Shotgun Review

Are We There Yet? 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions

By Shotgun Reviews July 12, 2011

Are We There Yet? takes as its central theme one of the most creative and potentially radical human impulses—the urge to ask questions—and combines it with cutting-edge technology, the emergent world of social media, the values embedded in a classic Jewish joke, and a unique gallery space designed with the biblical prohibition against figurative representation in mind.

As visitors enter the Yud Gallery, voices emanate from a handful of speakers arranged discreetly along the perimeter of the floor, reciting questions that anonymous viewers enter into the installation database. On the wall to the right of the entrance, additional written questions shuffle in and out of view on a projected website. The installation offers a participatory experience that shifts between agency and constraint, a balance (or tension) that will likely affect individual visitors differently, depending on their expectations of both the act of questioning and of works of art. The speakers are motion-sensitive and recordings are triggered by walking past them; viewers are invited to take delight in encounters with the ruminations of ordinary people and are led to realize, moments later, how carefully mediated these are. A visitor who expects art to stir up trouble and start difficult discussions, to seriously question the relationships and systems that order our lives, may be frustrated by a piece that both reaches out to a boundary-less community and at the same time, stages a gathering that allows no interactions, simulating the broad reach of social media as it withholds even the abbreviated space for active give-and-take such media provide.

Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni. Are We There Yet? 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions, 2011; responsive sound installation. Courtesy of the Artists and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. 

However, it doesn’t seem that the artists in this exhibition were interested in provoking a charged debate on any single issue. The atomized questions washing into the empty, sculptural space instead create an auditory metaphor for beginnings and open-endedness. They enclose visitors within a suspended state of listening, deferring answers and certainty. The installation also engages visitors with the problem of representation posed by the space itself, with the possibilities and limitations of social media, and with the challenge of sustaining contemplation in an era suffused with information. Taken on these terms, the central question it raises is how might a light-touched and lyrical treatment of curiosity as a cultural value relate to a time in which so many social questions have either erupted into impassioned revolutions or remained disgracefully unaddressed by those who possess the responsibility and power to do so.

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Noga Wizansky is an artist and independent scholar based in Oakland. She holds an MA in Design and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in History of the Visual Arts, both from UC Berkeley.

Are We There Yet? 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, through July 31, 2011.

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