Unbound Time

— Essay

Yann Novak’s Stillness is in conversation with two places he has lived for numerous years: Seattle and, more recently, Los Angeles. As is common for the artist, the work (2010-17) has existed in many iterations and in various cities—a sound piece with video projection, sound with digital prints on acoustic panels, and a large-scale multimedia installation. Novak first developed the conceptual audio component for the work as two individual parts: Stillness.Oceanic for Seattle and Stillness.Subtropical for Los Angeles. In each of the respective locations, the static of a shortwave radio was recorded, capturing different frequencies as they were affected by the atmosphere’s strata. Later, another element was added—over a series of months in each city, Novak took a series of photographs directed at the horizon and digitally manipulated them. In bringing together the altered sound with the images, Stillness puts forward an abstracted composition, sketching out experiences in two West Coast climates that share a static nature and have affected the artist’s life and practice. But Novak’s biographical history is not the core material of this work. Stillness is invested in granting the viewer an immersive space for contemplation. It is one with emotional resonance; it reserves time for a poetic meditation on climate, nature, and space; it makes room for the meticulous interplay between sound, color, light, and place that is shaped by the installation’s setting.

The gradual transformation of color in the video and panels appear almost as though it has been painted with a brush or fine marker, hinting at the artist’s hand in the work. This effect, combined with the looped sound of static, reshuffles the individual’s sensory experience. In a time when the everyday is consumed by immediacy and oversaturated by media, attention spans are capitalized upon; in a reality where sustained modes of observation are considered a barrier in the liminal space of a gallery, Stillness affords its audience a pause, a detour, a respite. It provides an introspective space to dissolve the notion of the present tense, engendering a disjunction between then and now. Both the individual and collective experience in the space become temporal experiments, testing the manufactured idea that betterment can be achieved by efficiently passing through what is perceived to be transitory. The abstracted sounds of the static, both soothing and indecipherable, prioritize contemplation. Through the individual’s subjective engagement within the gathering place, the arbitrary rush is replaced with a genuine desire to feel something, see something, hear something.

A scene from filmmaker Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000) comes to mind—a shot of her aging hands cuts to the image of a handless Lucite clock, setting decay back into the natural cycle. Stillness perhaps proposes a different reading of a handless clock—a reading which could serve as Novak’s political intervention to destabilize conventional considerations of past and present. Within this meditative space, the viewer might not encounter time passing in familiar ways. Or, if the clock’s hands were to be added, it is imaginable that their movement would follow a logic different from the Western world’s concept of time, and consequently disrupt the “natural” order of things. Time is not bound and, as such, Stillness suggests: What can an understanding of time look like when it is not measurable, containable, or even expressible? How can we recognize its passage? And how might rewriting the notion of duration solely as extent allow us to rethink our own perception when encountering gradual shifts in a work?

Philosopher Henri Bergson writes, “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances.”1 Likewise, duration in Stillness is not determined solely by the succession of one moment after the next. In these contexts, the present is defined by the right now and what occurred just a moment ago, with the past following us at every instant. As it accumulates endlessly, there is no limit to how the past is imagined and understood. The idea of time flowing inevitably forward has been vanquished, and its irreversibility depends on our ability to put things into place again.2 Through Novak’s varied forms of documentation and manipulation of images and recordings, the viewer experiences the artist’s past ambiguously, and without chronological restraints. Likewise, the current moment in Stillness is shaped by a compression of one’s own contemporaneous existence, their embodied participation, their relationship to the surrounding environment, and the contents of their memories. Beyond the internal and personal, the passage of time is mediated by the physical environment itself. Here, the external world is an aggregation of architecture, sounds, objects, and individuals, as well as the structural, economic, and political contexts in which the work is exhibited.

Ultimately, the space actualized by Novak’s work advances ulterior forms of communal gathering as much as it tends to individual reflection. Moving away from utopian modernist ideas, Stillness explores the temporal and spatial disjunction necessary to genuinely reflect upon our societal constraints from within them. It urges the viewer to address the difficulties and benefits of cohabitation within social formations in order to imagine new constructs. What would a network of individuals look like if they could help each other think and create through reciprocal acts? As theorist Bruno Latour advocates, there is a need to suspend critique so that we can compose through a slow process and determinedly formulate ideas around social space. Inhabitants can then confide in one another without fear of their conception being subjected to a supposed truth.3 By creating deliberately, everything would have to be carefully reassembled, piece by piece, within this space. Through such material actions, we can conceivably approach a better world through the building of interventionist environments and a vital understanding of the natural. We can congregate and reflect on the environment around us, and immerse ourselves in the act of viewing, in looking and looking again.

1 Henri Bergson, “Creative Evolution,” in Henri Bergson: Key Writings, eds. Keith Ansell Pearson and John Ó Maoilearca (London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 211.
2 Bergson, 220.
3 Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” in New Literary History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), Vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 2010, 471-490.