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Artist envisions clock based on how Georgia rivers flow


ATLANTA (AP) — Imagine a town clock that displays not the minutes and seconds that govern our lives, but time that moves faster or slower based on how fast rivers are running.

The Chattahoochee River and its tributaries flow through metropolitan Atlanta, but they hardly register for most people in the city — a disconnect that dismays Jonathon Keats. The San Francisco-based conceptual artist is on an extended stay in Georgia, where he's been devising ways of encouraging people to interact more with their natural environment.

His latest concept, "Atlanta River Time," would enlist volunteers to go down to riverbanks and take measurements. Their collective effort, supported by conservation groups and U.S. Geological Survey data, would tell time in an entirely different way, displayed on a large municipal clock in downtown Atlanta that reflects the natural ebbs and flows of Georgia's waterways.

“Ideally, people will get into the water ... to observe and to consider the effects of the flow of water on the world as well as the causes of that flow,” Keats told The Associated Press. “As a way in which not only to reckon time, but to reckon how we live in the world.”

Keats has led workshops since the fall of 2021 to teach people how to use hand-made materials to chronicle flow rates. Now he's hoping to bring the river clock from thought experiment into reality.

“I’m envisioning a clock that is run by a mechanical system, run on a pendulum where there is an annual pilgrimage to the headwaters of the Chattahoochee and where a measurement is made by hand," Keats said. “The flow rate is brought back to Atlanta, potentially (to) a clock that’s situated in a standalone clock tower in Midtown, and the pendulum is physically adjusted on the basis of what is measured at the headwaters.”

Why use waterways, when we have clocks, smart phones, computers and watches constantly telling us the time already?

Keats says he doesn't use a mobile phone, but he's thought a lot about such questions while tromping along Georgia's red-clay riverbanks in boots and a corduroy jacket, wearing wispy blond hair down to his shoulders and spectacles that might have come from the 18th century.

“All of this is a story that we can tell, and a story, like a stream, is a conduit, and is a conduit that allows us to that carry itself through a set of circumstances, and allows us to reflect on ourselves as a result of that — of that path that we take,” Keats said.

The artist’s previous conceptual challenges included selling tracts of real estate in the theoretical extra dimensions of space-time, opening a photosynthetic restaurant that serves gourmet sunlight to plants, and mounting a “millennium camera” in a steeple at Amherst College that he said would chronicle climate change through a 1,000-year exposure of a mountain range. Keats positioned similar cameras at Lake Tahoe and Arizona State University.

Keats was invited to be the Artist in Residence at Serenbe, an exclusive development in Chattahoochee Hills just outside Atlanta, where between workshops, he’s able to ponder the possibilities of water-based time from the deck of a rough-hewn cabin. His participants recently made bowls of clay and sewed log books of construction paper with colored yarn. Then they all trekked to South Fork Peachtree Creek and watched leaves float downstream while water ran through holes in their bowls.

It’s a rudimentary way to measure flow rates, but Keats hopes it will encourage different perspectives on how humans interact with nature.

“I believe that the rivers and streams and creeks in and around Atlanta are a natural resource that helps us to see ourselves in relation to the natural world more broadly,” he said.

Ron Harris, The Associated Press

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