I have poor time perception, or chronoception, often fumbling with questions about when past events occurred. Air travel, an experience that fucks with routine spatial and temporal rhythms, is made particularly difficult to grasp. In November 2021, taking my first break from hyperlocalness under COVID-19 measures1, I flew to Vancouver for a six-week stay2. Flights are strange ways to spend hours. Although from Toronto it only takes five hours, one of the shorter transit times I’ve gotten through, I experienced the trip as exceptionally long. For once, I’m confident that the sensation of elongated time is more connected to our state of pandemic-induced inertia than my characteristically flawed perception. It’s incredible what you can lose in eighteen months.
In February of 2020, I wrapped up the 3rd Kamias Triennial (with co-curators, Allison Collins and Patrick Cruz) in Quezon City (Philippines), arriving home to Toronto on March first. Province-wide physical distancing came soon after. Home became nearly all there was.
With each additional pandemic day, we deliberate our futures. Amidst the wondering, Patrick suggested the theme of the 4th dimension for the 4th Triennial.3 Simplified, the 4th dimension has been explained as, the time coordinate in a space-time continuum, a dimension beyond the ordinary three (length, breadth, and depth), that humans might not have the capacity to comprehend, even if they were in it. I still can’t claim to understand it. Instead, for me it evoked thoughts about collapsing time zones and geographies, with an aim to create nearness, emphasizing our interrelatedness, so that all people will absorb and embody the urgency of this moment, evoking action. I imagine balling up a paper world-map, opening it, and crumpling it again continuously, breaking the flat separateness of this representation and conception of our world. One section coming into contact with another and another until the creases fan through to each and every area. Can the desires expressed in this metaphoric visualization, contrary to how we believe time and space function, find avenues for realization in culture and science?
In Canada, when we began receiving vaccinations, many thought it signaled that the pandemic’s end was on the horizon, despite the lack of vaccination distribution in some areas abroad. The dimensions of the pandemic are universally linked. The state of protection afforded to vaccinated Canadians (and others) doesn’t prevent COVID-19 from continuing to evolve, circulate and devastate worldwide. It doesn’t end the extractive industries and practices that take habitats away from animals, bringing them into consequential contact with humans, passing viruses between us. The distance to an end will remain for all of us, human and more-than-human if the distance to an end is unattainable for any one of us. We must first own up to the reality that we are interrelated to those who are out of our view and out of our thoughts at home and beyond. Though some of us have the privilege of forgetting the pains of this human and ecological health disaster, unknowing won’t continue to shield us.
Landing in British Columbia placed me three hours behind Ontario. While there, time “fell back” an hour for daylight savings. Proving that time, as we measure it, is socially constructed. Experienced through chronic illness, this design of time is tricky to navigate. My leukemia treatment depends on, what has been life-saving, medication taken every twelve hours alongside abstinence from food at set intervals. For me, a life-dependent schedule. For others, often too much of an inconvenience to accommodate. “Sick time,” one of the many forms of time disregarded by mainstream society, is individual and entwined with much outside of the sick-body, but in-part measured by transitions between being a participant in “normal” life schedules and periods of withdrawal and exclusion.
I write this from the “West” where, despite personal temporal challenges and incompatibilities, I too participate in ways of conceiving of time that can limit connection. The ways that we mark time have been selected to advance the agendas of the powerful. The Gregorian calendar, used as the international standard (though not adopted by Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Nepal) was devised in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. Gregory was intent on selecting a date for Easter to entrench Christian rather than Jewish designations of spring. Observing a calendar founded on Easter, an event insignificant to many, provokes doubt in meaning. Perhaps as a non-Christian, it’s easier to question the value of systems that I haven’t an investment of faith in, though I’m no less entangled in it.
With the “final judgment” as a foundational belief, Christian time is linear. Linear or “monochronic” time, the predominant form of modern Western time, adheres to clock time and to performing one type of activity, such as business and work matters, within a designated span. Oriented toward bureaucracy and business, interpersonal relationships are lower priority. I think of “clock time” as normy time. While normy time is designed for the normative body, we are all implicated, living within or reliant on its structure. When I adhere to the work-over-life proportions of normy time, I’m left feeling unfulfilled. When I don’t adhere, to an ongoing struggle, I feel unaccomplished. Societies that instead exist in non-linear time indicate cultures that hold interpersonal and perhaps inter-species relationships in esteem. ”Polychronic” time—broadly generalized as part of Latin American, African, Arab, South Asian, Indigenous, and some European cultures—curves, bending for what arises. Activities such as leisure and business acceptably take place together. If an interpersonal interchange hasn’t concluded, the polychronic individual isn’t pressured to end it for something else. Collectively oriented, in a polychronic society, ample time is available for the needs of others. It is speculated that polychronic cultures accept nature’s ways, which occur ungoverned by clock-time. Acquiescing the governance of time to nature compels our relationship with it.
Animism significantly acknowledges relationships to the natural environment, all that it contains, and other non-humans as kin. One’s identity is produced by relationships, interactions, and interdependence with all things, each considered “persons”. Rivers in five countries, with the addition of Canada in 2021, have been legally declared “persons”, entitling them to legal processes. This designation, embedded in a human-made system, relies upon human intercession. Nevertheless, it’s within our ability to conceive of environments as persons, reframing what constitutes a social relationship—urgent for distinguishing the priorities that can heal this global crisis and prevent future ones. Remarkably, this recognition came when the pandemic had halted clock-time to nearly irrelevant for many. With the structures provided by work and commerce under dissolution, people increasingly turned to time in natural spaces. In these ways, the pandemic has moved nature towards the fore though it remains to be acknowledged as the undergirding of all our days, in and out of crisis.
On the momentum of these achievements, our prospects seem kinder. Still, how do we arrive at a sort of visionary future? The means are in our head—in our hippocampal—entorhinal circuit of place, grid and border cells. The ability to move through time and space are human cognitive processes. When we animate a version of the future in our mind’s eye, it’s informed by past experiences—time travel through consciousness. We default to physically appearing in a space when we imagine time travel. Our arrival doesn’t require physically landing in other geographies, but it does require a presence of consciousness. In fact, this is an opportunity to cease the colonial wrongdoing of moving our bodies and those of others across the globe, motivated by self-interested definitions of benefit. Relying on limited points of view to produce the future can shape a flawed or even devastating version. Practicing the more collectivist, polychronic view of time may better guide us to a mutually beneficial future.
Not only located in areas of our brains, we situate time relative to our bodies. As a Mandarin (re)learner, I’ve needed to reconfigure where time is located. In Mandarin the past is referred to as being in front of and above us, while the future is behind and below. “The day before yesterday” is qián (forward) tiān (day). “Last time” is shàng (up) cì (time). Next time is xià (down) cì (time)4. “The day after tomorrow” is hòu (back) tiān (day). Mandarin reminds me that what is behind us is a constituent of the future. While English words for these tenses are not spatiotemporal, we do make such associations. Phrases such as “moving forward” and “upcoming events” place the future in front of and above us. We refer to putting past events “behind us” and “looking back” at the past. Something that “went down” happened previously and things are “handed down” from previous use. Mandarin is not unique or superior in its positioning of time. I mention my two modes of thinking to demonstrate that established ways of relating to time and space are alterable. We can re-orient our priorities through language.
My chronoception remains unimproved, but I wonder if some of the “fault” can be found in our limited interpretations of time. The pandemic is an urgent call to unmoor our units of time from political, religious, and economic agendas. Regardless of who seizes the power to designate calendar days, the rhythms of the natural world won’t be clock-regulated, even if its reaction to the temporal regimes of humans is the devastation of life on earth. I’m brought back to trying to make my own sense of the 4th dimension, now finding parallels with the many urgencies at hand. Extensively theorized, studied, and written about, most have heard of the 4th dimension, not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic. Similar to having only lived in 3 dimensions, therefore; unable to comprehend a 4th, for those of us who have lived shielded from threats to all that we know, like the pandemic, we fail to comprehend the cataclysmic place we are in. Synchronized to our destruction of kin, the pandemic continues to unfurl, for better or worse, taking down the structures that we have lived by. Our markers of time have been washed away into a prolonged present. Those that clutch at the temporal agency of our former lives and those that realise that it never existed, not in the ways that we thought, equally wrestle with the lingering designs of normative time. If we can collectively recognize this juncture and the possibilities offered by polychronic practices, acting in kinship with the natural world, time travelling toward an informed future, crafting language for worldmaking, and untold more, we could count the past 2+ years as the last of their kind.