“At one point you’ll enter the staff stairwell. If the alarms go off, ignore them.” This from the woman setting me up with my video camera and headset to experience Janet Cardiff’s contribution to The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at SFMOMA, The Telephone Call. She was absolutely thrilled that I asked about it, since it was after 5 p.m. on a Thursday and I was her first participant. That’s not the only reason of course. Once you’ve tried it you’ll be an instant convert and want to tell everyone you know about it.
Armed with your gear, you’ll head to your starting point: the benches adjacent to the main stairway on the first floor. Hit play, and suddenly you’re navigating between two worlds, as Cardiff’s voice over directs your attention while the view finder shows you another walk through the museum, now juxtaposed against your surroundings. The space around you seems filled with ghosts, revealed only to you through the video. People glide by, invisible to the other visitors and you notice details like artwork that has changed or been removed. There is a disorienting feeling as you match your movements to hers, and the strange sense that you’re inhabiting someone else’s body: that you should recognize the people she singles out, that you should remember relationships hinted at. You begin to rely on her cues so much that at one point when the screen goes black, it’s as if Cardiff has abandoned you and there is something like a feeling of betrayal.
Please, please go try this. I’m eternally grateful to the Engineer’s Daughter herself for tipping me off to this (perhaps it will inspire you too to name your cat after the artist. What, don’t believe me?). For some interesting details about the genesis of the work, check out this video in the Multimedia section of SFMOMA’s site.