The Key Room


The Key Room

By Danica Willard Sachs May 3, 2016

Carrie Hott’s new permanent installation, The Key Room, at Headlands Center for the Arts presents anew two often mundane institutions: the archive and the visitor resource center. Building on Headlands’ tradition of inviting artists to reimagine spaces around the campus, Hott’s installation responds to both the geographic and social history of Headlands and the surrounding area—even incorporating its former lives as a military base and home to the Miwok Indians by bringing together oral histories and ephemera with field recordings and video of Headlands’ spectacular natural setting. Over all of this, Hott casts an aura of mystery, using cryptic categories, diagrams, and maps to turn the perceived usefulness of the archive against itself.

Just off the main corridor of Building 944, the Key Room immediately distinguishes itself by color; entered through a cardinal red door, the room itself is painted a friendly bright blue. Hott started the project in 2014 by combing through what had become a filled-to-the-brim archive room, originally created twenty-five years ago by artists Phoebe Bookbank and Machele Civy and containing over 1,000 objects accumulated by resident artists, staff, and visitors. Photographing each object as if it were a scientific specimen, Hott then categorized every item using a set of keywords of her own creation: building, container, distance, feature, ghost, handle, instrument, land, light, provision, sea, setting, signal, substitute, survey, weight. For example, item 60 is a pair of gold utensils, contributed by former resident artist Max Below in 1997, and categorized by Hott under the terms “handle,” “instrument,” and “provision.” This is one of the more obvious associations of keyword with object, but the artist’s system is in actuality pretty esoteric. For example, item 33, named Power Ball, is identified by the keywords “light” and “signal,” and described as a “pink and blue half-inflated rubber ball with text ‘The Power is Off.’”

Carrie Hott. The Key Room, 2016; permanent building commission at Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts. Photo: Andria Lo.

The task of describing ad nauseam Hott’s classification system for each object would do little to illuminate the overall effect of the artist’s work. And indeed, the rigor with which Hott strove to make her archive a reflection of Headlands’ history, and to a certain extent its mission, emerges in the multilayered approach she takes to display. Near the back of the small room, a glass vitrine occupies one wall; its contents will rotate a selection of items from Hott’s categories for the life of the installation. On view at the time of writing was a collection of “handles,” including item 60 described above. A pair of video monitors mounted on opposite walls of the room show a rotation of images from the archive, as well as videos from around the Headlands area of wildlife and the nearby ocean. Next to the display case is a large binder chronicling every one of Hott’s categories and the objects filed therein.

Neither the monitors nor the binder are particularly interesting on their own: the binder is a tedious and exhaustive catalog, and the images of the objects on the monitors, which are the same as the photographs in the binder, are redundant. Opposite the display case and binder is a bank of desk phones: Push a number and hear oral histories, birdcalls, or the sounds of waves crashing on nearby Rodeo Beach. Compiled from artist residents and local historians, these stories provide a richness to the experience of the archive that is largely lost in viewing the display case or binder. The archive comes to life in the context of how an object was used by an artist during their residency, and Hott’s inclusion of stories about the Headlands’ past as a military base and home to the Miwok tribe deepens the conversation.

The other role that the Key Room is envisioned to play is that of visitor resource center. Nodding to this, Hott provides a map in the hall intended to introduce visitors to the place’s geography. In addition to being a way finder, it hints at the complex interplay of site, history, and memory embodied in Headlands. Hott also commissioned other resident artists to contribute self-guided tour pamphlets, available in the Key Room for visitors to use. Like the map in the hall outside, these interpretive materials spring from the perspective of the artist who made them, thus providing a distinct take on Headlands as opposed to a definitive overview. Scott Oliver’s pamphlet, “In My Headlands,” for example, gives a detailed map of the Marin Headlands with numbers marking what he terms “sites of varying degrees of personal importance from the past twenty-three years.” With each numbered site, Oliver gives a detailed blurb explaining its significance. In this way, Hott turns the traditional tools of a visitor resource center into a series of Choose Your Own Adventure–style guides, reliant on the visitor to decode these various maps and find their own path around the site.

Taken altogether, Hott’s presentation of the archive and the visitor resource center in the Key Room manifests as a dense interweaving of the Headlands’ natural resources and its historical context. While notating each object’s origin and physical qualities according to her system, Hott also roots the archive in the metaphysical space of Headlands as a whole. Michel Foucault, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, writes about the complexity of unraveling an archive: “It is obvious that the archive of a society, a culture, or a civilization cannot be described exhaustively [. . .]. The archive cannot be described in its totality; and in its presence it is unavoidable. It emerges in fragments, regions, and levels.”1 Hott’s interpretation of the Headlands archive similarly emerges in fragments, with each story, object, and location a small piece of a larger, recombinant constellation that just begins to describe the experience of being there but never attempts to encapsulate the whole. 
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  1. Michel Foucault, “The Historical A Priori and the Archive,” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972): 126–131.

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