An account of being a participant in Dora Garcia’s “Instant Narrative”

Yesterday, I was delighted to be one of the many volunteer/performers in Dora Garcia’s installation, “Instant Narrative”, currently on at SFMoMA (February 18 – April 15th) within the Descriptive Acts section on the 4th floor. The experience was so interesting, I wanted to record something of it, while my memories are still fresh. My slot was in the afternoon, from 2.30 until 5.45pm and also on the museum’s free Tuesday. It seemed such a daunting task. Very quickly, I realized that this installation, is indeed a ‘system’ as Dora defines it in her instructions. Having taken up daily meditation over the last nine months, I was also fascinated to watch myself participating with a certain amount of extra detachment.

How does it work?

In simple terms, the performer sits at a desk with a laptop in a corner of the space, a large screen projects everything the performer types onto a large white wall, and is updated in real time. The performer describes as much as possible what is occurring in the room. If there are no visitors, then there are sounds to be noted, from within or without. The performer describes the visitors as they wander in and move around, and at some point, the visitor may realize this. There are moments of recognition as visitors understand that the room is being observed and described in real time and in a continuous fashion without any editing. Some find this fascinating and spend quite a time in the space, for others it is a wonderful opportunity to engage, while many may not stop to read the text or notice what is happening at all. Everyone becomes a participant in the performance.

As a volunteer/performer, I worried in advance about whether I would do a good job but had to trust that the system was foolproof and would work, even for me. Fairly soon, I noticed that I wanted to make people laugh and began to tailor my text to make them smile. Perhaps because it was a free day, the museum was very busy and packed with students, many of whom were wearing outfits that could be described easily. The girl in leather with her green Doc Martins, the man in the purple beanie hat, the girl with op art legs. I was also watching myself decide who to write about, sometimes being surprised at my choice or description and then noticing how brief and inaccurate my words were for what was actually occurring in the room.

How did people interact?

Notable interactions:

The serious three. About half way through the session I noticed three friends who I named ‘the serious three’, describing their behavior, and commenting on their serious demeanor. They returned later on and we had a lot of fun, as they pointed at the screen and the text recorded some of their actions. They said “thank you” on leaving and I bad a fond farewell to them, wondering if we will ever make contact again.

Man in beret A man in raincoat and beret who seemed to know Dora Garcia became very engaged and vocal about the installation. He took photos on his phone of the text about him, then took photos of me typing and then the text again of me describing him taking photographs. This all became very circular, as he returned several times, and his “hello” to Dora and other comments were recorded.

Man in red-checked shirt A young man in a beanie hat (there were many that day) and a red checked shirt seemed to have a permanent grin and as it was described by the text, his grin seemed to get bigger and bigger. He and his friends stayed for quite some time, and I began to describe his tattoos and his outfit and where he was in the space.

The guards I included the behavior of the female guards because I wanted them to feel included and also remembered that Dora mentioned that surveillance techniques had contributed something to the creation of the piece, although this was not a dominating focus. I imagined that readers would make their own meanings about the inclusion of the guards and I wondered what this might be.

Fine man and beautiful woman A man entered pushing a woman in a wheelchair and I wanted them to feel uplifted, so I described the woman as beautiful and the man as fine, and then I used those terms again and again. The fine man smiled and took photos on his phone and I noticed how much I wanted them to enjoy themselves and engage with the installation.

Boys in shorts Three young men in shorts and deck shoes entered the space and immediately saw the description of them, which I changed to men in shorts. They performed for the crowd and sometimes stomped and laughed. Later they returned and two sat on the floor cross-legged.

Spanish speaking women Several young women entered the space with a toddler in arms and pretty quickly understood what was happening. I recorded their giggles and laughter which seemed to create even more … you get the idea.

There were many others and each time someone clocked the process I could tell. Their body language changed, they usually smiled and looked around and some waited for a while until they were described and could then record this on their phones. It was a continuous process and after 3 and a half hours I was exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. I noticed that I wanted to be complimentary about everyone, perhaps because I was in the room and there were many instances where visitors looked in my direction and I tried not to catch their gaze, feeling that I might break a spell. I tried not to repeat my vocabulary but it seemed impossible not to.

Aside form all the usual intellectual and philosophical gumpf I could write, I just wanted to record that, as a participant, this was a great experience and did indeed feel like a performance within the museum. I loved that visitors laughed and giggled and interacted and felt comfortable to stay and read and then return. I also loved that some just waltzed through the room without stopping. I have another session on Sunday 18th March and will complete the story with another post, and maybe a transcript.

Check out the website and visit if you can.


2 thoughts on “An account of being a participant in Dora Garcia’s “Instant Narrative”

  1. Fran,
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I knew you were a painter, but blown away knowing you can also paint with words.


    • Many thanks Liz, I really hope you get a chance to experience the installation yourself, and I’ll post the experience again. I think we can request a transcript of what we wrote, which would be very interesting.

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