A Collaboration with Time

Does time bend longer around a hand holding itself than a hand holding a stick? American artist and musician Katy Pinke has had plenty of time over the past year to reflect on – time

‘There!  Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.’  Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

On a recent walk in the woods, I spotted a small piece of tree bark that had been split open. The smooth wood inside was stained a deep blue-ish green, perhaps by chlorophyll. I picked it up and continued along the trail back home with it in my hand. I suddenly felt the impulse to let go of the bark before leaving the woods.

I placed it to the side of the trail atop the centre of a rock whose surface was carved into, like a little shelf, and kept walking – aware that I had re-arranged something in nature’s house, for no real reason, like a guest sauntering over to a picture on the wall and aimlessly tilting it off-kilter before the host comes back with the tea.

As I placed the stick down, a thought-form arose like a puff of steam and quietly evaporated. As if memory could cool and slow a past thought, mine has crystallised that erstwhile steam-puff into a retroactive constellation of images, which would maybe translate into words as:

i am writing with pieces of the forest

(creating from nothing never really happens anyway)

re-arranging them

re-arranged what already exists and has always existed

collaborating with time is like this

passing through, leaving the unfinished work for the next person

or generation

like a relay but they may or may not pick up where you leave off

or add their revision to the game of nonsense

like scribbles deposited in the margins 

or how there is music left on somewhere in an empty room

The thought-form – which has since been fleshed out as the memory of a fully articulated thought – at the time just flashed like a quick smile through my body. I left the piece of wood and continued home empty-handed, and then forgot about the whole thing for a while.

I’m thinking about time-scales and loneliness and memory; time-scales and intimacy and memory. How time compresses or stretches differently when I’m with others or when I’m on my own. How objects seem to change in time when they’re left alone.

Part of what this period of relative isolation feels like to me, and to most people I talk to, is a kind of holding pattern. Things are ‘getting done’ in the sense that I can look back over the last several months and register that events have objectively occurred. But it often feels like ‘nothing is happening.’ Like I haven’t been growing or changing, or things haven’t been moving.

Over the course of the last several months I’ve poured more focus into my painting practice. I’m usually mystified as to how the paintings even happened once they’re ‘finished’. I’ve noticed the same experience with certain pieces of writing that I’ve also completed. You put something down, and you go away. You come back and it’s changed. You don’t know how it changed. It was just sitting there, still. And yet it’s moved. It’s like watching the moon rise, or the sun set. You don’t detect their movement, and yet, you see they have moved.

It makes me think of Milan Kundera’s ‘unbearable lightness of being’. There doesn’t seem to be a weight to time, or a gravity acting upon it, and because of that, it can feel like it doesn’t exist. But suddenly you become aware that it’s had its hand in things. Processes of healing, of creation, of decay, of love lost or love accumulated, of moons rising and rocks eroding.

Like I said, I forgot all about the green stick. A few days later I was walking again on the trail. I caught a hint of green in the bottom right corner of my vision. It was the stained-green piece of bark I had left on the rock. At once I both remembered that I had left it there and  registered a second, similarly stained piece – of almost exactly equal size – laying exactly parallel to mine.

A chill spread over my body. My first conclusion was that I had a mysterious, intentional collaborator, or co-conspirator; some entity – human, animal, spirit? – like me, who had also been curious to find a similar piece of wood stained green by nature and, along the same path I had walked, saw mine and decided to place theirs next to it.

I couldn’t believe it. Without any text messaging or speaking or planning, without a shared time-frame, there was a communication being initiated, across an unknown time-scale. With a stranger who may or may not have been aware that I, another conscious entity, had left the first thing there.

I spotted a crystalline rock, maybe quartz, on some loose soil nearby. I decided to connect the two parallel stained-green sticks with it, laying it horizontally between them to form an H.  H… h… tentative beginnings of speech, whisper of throat into void… Maybe whoever was out there would register it, the next time they passed.

Now another thought occurs to me. Have I misremembered? Was I the one who left two green sticks, not one, the first time around?

In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon wait in the same place as time goes on, and eventually comes around again, conveying the same events as yesterday. They’re convinced the Godot they await will come, convinced that someone is out there, someone other than them who left the second green stick on the rock. Lockdown feels Beckettian. Time warps, disappears, then turns and weighs me down, then abandons me – doing weird things to memory and thought.

I am listening to a podcast in which AI researcher and cognitive scientist Joscha Bach is in a conversation about AI and general intelligence. He is talking briefly about trees. Given a narrow definition of intelligence, such as the ability to model systems, he casually suggests that trees may well be supremely intelligent beings – just on a different time scale to us. ‘In 100 years, trees don’t make decisions as complex as we do in ten years.’ But in, say, 1,000 years…

Ever since hearing this I think about the time-scales of trees every time I touch them. In the absence of physical human contact I hug trees on my walks in the woods. Now when I do, I imagine I’m extracting and osmosising the tree’s time consciousness: the slow sap of an alternate time turning the zap zap zap of mine into infinite, transparent molasses. I embrace something that’s playing out on a scale beyond my comprehension.

I have been living with my parents in New Jersey since the pandemic hit. Because I sometimes go into the city, and my father is a doctor seeing patients every day, we stay strict with our household rules. We wear masks in the common spaces. I eat at my own table and am technically not allowed into the kitchen. We don’t sit around a table together. We sometimes share neither space, nor time for our meals.

But we do share context. Every morning, for the last few months, my father makes a double of whatever breakfast he’s made for himself and he leaves it for me on my table, before he leaves for work. Sometimes, he’ll leave a special treat or ‘joke’. He’ll surprise me with something new and cover it in tinfoil (the first time he decided to make waffles, he covered them in foil, with a steak knife to one side, and I found myself stopped in confusion as I neared the table: was I about to eat a hanger steak at 8am?), or he will sneak Oreos into my yogurt – and later when I mention it, will impishly pretend he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. 

Breakfast has become his way of communicating and playing, of creating moments through time. Though the time-scale is fragmented, the objects he leaves on the table are placeholders for a continuity of awareness. We are together every morning for breakfast, speaking in a unique vocabulary of expectations and their subversion. This creates a feeling of space where we’re connected, across time.

November 14th. Lockdown round two has begun so I just attempted to perform my solo theatre piece in a mostly empty gallery space as a live-stream for the first time. I am crying on the car-ride home. I am mourning the loss of a salve for loneliness that didn’t come and that I never had. That didn’t feel like theatre.

What would have felt like theatre? Without shared space anymore, theatre, it seems, is about shared time, right? But is shared time about simultaneity? The simultaneity of Zoom calls, though dubbed ‘virtual space’, feels less like space than my dad’s waffles.

How can I create a space with you if I can’t feel your time? If we share no context, how do I fill your air with electricity? How do I vibrate the surfaces of your skin with my intention?

Because I work as a translator, I often think of theatre as translation. To be effective as a translator, I don’t force Chinese idioms into English. I want to create the same effect – the same feeling in the target language as I get in the source language. In this case, I wanted to fill your spaces with the feeling of warm light. I wanted to wake up the molecules in the air where they touched your face. 

What if, to do that, the experience of live theatre, the feeling of being in the theatre space, might look nothing at all like theatre right now? Nothing like the source idiom of the proscenium, forced into the target language of a livestream? How can we find a way to still feel each other through time? What can we leave with each other, to keep the relay going, with no guarantees that anyone will pick up the baton in the way we would hope?

What does theatre do to time when it’s really working

gravity is the curvature of space-time

Space time bends around my body-to-your-body time

touching body-time

when people aren’t dancing close

when my dancing partner is a tree

time is lighter, time is further, is time abandoning me

What does theatre do to gravity

What happens to gravity when I touch no one and nothing

but the earth and myself

Does time bend longer around a hand holding itself 

than a hand holding a stick

Someone left a metal monolith in the Utah desert with zero explanation

there are Oreo pieces in my yogurt

you return to this piece of writing ten years later, one hundred years later

its meaning has been left on a different rock in your mind forest

this piece of writing is a site-specific work

the current site is your psyche in this moment in time

this moment in time is a place

and whenever you come back is the new venue

on the tour 

time plays the same role every night,

the site changes

there was a study they did in a theatre, the rhythms of people’s hearts synchronized

my father’s heart is in these Oreo pieces in my mouth

my breath is dancing with my heart like music in an empty room

can we leave things for each other through time

that tell the space of empty days to

hold us tighter

In the moment of my seeing the two pieces of bark side-by-side, my consciousness, or my imagination, dotted back along every potential moment – between the first instant I put my twig down, to the moment some other being maybe saw it, saw its similarity to theirs, and left it. I have a wish to the open sky, a hope for a tunnel of space-time from heart 1 to heart 2.

But maybe I’ve just been writing with found pieces of the forest, talking to time in nonsense. Are you there Godot? Mrs. Dalloway said she would leave the twigs for herself.

I tutor a student online, in Mandarin. Today she brought a passage from the Dao de Jing, Laozi’s classic text, which starts ‘Sānshí fú, gòng yī gǔ, dāng qí wú, yǒu chē zhī yòng. ‘We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.’ After two other similar examples, the passage ends with this conclusion: ‘Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.’

I am relating to the moon. It walks me home when I emerge from the woods. I am walking forward but my neck is crooked sideways. I watch it next to me the whole way home and speak to it in a silent language. I relate to the trees, the moon, and the rocks. They have a different body-time. What is spacious intimacy?

In the solitude of these months there is another type of connection to time coming back, back to circles and cycles and rhythms. Rhythms of the heart, rhythms of the sun rising and setting, the light but steady returningness. More aware now of slight changes that come with the passing of the seasons. ‘Was it always this dark, this early?’ Waking up at dawn with birds. A kind of time that has been sitting there like a stone all along unperturbed by the spasmodic marathon of clocks above it.

I hear a Rilke poem in my head when I talk nothings to the moon:

The Vastness of Connection

Bereft of knowledge before the heavens of my life,

I stand astonished. Oh the great stars.

Their rising and their setting. How quiet.

As if I did not exist. Am I taking part? Do I discount

their pure power? Does it rule the movement

of my blood? I will yearn for no closer connections

and accustom my heart to its farthest reaches.

Better it live with the spine-chilling stars

than with the pretense of some protection hovering near.

Today I was back in the woods on a different route. I remembered the sticks again suddenly, and rushed back to check if they were still there, and if so, if anything had changed. I arrived out of breath and froze: the crystalline rock had been moved to lie parallel between the two original sticks, and to the left, also lying parallel, had appeared a new, third, green stick.

A light switched on in my heart and radiated warmth to the edges of my skin. Molecules of living, electric air woke up where they touched my face. 

I couldn’t remember whether I was the one who’d left it there.

Photos and paintings by Katy Pinke.

Katy Pinke is a New York-based artist whose multi-disciplinary practice spans music, visual art, poetry and embodied performance. Katy took part in the Artists as Writers programme 2020.