My serendipitous discovery of ‘The Long Now’

Still from Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time

Still from 'Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time'

One of my favorite presentations at the Design and Film symposium I attended at the Cooper Hewitt Museum last March was Stuart Kendall’s talk on the film Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time. The documentary, directed by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, focuses on Goldsworthy’s site-specific sculptural work.

I was particularly interested in Kendall’s reading of this film, which he says it is not about making, but about modifying things. To Kendall, Goldsworthy’s work challenges an anthropocentric view of the world (as vindicated from Descartes to the multiculturalist agenda), the fetishism of the heroic creator or the question of artistic and environmental appropriateness.  Kendall’s lecture explored the concepts of modification vs. creation, of art – but also design – as disciplines that are part of a historical and material continuum he called long now.

This notion of a natural, physical continuum that contains humans, their actions and their consequences (as opposed to the notion of nature as a human construct) inspired a few questions asked by Kendall in his talk, such as: “What do I want to make today? What trace of my life can I leave here today? What can I do to improve existing matter and its environment?”. This is a fascinating, revolutionary way to look into human, material production. In the end, and as expressed by Goldworthy himself, “I don’t think the Earth needs me at all. But I do need it”.

The Clock of the Long Now

After the symposium I emailed Kendall, asking him about the notion of long now. He told me “The long now notion is a famous one that I borrow from several sources. In design studies, Stewart Brand and the clock of the long now project (look here: offer one source, though the long now project places too much emphasis on the notion of durability. This is unfortunate, but it is still helpful. My own use of the term derives more directly from American poet Charles Olson’s suggestion that we enlarge the frame of human consciousness to the measure of geological time. Olson, as you may know, was Rector at Black Mountain College after Joseph Albers. The link between the two is Buckminster Fuller who taught at Black Mountain and influenced Brand. Like Olson, Fuller sought to live with and within the energies of the universe rather than being limited by an anthropocentric model of agency.”

I followed Kendall’s link, which took me to the website of The Long Foundation, where I found Brian Eno’s 2000 essay entitled The Big Here and Long Now. It’s not only an inspiring piece of writing, but it was also the cornerstone to the movement started by Eno, Stewart Brand and Danny Hills to “provide counterpoint to today’s ‘faster/cheaper’ mind set and promote ’slower/better’ thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” There is so much to discover about the LNF, its members, their writings and activities — and I just started. Alan Rapp, my D-Crit classmate, has had a good head start: he has been a card-holder member of the Foundation for years, and even has a postcard of Danny Hill’s The Clock of the Long Now on his desk…

Further research on the concept led me to a Worldchanging review of the book “Eternally Yours: Time in Design”, the result of a 24-conference organised by Brian Eno and John Thackara in 2003. I went on to buy the book. I still haven’t finished it, but I highly recommend ordering this precious piece of graphic design from Amazon or directly from the publisher. Alternatively, you can find the entire thing on Google Books.

This is the first of many serendipitous discoveries around the topics of time and design I’ll be posting here in the next few weeks.