Time and Real-time in Online Art


Ewa Wojtowicz


Within the development of instant communication technologies, some questions about time are being raised. The real-time interaction and simultaneous communication is currently explored by many new media artists. According to Paul Virilio, the electronic communication has pointed at the new feature of time: its depth. It is a term connected with optics and sharp seeing. Both in a movie and within the Internet this depth depends on a distance. Surfing the Web, browsing for information, we decide how far and precisely we want to dive into the stream of time. Particularly those artists who work within the Internet, deal with the issue of time. From a user’s point of view, perception of a net art project requires some time: time to load a page, time to decide which link to follow, time to gather some understanding. Browsing the web is a journey in time and in virtual space. The Internet is also the first and foremost a technology for real-time interaction.

New media artists, notably net artists, analyse the issue of time. Their field of interest includes time as a whole, their own time and the viewer’s time. There are a few approaches one can distinguish: comparing time to some other values, manipulating real-time transmission and previously fixed images, playing with time and treating time as a commodity.

Time as Colour

In Time As Colour by Christopher Otto, the passage of time is imagined as a colour change. The colour of a square is directly set to the time of the day, while red set to the hour, green to the minute and blue to the second, allowing the viewer to gain a new perspective on such everyday systems of knowledge.
A similar attitude is presented by Valery Grancher. In his project Time Heat he creates a clock based on heart rhythm. After filling a form, submitting one’s pulse, name and date of birth, a user can see his very precise age, with days, hours, minutes and seconds included. The clock is still running, with the chosen speed, allowing the participant to see the time elapse and compare the speed of his own life to other people’s.

Another piece where time is involved is Letters through time – by Richard Rinehart. This project is an effort to measure changes that happen to people over time. Participants write letters to themselves in 20 years time into the future or 20 years into the past. According to Rinehart’s statement, "we are attempting to compress time, bypass experience, and thus ensure some kind of continuity." The issue of continuity is vital here. Participants are also encouraged to read, compare and interpret each other’s letters. This project invokes a sense of presence in past or in the future. This is a kind of browsing in time, in search for information about one’s own identity. Richard Rinehart comments on his project: "Is it possible to catch the wind in a bottle? Can we have fun trying?"

Here and Now by David Crawford is another piece analysing what happens when two people on the opposite sides of the globe are telecommunicating. The familiar definitions of physical locations and even time zones are no longer applicable. The projects consists of four animated sequences referring to online communication.
The possibilities for the manipulation of the time measurement are creative and extensive. Provoking and interesting effects are achieved when time units are visualised.

Time as Commodity

Calling himself a freelance conceptual artist, Michael Mandiberg offers his time for sale on his website, among many personal items and belongings. He encourages viewers: "My name is Michael Mandiberg: I am for sale! Buy my objects and time and dismantle my identity!" Clicking a thumbnail on "Buy My Time Here" links the viewer to a form, where all the possibilities of time spending are listed.. Actions listed by Mandiberg are differentiated – from doing nothing at all to any task invented by a viewer. There are currently 186 tasks offered by Mandiberg himself, including knitting, blowing nose or screaming.

The selected task can be done up to 8 hours per day and costs $20 per hour. After filling the form and paying, a user will get a confirmation that the selected task has been fulfilled. In fact, a user becomes uncertain about this transaction – he’s not able to check if the task was really done. However Mandiberg tempts the viewer: "you can control my time as well"

This concept refers, ironically, to the model of 9 to 5 job, but also Mandiberg’s actions, selling his privacy, goes that far as a reality show parody. One can possess not only his current time – one can buy parts of Mandiberg’s past, by purchasing letters written to him or birthday cards sent by his mother. Buying those items, a participant starts to own and browse an alternative past: memories of things and events he had never experienced himself.

Cary Peppermint in his project "Use me as a medium" , conducted via Ebay in 2000, offered himself for auction as a medium to make art. The high-bidder was supposed to email specific instructions or directions to Cary Peppermint to perform. Then the bidder would receive a 5-15 minutes VHS tape of Peppermint following these instructions.

This is a similar attitude to this presented by Mandiberg, though selling Peppermint’s time on auction was a separate action. The auction lasted from Feb-24-00 to Mar-02-00, attracting 10 bidders, and ended with the result of $107.50, meeting the presumed reserve.

There is one more issue of time possessing, this time for commercial purposes, as the Swatch company attempted. In 1999 Swatch launched its own, universal standard of time: "Internet Time represents a completely new global concept of time: No Time Zones. No Geographical Borders. Swatch has divided the virtual and real day into 1000 'beats.' One Swatch beat is the equivalent of 1 minute 26.4 seconds. That means that 12 noon in the old time system is the equivalent of @500 Swatch beats. Every watch is equipped with a new universal time created by Swatch. It is the same all over the world. The current time 24h divided into 1000 units (beats). 000 Internet time is midnight in Biel, the home of Swatch (during Swiss winter time). This is equivalent to UTC+1 (Universal Time Coordinated, former GMT, Greenwich Mean Time)."

Swatch aspired to create a brand new standard of time. It could be attractive, because Internet users were aware of the confusion made by time changes and the GMT. That kind of attempt would be reasonable within the context of international chats or any communication channels. Nevertheless, it was considered by new media theoreticians to be rather controversial. Geert Lovink engages in polemics with this statement, arguing that there are many times, not one time, and that the diversity of time is endangered by this action: Let the net.times roll, and let us come up with an open source standard, a virtual time which belongs to all, and nobody.


What is real-time? According to Derrick de Kerckhove it is the speed we can create a thought or an image with. Therefore, a perfect hypertext should be as quick as that. Images in real-time should update without a noticeable delay.

Paul Virilio stated in 1995: "The big event looming upon the 21st century in connection with this absolute speed, is the invention of a perspective of real time, that will supersede the perspective of real space, which in its turn was invented by Italian artists in the Quattrocento."

Virilio introduces the terms: "Small Optics" and "Big Optics". The first one is based on geometric perspective, common in film. It involves such terms as: far, close, near, whereas "Big Optics" is real-time transmission of information.

One of the earliest pieces analysing the issue of real-time transmission was Ping Project, by HdK, Berlin, supported by Art+Com, Berlin. The main idea of .ping was the visualization of the Internet itself. Ping is a software which checks if there is a possibility of sending a message to the chosen destination within the Internet.

The three main components of .ping were: the interactive map, the virtual camera and the datascape. .ping translated the objects arriving on the map in the WWW into 3D objects and integrated them in the datascape. The visual datascape was composed from all WWW-map elements. 3D logos were used as an orientation from a higher level to recognize the structure of the space. The TV-viewer could interact with the space via the network, and could be present in the net-space via a live camera. The .ping project made the Internet structure visible.

An Internet user rarely realises all the aspects of global telecommunication and probably never analyses its specific features. A perfect, simultaneous real-time communication is not possible yet. There is always some delay, often unnoticed by viewer. Net artists are aware of this delay and its connection with communication technologies. Real-time is always involved in the Internet communication, not only when using webcams or chatting.Lev Manovich states that: "While it appears that the element of time delay (…) is eliminated, in fact, time enters the real-time screen in a new way".

An attempt of time measurement with a conceptual search for universal qualities and an utopian twist is seen in a project Timeless by a group of Polish artists 4! (Pawel Dziemian, Michal Grochowiak, Marcin Gwiazdowski and Jakub Jasiukiewicz). It is supposed to propose a new way of dealing with time as the length of time and the speed with which it flows is accorded to movements of sun. The project is suitable for wireless networks as it can be downloaded on a mobile.

Real-Time Performances

One of the artists working on real-time issue is Cary Peppermint. His actions "The Mashed Potato Supper" and "Conductor Number One: Getting In Touch With Chicken" were one of the first real-time performances conducted over the Internet.

In the Conductor Number One, Peppermint was placed inside of a pine box, assuming the role of "conductor". He explained it: Within this box I will perform with hopes of attaining energy which may allow effective completion of a circuit or rather, a chicken called *resistor*, placed into a second box approximately 5 meters away. The *resistor* will be privy to a telephone with a direct line from and to the *conductor* , an answering machine, and a video/CU-SEEME connection. As *conductor* I will be assisted by my own telephone with direct line from and to the *resistor*, a video camera, and a CU-SEEME connection. Participants called *batteries* both local and remote, will utilize me as *medium* and/or *exorcist* for a ritual involving perceptual boundaries, and possible transcendence of these boundaries. World wide participants participate via a total of 4 possible screens of interaction involving CU-SEEME, Real Audio, and a World Wide Web Site. Integral components of this ritual are participants in the physical exhibition space and on-line guests via CU-SEEME. All participants will actively assume the role of *batteries* . These groups are encouraged to communicate via CU-SEEME CHAT.

Thereby Conductor Number One created a circuit in which Peppermint became the conductor and participants were called batteries in effort to contact a chicken who was a resistor.

However, Peppermint in the interview by Luther Blisset stated that those actions were only specifics moments in time and he did not relate them to new media art or technologies. He admitted though that the real-time event superseded in importance the actual event.

In his further project, Conductor Number 9, Peppermint again presents a human inside a wooden box. A video monitor is placed on top of the box, displaying the real-time image of the human inside the box. As Peppermint explains: "The real-time human provides audio/visual exercises for participants to contemplate and/or actively employ. The human inside the pine box exposes both a "symbolic death" via his media entombment and a splintered being or otherwise "schizophrenic referential of being" via the paradox of observing (in simultaneity) the real-time event and the actual event itself."

One of the current online performances is Locomotion (2001) – a project involving movement performance in time and space. Stabile Seitenlage, a group of artists from Augsburg, presenting their video installation "teil". According to their statement, this is an interactive experiment on perception, taking place in two separate rooms within the exhibition space. In the first room the visitor is asked to perform a movement that is projected in real-time and superimposed with the motionless silhouette of another visitor in the second room. Merging the opposite states of static and dynamics within one projection enables the observation of himself as well as the visual communication with a projected person in another room. This disintegration of the classic interface structure creates a situation in which the observer gets immersed in a world that is simulated and characterised by media, but at the same time can be experienced physically.

The performances in real-time are becoming increasingly popular, as confronting the previously recorded images with those moving in real-time creates a new dynamics. These performances touch on the issue of the inevitable intermediary in real-time communication: the interface. This refers to what Lev Manovich notices, in his genealogy of the computer screen: "The idea of temporality – the classical screen displays a static, permanent image. The dynamic screen displays a moving image of the past, and finally, the real-time screen shows the present." Therefore, the image can be continually updated in real-time. These projects explore the ways in which new digital tools modify our relationship to time, space and performance environments, both live and online.

Fake Real-Time Interaction

Some of the net artists explore the issue of real-time by searching for its limits. In 1998 Elisabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio launched a net art project Refresh. It was their first project for the web. They used office webcams with the intention of examining the role of live video technologies on everyday life.

A webcam is a camera that takes pictures at set intervals, that can range from 15 times per second to once per hour, then instantly transmits the images to a web server, where the image becomes simultaneously available to anyone on the web. Diller and Scofidio have constructed fictional narratives, using text and fabricated images. This creates a juxtaposition of the live and the fictional images.

There is a set of twelve images, one of them live and refreshing when clicked; the other eleven have been done for this project using Photoshop. People appearing in those fixed stories are hired actors. None of the people from the actual location appear in the fabricated images. The stories, which range in time from a single day to several seasons, concentrate on subtle changes in behaviour as a consequence of the acknowledged presence of the camera in the office: a gradual change in dress style, the activities of an after-hours cleaning crew, a ritual of stacking paper, one person's discreet and incessant ordering of take out food, and a potential office romance unfolding by the water cooler. There is nothing shocking or dramatic in sight. In fact, everyday conventions are slightly modified, either to perform for or to hide from the camera. Elisabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio comment on their project: "The live cam phenomenon can be thought of as a public service, or a mode of passive advertisement, or it may be a new type of exhibitionism, or self-disciplinary device. The desire to connect to others in real time may be driven by a response to the "loss" of the public realm. But, however varied the motives, live cam views always seem casual and lacking dramatic interest and content; they appear unmediated. Despite this apparent innocence, cameras are wilfully positioned, their field of vision is carefully considered, and behaviour within that field cannot help but anticipate the looming presence of the global viewer." The issue of ‘liveness’ or rather real-time transmission, according to Diller and Scofidio, appeals both to technophiles and technophobes: "For technophobes who blame technology for the collapse of the public sphere, liveness may be a last vestige of authenticity -- seeing and/or hearing the event at the precise moment of its occurrence. The un-mediated is the im-mediate. For technophiles, liveness defines technology's aspiration to simulate the real…in real-time. Lag time, search time, and download time all impair real-time computational performance. But whether motivated by the desire to preserve the real or to fabricate it, liveness is synonymous with the real -- an object of uncritical desire for techno-extremes." The projects shows similarities to conceptual and new media experiments, especially to the classic work of Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette Wipe Cycle (1969).

Another artist exploring the issue of real-time communication is Mouchette, one of net art pioneers. Mouchette herself claims to be a 13 years old girl from Amsterdam. Despite this, her true identity is unclear. Her website includes various projects, among them Flesh and Blood. The project shows a face of a girl, pushed against the screen, her tongue out, her eyes closed. She seems to be licking the screen from the inside. There is also a text: "Finally I can get that close to you. Do you also want to come that close to me? Yes? No? Put you cheek on the monitor. How does it feel?" Then a blank form – ready to share the viewer’s experiences. Mouchette asks the viewers to try how her tongue tastes like and the email the impressions to her. Those provocatively naïve questions do not require a direct answer. A far more important question is raised: is real-time interaction possible? In fact, her face is pushed against her scanner. However, this almost tactile contact proves to be a hoax.

Mouchette questions the point of contact, the interface, the closeness. The intimacy she proposes to a viewer is as artificial as her identity can be. This is not only a fake real-time communication or even a fake interaction. Mouchette goes even further, simulating a physical contact. She creates an interface. A viewer can see her face on the other side of the flat screen. Encouraged to lick the screen, a user experiences the physical features of interface – and at the same time – the impossibility of any communication.

Lev Manovich concludes: "(…) What this means is that the image in a traditional sense no longer exists! And this is only by habit we still refer to what we see on real-time screen as ‘images’. It is only because the scanning is fast enough and because sometimes the referent remains static, that we see what looks like a static image." (Manovich, 2001)

The Internet is a medium inevitably based on time. However, considering its hypertextual structure, time on the Internet is no longer linear. This includes, as Paul Virilio says: The twin phenomena of immediacy and of instantaneity.

On the Internet, on the flat screen, as physical space is simulated, time is being questioned as well. This is a crucial shift in our relation to space and time.

Paul Virillio argues that the information revolution has changed the current situation so much, that traditional notions of what is "here" and when is "now" are no longer applicable. This also applies to the issue of real-time, which is so significant in net art projects. The speed of information flowing in real-time makes "now" or "then" irrelevant.

Although the categories of "now" and "then" are blurred, the Internet communication still requires time. The diversity of times: the universal world’s time, the artist’s time, the viewer’s time, is still a fascinating subject for new media artists.

As Virilio states: "The primacy of real time, of immediacy, over and above space and surface is a fait accompli and has inaugural value (ushers a new epoch)." Undoubtedly, as time and space have been always tied together, in the Internet the physical space is simulated, and, in fact, superseded by virtual space.

New media artists exploring the issue of real-time interaction and the time as a whole are still trying to answer the question: If there is a navigable cyberspace – does it imply navigable time as well? While the capability of real-time image capturing and processing has become widely available, time itself and its passage still slips away, even in this age of telematic consciousness.


Derrick de Kerckhove, Connected Intelligence, Sommerville House Publishing Books Ltd., Ontario, Canada, 1997
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press 2001
Paul Virilio, Maszyna widzenia (transl. by Barbara Kita) in: Widziec, myslec, byc (ed.) A. Gwózdz, Universitas Kraków 2001. Translation from: La machine de vision, Editions Galilee, Paris 1988
Paul Virilio, Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=72
Paul Virilio, Big Optics, in: On Justifying the Hypothetical Nature of Art and the Non-Identicality within the Object World, (ed.) P. Weibel, Cologne, 1992

Ewa Wojtowicz is a lecturer in the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland. She teaches various courses for full-time and part-time students, including: contemporary art, cultural approaches to Internet, new media theories, etc. She graduated from the Academy in 2000, obtaining a MA degree in artistic education (a thesis about mail art in relation to the emerging Inrernet) and printmaking (serigraphy). She obtained PhD in humanities in 2006 on Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, with thesis on net art as an interactive art. A receiver of Socrates-Erasmus scholarship, visiting lecturer in the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK and in Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk, Poland. A scholarship of the city of Poznan in 2004 for the theoretical activity. Numerous speeches at Polish conferences and participation in an international conference Mind the Map! in Leipzig, Germany in 2005. Publications in books and art-related magazines. Fields of interest: Internet art, new media art, mixed realities.











- © 2007 all rights reserved -