Swing from the Hands of Time – Matthew Galloway
All the long red lines
That take control
Of all the smoke like streams
That flow into your dreams
That big blue open sea
That can't be crossed
That can't be climbed 
During the first days of New Zealand’s lockdown in response to COVID-19, at some time between 8:30 and 8:35am—or pm, no-one is sure—somebody scaled the cliffs east of the central South Island town of Alexandra, and swung on the hour hand of the townships signature local attraction—an 11-meter diameter clock visible from miles around.
Holding the weight of one or more humans broke the clock, which had operated with little maintenance for over 50 years. Whenever this time-freeze occurred, local residents soon took notice, and the clock inherited a new meaning; turning from a working mechanism to a monument; unwittingly and poetically signifying the changing perception of time that has so characterised life in quarantine during this global pandemic. What’s more, almost a month later, the clock remains frozen, as the maintenance required to fix it has been deemed outside of ‘essential’ business activities permissible while New Zealand remains in lockdown.
The unique nature of the Alexandra clock has made it a favorite amongst locals over the years; it acts as a marker of place, a stamp of identity. Similar to any architectural intervention that has an abstracted, logo-like quality; it has broadcast-ability, a mnemonic nature, a post-card quality. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed that it shares a certain aesthetic likeness with the Doomsday Clock; suspended high above the township, looking over the daily lives of residents—a constant, overbearing signal of the passage of time. To my eye, the clock serves as a reminder that time is surveilling us; always watching, always there.
What happens when a symbol that has come to define notions of place, and identity tied to that place, stops doing what it’s always done? We like to think of time like we constructed it, but really it constructs us. Identity, it seems, is a time-based medium. As slowly as time allows identity to accumulate, its power of erasure is quicker. Our construction of identity is scaffolded precariously to a cliff, waiting for a lunatic to vandalise it. Time, in moments of crisis, has the ability to abandon its usual rhythm, and cast off into space, floating, free. Like a dream state where you’re both the subject of the dream, but also somehow watching the dream unfold. Sometimes, in the moments of awakening, that feeling lingers, and you can almost grab it as it bleeds out into waking life.
The dread that inhabited me as I awoke on September 4th, 2010, at 4.35am preempted my conscious knowledge of what was happening in the moment—my body knew before I did. But somewhere in the half-awake seconds between leaving the bed and reaching the doorway the realization that I was in the middle of an earthquake finally dawned on me. Huddled together with my partner in our bedroom doorway, our house shaking uncontrollably, I remember closing my eyes, and seeing an image of ourselves, a slowly panning shot that zoomed outwards, through the rafters and up into the black, soupy sky above. And for a moment I was looking at the stars, like you do on a clear night in the countryside, and everything is still, the air is crisp, and it’s just you and the heavenly bodies. Suspended above myself, in that flash of outer-body-ness, I had this dawning acceptance of my total insignificance, my total lack of control. The earth was powerful beneath me; it held a complete lack of regard for me; I was not a subject with thoughts and feelings; hopes and dreams; I was just another cluster of matter flailing around on its surface.
The September 4th earthquake lasted 10-15 seconds, but the experience of waking to a reality more dream-like than whatever dream-state I left behind burrowed deep into my consciousness; the dread that accompanied it remaining on notice for total recall whenever I feel so inclined. The lesson I most readily associate with that moment is this: dreams are defined by our lack of control over them, but reality is no different, we’ve simply become very good at believing in the illusion of control. In the coming swarm of earthquakes that plagued my hometown of Christchurch throughout 2010 and 2011, reality was that the earth moves in ways irrespective of lives, buildings, homes, history. The built environment that structures and enables our daily lives—giving us a sense of belonging, identity and sense of place—was dismantled and Red Zoned. In the process, the illusion of control founded on the perceived permanence of our built environment was completely erased. The Christchurch Cathedral; which served not only as the central building in the city’s square, but also as the city’s logo, remains, almost 10 years later, a pile of rubble. During the quake-swarm, the facade of built environment became fascinating to me—in particular the sense of reality that we collectively wrap around the illusion of permanence. During this time, I redrew the city logo without the Cathedral, and without the stylized Avon river (whose banks had broken). All that was left in the new logo was sky above, earth below, separated by a horizon line. The erasure of these built aspects served both as a reflection on the new reality I found myself in, but also as a return to a pre-colonised state; before Christchurch was imagined by European Settlers as an ‘English City of the South’; before stone cathedrals and intersecting roads erased the wetlands beneath them that had served as productive gathering grounds for Māori; sandy ground that came back with a vegence. It was like the earth was trying to backpedal on us, erase the passage of time, erase our actions; our sense of permanence and its colonising ways.
I came to see the cultural fabric through which we fashion our identity as a comfort blanket, made to lull us into a sense of security, a sense of control. It enables us to function on the assumption that our reality is a fixed state of being, with legible rules and guidelines. To acknowledge that this fabric is self-fashioned through experience and time—and therefore a supremely subjective façade—is both a highly rational achievement, and the jumping off point for deep existential crisis.
Which brings me back to present day, and imagining the vandal swinging from the hands of time. Holding this thought, I start to imagine an alternate reality, in which the weight of the vandal is too much for the structure, and the entire mechanism begins to detach, and suddenly everything is falling; the hands of time, and signifiers of hour and half hour, the scaffolding, and the culprit, descending through space, wrapped up in each other, slow motion, against the grey cliffs of Alexandra. Perhaps this vision better illustrates the chaotic nature of time and space as experienced in the age of global pandemic. We have arrived here because of a true crisis that has cost many lives. As a captive audience, we have watched governments scramble to respond, in ways ranging from measured, to completely insane. Meanwhile families lose loved-ones who either become figures in an official body count or else form part of the uncounted, ‘unofficial’ mass that estimates only go so far in being able to truly render. In the worst hit regions, these deaths have overwhelmed quarantine measures and healthcare systems, whereas in countries like mine, which were afforded time to learn from the likes of China and Italy, these deaths can only really exist in a numerical sense, never in a way that can hope to resonate with our quarantined minds as they pour over stats and graphs comparing exponential growths and flattening curves. What these first months of the crisis have further revealed is the fragility of our current social, economic and political systems—our ‘built environment’—our contemporary obsession with systems and infrastructure – our need to codify and demarcate existence. We have seen much of this infrastructure dismantled; ‘working mechanisms’ have become monuments. Time has both collapsed and expanded; from this island at the bottom of the world, I can commune with anyone, yet I can’t step outside my borders. The idea of air travel allowing me to step foot in Europe after a day or so hurtling through space is now a distant memory, and a perverse memorial of what we both took for granted, and granted permissible. What is possible in this new reality has changed, taken on new forms.
In Futurability, theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi presents possibility as ‘chaotic content looking for shape’ — a slow moving field of magma that every now and then coalesces, and forms into reality. Through this illustration, he paints human history as a sequence of coalescences in a flow of unrealised alternative possibility; the implication being that if we can imagine history as a set of coalescing forms, we must also imagine the many possible realities that never escaped the flow. Equally, this implies that the future will be defined by the ability of the chaotic to find shape. Our futures are not predetermined, nothing is certain—we are in the flow of abundant possibility. However, Berardi laments, in our contemporary moment, this expansive vision of possible futures is rarely given air. Our human ‘obsession with order’ means that the possible has been ‘captured and reduced to mere probability, and the probable has been enforced as necessity.’ In other words, the future, and our place in it, does not feel like an abundant flow, but a necessary fate—an inescapable free fall.
Maybe this is a free fall, and undoubtedly this virus is a tragedy of real human cost. But maybe there are also futures that feel possible now that appeared nothing but fever dreams in the crushing inevitability of 2019. We have felt the sensation of floating through time, untethered, vulnerable, and yet, weirdly free. There was a moment, in Christchurch, after the dust had cleared, and the extent of the erasure was clear, when possibility reigned. This was a moment for imagining a new way of inhabiting space, a new kind of city. But this moment of potency was quickly replaced by a yearning for a return to ‘normalcy’, for rebuild; an undo of the dismantling. Reimagining the city gave way to ‘how many carparks do we need?’ In many ways, COVID-19 is a more abstract crisis, one that in turn presents a more abstract form of dismantling. But how might this moment of crisis act as a moment of erasure? Not in a way that leads only to loss, but in a way that exposes the façade of our contemporary state of being. Are there dream-states that are in fact possible realities? Is there potential within the free fall to reimagine, to furtively swing from the structures that we were so sure we controlled, and find out how it feels to freeze them, break them, and see what exists on the other side.
Mercury Rev, Holes from the album Deserter’s Songs (1998) ↵
Berardi, Franco. Futurability: the Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. London: Verso, 2019. pg 27 ↵
Ibid. pg 6 ↵
About Matthew Galloway
Matthew Galloway (NZ) employs the tools and methodologies of design in an editorial way, and within a gallery context. This way of working emphasises design and publishing as an inherently political exercise and involves an interdisciplinary approach to producing publications and art objects.