Keats, who has also initiated century camera projects in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona, sees the devices as a form of benign surveillance. The cameras function as an invisible spectator, prompting city-dwellers to think about the impact of their actions on future generations. Or as Keats put it, “The ways in which the decisions we make tend to most impact those who have the least power, that is to say, those who are not yet born.” Like the Future Library, the century cameras are very much an urban project, since it’s in cities that time runs fastest and the pace of life is most hectic. “Since I became an urban woman ... I’ve somehow been quite disconnected,” said Anne Beate Hovind, the Future Library project manager, who described how working on the library drew her back to the timescale she knew when she was growing up on a farm in her youth.
Works like Future Library and the century cameras raise all sorts of questions, ranging from the existential to the practical. Will any of the cameras survive? If they do, will they produce legible images? Will any of the Future Library works be any good—and does it matter if they are? What will future generations make of century art, and will they see it as the gift that it’s intended to be? More concretely, for those of us wrestling with what the philosopher Matthew Crawford labels “a crisis of attention,” the question seems to be: How can we adopt this attitude now, in everyday life? When we struggle to look up from our smartphones, how can we look beyond the present moment and think broadly and generously across time?
With their deliberate pace, works such as Future Library and the Century Camera Project resemble another Norwegian art form known as Slow TV. These live, uninterrupted broadcasts of ordinary events have become an unlikely hit, drawing millions of viewers to watch hours of knitting, or to observe the five-and-half-day progress of a cruise ship meandering gently along Norway’s western coast. For Keats, however, there’s more to century-long projects than a leisurely pace. “It has less to do with trying to slow down in any way and more to do with being able to experience more expansively the decisions that we make,” he said.
His century cameras are a study for a larger work: a set of millennium cameras that Keats hopes to set up in cities across the world. He’s already installed two, one in Tempe, Arizona, and another in Amherst College in Massachusetts. These copper-and-gold devices will produce images of such density that it may take “tens of thousands of years” to figure out how to develop them.
Deep time, the concept of the timespan within which the Earth has existed (around 4.5 billion years), is enjoying a flood of attention in the art world at the moment. Imagining Deep Time, a recent exhibition at the National Academy of Sciences, collected works that tried to explore and express a history that goes back well before humans existed. Chief among these projects is the Long Now Foundation's 10,000-year clock, a mechanical timepiece that will keep time for 10 millennia. The clock “models for us the creation of projects on a much larger scale than our own individual experience,” said the show’s curator, J.D. Talasek, echoing the rationale of Paterson and Keats. “It raises questions of how you plan for, finance, manage a project that will be in place for generations.”