In Timeball, Kettels explores the legacy of Fremantle’s timeball/s, a specialised instrument crucial for assisting navigators aboard ships in verifying the precise time. This was essential, as accurate time was necessary for determining a ship’s longitude at sea. This was achieved by a ball dropping down a mast at precisely 1pm from a location onshore and visible to ships in the port. There were principally two timeballs that operated in Fremantle: the earlier one, built in 1900, was located near the Round House, with the ball housed in a tower (a photograph of it appears in the artwork). It was removed in 1905 to make way for a newer timeball, which was positioned atop the Harbour Trust Building and operated until 1936.
Kettels’ artwork draws inspiration from a real event in 1911 when Fremantle’s timeball malfunctioned, causing a brief desynchronisation. The artwork tells a fictional story of a ship’s return to Europe with the incorrect time set on its chronometer—a highly precise timekeeping device. This leads to navigational chaos, which forms the central theme of the installation.
The artwork includes electromechanical assemblies that rotate a series of prints to generate animations. These animations depict a speculative narrative that concludes with the ship’s disorientation and eventual wreck due to the error in clock time. Despite their seemingly simple aesthetics, the animations playfully unveil intricate settler colonial imaginaries, questioning the idea of mastery and control over time.
As part of the background research, the installation taps into Kettels’ family connection with timeballs. Kettels’ grandfather, a retired Engine Room Artificer (a specialised position in the crews of British and Commonwealth naval vessels), used his machinist skills to restore the Williamstown timeball in Melbourne for the 1988 bicentenary. This restoration project bestowed timeballs with profound significance for the family, and new stories revolving around timeballs have continued through successive generations. The mechanical precision of the assemblies used in the installation pay tribute to the craftmanship of the artist’s grandfather and heritage of timeballs.
However, embedded within the overall aesthetics of the installation, there is a disquiet that speaks of the undeniable colonial aspect of timeballs. Functioning as a crucial component in the industrial-military complex of colonialism, timeballs facilitated the far-reaching expansion of the British Empire with devastating consequences for First Nations people. Through the refined iconography and austere mechanical forms, the installation merges spatiotemporal imaginaries, family history, and colonial contexts, inviting viewers to reflect on the intricate entanglements of the past that continue to shape our understanding of the present.