In the piece, what exists is the end of a long conversation, the result of a lot of thinking about time. We considered using Morse code as a way of communicating information. We thought about punched paper in a player piano as a means to transmit signals to the future. (Traces of this idea remain in one of the film clips.) Another idea was to fracture our account of the attack on the Greenwich Meridian into parallel stories, making their simultaneity visible. Each story would unfold in a different place—the colonial war room, the clock room, the observatory, and the anarchist fort—progressing towards the final explosion.



William Kentridge: Inevitably, many ideas have disappeared along the way. Some are presented in our Room of Failures, the non-existent part of the exhibition, filled with everything that did not make it into The Refusal of Time—things in a theoretical and artistic limbo. At one stage, I thought tubas could represent pneumatic air. That was a failure, because even with the best engineers, we were unable to get a good embouchure out of rubber and pneumatic air. We could not obtain anything of interest from the tubas. The tubas we bought for the project testify to what we were unable to do. Nevertheless, the big breathing apparatus and the live tuba playing in the performance take this element further.


Peter Galison: One object we considered for the Room of Failures was the Paris standard kilogram. The pure one-kilogram weight had been chosen to control all the weights in the world. It was buried in a special chamber in Sevres. In the midst of our project, we learnt it was losing weight. I calculated that it would take about half the age of the earth, 2.4 billion years, for it to completely disappear, leaving a beautiful bell jar with nothing in it. That would be the pure kilogram of the distant future. We began to think about other potential candidates for pure standards, such as placing a standard cat under a bell jar. This got us thinking about a kind of Platonic museum, where ideal forms would be housed: an ideal cat, an ideal bicycle …



William Kentridge: The Room of Failures is still worth doing. An exhibition of bell jars of Platonic objects: the Platonic coffee pot, Platonic cat, Platonic typewriter, etcetera. It could be made as a joke, but also as a way of refuting the idea of there being a perfect example of anything. It is a relief to discover that the Platonic kilogram is unstable. The main question of our project is how do we evoke resistance to time, resisting all the things that people sec at the moment they see them? In the end, it becomes a question of fate and our futile attempts to resist it. It becomes a work about regret. In the last scene in The Refusal of Time, when people enter the black hole, a question is posed: is this the dance of death into a black hole? Even now a month before the project is due for completion, these questions are being tested. No doubt, the final meaning will only become clear when it is complete—when it is too late to change.


Peter Galison: These turn-of-the-century technologies—the black-and-white melodrama, the cutouts, the big machine, the pneumatic pipes—are a kind of memento mori. It’s also appropriate that a work about time is time-based. It will be chaotic, with things happening simultaneously that are hard to single out, hard to coordinate, but which lead somewhere, ending in the final march of silhouettes towards the black hole. Is there some final trace left to us when an object falls into a black hole? What remains when things come to an end?


William Kentridge: Our conversation started as open-ended. I was interested in relativity’s pre-history. And we met because you’ve done work on Einstein’s clocks and Poincaré’s maps. I am not yet certain what the work will ultimately express, but that is not the same as saying that it has nothing to say.


Peter Galison: It was never our goal to simply illustrate science. From our earliest conversations, we were immediately plunged into an evocative, emblematic way of looking at our confrontation with time. Time—life’s struggle against death, the anxiety that surrounds our desire to live beyond death—is the most important thing to us. Yet, these vast metaphysical questions somehow relate to pumping air through pipes, signaling with clocks, and the rhythms of the body and of music. These links are evocative for both of us. They are built into the world we experience, yet ethereal. That conversation has kept driving us forward.