Running 15 minutes late

Merve Ünsal

Known on the Internet as the Epic Chicken Fight, this video clip is an almost-perfect representation of the stretching of time. The full-length of it is almost painful to watch, as Peter and the chicken roll through different places. While the action never stops, the repetition of what is happening—they are just beating each other up—gives the time that is passing a very specific charge. As the viewer, I can’t look away, but I’m also terribly bored. This tension between the state of almost-hypnosis and boredom is something I’d like to contemplate on. Why is engagement and boredom not mutually exclusive? Is time something that can stretch and shrink and escape you at the same time?

A few months ago, running late to an appointment, I sent the e-mail, eponymous with this piece. “Running 15 minutes late” seemed to perfectly echo this tension between what I am doing and what I need to be doing. The activeness, inherent in the phrase “running late”, was at the same time quite ironic. After all, I was not actually making an effort to be late, but rather to undo the damage of my previous actions that made me late—an anti-action, for lack of a better phrase. In the larger scheme of things, 15 minutes is nothing and yet in the day to day, those 15 minutes are everything. Which led me to think about what could be achieved in only 15 minutes.

What is it about the relationship between the amount of time actually spent to produce the thing that you are producing and the thing itself? Is it possible to distinguish between when you are making something and when you are not? When are you really producing? When are you being industrious and when are you just running late? What are you running late to?

If we return to Peter and the chicken, the whole fight scene seems to me to be built on this extrapolation of time. The awkwardness of the time spent watching this chunk is not too dissimilar to the time spent not making work. It’s anti-climactic, but necessary to achieve a certain state of mind that then gives birth to the thing that needed to happen all along.

I’ve also been thinking about the ultimate iconic encounter between a person and an animal—Joseph Beuys’s performance with the coyote. Just to summarize, quoting Wikipedia, “In May 1974, Beuys flew to New York and was taken by ambulance to the site of the performance. Beuys lay on the ambulance stretcher wrapped in felt. He shared this room with a wild coyote, for eight hours over three days. At times he stood, wrapped in a thick, grey blanket of felt, leaning on a large shepherd’s staff. At times he lay on the straw, at times he watched the coyote as the coyote watched him and cautiously circled the man, or shredded the blanket to pieces, and at times he engaged in symbolic gestures, such as striking a large triangle or tossing his leather gloves to the animal. At the end of the three days, Beuys hugged the coyote that had grown quite tolerant of him, and was taken to the airport. ”

Beuys’s performance can obviously be and has been read on many levels. I’d like to focus on his relationship with the animal and time. The time spent with the coyote could not have been comfortable. The establishment of a relationship, both with the coyote and the situation that he was constructing, takes time. And the work is all about this time—the supposed discomfort that we, the temporally and spatially removed spectators, assume he had, with the extent of time that he spent. Repetition, duration, normalization, and ritualization of the situation. Our imagination fills in this experience by the very prompt of learning about what had been staged.

We thus again return to the ritual, the timed, the crucial yet often neglected acts of our everyday, the boring, the mundane, the ordinary. After all, rituals are made invisible when they work; it is the disruption of the ritual that exposes it. Beuys could have been spending eight hours a day at the gallery and that would just make him an artist-cum-gallery assistant. When a coyote is there with him, it becomes something else, with viewers and perhaps Beuys himself waiting for a rupture, a moment of violence, a climax, a something. This expectancy is what echoes with the viewers like myself who were not there. The work is perhaps nothing more than a description of what takes place, as our minds fill in that time.

This video shows Tarzan Rıfkı, played by the legendary Kemal Sunal, who calls the lions to his side; his fellow villagers do not believe him when he says he is capable of communicating with the wild animals. His first seemingly failed attempt is a subtle play on our assumption that Rıfkı cannot be communicating with lions—after all, just look at him. The appearance of the donkey confirms our suspicions. (The donkey, still an animal, could not have consciously come when Rıfkı called—we were expecting the lion.) The later appearance of the lion is again about this shifting relationship through time spent, which is again twisted at the end of the clip where Rıfkı’s happiness and satisfaction in seeing the lion disappears when he realizes the unpredictability of what could happen.

This shifty relationship with the “eureka” moment of Rıfkı helps make a proposal: the search for that moment of transformation, while still performing the daily rituals might be focusing our attention on the wrong part. What if you removed all of the peak moments from your day? What remains of your day? When do things actually happen? After all, maybe it’s not the lion’s arrival, but the expectation leading up to the lion’s arrival that gives meaning to Rıfkı’s actions.

Time is both stretchy and un-climactic (not anti-climactic). In thinking about artistic production, the territory of relationships established between species over time, transforming that tension and unfamiliarity into something more akin to affinity, is not dissimilar to the work of art and the producer of the work of art, building a relationship over time, both permanent and transformative.

An earlier version of this text was used during a lecture-performance commissioned by SPOT, as part of their Count the Pennies and the Pounds Will Count Themselves – PRODUCE 2014 Talks Programme. The lecture-performance took place in Elhamra Han, Istanbul, on September 29, 2014.