September 1, 2022

Time On The Blockchain

With block time changing history, Charlotte Kent and Alex Estorick survey the artists exploring new temporalities
Credit: Xin Liu, Atlas (detail), 9 January, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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Time On The Blockchain
More than any other time in our brief history on Earth, we are experiencing a clash of temporalities: geological time, the deep time of those processes that fashioned our terrestrial home; historical time; and experiential time. All these times now fold in on one another. We are not used to thinking of time as simultaneous. We think of time as linear: past, present, future. So how do we begin to think about time in a way that takes these concatenations seriously?¹ (Achille Mbembe)

If artists are the alarm systems of society then blockchain artists are well placed to address the corruptions of linear time. Certainly, the most recent pandemic bent time, not least by compressing the experience of space into a largely digital frame. For Venkatesh Rao, “Pandemic time is an experience of time whose principal feature, for the majority of us, is its radically decentralized, accelerated and atomized nature.”

This disorientation has forced us to reckon with our position in the world: our rights and privileges of access; our interconnectedness and alienation; the constant proximity of death to life. Such spatialized epithets also confound the sense of time, as well as histories cultural, social, political, and medical while entrenching the creep of capitalist clock time whose “benefits” are so dependent on place.

Luna Ikuta, Garden of Transparent Tulips, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Back in 1987, the writer Jeremy Rifkin wrote about the impact of computer programs in his book, Time Wars. He argued that astronomical timekeeping introduced the notion of cycles, while mechanical timekeeping produced the concept of fixed, linear time, which computers subsequently unraveled for the kind of associative relations pervasive in the unconscious:

It [computer time] is a stepchild of psychological consciousness, just as the concept of linear time was a stepchild of historical consciousness.² 

Blockchain artists are best placed to pick up the shards of time, dealing as they do in blocks, which is to say the discrete temporalities that define the operations of Web3. Blockchain itself is a data storage system, one that is deeply invested in time as a container for culture. It is also a space in which (on which?) past information is used to organize the commercial performance of the future, principally via smart contracts. And while it operates as a particular form of computer time, its infrastructure is nonetheless rooted in a psychology of exchange. 

Installation view of Lauren Lee McCarthy, Good Night at EIGEN+ART Lab, 2021. Photography by Eike Walkenhorst. Courtesy of the artist

Lauren Lee McCarthy’s Good Night (2020-ongoing) is a performance art NFT for one person. Whoever owns it receives a notification via their preferred messaging platform — Instagram, Twitter, Discord, etc. of the artist’s own sleep patterns. For McCarthy, “This gesture represents a commitment to a set of rules I have set out for myself, the performance is the lived attempt to meet that commitment.” 

Though the NFT is the site (and moment) of contractual relations, McCarthy makes clear that if any new owner doesn’t contact her within a week of purchasing the NFT — or if the holder of the NFT is no longer reachable — she reserves the right to remint. While, in one sense, these NFTs are entirely fungible, the artist and her message are not. Indeed, the project challenges the automation of life through its dependence on arbitrary human behavior. No one goes to sleep at the same time every night, though we all do so eventually (well, most of us). 

Though our minutes may be deliriously scheduled, our lived digital experience follows different logics. 

Lauren Lee McCarthy, Good Night, 2020-Ongoing. Courtesy of the artist

Time on the blockchain is charged and different at a time when our world is highly charged and ever-changing. Blockchain’s accelerated attention cycle has led to days feeling like hours, years like a lifetime, and 2017 like ancient history. While the blockchain’s record-keeping formalizes the past, it increasingly privileges the recent past. As Simon Denny has shown, it is also not as immutable as it seems, producing an emergent temporality with its own social consequences. Any new thing provides an opportunity to revisit and reconsider old things, and artists in the NFT space have been reminding us according to daily, weekly, lunar, solar, clock, and block calendars of their projects’ forthcoming emergence for some time

Calendars are the earliest timekeeping device, determining a society’s routine and shaping its behavior. The French revolutionaries instituted a new calendar based on the decimal system to obviate the influence of the Catholic Church. However, the project failed in no small part because it eliminated the 53 Sundays, 90 rest days, and 38 holidays that freed laborers from work. These were replaced with 36 patriotic celebration days with the result that people suddenly found themselves without respite under new management. Still today, questions remain: What is the socially necessary labor time required for the creation and maintenance of a new society? And are the demands for that labor time reproducing the inequities of an earlier market economy?³ Even revolutionaries need leisure time. 

Matt Kane, Gazers #70, 11:22 PM CST, 25 April, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Sleep exemplifies the strangeness of human being. And, like many bodily activities, humans cannot control it, not even through pills, herbs, or sheep. When sleep does insist, even assignments, exercise, and pills can’t fight it. Its timing is its own. Indeed, sleep is one of the potent reminders of the body’s own biotic timescale, influenced by the social but ultimately independent. Night also invites a lunar calendar, one of the oldest forms of timekeeping. The day may be regulated by sun’s rise and set, but the shifting angles of our cosmic rotation don’t offer the same feedback as the moon’s wax and wane. As Matt Kane wrote of his own lunar-based work, Gazers (2021):

Since the dawn of humanity, the Moon’s phases have fascinated humans, influencing any number of activities on Earth including ocean tides, seasons, harvests, migrations, hunting, crime, sleeping, sex, and has inspired countless works of art. 

Gazers recognizes the symbolism of 12 new moons associated with major moments in Kane’s life. These moments are the basis on which the rest of the project emerges. Amongst other traits, Kane’s NFTs have an annual moment that the artist calls “Celebration Period,” ranging between 24 and 144 hours. It occurs yearly as well as every 33 “moons,” at which point the central motif expands into a “Blue Moon.” These cyclical returns are poignant attempts to align personal experience with natural events, with technology a vital means of remembering. 

Matt Kane, Gazers #130, 2:48 PM CST, 26 January, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Submerged in water, the ghostly tulip danced in the current, suspended in time in the liminal space between the beginning and the end. (Luna Ikuta)

Luna Ikuta’s work, Remember Me (2022), is a time-based project on the blockchain whose third section fell on Easter Sunday this year following the full moon. Drawing analogies with 17th-century tulipomania — and market growth and decay — the project injects a natural circadian rhythm into a blockchain context otherwise detached from planetary phenomena. It also underscores the attention economy’s indifference to non-commercial temporalities in favor of incessant productivity. In this vein, Jonathan Crary has bemoaned that “rest and regeneration is now simply too expensive to be structurally possible within contemporary capitalism.”⁵

Celestial orbits defined the cyclical regularity of early calendars, which served as a mode of reassurance in another virulent world. Even early architectural feats like Stonehenge or Altavista presented calendrical power by identifying solstices and equinoxes, as well as societal power through their ability to predict future events. The replacement of the Julian (Roman) calendar by the Gregorian calendar in 1582 rested on its greater precision at tracking the sun’s movement, as well as Church politics. From an inquiry into the motion of the stars came a desire to attain them, such that one day humanity vaulted off the planet and littered celestial space. 

Luna Ikuta, Sequence, Remember Me, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

One product of pandemic confinement is Xin Liu’s Atlas (2021-ongoing), which repurposes abandoned satellites sent into orbit in 1998 to generate new photographs of the Earth. The artist’s reliance on unencrypted signal transmissions, which take minutes to process and download, produces grainy images that defy accelerationism and the demand for hi-res experience. In this respect she follows Anna Ridler, whose animation, Fall of the House of Usher (2017), sought proactively to degrade GANs (generative adversarial networks) to “the point at which meaning breaks down.” Liu’s NFTs include the code of the original frequency as well as the satellite’s singular image, thereby blurring the aura of the NFT with claims to infinite reproduction. 

When the Catholic Benedictines instituted bells to regulate prayer, they also constructed a consistent daily organization across aural space. In Early Modern cities like Florence, bells became the markers of business hours for a burgeoning mercantilism, tolling workers to market. Clocks appeared in the mid-14th century, associated with order and constancy, whilst also instituting time as a knowledge regime. Industrial clock time became integral to colonization, with Greenwich Mean Time distributed globally as part of a “civilizing” mission to unify all under one temporal order. 

Xin Liu, Atlas, 7 January, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Today’s clock emojis recall Bradley double-bell alarm clocks from the 1940s, contributing more canned nostalgia for a culture dependent on digital precision. In fact, the digital interface was designed for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as a clock and wristwatch, though the latter was cut from the final release. The design and manufacturing company, Hamilton, subsequently released the Pulsar Time Computer in 1972, a watch that was swiftly adopted by an assortment of male celebrities, aligning digital time with masculinist and space-age fantasy. The corollary loss of clock hands also produced isolated instants — moments to be sold and celebrated — while eliminating intervals and the continuity that binds moments together, fostering anxiety and alienation. 

The LED screen removed historicity, and with it the passing of time from past to present to future, instead inaugurating a perpetual present available at the push of a button. 

Today, it is hard to conceive of life before this structure of time, though much of human history was experienced as the “petty pace from day to day” bemoaned by Macbeth. Of course, precision is crucial to certain developments in the sciences and has made global alignment easier, but it has also altered social experience. This past decade, time collapsed further with the widespread adoption of video conferencing, where to arrive after one’s assigned arrival time disregards the natural order of now.

Xin Liu, Atlas, 9 January, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

With atomic time, the second is no longer understood as a fraction of a solar orbit but rather as “a specific number of oscillations of cesium atoms inside an atomic clock,” as Joe Zadeh explains in an article aptly titled “The Tyranny of Time.” But even atomic precision requires updating — those on-board GPS satellites require twice daily adjustment. For this reason, next year’s World Radiocommunication Conference will yet again question the obligation to synchronize with our stellar orbit.

Blockchain introduces its own time frame: block time — the length of time it takes to create a new block — which is distinct from transaction speed. Bitcoin aims to create a new block approximately every ten minutes while Ethereum block time is between ten and 14 seconds. The average block time is evaluated after a set number of blocks. If the time to produce the block is greater than expected, the difficulty of a proof-of-work (PoW) algorithm must be decreased, and increased if the time is less than expected. Bitcoin checks the difficulty after every 2016 blocks, while Ethereum checks after every block. The management of the difficulty level is written into the mining software itself. 

Nascent, Temporal Secession — Timezone #1, 2021. Courtesy of the artists

Other chains, like Solana or Tezos, also use the term “block time” even though their alternative consensus mechanisms mean that validators don’t send blocks in the same way as proof-of-work chains. Instead they vote (some would say gamble) on the authenticity of blocks using their staked tokens, which has led to concerns about the outsize power of large stakeholders. The urge to reduce block time is meant to reassure users, though it can also pose risks. 

Crucial to note is that blockchain doesn’t operate on time per se but quantity of blocks, to which humans then assign a familiar temporality like minutes and seconds.

Time isn’t inherent to the blockchain, but since its processes depend on temporal order, developers design complicated synchronization solutions as a workaround. These introduce new patterns of thinking around events and experience, which deserve consideration for the implications they may have on the psychic order currently being constructed.  

The production studio Nascent produced a series of works in 2020 to visualize blockchain time based on their research into Bitcoin as a “decentralized timestamping server.” They identify how Bitcoin and other proof-of-work chains lack “endogenous access clock time.” Unix time — a digital time system established in 1970 whereby computers connect to time servers in order to interact with network infrastructures — is applied to blockchain via the temporal attestation of its miners. The recalibration of difficulty to maintain some consistency in block creation obscures the durational volatility of such tech infrastructure. Time is uneven in proof of work, while proof of stake (PoS) operates differently. It’s a different temporal order, one that avoids a hierarchical regime in favor of an economic model. Nonetheless, for Nascent, consensus time offers new possibilities because it resists the command-and-control infrastructure — and colonizing imperial order — of Greenwich Mean Time. 

Nascent, (Still from) Temporal Secession — Timezone #4, 2021. Courtesy of the artists

Nascent refers to blockchain as “the timechain,” a term incorporated into the Bitcoin white paper, to emphasize that the technology has its own temporal order. Their project, Temporal Secessionism, includes three sculptures and one generative NFT set, Timezone 4 (2021), that they describe as “a self-contained, immanent visualisation of time in a global network of computation only bound to its own temporal infrastructure.” The NFTs’ smart contracts translate the average “blocktime” from each token’s time of minting into an SVG animation. Each NFT starts off on its own rhythm but, as the blocks accumulate, they merge in “an endless process, one that will literally take forever.” It’s a simple work, and beautiful, one that reveals a complex process in need of wider discussion. 

Block time incorporates a new form of “finality” — when a block is deemed irreversible because a consensus threshold has been met. Finality calms fiscal anxieties that a trade has been concluded as expected, and the blockchain’s will to finality fosters eagerness to reduce misbehavior. It also represents a psycho-social attitude conditioned on economics, thereby reiterating the cult of homo economicus that previously defined Web2. 

Sarah Friend, Lifeform #186, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

In response, some artists are cultivating a new form of care through the interactive engagement of their audiences. Sarah Friend’s project, Lifeforms (2021), nominated for the inaugural Lumen Prize NFT Award, turns care into a gift economy, with the owners of the NFT required to pass it on within 90 days of receiving it. This time frame correlates to a business quarter — the timeline for publicly listed companies, and those they employ. If someone doesn’t gift (or sell) their Lifeform, the NFT dies. Defining care for a “Lifeform” according to its market time frame is characteristic of the artist’s dark humor, as is her well-known blockchain haiku:

The world’s biggest clock.
A Very slow computer.
Makes lots of money 

Just as digital time atomized the human, block time has its own configuration. Yet all of the artists discussed here invite an awareness of other temporalities, beyond the blockchain’s transactional ontology. This is a positive reading of blockchain made possible by the uncommon projects of these and a few other artists. Most NFT projects are not attending to this issue. 

For Luna Ikuta, “Time in the NFT space is so chaotic. Insanity is the new normal.” But it needn’t be. Knowing the histories of temporal systems reminds us of how quickly they become naturalized without adequate reflection on their impact. If the blockchain’s decentralized infrastructure aims to emancipate the human from hierarchical order, then we are duly warned against being lulled to sleep.

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Charlotte Kent is an arts writer and assistant professor of visual culture at Montclair State University. With a background in philosophy and literature, as well as in ophthalmic publishing, she brings an interdisciplinary approach to visual art and digital culture with a current research focus on the absurd. She is an Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail and contributes to peer review journals and international magazines. 

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.

Right Click Save is pleased to partner with Zora for this cross-platform special on time. Read “On Decentralized Clocks, Anna Ridler in Conversation” on Zora Zine.

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¹ A Mbembe, “How To Develop A Planetary Consciousness,” Noema, January 11, 2022.

² J Rifkin, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, 179.

³ M Postone, Time Labor, Social Domination, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 190.

⁴ C Kent, “The Life and Times of the NFT,” Right Click Save, May 2, 2022.

⁵ J Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, London: Verso, 2014, 15.