Richard Wright--Bank of Time interview

Posted by Rhizome | Mon Apr 15th 2002 1 a.m.

Growth through Idleness

The following interview with Richard Wright covers material related to
the Bank of Time. It was carried out by email over late March, early
April 2002.

Mac and Windows versions of the screensaver are available from
http://www.theBankofTime.com/

+ + +

MF: Your recent project, The Bank of Time is a screensaver that also
involves a variety of other processes. Can you give me a brief
description of the work?

RW: Yes I can. The Bank of Time is a screensaver that saves your idle
time. It uses this idle time to grow virtual plants on your desktop. It
also uploads this idle time to the web site where it ranks and displays
everyones time in a Performance Table. Your idle time is turned into an
investment that grows as you watch on your desktop. Growth through
Idleness. An economy of lost time. The plants grow in (somewhat speeded
up) real time by downloading time lapse images. After each plant has
"matured" it goes on to decay and die. After which the user can chose
another plant to grow in an endless cycle of boom and bust. The more
idle time the user accumulates the faster the plant will grow. This also
means that their name and plant will rise further up the Performance
Tables as their growth rate increases. Soon everyone will be working
hard to waste as much time as possible.

MF: If people are going to use a screensaver, one that uploads data to a
central hub, why would they not choose to use something such as
Seti@home or the software produced by Oxford University's professor of
computational chemistry which allows the use of 'idle' machines to
search through chemical data to search for possible information on the
structure of cancers or anthrax molecules?

RW: Of course, that is turning idle time into an economic resource. That
shows how the computerised environment can define and capture all forms
of time. Even the irrational moments of absence or non-purpose can be
absorbed into its economy. But the primal form of absent work is the
investment. The form of "work" which appears at the dawn of capitalism.
Investment is the way that you can create value without labouring, it is
a way of "making your money work for you". Investment substitutes effort
for risk. But that risk is only worth taking if you can be reasonably
sure that your investment will continue to grow despite minor
fluctuations. You wouldn't want your idle processor cycles to be used to
try to solve problems like how many angels you could fit on the head of
a pin. You couldn't be sure that such a problem could ever make
progress. But perhaps problems like finding extra terrestrial
intelligence or finding a cure for cancer will eventually prove
unsolvable as well. There is a risk involved. Perhaps all those
processor cycles will have been invested unwisely, the scientific
equivalent of the dot.com bust.

The Bank of Time project tries to complete this image of risk. In
financial promotions the germinating plant or seedling is a constantly
recurring image. For savings accounts, shares and investments it
expresses the myth that your money will grow naturally and inevitably
towards its maturity. There may be an element of risk, but it is
possible to minimise this through wise management and faith in the
potential of modern economic policies. The fact that the plant will
wither and die after its mature phase is conveniently ignored. But this
fact is recognised in certain cultural forms such as during the Baroque.
At that time the image of the faded flower was a constantly recuring
motif that expressed, in contrast, feelings of insecurity about the
current state of European affairs and the instability and transience of
the political and economic climate in the C17th.

So I would say that people would chose The Bank of Time over any of
those other geezers because at least they always know what the result of
their "investment" will be, even if that result is not in accord with
the most Bullish forecasts for our economic and scientific futures.

MF: The design aesthetic of the site is notable for looking absolutely
disimilar to an artists site. No nods in the direction of low-tech,
info-accidents or quirkiness of structure. It looks like a small
organisation web-site, designed by someone trained in graphic design.
Why?

RW: The design of the web site is a pastiche of the design of web sites
for bank and financial services. I didn't want a web site that told the
viewer that this was an art web project. I wanted something that would
appear unthreatening to people from outside the art community. It seemed
unlikely to me that many "normal" people would take the risk of
downloading an executable from an unknown web site and entering their
email address unless it looked safe. The unusual function of the Bank of
Time is quite explicity stated and does appear to be in contrast to the
pedestrian design of the site, but I wanted to see what would happen if
people were lead more gently to the full implications of what was
intended, like a trojan horse. The design also means it fits quite
comfortably into magazine cover CDs, shareware and screensaver download
sites. Of course, this may have had the effect of putting off people who
are from the media art world who might see it as an innocuous hobby
site, but they have had things tailored to their tastes for long enough.
And besides, the art world has had a tendency to slavishly follow trends
in popular media rather than recognise already existing projects by
artists that address similar issues. So one day if the project continues
growing in popularity it could become a trojan horse for the art world
as well.

MF: I recently heard from Lynda Morris, curator at the Norwich gallery,
that one of the important functions of art is to act as a repository
for memory outside of the 'productive' time of capitalism, a form of
time which serves to erase memory and differentiation. She was
referring to elements within art on a representational level, such as
Gerhard Richter's paitings of the Red Army Fraction, or the art
historical memory of the refusal of a visa to Picasso by the US
because of his party communist opposition to war. This creation of a
space for memory or of valuation over time is also often a capacity of
specialised cultures in general. You can think of political or religious
currents obviously, fan cultures, music scenes, emulators. It seems you
use the space of art to describe a different potential for time, though
not of memory but idleness.

RW: I once described my work as trying to get people to remember things
that they would rather forget - the Eighties, the Millennium Bug, etc.
And in The Bank of Time there are references to the dark side of
commercial iconography that is always ignored. Such as the use of images
of young plants and seedlings in advertisements for investments and
savings banks to suggest an idea of financial growth leading to maturity
and dividends. The fact that after a plant has reached maturity it will
inevitably wither and die is never acknowledged of course, that part is
forgotten just as the fact that your investments can go down as well as
up is relegated to the small print. But in The Bank of Time the users
have to witness the plant proceeding through its entire life cycle from
germination to death. So there is a level at which I try to restore a
full image that has been partially forgotten.

But also it is true that media allows you to move beyond representation
just as the information society is not just about representing social
entities but actually constitutes the very fabric of society. And this
gives you some access to peoples patterns of behaviour through how they
are constituted by computerisation and their desktops for instance. The
Bank of Time visualises the users idle time which is not really the same
thing as repesenting it. It means that the user can control the image by
becoming aware of and learning to regulate the growth of their idle
time, a form of perception which occurs as much through the mechanism of
work patterns and time management as it does through the mechanism of
memory.

There are all sorts of aspects of the Bank of Time that are included for
reasons of visual aesthetics. When I first built the project I remember
having discussions with colleagues who tried to get me to drop the whole
notion of having plants growing on the desktop. They found this aspect
superfluous to the central idea of rationalising and resourcing idle
time. Without this, the screensaver would simply have consisted of a
display of the users accumulated idle time and related statistical
information. But this one dimensional conceptualism that currently
dominates avant garde art and media art is harmful. I would say that
without the motif of the growing plant the Bank of Time would not really
be understandable.

MF: One of the interesting aspects of the work is related to this
accretion of visual modes. In a way it's kind of like the display on a
video game, where you might have say, ammunition and health indicators,
direction info, plus a 'realistic' main view with layered depth: a
compound visual space in which a patchwork of styles and rythmns operate
in the same frame. In Bank of Time, there's a strip of user data like a
news-ticker giving the extent of use in seconds, user name and plant
species; a foreground image, sharp photographic, of a patch of soil
which leaks a plant; a changing backdrop which looks like a kind of
painterly cloudscape; sveral different typefaces; a few types of rain
spatters, which look as if they are hitting the inside of your screen as
a window, a lense; the software logo and a link to the website; a small
version number and copyright declaration tucked into a corner. It a
very mixed visual space, with some elements operating in relation to
others, others discrete. Your work in video is also very dense
visually. Here though there seems also to be a certain density of
interfaces to data-architectures as well as symbolic styles.

RW: Yes, it's the info image, the image that incorporates many data
objects by reducing things to numerical representation (or
visualisation). But unfortunately that also implies a kind of info
perception, that the viewer can absorb and integrate a variety of
different levels of perception - affective, informative, symbolic and so
on. A growing problem with the video work was of coming up against the
practical limits of this in a format that is viewed in linear time,
especially in a theatrical context. Multimedia is a way of accomodating
this, specifically by building into the structure of the work the
specific temporal conditions in which the work is to be viewed. I
suppose this is what they mean by "logistics of perception". The Bank of
Time tries to base its particular "logistics" on cultural forms -
Baroque allegory and the iconography of the time economy.

The Bank of Time is technically an animation of a plant growing, but
where the viewing logistics of the animation have been reconfigured. The
frame rate of the animation is controlled by the user's idle time. The
more idle time they accumulate the faster the image is updated. It is a
form of film making in which the cinematic representation of time is
reconstructed by the computerisation of the viewers organisation of
their time. This was where the idea for the work originally came from in
fact.

MF: Perhaps related to this is amount of time it takes to 'watch', or
simply to be aware of. The life-cycle of a plant is shrunk down, but at
the same time, you extrude the length of time which would normally be
spent looking at any one piece of visual material, a film, installation,
picture, and so on. It's longer than a novel, but less than a garden,
but also the way in which you experience it is less direct, it's
something that goes on in the background, in the corner of your mind's
eye.

RW: Like a Warhol film, it has a lot to do with the experience of
duration. Can you feel time passing? In the early stages of a real plant
you can almost see it grow, maybe a centimeter or two a day. The ability
of time lapse cinematography has already changed how we can feel time.
We can compress the life history of a plant to a few seconds and
suddenly we can see what was there in front of our eyes. We can see the
plant moving, it has a choreography. The Bank of Time might be said to
reverse this point of view by intensifying the experience of our own
cycles of time through the image of a plant.

MF: Following on from the work's relationship to more familiar art
practices, I heard Pit Schultz say recently something along the lines
that Network Art or Media Art will never be 'properly' established as
art practice precisely because it is too much already a part of media
culture. There is no distinction, in both sense of the word. Obviously
such a situation has its advantages, but it also seems interesting in
relation to video. There is a desire, stuck on perpetual loop since its
inception, within video art scenes to establish some kind of functional
distribution mechanism for the work. Might we see in the way that BoT
has circulated an example of how Net Art achieves this distribution, but
in a way at the cost/advantage of a certain institutional invisibility -
because it fuses so much with general, popular, media cultures?

RW: Is it too subtle? Too cunning for its own good? Has it been set to
"auto-recuperate"? At least I have made no money from it so I cannot be
accused of acting in bad faith. The Young British Artists are also now
part of media culture - their work is part of media because it is Art,
while the Bank of Time is part of media because it is Media (Art).

So everything is absorbed, high-brow or low-brow, it's a question of
whether you can pull it off on your own terms. At least media artists
presumably go in with their eyes open, it is a practice that can at
least recognise and reference its own position in the media universe.
The curse of the Avant Garde - to find ever new ways to be even more
painfully aware of your own marginalisation. But that's still a step in
the right direction...

MF: Yes, but perhaps there are also many scales and speeds of media
culture. Not just those that are implemented as mass culture for sure.
In that sense, I think the comment was intended to talk about a
potentially wider, or more varigated, field of play available to such
activities.

RW: I would say the terms in which the original question was put is the
problem. The original comment seemed to be concerned with the way in
which media culture prevented media art from becoming established as a
canonical form. Media art could become a specialised media culture, a
network of officially sanctioned web sites and distributors, which is
what has pretty much already happened. But of course this isn't really
the kind of media culture that we like to imagine. The big opposition to
this is seen by the establishment as being mass culture, from which
Bourdieu teaches us it must "distinguish" itself. Whether media artists
can create yet another more "varigated" alternative is a different
question, not necessarily of interest to the "proper" art world (nor,
unfortunately, to Bourdieu).

As far as setting up your own media art "ecologies" is concerned, that's
fine. As long as you realise that you always need an "interface" with
the rest of the masses, otherwise it's just media art cliques. Other
than that, this is just too big a subject to take on here.

MF: I like the idea of non-local time-agglomerations being networked, a
particular pocket of a time space being linked via network to other such
pockets. (And you can see this also in companies working across
timezones, love affairs via text, any set of relations which accentuates
certain kinds of shared time.) Obviously such relationships between
time and space are not only cosmological, but political - think of the
extraordinary condition imposed on Mexico's joining NAFTA that it adopy
Daylight Savings Time. Bank of Time seems to form another, topological
and intensive rather than cartographical and extensive relationship
between time and space?

RW: I suppose generally once the regularity of events or relations can
be recorded, ordered and compared then you will get pockets of time
space emerging extemporaneously, Captain. In fact my work days are
frequently conducted under the auspices of the TV schedules - "Womans
Hour" is breakfast, "Crossroads" is dinner time, and "The Simpsons" is
tea time. And I feel comforted that millions of workers over the nation
share a similar time space depending on their sense of humour. I just
hope nothing funnier that "The Simpsons" is ever transmitted at 6
o'clock or I will be in danger of choking on my chipolatas.

MF: Following on from that, has any cross-networking of Bank of Time
users occured?

RW: Such cross-networking may have happened as there are now thousands
of users subscribed, but that's up to them. I wouldn't have imagined so
as the relationship between the users is not personal. One thing that I
wondered would happen and actually does happen is people in the same
workplace all installing the screensaver and then racing them on their
machines. It just goes to show how desperate people are to relieve the
tedium. It's not too dissimilar to the kind of spy software that
employers use to track the work patterns of their employees. But given
the right incentive, we see that people are only too willing to give
away that sort of information - as long as it's spy software that
ensures people waste more time.
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