Lapse by Helen Sloan


'The early days of time-lapse conjures up images from biological observation of plants growing and humming birds flapping their wings.'


It was Jakob van Uexküll who pioneered the study of biosemiotics. His work on animals’ relationship with the environment entitled umwelt[1] is considered to be seminal in this area of research. Different animals have their own unique signifiers – objects, events, visual cues, colours, smells - that they bring to the fore of their experience. Time-lapse photography allows the viewer to experience an environment differently from their usual perception of a scene or an event. Uexküll argued that objective reality may be challenging to quantify or describe since living things experience the environment in different ways. The contrast of the environment as experienced by a human in relation to a fly is vast.

If time-lapse photography gives us an insight into what it might be to glimpse the world through a different perspective, a direct reference might be Marcus Coates’s Dawn Chorus (2006). A complex routine of slowing down recorded birdsong, asking humans (amateur choir singers) to be filmed as they mimic the slowed down recording in their own habitat at dawn, and then speeding the film up again gives the impression that human behaviour is close to that of a bird. Speed is very much a component of Coates’ work in similar ways to the accentuation of time in time-lapse photography.

Time-lapse photography enables us to draw different meanings and metaphors from the world. The early days of time-lapse conjures up images from biological observation of plants growing, blooms unfurling, and humming birds flapping their wings, all so that they were visible to us. It was Godfrey Reggio with Koyaanisqatsi in 1982 (translated from the Hopi Indian word Life Out of Balance) who popularised time-lapse looking at urban versus nature, progress, the city as ants’ nest. His technique of putting time-lapse into a feature length film pertinently called into question our relationship with time and the small seemingly insignificant part each of us plays in society.

The artists in Lapse may not have consciously drawn from this tradition but the notion of altered experience, speed or forced stasis is present in all the work. Few of us stay all day in a supermarket car park, looking at a view, or photographing our day walking around a city minute by minute. Conversely the work in Lapse also has its roots in art practice through the systems based work that was explored particularly in the 1960s by artists such as Robert Smithson, John Hilliard, Art & Language, Steina and Woody Vasulka and Bruce Nauman. The fixed point of the camera, single landscape, filming from dusk until dawn or minute by minute provides strict protocol or system.

Thinking about the moving image more broadly, film or drama introduces time-lapse or at least time compression and expansion eg the slowing down of a moment of tension or the condensing of several years into ten minutes. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe, many of which have been turned into film, and the popular series 24 among others have challenged this dramatic device choosing to work in real-time.

Similarly, durational artists’ film and video, and abstract cinema works with real-time. The combination of time-lapse with subtly changing landscape in Caroline Jones, Inger Lise Hansen and Brian McClave & Gavin Peacock’s work or strict system based photography as in Alistair Ruff’s series contrasts this in that these are real locations that need the viewer’s narrative overlaid on them. The viewer plays a central role.

The soundtrack in time-lapse photography is central and it is no coincidence that sound has been especially produced for a number of the works in Lapse. Caroline Jones, Alistair Ruff and Brian McClave & Gavin Peacock have all highlighted the work of the composers or musicians in the work, while Inger Lise Hansen has been particular about the sound design in the piece. The soundtrack has a prominent influence on the reading of the work.

Time-lapse photography can be seen as a focus on the technical and the work with 3D, inverted camera position, subliminal techniques here in Lapse certainly contribute to the technical development of time-lapse. However, there are really interesting observations that have their grounding in anthropology – the prominence of signs in the subliminals of Alistair Ruff’s Cities series; tracking a day in the life of human thoroughfares with Brian McClave & Gavin Peacock; focusing on the history, religion and sightlines of London with Caroline Jones; and drawing attention to our relationship with the littoral with Inger Lise Hansen. The technology and heavily mediated image allows the viewer to look at a slightly altered and dislocated version of the world that calls into question our daily relationship with the environments that we have created and engage with.



[1] Kalevi Kull, "Jakob von Uexküll: An introduction". Semiotica vol. 134: 1-59, 2001.


Helen Sloan has been Director of SCAN, Digital and Interdisciplinary Arts Agency since its launch in 2003 and has been based at Bournemouth University for the last two years. SCAN is a networked organisation and creative development agency working on arts projects and strategic initiatives in arts organisations, academic institutions and further aspects of the public realm. Helen's career spans over twenty years during which she has curated, commissioned and convened over 200 exhibitions, new works, and events. She has written and researched a number of key strands in digital arts including wearable technologies, the intersection between art and science, and arts policy. She has directed festivals such as Across Two Cultures in Newcastle 1996 (an early event on the overlapping practice of creative thinking in arts and science), Metapod, Birmingham 2001-2, and Bournemouth's new festival Public Domain 2010. Current areas of interest: digital arts and place; high-speed networks and online resources/spaces; and models of practice and the creative economy; climate change and the arts.