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Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Are We There Yet?" Leaves Many Unanswered Questions -- But That's the Point

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 7:30 AM

The environment of "Are We There Yet?" fosters listening and contemplation.
  • The environment of "Are We There Yet?" fosters listening and contemplation.

In today's Too-Much-Information Age, we want answers and we want them fast. Whether it's web searches, e-mail, Tweeting, updating Facebook, or downloading an app, we'll do whatever is necessary (and, don't forget, convenient) to find information now. In the Contemporary Jewish Museum's media installation opening today, "Are We There Yet?", Bay Area artists Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni challenge us to do the opposite -- slow down, ask questions, and embrace contemplation. For they believe that it's questions - not answers - that help us understand the past and propel us forward in society and in our lives. That overarching theme turns out to be a strength as well as a weakness in an exhibit that's overall worth seeing -- and, er, hearing.

Gershoni (left) and Goldberg
  • Gershoni (left) and Goldberg
Goldberg and Gershoni blend technology and tradition in the auditory installation where the visitor is the catalyst for his or her own experience. Upon entering the museum's architecturally stunning Yud Gallery (soaring ceilings, white angled walls, plentiful windows and skylights), you hear a random question:

"Can I return this?" asks a man with a Jewish inflection in his voice.

A woman then asks, "What does love look like?"

The sound comes from a small white speaker on the floor, one of at least a dozen dotting the perimeter of the room. As you walk forward and take in the airy beauty of the empty space, the next speaker (and hidden camera) detects your motion, and another random question begins:

"Do you believe in magic?"

More voices filter through.

"What's the secret to a good marriage?"

"Is there an afterlife?"

"What are you waiting for?"

"Paper or plastic?"

Despite the seeming barrage, it's not overwhelming in the least. In fact, you almost wish the questions would come quicker. (There's that Information Age thing again.) The system has built-in pauses between the tracks so you have time to think about what's being asked. Likewise, if you stand still to reflect for a moment, the questions cease. The challenge then becomes a test of will power: Can you slow down and enter into that "contemplative state of mind?"

Visitors can contribute their own questions either by typing them into a terminal at the gallery or via the installation's website. In fact, most of the questions proposed for the show were gathered from people around the world using social media.

Says Goldberg, "I'm always interested in how new technology gives new perspective on history and culture."

Other questions come from literature, popular culture, and the Talmud. In fact Jewish tradition is at the heart of the project, searching and questioning being central to Jewish cultural and spiritual identity, according to the organizers. Jews are encouraged throughout their lives to follow the Yiddish proverb, "One who does not ask, does not know."

The complex robotics underlying the deceivingly simple installation are pretty darn cool and the sound quality fantastic. This is thanks to Meyer Sound, the outfit behind Cirque de Soleil, the Beijing Olympics, and a plethora of concert halls around the world.

Yet after spending some time in the installation, a few questions of your own to start to arise.

"What exactly is the point of the exhibit?"

"What does it mean?"

"What am I supposed to learn?"

For better or worse, it's not about answers. As Goldberg explains, "It's about searching for meaning, not getting to the answer, but getting to the next question. It's about raising questions, thinking about them, and asking more questions."

So if it drives you batty when someone answers a question with a question, be prepared for a healthy dose of rhetorical queries. Likewise, if you leave feeling perplexed and asking what the heck you just experienced - well, that's a darn good question too.

Then again, maybe that's the point.

"Are We There Yet?" continues through May 31 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Admission is free-$10.

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Stephanie Orma


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