matthew fuller on Sun, 14 Apr 2002 03:03:16 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Richard Wright / Bank of Time

Growth Through Idleness

The following interview with Richard Wright covers material related to
the Bank of Time.  It was carried out by email over late March, early
April 2002.

Mac and Windows versions of the screensaver are available from

MF: Your recent project, The Bank of Time is a screensaver that also
involves a variety of other processes.  Can you give me a brief
description of the work?

RW: Yes I can. The Bank of Time is a screensaver that saves your idle
time. It uses this idle time to grow virtual plants on your desktop. It
also uploads this idle time to the web site where it ranks and displays
everyones time in a Performance Table. Your idle time is turned into an
investment that grows as you watch on your desktop. Growth through
Idleness. An economy of lost time. The plants grow in (somewhat speeded
up) real time by downloading time lapse images. After each plant has
"matured" it goes on to decay and die. After which the user can chose
another plant to grow in an endless cycle of boom and bust. The more idle
time the user accumulates the faster the plant will grow. This also means
that their name and plant will rise further up the Performance Tables as
their growth rate increases. Soon everyone will be working hard to waste
as much time as possible.

MF: If people are going to use a screensaver, one that uploads data to a
central hub, why would they not choose to use something such as Seti@home
or the software produced by Oxford University's professor of computational
chemistry which allows the use of 'idle' machines to search through
chemical data to search for possible information on the structure of
cancers or anthrax molecules?

RW: Of course, that is turning idle time into an economic resource. That
shows how the computerised environment can define and capture all forms of
time. Even the irrational moments of absence or non-purpose can be
absorbed into its economy. But the primal form of absent work is the
investment. The form of "work" which appears at the dawn of capitalism.
Investment is the way that you can create value without labouring, it is a
way of "making your money work for you". Investment substitutes effort for
risk. But that risk is only worth taking if you can be reasonably sure
that your investment will continue to grow despite minor fluctuations. You
wouldn't want your idle processor cycles to be used to try to solve
problems like how many angels you could fit on the head of a pin. You
couldn't be sure that such a problem could ever make progress. But perhaps
problems like finding extra terrestrial intelligence or finding a cure for
cancer will eventually prove unsolvable as well. There is a risk involved.
Perhaps all those processor cycles will have been invested unwisely, the
scientific equivalent of the bust.

The Bank of Time project tries to complete this image of risk. In
financial promotions the germinating plant or seedling is a constantly
recurring image. For savings accounts, shares and investments it expresses
the myth that your money will grow naturally and inevitably towards its
maturity. There may be an element of risk, but it is possible to minimise
this through wise management and faith in the potential of modern economic
policies. The fact that the plant will wither and die after its mature
phase is conveniently ignored. But this fact is recognised in certain
cultural forms such as during the Baroque. At that time the image of the
faded flower was a constantly recuring motif that expressed, in contrast,
feelings of insecurity about the current state of European affairs and the
instability and transience of the political and economic climate in the

So I would say that people would chose The Bank of Time over any of those
other geezers because at least they always know what the result of their
"investment" will be, even if that result is not in accord with the most
Bullish forecasts for our economic and scientific futures.

MF: The design aesthetic of the site is notable for looking absolutely
disimilar to an artists site.  No nods in the direction of low-tech,
info-accidents or quirkiness of structure.  It looks like a small
organisation web-site, designed by someone trained in graphic design. Why?

RW: The design of the web site is a pastiche of the design of web sites
for bank and financial services. I didn't want a web site that told the
viewer that this was an art web project. I wanted something that would
appear unthreatening to people from outside the art community. It seemed
unlikely to me that many "normal" people would take the risk of
downloading an executable from an unknown web site and entering their
email address unless it looked safe. The unusual function of the Bank of
Time is quite explicity stated and does appear to be in contrast to the
pedestrian design of the site, but I wanted to see what would happen if
people were lead more gently to the full implications of what was
intended, like a trojan horse. The design also means it fits quite
comfortably into magazine cover CDs, shareware and screensaver download
sites. Of course, this may have had the effect of putting off people who
are from the media art world who might see it as an innocuous hobby site,
but they have had things tailored to their tastes for long enough. And
besides, the art world has had a tendency to slavishly follow trends in
popular media rather than recognise already existing projects by artists
that address similar issues. So one day if the project continues growing
in popularity it could become a trojan horse for the art world as well.

MF: I recently heard from Lynda Morris, curator at the Norwich gallery,
that one of the important functions of art is to act as a repository for
memory outside of the 'productive' time of capitalism, a form of time
which serves to erase memory and differentiation.  She was referring to
elements within art on a representational level, such as Gerhard Richter's
paitings of the Red Army Fraction, or the art historical memory of the
refusal of a visa to Picasso by the US because of his party communist
opposition to war.  This creation of a space for memory or of valuation
over time is also often a capacity of specialised cultures in general. You
can think of political or religious currents obviously, fan cultures,
music scenes, emulators.  It seems you use the space of art to describe a
different potential for time, though not of memory but idleness.

RW:  I once described my work as trying to get people to remember things
that they would rather forget - the Eighties, the Millennium Bug, etc. And
in The Bank of Time there are references to the dark side of commercial
iconography that is always ignored. Such as the use of images of young
plants and seedlings in advertisements for investments and savings banks
to suggest an idea of financial growth leading to maturity and dividends.
The fact that after a plant has reached maturity it will inevitably wither
and die is never acknowledged of course, that part is forgotten just as
the fact that your investments can go down as well as up is relegated to
the small print. But in The Bank of Time the users have to witness the
plant proceeding through its entire life cycle from germination to death.
So there is a level at which I try to restore a full image that has been
partially forgotten.

But also it is true that media allows you to move beyond representation
just as the information society is not just about representing social
entities but actually constitutes the very fabric of society. And this
gives you some access to peoples patterns of behaviour through how they
are constituted by computerisation and their desktops for instance. The
Bank of Time visualises the users idle time which is not really the same
thing as repesenting it. It means that the user can control the image by
becoming aware of and learning to regulate the growth of their idle time,
a form of perception which occurs as much through the mechanism of work
patterns and time management as it does through the mechanism of memory.

There are all sorts of aspects of the Bank of Time that are included for
reasons of visual aesthetics. When I first built the project I remember
having discussions with colleagues who tried to get me to drop the whole
notion of having plants growing on the desktop. They found this aspect
superfluous to the central idea of rationalising and resourcing idle time.
Without this, the screensaver would simply have consisted of a display of
the users accumulated idle time and related statistical information. But
this one dimensional conceptualism that currently dominates avant garde
art and media art is harmful. I would say that without the motif of the
growing plant the Bank of Time would not really be understandable.

MF: One of the interesting aspects of the work is related to this
accretion of visual modes.  In a way it's kind of like the display on a
video game, where you might have say, ammunition and health indicators,
direction info, plus a 'realistic' main view with layered depth: a
compound visual space in which a patchwork of styles and rythmns operate
in the same frame.  In Bank of Time, there's a strip of user data like a
news-ticker giving the extent of use in seconds, user name and plant
species; a foreground image, sharp photographic, of a patch of soil which
leaks a plant; a backdrop which looks like a kind of painterly cloud; a
few types of rain spatters, which look as if they are hitting the inside
of your screen as a window, a lense; the software logo and a link to the
website; a small version number and copyright declaration tucked into a
corner.  It a very mixed visual space, with some elements operating in
relation to others, others discrete.  Your work in video is also very
dense visually. here though there seems also to be a certain density of
interfaces to data-architectures as well as symbolic styles.

RW:  Yes, it's the info image, the image that incorporates many data
objects by reducing things to numerical representation (or visualisation).
But unfortunately that also implies a kind of info perception, that the
viewer can absorb and integrate a variety of different levels of
perception - affective, informative, symbolic and so on. A growing problem
with the video work was of coming up against the practical limits of this
in a format that is viewed in linear time, especially in a theatrical
context. Multimedia is a way of accomodating this, specifically by
building into the structure of the work the specific temporal conditions
in which the work is to be viewed. I suppose this is what they mean by
"logistics of perception". The Bank of Time tries to base its particular
"logistics" on cultural forms - Baroque allegory and the iconography of
the time economy.

The Bank of Time is technically an animation of a plant growing, but where
the viewing logistics of the animation have been reconfigured. The frame
rate of the animation is controlled by the user's idle time. The more idle
time they accumulate the faster the image is updated. It is a form of film
making in which the cinematic representation of time is reconstructed by
the computerisation of the viewers organisation of their time. This was
where the idea for the work originally came from in fact.

MF:  Perhaps related to this is amount of time it takes to 'watch', or
simply to be aware of.  The life-cycle of a plant is shrunk down, but at
the same time, you extrude the length of time which would normally be
spent looking at any one piece of visual material, a film, installation,
picture, and so on.  It's longer than a novel, but less than a garden, but
also the way in which you experience it is less direct, it's something
that goes on in the background, in the corner of your mind's eye.

RW:  Like a Warhol film, it has a lot to do with the experience of
duration. Can you feel time passing? In the early stages of a real plant
you can almost see it grow, maybe a centimeter or two a day. The ability
of time lapse cinematography has already changed how we can feel time. We
can compress the life history of a plant to a few seconds and suddenly we
can see what was there in front of our eyes. We can see the plant moving,
it has a choreography. The Bank of Time might be said to reverse this
point of view by intensifying the experience of our own cycles of time
through the image of a plant.

MF:  Following on from the work's relationship to more familiar art
practices, I heard Pit Schultz say recently something along the lines that
Network Art or Media Art will never be 'properly' established as art
practice precisely because it is too much already a part of media culture.  
There is no distinction, in both sense of the word. Obviously such a
situation has its advantages, but it also seems interesting in relation to
video.  There is a desire, stuck on perpetual loop since its inception,
within video art scenes to establish some kind of functional distribution
mechanism for the work. Might we see in the way that BoT has circulated an
example of how Net Art achieves this distribution, but in a way at the
cost/advantage of a certain institutional invisibility - because it fuses
so much with general, popular, media cultures?

RW:  Is it too subtle? Too cunning for its own good? Has it been set to
"auto-recuperate"? At least I have made no money from it so I cannot be
accused of acting in bad faith. The Young British Artists are also now
part of media culture - their work is part of media because it is Art,
while the Bank of Time is part of media because it is Media (Art).

So everything is absorbed, high-brow or low-brow, it's a question of
whether you can pull it off on your own terms. At least media artists
presumably go in with their eyes open, it is a practice that can at least
recognise and reference its own position in the media universe. The curse
of the Avant Garde - to find ever new ways to be even more painfully aware
of your own marginalisation. But that's still a step in the right

MF:  Yes, but perhaps there are also many scales and speeds of media
culture.  Not just those that are implemented as mass culture for sure. In
that sense, I think the comment was intended to talk about a potentially
wider, or more varigated, field of play available to such activities.

RW:  I would say the terms in which the original question was put is the
problem. The original comment seemed to be concerned with the way in which
media culture prevented media art from becoming established as a canonical
form. Media art could become a specialised media culture, a network of
officially sanctioned web sites and distributors, which is what has pretty
much already happened. But of course this isn't really the kind of media
culture that we like to imagine. The big opposition to this is seen by the
establishment as being mass culture, from which Bourdieu teaches us it
must "distinguish" itself. Whether media artists can create yet another
more "varigated" alternative is a different question, not necessarily of
interest to the "proper" art world (nor, unfortunately, to Bourdieu).

As far as setting up your own media art "ecologies" is concerned, that's
fine. As long as you realise that you always need an "interface" with the
rest of the masses, otherwise it's just media art cliques. Other than
that, this is just too big a subject to take on here.

MF:  I like the idea of non-local time-agglomerations being networked, a
particular pocket of a time space being linked via network to other such
pockets.  (And you can see this also in companies working across
timezones, love affairs via text, any set of relations which accentuates
certain kinds of shared time.)  Obviously such relationships between time
and space are not only cosmological, but political - think of the
extraordinary condition imposed on Mexico's joining NAFTA that it adopy
Daylight Savings Time.  Bank of Time seems to form another, topological
and intensive rather than cartographical and extensive relationship
between time and space?

RW:  I suppose generally once the regularity of events or relations can be
recorded, ordered and compared then you will get pockets of time space
emerging extemporaneously, Captain. In fact my work days are frequently
conducted under the auspices of the TV schedules - "Womans Hour" is
breakfast, "Crossroads" is dinner time, and "The Simpsons" is tea time.
And I feel comforted that millions of workers over the nation share a
similar time space depending on their sense of humour. I just hope nothing
funnier that "The Simpsons" is ever transmitted at 6 o'clock or I will be
in danger of choking on my chipolatas.

MF:  Following on from that, has any cross-networking of Bank of Time
users occured?

RW:  Such cross-networking may have happened as there are now thousands of
users subscribed, but that's up to them. I wouldn't have imagined so as
the relationship between the users is not personal. One thing that I
wondered would happen and actually does happen is people in the same
workplace all installing the screensaver and then racing them on their
machines. It just goes to show how desperate people are to relieve the
tedium. It's not too dissimilar to the kind of spy software that employers
use to track the work patterns of their employees. But given the right
incentive, we see that people are only too willing to give away that sort
of information - as long as it's spy software that ensures people waste
more time.

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