Escaping time

I didn’t expect my thinking about the possibility of escaping time. It’s one of those age-old science-fiction dreams that people have. Time travel is perhaps the most imagined, the most commonly imagined form of escaping time. There is not only the philosophical question of why we would want to escape time, but also whether we can actually do it.

Every year, I’m looking forward to reading the questions for the BAC en philosophie here in France. The BAC is the French school leaving exam just before you go to university. This year, more than in previous years, I felt encouraged to try to respond to one of the questions, even if, perhaps, not in a very philosophical way.

Is it possible to escape time?

Philosophy teachers answered the question on radio at the time. It all seemed straightforward and easy. No, we cannot escape time. But is it really this simple? First of all, the question is tricky because it doesn’t say from which point-of-view you should approach the question. I assume that the question is aimed at being resolved by Western, secular thought only, but it’s not stated anywhere that this is what students should be going for. Let me ramble a bit and see where it takes me.

Time itself, as a word, does not have an easy definition. Natural time is (vastly) different from mechanical time. Natural time, or let’s call it simply nature, has an effect on how we make use of our mechanical time in different parts of the world. The time you live by is different if you’re a farmer than if you are an office worker. You probably have different (shorter) work hours on fields in really hot, southern countries than in the north. At the same time, living in the digital age, time has become abstract and confusing, contradictory even.

The sun rises, the sun sets. Nature has its laws and abides by it. We can’t do anything about it. We go to work from 9 to 5. Working society, too, has its laws, which we usually abide by, but we can tweak the oppression by mechanical time. We change jobs to change our work hours. We can work flexible hours. We can become self-employed and become even more flexible (albeit also more stressed). Digital life, the digital world that has replaced much of our natural world around us (in term of awareness) has its own time. For lack of a better word, we call this time, but it has nothing to do with a continuous progress of time the way we know it. The digital is time assembled. It’s Stop & Go all the time. It’s manipulation, adjustment, repetition. And this, like natural time, we cannot change. The digital seems to have its own life. In the 21st century, natural time and digital “time” bracket our life. In between, we live every day by the mechanical clock that is in sync with no other time form.

If we want to discuss whether we can escape time, we first need to clarify which time form we’re speaking of. Before the advent of the clock, the answer to the question would have been a straightforward “no”. It is true that we cannot escape death, which means that we cannot escape time. Yet this perhaps only really holds true in our societies where, post-Christian belief, death is the literal end of something. The Buddhist belief in rebirth, I would be inclined to say, complicates the thought of death as a stoppage of time. If we began to consider death as merely another phase in our being, then it would no longer appear as the ultimate escape from time. At the same time, the philosophers on the radio argued that we couldn’t escape time because death would always catch up with us. If we continued this Western thought, would death then not be the ultimate escape from time, meaning that, in fact, we all achieve it and that this could, perhaps, even be the sense of life in our post-everything world?

There is little doubt that we can escape mechanical time. Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea is a wonderful example: leave society behind, live in the woods, according to nature’s principles and its own time. Forget about standard hours for doing certain things. Simply be. It doesn’t come as a surprise that villagers on a small Norwegian island plan to abolish the mechanical clock. The island of Sommarøy wants to become the world’s first time-free zone. Of course, the island cannot be free of time. But it can free itself from the chains of mechanical time. The argument behind this is simple. If there are no traditional nights during the summer period high up in the north, everything becomes the same. If you mow the lawn at 4am or 2pm is not a question to be had. It’s broad daylight, so go for it!

So, the answer to the question of whether we can escape natural time depends on the philosophy you follow in life. It is much easier to affirm that we can escape mechanical time. In fact, I believe that we have been escaping time since the advent of photography, and later cinema. But how about digital/virtual time? I would be inclined to say that virtual time behaves like mechanical time. It is artificial, it is imposed on us by ourselves. This also means that yes, we can escape it. It is us who created it, it is us who can abolish it. But perhaps this is too easy?

Slow TV: Reindeer Migration on NRK (now live!)

Yesterday evening, the Norwegian TV channel NRK, known for its Slow TV broadcasts such as Bergensbanen (a seven hour train journey across the country) and Hurtigruten (a 134 hour journey along the Norwegian coast), has started a new show. There is something about Sakte-TV, the Norwegian term for Slow TV, and movement, journeys, a voyage across a given territory. Reinflytting is a week-long broadcast which takes us on a journey with reindeer from their winter to their summer pastures.

It’s been an exceptionally beautiful and slow start last night, the sun setting slowly and the reindeer moving across vast landscapes. They have been in the same location for over fifteen hours in order to rest and to eat. But they are expected to move further towards their destination later today. I strongly advise you to tune in, which you can do without problems through the programme’s dedicated website (this way please). Below are some screen grabs to give you a taster. It’s well worth seeing. Let me know in the comments what you think of the programme 🙂

Interview with Ludovic Zuili

Last week, I came across French Slow TV. Slow TV as a concept has been a fairly popular phenomenon in Norway. NRK, the national TV station, screens hours on a train, or hours on a boat, or even hours of knitting. Tokyo Reverse (2014) is a French project and is about a man walking through the streets of Tokyo for nine hours (you can find extracts here). It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It is a mind-blowing experience, because the man is walking forward while everything else moves backwards. And this is only the case, because the footage was played in reverse. I’m still in the process of watching it, so a review will be up soon. I had a chance to catch up with the directors of the film, and they gave some interesting insight into the filmmaking process. A big thank you goes to Ludovic Zuili and Simon Bouisson.

1) Tokyo Reverse shows a man walking through Tokyo for nine hours. What has inspired you to make a nine-hour long film?

The idea of making such a long film came from France 4 (French TV channel). For the launch of their new offer, they wanted to start with a Slow TV program, making them the first French channel to experiment Slow TV. The only information we had was the length and the will to add some interactivity in the concept. We came up with the idea of Tokyo Reverse and within 1 month and a half the film was shot, edited, and aired on the 31st of March. It’s very different from any other project we ever did and will probably ever do. It’s very long and yet was made in such a short amount of time.

2) The film is rather hypnotising. The protagonist walks forward, while everyone and everything else is moving backwards. I found it difficult to attune my brain to the movement. It felt as if my brain couldn’t quite decide which movement to follow. Certainly, nine hours screening time is a challenge for most people. Why have you put an additional challenge on top of it?

When we started thinking about a Slow TV program, the first thing that we thought was that we had to try something new. We were sure we wanted to do a “human slow TV” [programme], different from the references we had from Norway. We also knew a 9 hours films is really not something people are going to watch in its entirety but we needed to find an idea that would make them stay, think, that would mesmerize them. After making some test, the “walking backwards” concept became completely obvious.
The challenge of making a 9 hour film in 1 month and a half was crazy but making it with this creative constraint made it way more exciting.

3) The film was shown on French television. For me, Tokyo Reverse would be an ideal project for a gallery. Have you thought about showing the film in a gallery? Why have you chosen TV for this adventure?

Actually TV chose us as we replied to a call for tender and won it. We both think Tokyo Reverse could really be shown in a gallery but we are also proud to be part of a real will from some channel managers to make things change. It’s so different, surprising, exciting as well. The means you can find in TV are not what they used to be but still, there are some budget and we’re really happy if we can keep on creating different TV objects.

4) An interesting fact of the film is your choice of Tokyo. I remember Tsai Ming-liang’s film Walker, which followed a slow-walking monk through the bustling streets of Hong Kong. In a way, Tokyo Reverse is similar. While your protagonist is not exactly walking in slow-motion, it seems as though you try to “slow down” a fast city. What is the reason behind your choice of Tokyo?

What’s the place in the world where it all starts, when it all ends in Paris ? The answer was Japan to us and to the channel as well.
Tokyo was our obvious choice, our first pick, and the channel thought about it as well in the beginning.
At first, there was this idea of making the slow TV program live, filming it live and airing it. It was impossible with the Tokyo Reverse concept though we may want to try it next time !
Yet we tried to respect that first idea in building the film’s chronology respecting the jet lag between France and Japan. At 22:30 in Paris, the sun starts rising in Tokyo and that’s what happened during the airing.
Then there’s the people of course, Tokyo is such a big city, with so many aesthetic, colorful, crowded places that makes the reverse idea even more hypnotic.

5) Can you tell me a little bit more about the actual shooting of the film? I imagine it must have been difficult for the crew, and especially for the protagonist who walks backwards through a busy city.

The crew was composed of Simon filming, Ludovic walking, Nicolas, the Tokyo AD who chose the perfect places to shoot and Hadrien (mister H) [who was] part of the production team that worked on the logistic etc. We also had an actor a day that walked with us and interacted with me at some point. Simon was using a Movi, a new easier steady cam, that is very heavy so it was quite a tough physical shooting for him. I had an earpiece so I could hear everything that Simon told me and he gave me the directions.

Shooting in Tokyo was both pleasant and hard. Pleasant because Japanese people are so polite and humble we never had any problems while filming. Nobody came to us to ask us to stop or anything like that. Then it was very tough, the first hour of the film, when we shot in Shibuya was crazy. So many people, so many directions as well as the noise of the city that made communication between us very hard. But still, it’s one of the best moments of the film. We had to go through this to make it better.

Walking backwards was really hard in the first shooting sessions but became quite natural in the end. The trust I have in Simon made it way easier. Walking 30 minutes backward is I think harder in a psychological way than a physical way. We shot about 5 sessions of 30 minutes every day and the last one hurt our whole bodies a lot but still, we were so excited by the project we could have done more if it was needed !

6) What was the reaction of the French audience after the first broadcast?

We were really interested in how the interactivity would work. In Tokyo Reverse, the character is sharing his thoughts, photos, videos, via the social networks. During the airing all the posts he made came up live on the @reverse account. We knew Tokyo Reverse had the potential of being big on the internet during the airing but we never thought it would be that big. We became a trending topic during the night and what surprises us more besides the quantity of tweets or retweets was how kindly the film was received. We got so many nice words, shares, retweets during the night.
In general, Tokyo Reverse was really well received during and after the broadcast.

7) Do you think Slow TV will be the future of television?

Honestly we don’t know. Slow TV is something that makes TV different, that makes people think, watching TV a way they’re not used to, Slow TV makes difference possible and real. With Simon, we believe it could be the beginning for us and for television of an exploration for new concepts, another way of thinking how TV could be made and we’re looking forward new experiences. The length of the film is one of the keys but we’d also be thrilled in making a crazy 3 minute video (for instance another project we made : https://vimeo.com/44607388 & https://vimeo.com/78580380)