Meridiem is one of my two BA graduation projects on the subject of time. A Meridiem unit is a clock mechanism which, once an hour, causes a dropper to spill some ink. This repetition emphasizes one of two theories of time — that it is cyclical rather than linear.
The other project, Time Escaping, is a small piece of furniture where ink can be dropped in water and observed. Each drop falling through water forms a temporary structure of great complexity, which is not replicable. The complexity of each moment emphasizes the other theory of time, that it is linear and chronological.
Both Meridiem and Time Escaping were built in a deliberate way, from deliberately sourced materials, with deliberately chosen tools. I worked almost entirely in a space I assembled in my apartment, as the work seemed to call for a quiet, stillness, and tidiness away from the school workshops.
The materials for Meridiem came mostly new from stores, in an effort to make each piece as replicale and interchangeable as possible. To get clock movements I took them out of the cheapest clock sold by Ikea, a cheap and consistent way to get the exact same mechanism in almost any major city.
The materials for Time Escaping were all used pieces found in Eindhoven, making the project highly specific to the place it was made. Versions could be made elsewhere that were more reflective of their own locations. There is probably nowhere in the world that has as many Philips spotlights as this city.
These decisions are driven by an effort to be constantly honest and realistic about my capacity and position as both consumer and producer: a desire to work with tools I understand and appreciate, an instinct to economize aesthetically and materially, and a distaste for excessive scale and its corresponding waste. Ask one of the concierges at Design Academy Eindhoven how many bins of trash are thrown away at the end of each semester!
I have taken the two projects as an opportunity to formulate a thesis and antithesis concerning the nature of time that holds the cybernetic and ecological approaches in conflict, with a future resolution to be determined. The full text for each project is below.
All mechanical timekeeping fundamentally relies on a constant.
The most basic of these machines, swinging constantly to the force of gravity, is the pendulum. Traditional mechanical clock movements use an escapement mechanism to regulate release of energy stored by a spring. Older plug-in clocks run based on the current of the power supply. Atomic clocks use known decay characteristics of radioactive substances. Quartz mechanisms run based on the regular oscillation that occurs when electricity is applied to a microscopic lab-grown crystal.
The commonality between these mechanisms is the enforcement of regularity through isolation from external factors. This can mean construction of a watch case to shield against moisture, shocks, and magnetic fields, all the way up to modulation of the current of a continent-wide electrical grid in order to to keep clocks synchronized.
Mechanical precision does not imply alignment with the natural world. Time zones, for instance, are a crude mechanism for chopping up geography, not fully accounting for the earth’s relative position to the sun. This lack of granularity means that the sunrise and sunset at the westernmost point of a zone come at a different time than in the easternmost.
Paradoxically, the airtight precision of these hermetic devices is compromised by necessity of establishing a predictable consensus temporal reality—heavy industrial timekeeping developed for rail scheduling and factory shifts.
It is said that a ship should not set out with two clocks. If there is just one clock, it is to be trusted absolutely in the absence of an alternative. If there are several, their readings can be averaged to determine the consensus time. If there are just two clocks, and they disagree, neither can be trusted over the other.
Time separates events as space distinguishes matter. This model of time is linear, in contrast to the cyclical operating principles of mechanical timekeeping. Describing time as linear feels natural because things never occur twice in exactly the same way. All the variables never fall identically, no matter what clock hands lining up the same way at midnight and noon might suggest.
In trying to make a linear timepiece, I kept coming upon processes that tended to accelerate or decelerate. A typical case of this was the long string tied to a clock’s seconds hand. The loose end was pulled at an increasing rate as the bunch of string around the spindle of the clock became thicker with each rotation.
To mitigate the detachment from natural systems, I moved away from mechanisms. A sundial seemed obvious until Eindhoven experienced two weeks of nearly constant rain. My thoughts naturally turned to water. Ink dissolving acts as a simultaneous demonstration of entropy in physical and temporal terms. A multitude of variables presented itself: the sun unevenly heating the water, drops of ink hitting the surface from different heights, the intricate branching structures they formed as they sank…
I established constants — a tank of water, a background, consistent lighting, an easily demountable base. A small environment for observing the process of ink entering water as a discrete substance and eventually dissolving.
Though I avoided mechanical means of timekeeping, the naked eye was not enough to fully observe the ink’s movement. Filming each drop test for the sake of comparison, I kept turning the camera off too soon: after twenty minutes, the fluid contents of the tank looked very much to have settled, but speeding up the footage revealed a play still slowly unfolding even as the camera cut. An improved setup with an industrial camera tethered to a computer allows for constant, realtime observation and magnification.
Time Escaping inverts the roles of the organic and the mechanical. Rather than adhering to a clock and adapting our perception to its terms, a mechanical device now assists in recording and analyzing a complex physical temporal phenomenon.
Analogue clocks are a compelling subject owing to their wide distribution of positions on the spectrum between decoration and dead-serious instrumentation. Through my interest was initially surface-level, I became curious enough to start taking them apart.
After offshore manufacturing disrupted integrated engineering and production processes in Europe and later Japan, more recent clocks tend to be mechanically homogeneous compared to the diversity of arrangements and materials in older quartz movements. Drop-in modules from an array of Chinese manufacturers, dimensioned identically but varying in functionality and quality, are clipped into rectangular compartments in clock housings.
The case is snapped shut, a printed dial taped on, custom hands fitted, a clear window popped on the front, and the clock is complete, making its best effort to hide its generic underpinnings.
Throwing away the plastic casing and sticking the hands back on, I tested various movement modules to see how they held up as standalone clocks. In the best cases, the controls for adjusting time and alarm hand position were already labelled on the movement; an explanatory graphic universally duplicated on clocks’ back panels. Some even had hour and minute markings on the front, making the discarded parts decidedly redundant.
Though the standardization and cheapening of these timekeeping modules could be said to reflect a venerable craft in a diminished state, their ubiquity and interchangeability represent an opportunity. Through my initial tests of bare movements as fully functional clocks, I established how much superfluous matter was being added on top of the mechanisms, both materially and cognitively.
I wanted to dispute the conception of minimalism as a marketing lubricant for usability. What I would make would have a hard-edged quality, a mechanical logic, without concern for consumer seduction. As the batteries were now so prominent in the exposed clock movements, the visually cluttered labels had to go in favour of the bare metal underneath. Closer to the electricity – less safe but more direct.
Decontextualizing the clock movement by removing it from its case emphasizes what it really is: a motor with gearing to rotate three nested spindles once a minute, once an hour, and once every twelve hours.
It is obvious but important to emphasize that once this sort of clock is set, it is a hermetic device, designed to respond as little as possible to surrounding conditions. It only knows what it is “told” about the “actual” time and cannot rely on external cues to correct for inaccuracies. Fundamentally a cyclical device, it ticks out undifferentiated twelve-hour periods.
From the overarching system of planetary orbits to its distillation as the sundial, the cyclical conception of time is ancient, closely informed by natural phenomena. The centrality of the sun is self-evident — and when this measurement system is no longer tied to that, it becomes untethered, subject to modulation and abstraction.
As in my other project, Time Escaping, I started using ink in water as a materialization of points in time. It would be the physically dynamic aspect of the cold mechanism.
An ink-filled pipette with an air hole punched in the bulb is mounted horizontally on a pivot next to a clock movement, at the 3:00 position. Once an hour, a flexible minutes hand mounted to the movement pushes it down until it starts dropping ink. After a few minutes the pipette stem reaches the bottom of its pivot range and the hand flexes past it. The pipette reverts to its resting position, where it will sit for an hour until the minutes hand comes back around.
The mechanism visualizes future and past. The clock hand moving incrementally towards the pipette stem foreshadows, while the ink swirling in the water marks what has already occurred.