Originally published in Electronic Book Review, N. 11, 2000 (http://www.altx.com/ebr/ebr11/11str.htm).

Dalí Clocks: Time Dimensions of Hypermedia

Stephanie Strickland

Salvador Dalí's clocks aren't wrong or stopped or broken. Their
active faces slide like pancake batter over edges of a bureau,
bend and hang across branches. Adapted to the shape of every
object they meet, these clocks announce that there is no standard
time in Dalí's universe - nor, as Dalí knew - in Einstein's.

In fact, Dalí's clocks are not clocks at all, if we mean
bookkeepers that measure unvarying flow. But then the human heart
is not that kind of clock either; rather, it is a fractal tempo
tracker that runs concurrently to the beat of several highly
variable drummers. When that stops being true, when it runs to no
beat, under atrial fibrillation; or if it collapses to one
stereotypic periodic behavior, losing some of those long-range
correlations that tie it to events thousands of beats into the
future, then it is about to die of congestive heart failure.

Of the nine system-processes that characterize both life and
knowledge in the 21st century - I refer to feedback, hierarchy,
bounds, network interaction, scale, cycles, symmetries, evolution,
and equilibrium - it is this last that does not characterize the
Internet and does not characterize Web-specific literary works. If
the last half of the 20th century fell under the spell of
linguistics and genetics, I suggest that the spatial understanding
of both, "genome as book," must give way to an understanding that
is inherently dynamic, inextricably statistical, and
informationally multimedial in its forms of analysis; an
understanding that is less about structure and more about
resonance, about the ongoing fitting of moving mind to moving
world through moving medium.

My thesis is that Web-specific art and literature is where this
understanding is being developed. I hope to demonstrate this with
regard to works by several renowned Web artists, but to
contextualize my discussion I need to explain scale and level. A
sense of scale is key to understanding dynamics, the kind of
scaling represented by conventional powers of ten, or some other
repeated multiple, which is the basis of fractal
pattern-persistence or self-similarity.

scale and level
If I look at the tracing of a heartbeat over a period of
milliseconds, then seconds, minutes, hours, days, I discover that
the pattern I see remains the same. Here, the concept of fractal
shifts from self-similar structure in space to self-similar
dynamics in time. What this means is that you can't tell what
time-scale you are looking at when you see, or hear, these
patterns. Yes, an average regularity, a pulse, can be established,
but this measure smoothes and destroys the huge amount of
information hidden in the micro-measures, in the fluctuations, the
groove, the interbeat intervals.

A repeating fluctuation is very far from conventional ideas about
good design and structure. At the time our ideas of scientific
order were being developed, the gardens at Versailles and
plane-perspective Renaissance paintings set a standard for
European design. In these, it is precisely not the case that
looking at one square inch yields the same appearance as looking
at one square foot or acre. In fact, these works are designed to
look as they "should" from precisely one focal or central point.
In the case of focalized work, one can theoretically choose any
point of view to look or read from, but the intent of the work is
that only one point of view is most encompassing. The necessary
movement that is involved in circulating around or in front of
these works is implicitly negated, as so much dispensable trial
and error on the way to the canonical prospect.

levels as evolutionary
The concept of level differs from that of scale in that level is
evolutionary, not a simple multiple. Though physics consists of
just those experiments you can re-run, enshrining an ideal of
reversibility that permits control and prediction, the same is not
true of geology or biology. The earth and life on it seem to have
been run once. In them, mutations are irreversible. They are
understood in terms of organized levels. From sub-atomic particles
through biological macromolecules, cells, organs, individuals,
societies, and ecologies, what is most important about these
levels is that decisive time-based events - jumps between levels -
reveal emergent properties, properties that cannot be predicted
by, nor analyzed in terms of, the properties of the prior level,
even though there is an unbroken line of inheritance from bottom
to top, and even though there is always a part/whole relation
between the levels.

In the transition from any one of these levels to the next, not
only is the whole greater than the sum of the parts, but the
emerging qualities feed back on the parts and give them qualities
they couldn't have if isolated. Electrons, for instance,
indistinguishable at the particle level, become individually
important at the atomic level under the Pauli exclusion principle.
Individuals exhibit consciousness, a property equally unknown to
organs and to societies, for not every trait gets inherited up
this chain of levels. These are hierarchies of inclusion -
inheritance meaning each is impossible without the other - but
they are not hierarchies of merit.

scale, levels and Web-art
Bear in mind your own experiences of reading on the Web as I
attempt to bring together the concept of level with that of scale.
I suggest that readings of Web-art are evolutionary in form. From
a mathematical perspective, in both biology and hypertext, an
intractable number of histories is possible, but in fact only one
choice gets made, in terms of what emerges. Which choice gets made
depends on interactions between internal rules and completely
unpredictable gradients in the external environment at that time.
The pathway to the present thus makes all the difference. Frozen
accidents create history and are the means by which we reveal it.

The Internet itself is a complex system with emergent levels.
Because phone calls used for fax and Web access have statistical
characteristics dramatically different from a typical voice call,
as the phone system shifted from a voice to a data network it also
shifted from a fully centralized, fully regulated system to one
with fractal, or chaotic properties: the interbeat intervals of
its interpacket spacing are as "bursty," or multifractal, as the
heartbeat, and equally threatened with congestive failure.

Levels also relate to Web-art through the neurophysiology of time
perception. From the edge of awareness through to
speech, these levels are related to scales by the following
numbers: one-thousandth of a second for neural firing,
one-hundredth of a second for neuronal pattern formation,
one-tenth of a second for vocal articulation or action, and more
than three seconds for narrative description. Tools from dynamic
systems help us understand how humans might develop time concepts
based on this physiology, particularly the retrospective and
prospective horizons involved with our sense of being in a "now."
The basic event or fusion interval specifies the minimum time
between events such that they can be perceived as distinct and
not simultaneous. This time is different for each sensory
modality. The modalities also interact with each other, and a lot
of Web art explores these interactions through the use of
micro-manipulated streaming sonic and cinematic effects.

The neuronal level relates to brain operation. Any mental act
involves the concurrent participation of separated regions of the
brain. The time needed to relate and integrate signals from these
separate regions is called the relaxation or holding time, during
which perceptual flashes are spread and organized by cell
assemblies to create the synchronized firing we need in order to
act, to move our mouse for instance. Again, from a mathematically
intractable number of possibilities, many competing
cell-assemblies, the interaction of external gradient and internal
rules yields one particular "now," without the assistance of
either an internal or external clock — synchronization occurring
rather by resonance, by what Goethe would have called "elective

artists in the signal sea
From this point on in the cognizing process, on the scale of
seconds forward, language does finally enter, and with it, all
that descriptive narrative assessment entails. Thus the Web artist
swims in many seas, fine-tuning neurocognitive and muscular
response both to fluctuations in the signal propagation structure
of the Net and to the emerging nuances of the way, on another
level, Web traffic communicates a social environment.

Web literature and art also exploit different aspects of the
time-based human perception process, playing with the fusion
interval limits, and — because they require a large number of
actions from their readers, clicks, mouseovers, drags and drops,
shifts of a joystick, scans, zooms, probes of all kinds, maneuvers
to be made within a certain time frame in some literary and all
game environments — playing also with the synchronized neuronal
patterns that must be mobilized for action.

A number of Web works also explicitly address questions of time,
history, and memory, often using dynamic means, Web-streaming or
telepresence, in order to do it. I believe they contribute, in
particular, to enlarging the window of "now." They do this by
offering our perception system new calisthenics, and they do it by
bringing into consciousness many more of the microfluctuations
and/or fractal patterns that had been smoothed over, averaged
over, hidden by the older perception and knowledge processes.

The first artist I'd like to mention in this regard is Tom
Brigham, the inventor of morphing. In "The Art of the Morph"
(ArtByte October-November, 1998), Brigham explains that in a

an image smoothly transforms...into another with a
motion so slow as to be almost imperceptible. Yet, at
precisely some specific increment, itself undetected,
the content changes utterly and a different pictorial
subject becomes comprehensible. (38)

That is to say, an emergent level is experienced. A morph is
constituted from a series of discrete images, as a film is made of
frames; but unlike cinematic cutting, morph technology allows for
the separate interpolation of different attributes of the series,
such as shape, color, texture, and motion. Brigham's work shifts
the artist's emphasis from rendering impressions to rendering the
process of forming an impression. The final morph, as it enacts
before our eyes, relocates our perception from custom and routine
to the plane of active recognition, the ah-ha recognition we bring
to interpreting optical illusions. Brigham remarks,

A transformation that hesitates and hovers between
two identities engages the mind in a special
way...What lies between one face and another? A
variety of faces. But what lies between a face and a
chair? A tougher question with more answers, and a
more difficult morph. (38)

Two other artists that work at the level of very fine transition,
though in this case with verbal and not visual material, are the
poets Jim Rosenberg and mez, or Mary Anne Breeze. Rosenberg works
with the words of a standard vocabulary but overlays them in a
dense blur of self-interfering micro-information which must be
teased apart by moving the mouse through many nested component
layers to open the simultaneities. Rosenberg is concerned with a
temporal meaning that occurs as we move through what he calls an
"episode," a set of interactive operations that cohere in the
reader's mind as a unit, which is analogous to what I have called
the neuronal pattern but on a more extended timescale. Mez, on the
other hand, reaches into the very structure of the word, creating
an entire para-language, called "m[ez]ang.elle," which is readable
by readers of English, but only at the cost of a dramatically
slowed reading speed. She organizes textual performances which she
designates as e-mail trawling, hacker attacking, open source kode
poetri, or electronic channeling. Though this work uses many of
the devices of so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, fluid
spacing, bracketing, and ambiguous punctuation to obtain a
simultaneity of reference that tests fixed neuronal patterns, it
also tests these, simultaneously, through choreographed and random
kinetic oscillations of the Web environment, re-converting the
process of reading to a process of action, perhaps somewhat akin
to what oral cultures undertook when print first spread through

the impermanence of history
Noah Wardrip-Fruin's work, Impermanence Agent
(http://www.impermanenceagent.com), addresses the sense of "now"
in a different way. He pushes at the edges of awareness by
explicitly incorporating peripheral attention into the act of
reading. Impermanence Agent is not a site to be visited or
clicked through; rather, it runs in tandem with the reader's Net
browsing, in fact becoming the agent of that browsing as all
requests are routed through it. An active agent, it adds to,
alters, and comments on the pages readers visit, as well as taking
material from those pages to create the ever-scrolling content of
its own divided window, meant to be kept open for about a week in
the top corner of a reader's monitor, if its story is to be both
told and lost. The agent's own story is one of family history and
grief; its private store of commentary, an ongoingly updated
collection of memorial sites on the Web, cemetery photographs, and
Kubler-Ross analyses of stages of grief. The agent permits
elements of the reader's browsing to invade and transform its own
story to the point of extinction — although it has, in the
meantime, infiltrated the reader's main window.

A reader intent on browsing, who has enabled Impermanence Agent,
will find her attention constantly solicited, but only
peripherally, by the active image in the corner of her screen, and
by invasions of unselected material into her focus. The "now" of
her reading is both threatened and fertilized. Her content is
mirrored back to her in such a way that she feels how it cumulates
and overwhelms another's story; how a click made in a second, can,
through the mechanism of selection, become amplified and feed into
and feed back on the longer scale of narration, destabilizing the
fixed bounds of "now" and "here."

An artist working differently still is Eduardo Kac, whose complex
work, Time Capsule, I'd like to evoke for you. Kac, a Brazilian
whose family arrived in Brazil from Eastern Europe, makes
telepresence work that combines robotics and telecommunications.
On November 11, 1997, inside a room with parquet floors and ornate
plaster ceiling in the Casa das Rosas Cultural Center in São
Paulo, Kac constructed an inner room of movable white walls. On
one of those hung seven sepia-toned photographs that his
grandmother brought from Poland in 1939 — the actual photographs,
he says in a talk given a year later, though in the gallery they
are not identified in any way. On the facing wall, as of the next
day, was a diptych combining an x-ray of Kac's ankle with an
enlargement of the registration screen for a Web database used to
track lost animals, for on November 11, in the presence of a horde
of TV cameramen, broadcast live both to Brazilian TV and to the
Web, Kac had injected his leg with a 15mm microchip implant that
contained a programmed identification number and that, when
scanned, emitted a radio signal. He then put his leg in a scanning
device, and his ankle was Web-scanned from Chicago, the scanner
button being pushed by a telerobotic finger which remains in the
pressed position, displaying Kac's ID number on the scanner's LCD
display. Kac then registered himself, as both animal and owner, in
a North American pet database, the first human to do so, and on
the following day went to the hospital to have his permanent
implant x-rayed.

Time Capsule takes place in Chicago, Brazil, Poland, the
airwaves, the phone lines, around the world on the Web, and in
Kac's flesh wherever he goes, yet is called site-specific. It
takes place on November 11, 12, and 13, or now on his Webpage
devoted to it, or always, in his leg, or in the thirties in
Poland. It is a body, a broadcast, a netcast, a database, an
identification, a schedule, a sound byte, an implant, a Webscan,
an x-ray, a gallery show. In these respects it resembles the
spatially distributed cell-assemblies that have to be synchronized
temporally in a neuronal pattern for us to take action. And an
active stance is called for. The meaning of the image changes with
the pathway. A man is marking his ankle with an identification
number under the photographed eyes of his refugee family, a family
in flight from a regime that wrote numbers on skin with needles.
Without being bound to any machine he is now always readable by a
machine, wearing an electronic anklet that monitors him as much as
any prisoner. The temporal scales range from milliseconds to
years, but where is memory, personal or collective, the kind of
memory we believe ethically needs to persist? Has Kac effectively
located it in the microfluctuations, or in multifractal patterns
that persist beyond the persistence of any given sequence, even
though we may consciously experience it as disconnected and
diffuse, as both refugial and vivid?

a time series image
I'll close by describing 1:1, a temporal image of the Internet,
created by Lisa Jevbratt. In this piece softbots, or agents,
continuously scan servers doing a so-called interlaced search of
all possible IP addresses, expressed as four octets, from
to, and then expressing the results in terms of
five different visualization algorithms. The search zooms in
repeatedly on different samplings, each of which constitutes not a
slice, but a snapshot, of the Web, which increases in resolution
as the scans move toward sampling all the octets, after which they
recommence. The title 1:1 refers to a scale of 1:1 suggesting that
this map has the same size as its referent. In fact, the interface
here has become not only the map but the environment, implying all
of the problems Lewis Carroll addressed in 1893, when, in the book
Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, he has "Mein Herr" speak of his grand
project, a map on the scale of a mile to a mile. When asked if
he'd used his map much, Mein Herr replies: "It has never been
spread out, yet...the farmers objected: they said it would cover
the whole country and shut off the sunlight! So we use the country
itself, as its map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

Readers of 1:1 can select locations via the Hierarchical, Random,
Petri, Excursion, or Every interface. The latter is a densely
striated coat of many colors, a clickable image map linking to
every top level website associated with an IP address. The
specific color of each square is generated by using the second,
third, and fourth octets to specify RGB numbers. The Petri
interface resembles a star-map of live sites, each of which
lightens the more times it is clicked, demonstrating the
self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of collaborative filtering. The
Excursion interface permits a recursive choice from a
search-progress graphic that opens nested windows; Hierarchical
allows consecutive choice of each octet; and Random requests a
randomly generated choice.

When using these database interfaces, readers experience a very
different Web from the one they are accustomed to access through
portals. Instead of ads, porn, and pets, they encounter
predominantly undeveloped sites and inaccessible information. My
own Every selection turned up Scandinavian Seaways, US Army Space
and Strategic Defense, and CGS VR Graphics - nuggets among the
myriad error messages that announce vacant or forbidden sites.
Without a probabilistic sampling scheme, without recursive
searches, without a time series interface, this particular view of
one of our most important public environments would not be
available. Very unlike the plans for the garden at Versailles,
this interface/visualization is arguably as much the Web as it is
a map of the Web. It yields a kind of knowledge that only
transiently yields to a gestalt, that must be reconstituted
continuously with computer processing time and human cognizing
time, a kind of temporal knowledge that we must all learn to feel
with, and that digital artists are exploring in unpredictable

is the author of numerous works of fiction and poetry.
Her manuscript "V" won the 2000 Alice Fay di Castagnola
Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her "Ballad of
Sand and Harry Soot" won the 1999 Boston Review prize,
and the Web version was chosen for an About.com Best of
the Net award. Strickland's contributions to ebr
include "Poetry in the Electronic Environment" in ebr5;
a hypertext essay, "Seven League Boots" in ebr7, "To Be
Both in Touch and in Control" in ebr9, and "Dali's
Clocks" in ebr11.

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