So, I ‘performed’ for a second time as a volunteer in Dora Garcia’s ‘Instant Narrative’, currently on at SFMoMA in San Francisco. In an earlier post I described my first experience in some detail and wanted to add this shorter follow-up to complete the event. My second session was also in the afternoon but this time with quite a different, sleepy Sunday afternoon crowd, and busy but not densely packed. Visitors were able to linger and absorb the work more slowly than is possible at other times.
There were many couples, often standing close, whispering and smiling, heads tilted inwards or fingers hooked, hands held. A good proportion of well-dressed families with well-behaved children and typical polite middle-class curiosity, several wheelchairs, a few intergenerational groups and quite a large contingent of lone student types. There were far fewer beanie hats and skinny jeans, there were many expensive pairs of leather boots. On arriving, I wondered how the session would go. I wondered whether this time, being familiar with the territory as it were, the gloss may have gone from the experience. Was I really going to sit in a darkened room and type continuously for three and a half hours, describing and narrating the space in real time? Perhaps once was enough?
I was not to be disappointed because somehow, the author of the piece Dora Garcia by keeping the system simple and continuous, creates an immediacy that always keeps us guessing. By “us” I mean the visitors and the performers. Just as the energy in the room seems to flag, something unpredictable will happen, a lost child looking for its parents and requiring the help of the guard for instance will interrupt the flow, someone will cough loudly or drop their bag, or a group of girls all giggling and wearing tan leather boots will enter the space. Sadly, the performer can only record a fleeting glimpse of what is happening at any time and even when the room is empty, which did begin to happen towards closing time, there are noises that fill the void. There are many noises that are almost impossible to describe with our limited vocabulary.
One noise completely bemused me: every now and then I could hear a soft bell ringing once or twice. I thought perhaps this might be the sound of a cash register from the shop in the atrium below until it finally dawned on me that this was actually the lift arriving at the fourth floor.
For some reason, perhaps because the whole atmosphere of the day was soft and slow, the noises of the day were more prominent than before. One could hear squeaky or abrupt shoes on the wooden floor very clearly all day. One could also hear whispering, and a more diverse range of languages being spoken. There were French, Italian and German visitors and quite a few Spanish or Chinese-speaking groups.
Another notable difference on this day, was that some visitors had come specifically to be a part of the exhibit and clearly wanted to be described. One man had been back three times that day, for each of the performers, and thought the whole installation was fantastic. He said “Thank you ” in such a sensitive and polite way as he left, it reminded me of the way people talk to priests or religious officers as they leave a place of worship. All of this led to me think about the role of art galleries and museums these days and our relationship towards them as sacred spaces. A couple of people talked all the way around and many did not notice the screen or read the text that might be describing them, as they stared intently at their partner’s reactions or looked straight ahead. Most however entered the space with great solemnity and patient yet tentative movements, waiting quietly to see what was happening. They moved in to find their safe spot, some lingering by the entrance, many with their backs to the wall looking out.
Not a single visitor did anything disrespectful or rude or outrageous during the whole seven hours of my two shifts. Some did silly dances or sat down but none broke the spell. On reflection I find this lack of rebellion a little disappointing and quite surprising given that this was San Francisco, and this was California. Each visitor seemed to step or creep into the space quietly and with great respect, sometimes bordering on timidity. “How strange” I kept thinking. “Someone could do or say something that is very, very shocking and it could be recorded on the screen in real time”. But no one did.
Here’s a great interview of Dora Garcia about her work at the Venice Bienalle in 2011.