Thomson & Craighead: Wake Me Up When It’s Over

Time travel, nuclear countdown clocks and Google’s inhuman view of war

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

Thompson & Craighead, A Short Film About War, 2009, two-channel video projection, 9 min 39 sec. Courtesy Young Projects Gallery, Los Angeles

Young Projects, Los Angeles 27, January – 21 April 

To say that video or ‘moving-image’ art is at bottom ‘durational’ is to traffic in cliché, if not self-referential redundancy. Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) made this cliché into a magnum opus, mapping as it did an entire archive of the ‘talkies’ mentions and depictions of clock-time to the actual hours and minutes of a single day. It didn’t hurt that that archive belonged to Hollywood, which long held a monopoly on the commercialisation of dreams until the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

The same year as Marclay presented The Clock, the artist duo of Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead debuted their own take on Hollywood’s time-sensitive entertainments. The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010) recuts George Pal’s 1960 production of H.G. Wells’s novella so that every word spoken in the film appears alphabetically. Understandably, the cut wreaks havoc on the story line – just imagine every ‘a’ and ‘and’ spoken by the film’s characters lined up and delivered like staccato gunfire. In this ‘retelling’, the most narrative sequences come with blessed silence.

The result is less engrossing than Marclay’s work, but it’s more thoughtful, because what Thomson & Craighead offer the viewer is a kind of object lesson in the dialects of structure and system on the one hand, and narrative and event on the other. By cataloguing all of the words uttered in Pal’s movie, Thomson & Craighead give us language – organised, ordered, disciplined – but not speech or, by extension, story (one could also describe this using semiotics’ distinction between langue and parole). In foregrounding the system by and through which time may be represented, say, in storytelling, Thomson & Craighead destroy the ‘time’ of the movie in favour of the more impersonal temporality of the film’s mere duration, which we as the audience are given to feel rather than follow.

This interest in the affect associated with impersonal systems and temporalities pervades much of the work that Thomson & Craighead have made over the past decade. A Temporary Index (2016), for example, is a projection of what at first glance appears as a row of totems whose bases are undergoing steady changes of configuration. A second glance reveals these totems to be made up of large numbers, turned on their sides and paired with their mirror image. A nearby booklet (part of the work’s installation) explains that the numbers are countdown timers for when various nuclear waste sites will expend their dangerous radioactivity – most of the countdowns stretch into the tens of thousands of years.

Or take A Short Film About War (2009), which gives us images from publicly accessible Flickr accounts accompanied by voiceovers of excerpts from blogs written by both civilians and soldiers about their experiences of war. The montage of stories and pictures is immensely compelling, but it’s also important that, on a second adjacent screen, we are given a scroll of the images’ source URLs, user IDs and upload dates and locations. And when moving between one ‘account’ and another, Thomson & Craighead insert a Google Earth animation, which lifts us up from one site, moves us around the planet and then zooms us back down to a new location and a new account. Thus the war stories are delivered to us against the backdrop of Google’s inhuman eye and the Internet’s inhuman archive, analogues of the war system that will distinguish the time of the twenty-first century from what has come before. 

From the April 2017 issue of ArtReview