Departures: Local: SFMOMA Video Walk

In 2001, I saw a museum exhibit that was described thus:

Lauded by Richard Lacayo in Time magazine as "more fun than a funhouse excursion, as intimate as Molly's soliloquy in Ulysses," Canadian artist Janet Cardiff's Telephone Call, 2001, is a 17-minute, site-specific audio and video walk through of SFMOMA. Equipped with a small digital camcorder with stereo headphones, visitors journey through the Museum by aligning onscreen images with the actual physical space and listening to an extraordinary narrative collage that includes Cardiff's voice, fragments of recorded music and the artist's footsteps.

I described it thus, in some mail sent 2001:

Saturday, I went to SFMOMA. They have a Video Walk. This Video Walk means that you carry around a video camera. Really, you're just using it as a mobile video player. You walk around and watch a video that someone else took while walking around in the museum.

I mean, she arted it up. But for the most part, you're playing a sort of "Follow the Leader" game, trying to sync your progress through the museum to match the movie's progress.

It's kind of weird. Like, you're dodging around people as you cross a lobby, and you look down at the video, and there's people in the video, too, and you instinctively try to dodge around _them_ even though they aren't there any more. Even though the video's narrator reminds you that they're not there any more.

And walking up a staircase, you look up at a painting, and then you look at the screen, and it's another painting. And though the real painting is right there and the camera's resolution isn't so great, you can actually see the recorded painting more clearly because you saw it in the most recent issue of Giant Robot.

Things don't get really weird until the video sends you behind the door marked Staff Only. There, you will find yourself in a stairwell. Following the leader, you walk up the stairs. Mounted on the wall there is an Emergency Chair. You decide to pause the video so that you can look at the Emergency Chair, which is kind of an interesting piece of engineering.

This is not the first time you've paused the video. You paused it before so that you'd have time to jot down some notes. In fact, you've been pretty slow about taking this tour. Probably most people aren't so slow. Probably most people don't pause the video.

Anyhow, so someone else taking the video walk catches up to you, because you're looking at the Emergency Chair. You've already had a bit of temporal dissonance trying to wriggle through long-past crowds, but now you're sitting and watching this guy who pauses on the stair. He's chuckling at something, laughing nervously. He's laughing at the video, laughing at something that you haven't seen. He's passed you in the movie. As you watch this guy chuckling, you are looking at your own future. And then he exits the stairwell.

And then you unpause the video, and it's not funny, and you wonder if the guy was just chuckling nervously because you were looking at him. It was just the two of you in this empty stairwell, after all, behind a door marked Staff Only. He probably wasn't 100% sure you weren't part of the art.


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