The Art of Distraction
Creativity, memory and our relationship with time
I was led down a wonderfully distracting rabbit hole last week by Dr Rebecca Struthers, whose recently published book The Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History charts the history of watches and timekeeping. It’s one of those books where you find yourself googling ideas and images as you’re reading, and it led me into some geeky nooks and crannies on the internet. Her book is a brilliant example of rich history-writing that reaches into many subject areas because it examines the past through an unexpected lens - in this case a history of time told through some of the ingenious devices humans have invented to measure it.
Mechanical watches emerged relatively recently, in the last 600 years or so, but there is evidence that attempts at timekeeping have been ongoing over the past 44,000 years. It’s a fascinating story of technological development and it’s also a cultural and social history of Europe. Struthers weaves together a narrative about the gradual democratisation of timekeeping that includes aspects of religion, trade, migration, scientific ideas and the Industrial Revolution. She explains how all of these things impacted on the design and craftsmanship of watches.
I was as much interested in this history of our changing perception of time as I was in the writer herself: Rebecca Struthers is a rare breed of historian in that she’s also a creative practitioner. As a watchmaker and antiquarian horologist she has a hands-on relationship with the objects she writes about. The book is both a history of timekeeping and a personal memoir of her experience of learning about these finely-crafted objects. Over time Struthers has developed an intuitive understanding of their inner workings, and describes that experience of learning as ‘a process that takes time and patience with yourself as well as the things you’re making’. What I love about her is that she is disarmingly honest about her creative struggles plus she’s brimming with ideas. Here’s a great recent video interview with her:
Aside from blowing my mind with its engaging stories and making me want to retrain immediately as a watchmaker, her book has really made me reflect on my own perception of time. It’s true to say I don’t ever feel like I have enough time. It’s never on my side. I suffer from what Struthers refers to as ‘time guilt’, that bad feeling that you’re not achieving enough, not being productive enough, not keeping up with the things you think you should keep up with.
Our working lives are dominated by the idea of productivity. Time = money. But it’s a creativity crusher. Although Struthers is immersed in making objects that track our time, as an artist she has learnt the importance of not paying too much attention to clocking her own time. She talks about patience, about the slow labour of handcraft, and about giving yourself permission to let go of the pressure of time.
Being conscious of time passing is something the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović explores in her work. In The Artist is Present, an artwork she performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, Abramović sat silently in a chair as participants took turns to sit opposite her. They could stay for as long as they wanted. The performance required immense physical and mental endurance from Abramović, as she sat in the chair for hours at a time, day after day, for three months. The artwork was about what happens when you’re fully present in the moment, the exchange of energy between individuals, and the power of prolonged silent communication in creating deep connection and understanding. These meanings only emerged as time passed.
Abramović talks about time in other ways too. In a recent interview in Frieze magazine she discussed the importance of spending time doing nothing at all. She said this:
We have all become far too busy and preoccupied with life. There are so many emails and news alerts. Sometimes you just have to say 'Okay fuck it, I'm doing nothing today' and that's fine. In fact, that's great. Why? Because life opens itself up to you in ways that one can't possibly imagine when you are doing nothing. This is the greatest medium of them all. When I was doing nothing, I dreamt up some of my most important ideas. I strongly recommend everyone reading this to do nothing today.
In other words, when you get your mind off the time-guilt treadmill and give yourself a break to just be, all the good stuff comes. This is also something that the renowned American music producer Rick Rubin has recently talked about. Rubin is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the music industry, and has produced critically acclaimed albums for artists like the Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., Johnny Cash, Adele, Kanye West, and many more. In his book The Creative Act Rubin discusses the importance of letting go of time and deliberately seeking out distraction. When you do this, creativity follows. He says,
Distraction is not procrastination. Procrastination can consistently undermine our ability to make things. Distraction is a strategy in service of the work.
The idea that creativity and time are inextricably bound up makes total sense to me. Ideas need time to sit. Time allows us to see lots of different perspectives, to draw inspiration from our experiences and interactions with the world around us. Time gives us a chance to experiment and to gradually refine, reflect and revise. And there’s something about periods of incubation, where ideas and images, thoughts and feelings marinate over time in the subconscious mind.
That’s certainly how I feel about my own practice of writing. What I’ve come to realise is just how much information I hoover up and store from the world around me just by listening and looking, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.
I now imagine that information as a library of references stored on the shelves of my mind, waiting to be accessed. When I rush the process of writing, the references don’t flow. When I’m trying to force ideas together, they never fit. By giving myself the gift of time and patience I find now that the library in my mind hands out unexpected connections and surprising associations that knit together stuff happening in the present with things I’ve absorbed in the past. Ideas, encounters and images that have been quietly sitting in my mind waiting for the right moment to appear.
This idea of time, creativity and the emergence of ideas makes me think about the work of the American artist Henry Taylor, whose work I have written about previously. I first saw his work in an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Somerset in 2021, where he was artist-in-residence during lockdown. If ever there’s a clear example of an artist whose work combines the context and material of what’s immediately in front of him with his own bank of memories and experiences, it’s Taylor.
He describes his process of making as ‘hunting and gathering’, as though he’s collecting and storing up ideas, stories and stuff over time for an artwork that he knows will come to him in the future. ‘Everything is inside of you, it just comes out’ he says. When Taylor was isolated in the rural English landscape far away from his home in the States, he created a sculpture of a running man with antlers in place of a head. It was the first bronze sculpture he had ever made.
Taylor was referencing the wildlife of the Somerset countryside in those antlers. But the sculpture was also inspired by a conversation he had had with his brother ten years earlier in which he had told Taylor about seeing a bumper sticker that read ‘I couldn’t find me no deer, so I shot me a nigga.’ The jolting brutality of meaning in that fleeting conversation between siblings about a bumper sticker lodged in his mind and emerged from his memory during his time in Somerset years later. Here’s Taylor describing it:
The way in which memories mix in with the images and ideas circulating in our heads in the present brings to mind another American artist whose work I love, Sarah Sze. Her works are sculptural installations that combine everyday objects with photos, images, sounds, paintings and video projections. She carefully composes these elements into large, fragile constructions that envelop the viewer.
Sze’s most recent installation, The Waiting Room, fills a room at Peckham Rye railway station in south London, and is part of her Timekeepers series. This high-ceilinged room on the first floor of the building was part of the original 1862 station but was closed to the public as a waiting room more than a century ago. It has been locked up and unused for more than 50 years.
Sze has turned the space into what feels like a darkened time-capsule, ticking with the sound of a metronome and shot through with the light of flickering videos. You see fragmented images moving across the walls - a flock of birds, a man on a bicycle, a hand shuffling cards, candles flickering. It’s a powerful and mesmerising work.
Critics have commented on how apt it is for the smartphone age, how it gives the sensation of a brain fried by information overload. That’s one way to think about it. It makes me think of that unique library of visual references and memories we all have inside our heads. It reminds me of the words that the eminent American artist Joan Jonas uses to describe her own art:
My work is all about layering, because that’s the way our brains function. We think of several things at the same time. We see things and think another, we see one picture and there’s another picture on top of it. I think in a way my work represents that way of seeing the world - putting things together in order to say something.
Over the past few weeks I’ve made several attempts to fit these ideas about time and creativity together, without success. Which brings me back to Dr Struthers and her history of watches and timekeeping. I didn’t pick up that book in Waterstones for the purpose of research, I was browsing and just thought it looked interesting. It was a distraction. Time passed. Things marinated in my mind. And here I am now, relatively happy with how this medley of ideas has turned out.
As always I’d love to know what you think about these artists and any of these ideas. And please share any other artists whose work is relevant to this theme in the comments.