Duration Without Breaks: Marclay and McQueen Against the Clock

Richard Martin

‘There is a bitter and dark struggle around time and the use of time’. Thus wrote Henri Lefebvre and Catherine Régulier in an 1985 article later collected in Lefebvre’s final set of essays, Rhythmanalysis, posthumously published in 1992 (Lefebvre 83). As if the day is not long enough for all our repetitive tasks, the couple noted with some weariness, ‘social practice eats bit by bit into the night’ (Lefebvre 83). Elsewhere in Rhythmanalysis, Lefebvre outlined specific criticism of what he called the ‘media day’, which ‘has neither beginning nor end’ and which occupies our time ‘Without respite!’ (Lefebvre 55). In the context of today’s 24-hour demands that we fill our time with activity, that we are always creating, consuming and critiquing media, what other ways of being are being neglected? What forms of attention and distraction now prevail? And how might certain spaces alter these conditions?


In ‘Rhythmanalysis’, Lefebvre criticises what he calls the ‘media day’, which has neither beginning nor end.

[Image by Darren Tunnicliff under a CC BY NC licence]

Such concerns can be sensed across a range of recent cultural texts. In particular, there has been a notable tendency for contemporary novelists to position film and moving image artworks as battlefields for the bitter and dark struggle around time. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega (2010) begins with a character encountering Douglas Gordon’s video installation 24 Hour Psycho (1993), in which the Hitchcock thriller is extended into a day-long sequence of images, while the title of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014) pays tribute to the key temporal junction of Back to the Future (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985). Moreover, Lerner’s narrator is especially taken with a much-celebrated artwork that seems to bridge the times and spaces of the cinema and gallery – Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video The Clock (2010): ‘Marclay had formed a supragenre that made visible our collective, unconscious sense of the rhythms of the day – when we expect to kill or fall in love or clean ourselves or eat or fuck or check our watch and yawn’ (Lerner 53). The Clock also caught Zadie Smith’s attention.

This article assesses The Clock alongside Steve McQueen’s feature film Shame (2011), another recent work that raises important questions about our current daily rhythms and about what a logic of relentless 24-hour digital consumption might be doing to us. These two figures – Marclay and McQueen – not only demonstrate a complex engagement with the role of digital consumption in shaping contemporary notions of time; they also exemplify the on-going negotiation between the gallery space and the cinema over the location of moving images. This is a negotiation which provokes its own questions about modes of attention, distraction and participation.

Before looking at The Clock and Shame, however, we should turn to a provocative recent account of contemporary time. The title of this article – ‘duration without breaks’ – is a phrase taken from Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). Crary explores the effects of the non-stop processes of financial markets and contemporary neoliberal capitalism more broadly. He finds ‘a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning’ (Crary 8). If Lefebvre and Régulier warned that night-time was being eroded by the demands of the day, then Crary concludes that in the contemporary moment, ‘there is a relentless incursion of the non-time of 24/7 into every aspect of social or personal life’ (Crary 30).

Why does Crary call our ‘24/7’ culture a ‘non-time’, creating a temporal companion to Marc Augé’s notion of the contemporary ‘non-place’? Because for Crary we now inhabit a time without shadows or otherness, without alternate temporalities or clear demarcations, without respite. We live in a time of permanent availability, but also a time of ceaseless non-fulfilment. Contemporary time is monotonous, producing ‘a switched-on universe for which no off-switch exists’ (Crary 30). Waiting – a time when boredom or dreaming might come about – is now intolerable. A logic of efficiency and speed means that anything resembling reverie has become impossible.

One of the many consequences that Crary identifies as a result of 24/7 culture is what he calls ‘an immense incapacitation of visual experience’ (Crary 33). He suggests that our vision has been disabled through processes of ‘homogenization’ and ‘acceleration’ (Crary 33). As a result, we are failing to see the world.

Crary’s argument has distinct implications for the analysis of moving images. Film, of course, has historically involved the projection of 24 frames a second. Or, we might say, film involves the projection of 24 breaks a second, 24 moments of blackness, 24 chances for the eyes to rest momentarily. This is a form of recuperation that the digital abhors. In digital screenings, there is no reprieve, no pause between frames, epitomising a form of life which must be constantly flowing: ‘duration without breaks’. While we often think of the digital in terms of speed and flow, it might also be thought of, as Crary thinks of it, in terms of fatigue, as a single relentless, sleep-deprived rhythm. Without these breaks – moments of boredom, intervals of rest, the chance for reverie – Crary argues that it becomes impossible for ‘any kind of counter-projects or streams of thought’ to be ‘nurtured and sustained’ (Crary 75). This is the politics of time that governs our present condition.


Lefebvre and Régulier warn that night-time is being eroded by the demands of the day.

[Image by rbreve under a CC BY licence]

In light of Crary’s argument, how might we approach Marclay’s The Clock? With its own 24-hour duration, does The Clock critique or merely affirm the kind of monstrous ‘24/7’ culture that Crary outlines? Why might this work have become so popular at this moment in time?

It is important to establish exactly what The Clock is – a more complicated task than it initially appears. The Clock is a single-channel video projection, a 24-hour assemblage of film clips referencing time that is synchronised to its local setting. It brings together over 10,000 film clips, mostly taken from Hollywood and European cinema – a very narrow geography and history of cinema. These clips were assembled by Marclay’s team of assistants, who were recruited after the artist placed an advert in a video store in east London called, appropriately enough, ‘Today is Boring’.

Ultimately, though, The Clock is a digital file, programmed by Dr Mick Grierson at Goldsmiths, University of London. Once the digital file is booted, it locks into the local time and is programmed to loop continuously. While The Clock seems to be composed entirely of breaks – a constantly shifting collage – it also operates under a logic of continuous functioning, a relentless succession of clips, a permanently switched-on universe.

The space in which The Clock is experienced is also important to note. The Clock comes with a 24-page instruction manual regarding its screening conditions. After initially considering the idea that the work could be projected into public spaces, Marclay decided that it had to be experienced without distractions. He now insists that The Clock is shown in a dark space accessed via a dark corridor, in a room in which soft Ikea couches are set out in rows.

Many claims have been made by critics regarding the supposedly ‘active’ mode of spectatorship that is created by moving image installations, as opposed to an apparently ‘passive’ mode of traditional cinematic spectatorship. How interesting, then, that Marclay, in seeking concentrated attention for his work, seeks to replicate as much as possible the conditions of the cinema within the gallery. Yve-Alain Bois has asked, ‘Can an artwork rebel against the fast flow of art tourism? Can an artwork force us to alter our viewing habits?’ (Bois 146) Crary also argues that in a world of constant feedback and interruption, ‘the idea of long blocks of time spent exclusively as a spectator is outmoded’ (Crary 53).

By offering immersive, comfortable screening conditions, by turning back to the architecture of the cinema, it seems that Marclay wants to rebel against a certain speed and inattention that characterises the contemporary gallery experience. He wants us to slow down, to spend long blocks of time as a spectator and, via the relentless progression of clips he has assembled, he wants those long blocks of time to be spent thinking about the passage of time. Yet, as Amelia Groom has pointed out, The Clock prohibits escapism ‘by endlessly pointing out how much of our own time we are spending in front of the screen’ (Groom 20).

In one sense, then, the content as well as the screening conditions of The Clock might be seen as resisting the notion of ‘24/7’ culture that Crary critiques. In marking the multiple ways in which humans have filled their time – making visible ‘our collective, unconscious sense of the rhythms of the day’, as Lerner’s narrator observes – The Clock is full of alternate temporalities, different rhythms and modes of being. Its form stresses temporal demarcations and it maintains distinct changes in rhythm. As many critics have noted, the clips that appear just before the top of the hour are full of people rushing to appointments, excited about meeting someone or anxious about catching a train. The clips that appear just after the hour has struck are more melancholic and involve a certain slackening of time – moments of regret at missed opportunities or absent lovers. Night-time in The Clock is full of drinking and dreaming, while the rhythms of the workplace occupy the day. Other temporalities break the conventional structures of clock time: throughout the 24 hours, the same famous faces appear, disappear and reappear, sometimes emerging from the same film, sometimes from another decade of their career.


Contemporary time is monotonous, producing ‘a switched-on universe for which no off-switch exists.’

[Image by erika dot net under a CC BY NC licence]

However, there are also more problematic ways in which The Clock affirms, rather uncritically, our contemporary ‘24/7’ situation, and crucially this seems to have contributed to its status as a defining work of contemporary art. From early in its exhibition history, The Clock has been widely regarded as an essential spectacle, and as Richard Misek has recently argued, ‘Like a timed rerelease of a Disney classic, each time The Clock comes round, it becomes a media event all over again’ (Misek 145). Erika Balsom has also discussed the major marketing and publicity campaigns that have accompanied The Clock’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other institutions – the urgent exhortations to see it, the constant updates on queue lengths, a dedicated Twitter account for the work run by the gallery, and an ‘attendant aura of exclusivity’ (Balsom 186). Ironically, seeing The Clock has often involved highly pressurised conceptions of time and leisure – a heightened sense of ‘missing out’ that has been explored by Adam Phillips, amongst other theorists. Similarly, while The Clock’s duration might seem to challenge the conventional hours of a museum or gallery, it also makes possible the kind of event, involving extended opening times and an attendant media buzz, that is so beloved by marketers. As Marclay himself has observed, when exhibiting The Clock museums and galleries want ‘a hit’ above all else (Zalewski).

As Lefebvre and Régulier remind us, ‘Every study of rhythms is necessarily comparative’ (Lefebvre 97). In thinking about the critical tensions that the rhythms of The Clock provoke, we can compare it with another contemporary work that negotiates similar terrain – Shame, directed by another figure who straddles the gallery and the cinema: Steve McQueen. If, in one sense, The Clock seems to literalise 24-hour digital culture, Shame is a narrative drama about the consequences of living within this logic.

In both his video installations and his feature films, McQueen’s work is characterised by its striking temporal rhythms and its particular attention to bodily rhythms. Each of his three feature films – Hunger (2008), Shame and 12 Years a Slave (2013) – feature a bitter and dark struggle around time, and especially the effects of time on the body. Bodily rhythms, of course, were where Lefebvre suggested that the work of rhythmanalysis should begin (Lefebvre 29).

Shame appears to exemplify Crary’s concerns about the permanent availability and ceaseless non-fulfilment of our 24/7 digital world. The film begins with the sound of a buzzing alarm clock and the sight of a man already lying awake in his bed. Indeed, the intricate sound design – one of the film’s most impressive features – incorporates ticking clocks throughout, contributing to a growing sense of desperation.

Shame’s protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbinder), is a kind of corporate everyman – a man who even has ‘brand’ inscribed in his name. In a grey and alienating vision of New York, which becomes under McQueen’s gaze a perfectly homogenous ‘non-place’, Brandon’s 24-hour, continuously-functioning digital life involves conversations about YouTube and computer viruses at work, laptops for watching porn at home and a desktop for downloading porn at the office, an IPod for night-time jogs and an IPhone for calling prostitutes. This, it seems, is what it means for a life to be lived as duration without breaks. When does Brandon sleep?


‘Shame’ appears to exemplify Crary’s concerns about the permanent availability and ceaseless non-fulfilment of our 24/7 digital world.

[Image by Mark © Blue Boy ® TBB under a CC BY licence]

It is in this context that we should analyse Shame’s key scene – a section often derided in reviews of the film. It features Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who in many ways disrupts Brandon’s rhythms. (Sissy/sister/incest: little work is needed to see what her name might suggest, either.) In a Manhattan bar, Sissy sings a slowed version of ‘New York, New York’ – a song written by Fred Ebb and John Kander for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name and initially performed by Liza Minnelli. Why might Shame place such emphasis on such an obvious song? Why is it performed so slowly by Sissy, painfully so for Brandon, who cries in response? This sudden temporal shift in the film – a song slowed almost to a stop, a collection of lengthy pauses in the midst of a digital life accelerating to breaking point – provokes remarkable affect. It is almost the only moment of real connection in the film.

Why does Brandon cry? McQueen claims it is because, ‘He’s forced to sit down and listen’ (James). And, without distractions or electronic companions, what does this spectator hear? The mournful performance of the lyrics, ‘I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep’. This is no celebration of 24-hour urban life and the endless opportunities it affords. Sissy’s performance feels like a sad condemnation of the relentless rhythms of her brother’s life in New York – a life lived without respite, duration without breaks – as well, perhaps, as a plea for her, for Brandon and for all of us to ‘make a brand new start of it’.

Rather, then, than simply positioning Shame, as many observers have done, as a film about contemporary sex addiction, we might be better served in considering what its temporal rhythms have to say about much broader notions of contemporary life. Start spreading the news, McQueen suggests: in the on-going struggles over 24-hour digital culture, being forced to sit and listen now holds new importance.

CITATION: Richard Martin, “Duration Without Breaks: Marclay and McQueen Against the Clock,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 6 (2016): n. pag. Web. 5 January 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.6.03

Richard Martin is a writer and lecturer based in London, who works at the intersections of film, art and architecture. He currently teaches at King’s College London, leads courses at Tate Modern, and writes for the Tate Research Department. He is the author of The Architecture of David Lynch (Bloomsbury, 2014), and his articles and reviews have appeared in the European Journal of American CultureJournal of American StudiesFlow, Senses of Cinema49th Parallel,Critical QuarterlyThe Berlin Review of Books and The Modernist. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck’s London Consortium, and has previously taught at Birkbeck and Middlesex University.

Website: http://richardgmartin.org

Works Cited:

Balsom, Erika. ‘Around The Clock: Museum and Market’, Framework, vol.54, no.2 (Fall 2013), pp.177–191.

Bois, Yve-Alain. ‘Slow (Fast) Modern’, in Time, ed. Amelia Groom (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2013), pp.145–149.

Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013).

Groom, Amelia. ‘Introduction: We’re Five Hundred Years Before the Man We Just Robbed Was Born’, in Time, ed. Amelia Groom (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2013), pp.12–25.

James, Nick. ‘Interview with Steve McQueen’, Sight and Sound, vol.22, no.2 (February 2012), pp.33–38.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004).

Lerner, Ben. 10:04 (London: Granta, 2014).

Misek, Richard. ‘Trespassing Hollywood: Property, Space, and the “Appropriation Film”’, October, no.153, Summer 2015, pp.132–148.

Shame. Dir. Steve McQueen. 2011.

Smith, Zadie. ‘Killing Orson Welles at Midnight’, New York Review of Books, vol.58, no.7, 28 April 2011: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/apr/28/killing-orson-welles-midnight/ [accessed 24 November 2015].

Zalewski, Daniel. ‘The Hours: How Christian Marclay Created the Ultimate Digital Mosaic’, The New Yorker, 12 March 2012: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/03/12/the-hours-daniel-zalewski [accessed 24 November 2015].

Please feel free to comment on this article.

One Reply to “Duration Without Breaks: Marclay and McQueen Against the Clock”

  1. Really like this. In my opinion we are living in a fin de millennium, or interregnum, where Time or the Temporal moves into the foreground. I think there are quite a few examples in art and culture – time travel narratives, alternative histories, etc. – which represent and construct your ideas and this phenomenon. But i also think that Time acts as a metaphor for a de-bounded contemporary culture also – transnational, global, etc.

    many thanks

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