THE FLUID DYNAMICS OF TIME

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FLUID TIME

FLUID TIME

I’ve always thought of time as granular, comprised of individual moments that accumulate like falling snow, or droplets of water 1 Maybe this is because the thought of being bound to a single timeline was terrifying to me, given my own lineage and the early marks on my history. Scientifically we’ve evolved our communal understanding of time to incorporate the concept of a spacetime continuum. By definition a continuum is a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although variation, distinction and extremes are possible when viewed from a distance. Now that we’ve managed to capture the rippling of gravitational waves through this spacetime 2 we can confidently discuss time “as an ontologically independent entity and not a construct disclosed by consciousness.” Classical notions of objective time as a linear sequence of events have been refuted, as we have now confirmed Einstein’s theory, and have observed evidence that we inhabit a spacetime that unfolds omni-directionally.

The fragmentary experience of time that pervades and has come to define our present, offers a significant obstacle to imagining ourselves as belonging to any unified, singular temporal model. We live in an age where a cohesive, universal understanding of the nature of reality is unknowable. Just as there is no flat map that is a perfect representation of the earth's entire surface, there is no single theory that is a perfect representation of our observations of reality in all situations. Accepting this notion, in their book Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow make the case for what they term Model-dependent realism. As a method, model-dependent realism allows us to temporarily overcome the impossibility of encapsulating and explaining the totality of our reality with a single universal theory. As the name implies, model-dependent realism focuses on the role of models of phenomena rather than the phenomena themselves. It claims reality should be interpreted based on these models and, where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid realities exist.” Hawking and Mlodinow articulate their criteria for model creation as follows: “a model is a good model if 1) it is elegant, 2) it contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements, and 3) it agrees with and explains all existing observations. By extension, the criteria as outlined, actively embraces interdisciplinarity and art thinking, reaching beyond the strict confines of science, engaging 1) aesthetics, 2) minimalism and essentialism, 3) phenomenology—all of which also fall within the domain of contemporary art practice. In agreement with the above rules, any useful model must be poetic and yet function beyond its poetry. Such a model should consistently overlap, predict or behave in agreement with that which it seeks to represent— in essence, the decided upon model should offer a consistent, poetic, metaphor-dependent realism.

In order to examine and articulate the phenomenology of obsession and its relation to our current understanding of being in time, I too need a model. A simple, elegant, poetic metaphor for time and our experiences within it that evocatively reflects with equal strength what is known and what is felt. In order to better articulate the objective examination of what are essentially subjective phenomena. “On the phenomenal level, consciousness —and the self-consciousness deriving from it— is distinguished by spatial and temporal presence, Consciousness is tied to corporality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.” I crave a model for time that is applicable to both physics and phenomenology, capable of embodying concepts of time put forth by both Einstein and Bergson, a model that can be understood both conceptually and corporally.

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turbulence and trajectories

turbulence and trajectories

Anyone who has spent time on the sea understands how it moves you. Long after your feet are back on solid ground the movement of the sea continues to echo through your body— and at times, you would swear that you were still moving. This is also true of our experiences in time. In August of 2015, I found myself sitting on the sand, staring into the offing. I watched and listened as the tide chewed and subsequently swallowed the shore. In that moment I understood that time is fluid: comprised of a multitude of lines, currents and tides, flows and forces. Each moment a droplet, their combined experience immersive and simultaneous.

Like the sea, time surrounds us, displaced by our presence, the body echoed in its substance. Time is both space and the material that fills it. Time has depth, breadth, currents and flows— it exists simultaneously as individual moments and as a large sprawling body. Time is a sea.

Movements in any continuum are measured and understood as vectors or trajectories. Our present is marked by movement through and between multiple time flows and perceptual fields, requiring navigation and a near constant attention to orientation. Thanks to the general theory of relativity, we understand that space and time are not distinct. Instead they are understood as dynamic, connected quantities: when a body moves or a force acts, it affects space and time- and in turn, the structure of spacetime affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Imagine a ship, the sea surrounding it, its hull cutting through the waves and the waves, in turn, rocking the boat. The foaming ridge that trails behind the boat is a record of movement through a plane of all possible futures, a trajectory that leaves behind a disappearing scar on the surface of time. “A scar is the sign not of a past wound, but of ‘the present fact of having been wounded’: we can say that it is the contemplation of the wound, that it contracts all the instants which separate us from it into a living present.” This wake is the presence of our past in our present perceptual field, it is memory. Memory is the trace of our trajectory through time, it is what grounds us and orients us in time. Memory functions as an extension of identity, moments from our past can be conjured in our present at will to aid in perpetuating the continuity of a self that exists across time. “In Einstein’s physics, there is no passage of time, no unidirectional flow from the fixed past and toward the uncertain future. The temporal component of space-time is as static as its spatial components; physical time is as still as physical space. It is all laid out, the whole spread of events, in the tenseless four-dimensional space-time manifold. Under relativity, ‘the present’ is different for all observers…” This subjective present is defined by our perceptual field, an interval of time large enough to contain the present, the anticipated future and the extremely recent past; it is “the moving soil occupied by the passing present.” Within the turbulent blur of oppositional forces that mark our perceptual field, recall of passing events is not necessary as the residue of transpired events still linger on our synapses.

Time surrounds us, we can find ourselves immersed within it or skimming across its unpredictable and turbulent surface. Time heals, corrodes, swells, preserves, shimmers, torments, destroys, and always in transition— never still. Within this fluid, phenomenological model for time, obsession emerges as a tidal force, a storm of attention. The presence and force of obsession is capable of whirling and warping time; but little has been written about how warped space and time behave in such a storm or the impact on our experience of being-in-time “when the shape of space is oscillating wildly and the rate of flow of time is oscillating wildly.”