Sara Morawetz

Sara Morawetz’s performances explore the emotional cadences of scientific systems. Her recent works examine the ways in which we measure and understand time. From delicate, repetitive mark-making to conceptual mapping projects and durational performances, her works have a systematic elegance that is redolent of 1960s Conceptualism and Fluxus. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with Sara in her Brooklyn apartment to talk about three recent works.

The first show that I saw in New York was How the Stars Stand, a durational performance that you staged at Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn. The piece required you to live according to time on Mars, whose days are longer than those on Earth. For the performance you lived in the gallery, which was open to the public. As your time cycled out of sync with that of Earth you found yourself having breakfast at midnight and sleeping while the rest of New York went out for coffee. What did this experience reveal to you about our link to the planet’s biorhythms?
A ‘Sol’ or Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds in length, which is about 2.7 per cent longer than an Earth day. While 40 minutes doesn’t sound like much, it has an accumulative effect: the difference is 40 minutes on the first day; on the next it is 80 minutes and the day after that 120 minutes. I designed the performance to allow me to completely fall out of sync, invert and then cycle around again to sync back up with time on Earth, an action taking about 37 days to complete.

I gave myself a basic routine: I woke at 7am, had lunch at 12.30pm and was in bed by 11pm according to the time on Mars, regardless of what time it was on Earth. I exercised, I made work, and I tried to live as normal a life as possible. But contrary to popular belief, New York is not open 24 hours a day (well, at least not Brooklyn). It wasn’t always straightforward to find breakfast at odd hours. No one wants to serve you alcohol at 8am on Tuesday. The line “it might be 8am here but it’s 9:30pm on Mars” doesn’t work.

This shifting experience of time quickly separated me from my surroundings and with that shift I felt myself break away from the structures that everyone else maintained. The process dislocated me: the worst part of the project was the week when I was waking up at sunset and going to sleep at sunrise. That period without light was incredibly difficult and my lowest point emotionally. I became keenly aware that we are these heliocentric beings that move with the sun, our bodies are so affected by its absence.

At the conclusion of How The Stars Stand a scientist from NASA, Dr Michael Allison, gave a public talk in which he spoke about the history of the Western calendar. The talk emphasised the contingencies and imperfections that are built into how we record the Earth’s passage around the sun. He also speculated on the kinds of calendars that might be invented to accommodate Mars’ different passage around the sun. How much is your work about those idiosyncrasies, the almost-but-not-quite perfect systems that we have developed over time?
My practice almost exclusively revolves around systems of standardisation. We have invented calibrated systems of time and measurement as a means of managing the chaos of the world. But we sometimes lose sight of our agency over their invention and we have become incapable of seeing how they might change. For example, our 24-hour clock was devised at a point in history when the Earth was completing its rotation in 24 hours. Yet historically, the Earth’s day has actually been a lot shorter – it once rotated in an 11-hour period. As time passes its rotation slows down (for reasons we will talk about). The moment we decide to standardise units such as time, we “fix” them, without accounting for their potential to change.

The hours, minutes and seconds of Mars are longer than their Earth equivalents – we have stretched them out to mirror a different planetary rotation. Why we haven’t given them new names, why we continue to call them hours, minutes and seconds is quite an interesting question. They are similar, but they are actually their own unique entities. Why do we apply our earthly system of time to Mars at all? Should we keep fidelity to our units of measure because it is comfortingly familiar?

By creating new elements we have the opportunity to reset the standard, which is an exciting prospect. But in doing so we must also reflect on the institutions that we currently use and why they are the way they are. When you start to trace these systems back, their origins are not always as rational as we think they are going to be. Here, scientific and societal functions clash in interesting ways.

There is a series of drawings that you have made that were on display in the same gallery where you did your Mars time performance.
The work is called ‘Departure’. It is an ongoing drawing series that marks the average distance that the Moon moves away from the Earth every year— around 3.78cm. I wanted to find a way to document this slow migration and I decided that I would do these drawings that commemorate each year since our departure from the lunar surface. There is one drawing memorialising every year from 1972 onwards.

The series also reflects on our diminished interest in space exploration. The longer we wait to return to the Moon, the further we will have to go to get there. The longer we wait the less we actually know about that journey, because so much of the technology and the innovation has actually been lost: a whole generation of scientists have either left NASA or died and not all of the information about how we made the journey to the moon was as well documented as you might think.

Your husband Dr Darren Engwirda is a mathematician who works at NASA. Your work seems to grapple with this terrain in an entirely different, yet complementary, way. How much has your work been shaped by this overlapping of disciplines in your personal life?
I am really lucky to have found someone with whom I have remarkable conversations that blend science, philosophy and art. This has had a profound impact on how I work both as an artist and as a person. Darren provides both conceptual and technical support. His input allows me to extend beyond what I could potentially do as an artist working autonomously. I get to ask questions and also gain insight into how and why scientists work as they do, which is incredibly important to my practice.

Another work of yours deals with the phenomenon of “leap seconds”. These are seconds – tiny units of time – that are added to our calculations of time at the discretion of an international council. Can you explain this work to us?
The work is called ‘61 / 60’, and it is a series of performances designed to document the introduction of leap seconds. Last year, on 30 June 2015 at 23:59:60 UTC time, a “new” second was added to the universal system of time. This was done to align our atomic clocks to the slowing rotation of the Earth.

The idea behind the work is to stage a performance every time a leap second is added. The first performance was staged in Times Square. I taped two overlapping squares onto the ground as a demarcation of the performative space and, at the precise moment that the new second occurred, I hit a pair of orchestral cymbals. I intend for this work to continue over my lifetime; it will simultaneously become one of my shortest and longest performances.

After committing to this concept, I discovered there was going to be a conference in Geneva in November 2015 to decide whether we should continue to add leap seconds or whether we should eradicate them. It turns out that the addition of leap seconds has an effect on Global Positioning Systems and represents a strange intersection between commercial interests and the physical rotation of our planet.

Leap seconds reveal an important conceptual question about the nature of time itself: is time a function of the rotation of our planet, or is it merely a construct that we have created to structure experience? If we no longer have leap seconds and the Earth’s rotation continues to slow, time will inevitably fall out of sync with our experience of it. For instance, if we were to remove leap seconds from the equation, the Earth’s rotation will slowly fall out of sync with the revolution of our clocks.

If we continue to add leap seconds then we can keep adjusting our measurement of time incrementally to stay in sync with the planet. It may be that as the Earth’s rotation slows we will have to add leap minutes rather than leap seconds, because, as Michael Allison put it, “The second just isn’t quite long enough”. This is such a beautiful idea – how could a second not be quite long enough? As an artist I am looking for those moments when science is self-reflexively analysing its own mechanics.

I was going to fly to Geneva to document the Council’s decision and either celebrate the leap second’s continuance or eulogise its end. But as I was packing to head off on this trip they announced that they were deferring the decision for eight years. So I too am deferring the work; now it is a work in waiting. In 2023 I will travel to this conference and make a work in response to their decision. The only way to make this kind of work is to allow time to pass.

The Churchie National Emerging Art Prize

Until 13 November
QUT Art Museum, Brisbane

Courtesy the artist