In order to explore the contradictions and the potential of time- based art, especially in its cinematic guise, I trace a number of overlapping and conflicting genealogies of film and video art. I believe that only by creating a constellation of such genealogies can the logic and structural antinomies of film and video art—and of time-based art in general—be brought into relief and related to the wider changes in the political economy of time during the past decades, during which the West has seen a gradual demise of Fordist assembly-line production and a disintegration of the strict separation between work and “free time.” The classic alternation of work and leisure can be called, with Guy Debord, a form of pseudocyclical time, an apparent return to agricultural, “mythical” cycles in a temporal regime built on irreversible, historical time—or rather, on a reified form of such historical time, that of commodity production.
“Once there was history, but not any more,” because the class of owners of the economy, which is inextricably tied to economic history, must repress every other irreversible use of time because it is directly threatened by them all. The ruling class, made up of specialists in the possession of thingswho are themselves therefore possessed by things, is forced to link its fate with the preservation of this reified history, that is, with the preservation of a new immobility within history.7
This immobility is manifested in pseudocyclical time, a commodified temporality that is homogenous and suppresses “any qualitative dimension” or, at most, mimics such dimensions in moments of sham liberation.8 For Debord, time-based art from the 1960s could consist only of such pseudoindividual, pseudoliberatory moments because it did not change economic structures. However, with or without art, these structures were changing, and changing practices and analyses of the temporality of art have to be seen in this context. As Antonio Negri has argued, the industrial era tended to reduce all labor to a merely quantitative, measured time, to a state in which “Complexity is reduced to articulation, ontological time to discrete and manoeuvrable time,” but the times have been a-changing for quite a while now—and Negri’s work is as indispensable in coming to terms with this as are certain works of art.9
The dissolution of measured Fordist time became manifest in the 1960s and 1970s, although Debord never truly charted the shifts that were occurring, basing his analysis largely on “classic” industrial capitalism. Even in the work of Negri and other former “operaists,” the consequences of these shifts were articulated only gradually and with some delay. In this light, the recent rediscoveries and revaluations of certain art and film practices of the 1960s and 1970s are more than mere pseudocyclical fashions that have created new artistic brands and upgraded a number of commodities. They can be seen as deferred actions, as repetitions of a failed encounter with and in time.