> WALKS > THE TELEPHONE
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is the only time I’ve produced a second piece for a museum.
The first one, the audio walk from 1997, used the structure of the
building as a memory map. This one, a video walk, created a narrative
that involved interactions with people in the space, but still used
the architecture as a baseline. The basis of the narrative was about
how our minds invent scenarios from chance meetings between people.
The piece was largely about self-induced anxieties and how the fears
we have change our perception of our world.
hear woman in front of you talking about her
fear of frogs. I can’t go into Chinatown even in case I see
a store selling frog legs ...
Janet Batrachophobia ... Frogs
in my soup. Frogs in my bed, crawling up my legs. Frogs falling from
the sky ... What am I afraid of ?
the audio shifts to scary music as I say these things image shifts
to an apartment, walking down a hallway. look through doorway and see
a woman in a black slip on the bed. sound of cell phone rings beside
you. sound of getting telephone out of bag. visuals go back to that
of museum in front of you
Bernard What are you thinking
is this ?
Bernard What do you mean ?
I’m sitting right beside you.
Janet We have to go now. Point
the camera where I’m pointing
it. Synchronize your movements with mine. Stand up. Walk to the right.
Follow this woman. Go behind the stairs. Now walk past her.
Cardiff ’s video walk, The Telephone Call, opened at the San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art on March 1, 2001, as part of 010101, Art in Technological
Times, an exhibition about the intersection of art and new technologies.
The piece leads visitors through the museum on a meandering tour up
the central staircase, taking them briefly into a nearby gallery, and
then into a service stair normally off limits to visitors. Cardiff ’s
voice muses on the people she is seeing and the overheard conversations
and encounters around her. Layers of real and recorded sound overlap,
creating a rich and ambiguous sense of space. A man calls. In the bleak
service stairwell, the tour pauses and the camera goes black. Ominous
footsteps approach from behind in the stairwell. Alone and convinced
in the wrong place, visitors wait, hearts racing. As one visitor put
thought someone was going to kill me on the stairs. Brilliant.” The
walk concludes with a stroll over the fifth floor bridge high above
the museum’s atrium, closing with a view out to the west hills of
To someone who hasn’t taken one, it is impossible
to explain the bizarrely intense sensation of psychological immersion
created by Cardiff ’s video walks. They engender a sense of trance-like
disorientation that is unlike anything else in contemporary art, and
not remotely comparable to the experience of cinema. In an unpublished
video interview done while Cardiff was working on the piece at SFMOMA,
she compared her audio and video walks, noting that audio has “this
way of fluidly moving and entering the person’s body in a subversive
video walks possess that quality, too, but in video walks, “the
world becomes this weird, amorphous thing that’s not really there...
like an alternate reality, like you’re going into a different dimension.
I was surprised at how much it puts you into a trance afterward. The
reason is that your brain is concentrating so much on trying to line
up the reality that is the video image with the reality that’s outside.” At
the same time, she pitches her voice in a very particular way, “like
a thinking voice, like it is going right into your brain, and I think
that way of speaking is very hypnotic.” Carefully following the
image around the museum, listening to Cardiff ’s voice, people are
suspended between Janet’s invented world and the real world. When
the invented world suddenly stops, it’s disconcerting, and more
than a bit strange.
Cardiff closed The Telephone Call by saying, “Goodbye.” In
that moment it felt like you’d just been kicked out of her brain,
or that she’d left yours after a brief but exquisite mind-meld that
the artist describes as “a bit of a merging of two people.” The
tour created a sense of human connection that was palpable, and in
its wake came feelings of abandonment, fascination, and intense gratitude.
Visitors also frequently described a sense of pleasant insecurity as
to whether the piece was in fact really over when the video stopped.
They described thinking and hoping that everyone around them – who
had, of course, just been absorbed into Cardiff ’s theater – might
still have lines to speak and roles to play. In nearly two decades
of curating, I have never seen anything like the kind of intoxicated
audience response The Telephone Call generated.
There are a number
of things one could talk about here beyond the sheer level of enthusiasm
for The Telephone Call, but what I want to single out briefly is the
unusual intimacy it establishes. Again and again, people who took The
Telephone Call at SFMOMA described their experience in virtually sexual
terms: a mingling of bodies; the feeling of being “in” someone
and having someone inside them; a sense of unusually close psychological
and physical communion with another person. A number of visitors observed
that they needed to cry in the elevator after finishing the piece.
Needless to say, these are not the terms in which people normally describe
their experiences of visual art. Yet in another sense, Cardiff ’s
work succeeds precisely in doing what much art claims to offer but
fails to deliver: a view into another’s brain and body – a
way to see, hear, and seemingly feel (through the motion of the body
in space) another person’s reality. That Cardiff achieves this through
the highly mediated experience of recorded audio and a tiny video image
makes the user’s experience all the more unexpected and therefore
|***The tracks must be listened with headphones for the full
Video walk, 15:20
Curated by John S. Weber together with Aaron Betsky, Janet Bishop, Kathleen Forde,
Adrienne Gagnon, and Benjamin Weil for the group exhibition, 010101: Art in Technological
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA