Hawking Audio Guides at the Guggenheim

In this piece from his new nonfiction collection, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelations, Joseph Keckler revisits his stint as an audio guide salesman.

The interior of the Guggenheim museum in New York City (photo by Wallygva, via Wikimedia Commons)
The interior of the Guggenheim museum in New York City (photo by Wallygva, via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: The following is a piece titled “Exhibition” from Joseph Keckler’s new collection of essays and stories marrying fiction and nonfiction, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelations, published last month by Turtle Point Press.

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Hello, and welcome to “Invisible: Longing and (In)difference: Nineties to Noughties,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum! I am your audio guide!
This show is a two-in-one, simultaneously a group retrospective of work by contemporary artists who were young in the nineties, and also a generational exhibition presenting new voices of artists who are young now.
Number One. Emerging artist Leah Cruise’s conceptually- based practice encompasses elements of performance and photography, and engages with the digital world. In the creation of this ongoing series, Third Party Favor, Leah logs onto Internet hookup sites such as Craigslist and invisibly mediates conversations. She begins by contacting two people who have compatible, and often extreme, sexual agendas. Leah then engages in two separate conversations, assuming the identities of both parties. She forwards the photos,“stats,” questions and desires from one person to the other. She edits nothing, simply acting as the facilitator of — and yet an intervener in — an electronic erotic exchange. Eventually, if and when a meeting place is determined, Leah drives to the named coordinates and discreetly snaps photos of the initial face-to-face meeting of the pair. From these shots Leah creates the images you see here, silver gelatin prints on pillowcases, which are sometimes saturated in spilt poppers and the artist’s own drool.
Number Two. This is a pile of ashes left when, at the opening, artist Dan Buggins set fire to the previous piece that inhabited this same space, “Impossible Chair” an impossible-to-sit-in chair made by his contemporary, fellow aging Young British Artist Bruce Abel. Buggins, who entered the museum concealing a large can of AXE body spray and a box of kitchen matches, maintained that he was motivated not by any professional resentment, but inspired by works of the past that he admired, namely Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning, and conceptualist Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.
“I was thinking about the word ‘chair’,” commented Buggins, “and I simply wanted to create and perform an anagram: IChar. I only wanted to char the chair! But I was apprehended before I could put out the fire at the moment I had planned . . .” Buggins was bailed out by the acquisition money he received from the museum, which added the pile of ashes, now entitled “Sit on This,” to its permanent collection.
Some viewers have sat on it, interpreting the title as an actual instruction! That is why the pile of ashes is very small now. The work, which resulted from the destruction of one piece of art, will itself be erased over time. Just imagine!
Number Three. The reason the wall is blank and the sign says “audio guide only” is because this piece can be experienced only on the audio guide! You may have noticed a trend in exhibitions to provide as little text as possible, a withholding of information that forces you to spend more money purchasing the audio guide. Well, the Ridgewood collective Rumblebutt noticed this and thought, “Hey, why not deprive viewers of the object itself?” So the object is here on the audio guide. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the piece of art is my voice! Rumblebutt purchased my voice saying these particular words.
Number Four. Now kindly turn away from the exhibit altogether. This is the rotunda. You must have passed through it a few minutes ago. It is populated by your fellow museum visitors, as well as by museum employees. These figures, while alive, tend to be only slightly more animate than the art that surrounds them. Here we see Jessica, slouching behind the admissions desk. She earned her MFA in new media two years ago. Jessica thinks about lunch before lunchtime.
Just a few yards from Jessica is the audio guide station. The audio attendants wear buttons that say “Ask me about the audio guide.” But why would you when you’ve already got me right here?
The  newest audio guide attendant is Joseph. His hair is halfway down his back and in a ponytail. He has a glazed-over look. Even if someone did ask him about the audio tour, I doubt he’d have much to say, from the looks of him.

I moved into a room underneath the elevated JMZ train line in Brooklyn one Saturday night, and began working at the Guggenheim Sunday morning. I curled my fingers around that slippery bottom rung of the art world ladder, the audio guide salesperson rung, for eight dollars an hour. My new manager Nadine, an Australian woman, let me in the side entrance before the museum opened and handed me a stack of glossy fliers.

“All right, mate, we’ve got a line of people outside, waiting to get in. I need you to bookmark ’em.”

What could it mean to bookmark something that is not a book, but a person? To abandon him after splitting him in two with a thin promise to come back later, perhaps? Or could it be a new sexual practice, some thrilling act that previously evaded human imagination? That’s right, I walked in on the two of ’em! They was there on the floor, and they was bookmarking! No, gentle reader. “Bookmarking,” as Nadine was compelled to explain, “is where we stand outdoors, hand each person a flier, and tell them ‘Hello. We have audio guides available at the box office.’ Can you try that for me?”

Try it I did, five mornings a week for the next six months. I proclaimed to untold thousands that we had audio guides available at the box office. And that was actually just an odd lie, because there was no box office at the Guggenheim. There was an admissions desk, yes, but it was neither box nor office. Nobody paid me much mind, anyway. Human beings, you see, display a rather narrow range of responses when they are told that audio guides are available at the box office. Very few are wildly enticed by this revelation. The great majority of museumgoers I approached did not respond at all, staring blankly past me or even studiously ignoring me. A smaller percentage would huff something like, “I can think for myself, thanks,” as though the audio guide were an Orwellian contraption designed to erase their real thoughts and replace them with propaganda. And rarely — just every now and again — some middle-aged woman in a windbreaker would get a glint in her eyes and utter, “Oh, I always do the audio.” She would say this with a sense of muted defiance, as though doing the audio were a right someone had tried to take away. I imagined her like a gambling addict, sneaking out of the house twice a week, squandering the family money on doing the audio.

“It’s important that we speak to every person,” Nadine reiterated to me one day. “I watched you miss nine this morning. And make sure to smile and be persuasive. You’re not convincing people. Our company has a permanent arrangement with the Metropolitan Museum, but not the Guggenheim. Once we get that contract, we can all relax a bit. Won’t that be nice?”

Curious about how this other half lived, I strolled over to the Metropolitan after my shift that afternoon. Sure enough, the operation was more relaxed. It took me five minutes to even find the audio desk, which I finally discovered unmarked and tucked away in a forgotten corner of the vast lobby. A sleeping woman staffed the desk, her hands and face pressed against it, recalling Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

No one napped at the Guggenheim. My colleagues and I assembled the audio gadgets at 8 a.m., as Nadine’s right-hand woman Shira, an aspiring commercial photographer fresh out of serving in the Israeli army, stood behind us with a stopwatch shouting “Faster!” as though commanding an underling to propel the Starship Enterprise into warp speed. Then, with the urgency of paramedics, we wheeled the devices on rolly carts down the spiraling ramp of the museum. I would sometimes glance over the rail for a quick and vertiginous view of our destination: the empty museum floor below.

Down on the floor we received hordes of patrons who came tottering through the rotunda, flicking sentence fragments at us from yards away. “Coat check?” We transformed ourselves into human racks, hanging headphones from our forearms. Shira manually adjusted our arms if they were not outstretched at precisely ninety degrees.

Scattered across the rotunda was an archipelago of island- desks, each with its own set of inhabitants. Mildly stylish, former art students staffed admissions, exchanging knowing glances amongst themselves as they listlessly dispensed tickets to the public. Scandinavians oversaw the concierge desk, with the help of one Chelsea gay guy who used to style the crafting guru Martha Stewart before she was sentenced to prison for insider trading. “Once Martha’s probation is up, she’s going to be bigger than ever, and we’ll work together again,” he once mumbled, putting his hands together like Renfield awaiting the return of Dracula. At the neighboring desk, the membership head- quarters, mysterious figures in business attire took turns disappearing into and emerging from hidden offices.

We, the audio guide attendants, had no desk. We were the occupying force in a foreign land — or were we refugees, squatting on the outskirts of the Info station? Seeing the giant block letters that spelled INFORMATION looming above our heads, patrons often approached us with questions. However, we had been strictly forbidden from answering general museum questions, as that was not in our contract, and as, furthermore, that duty belonged to the Info Ladies.

The Info Ladies were a breed of well-to-do New York seniors who worked on a volunteer basis. There were usually at least two of them at a time — these birds did not fly alone. And yet, the desk went unstaffed more days than not. I came to understand that the Info desk existed more as a social club, a see-and-be- seen destination, than an actual service to museumgoers. While the administration furnished the station with pamphlets, exhibition catalogues, and maps, the Ladies often acted  put-upon when approached with questions. Their title, after all, did not oblige them to supply information. Rather, they offered some- thing much snappier: Info. Frances, a dainty, bejeweled creature, might inform you, for instance, that she’d been invited to a party on Park Avenue but had to decline. “Too bizzy!” she squeaked. Cookie, a butch flâneur not famous for her patience, would tell you her name if you asked, but would be unimpressed if you remembered it, though she never recalled yours. “Yep, Cookie’s the name. It was Cookie last week and it’s Cookie today.” Then there was Thelma. Thelma didn’t tell, she showed. Every time she appeared she donned a skin-tight body suit bear- ing cartoonish images of ropes, whips, and chains — a festive BDSM wallpaper pour le corps.

Finally, Florence. Florence didn’t have to utter a word for you to know she was Queen of the Info Ladies. By far the most elegant in dress and apathetic toward patrons, she waltzed through the Guggenheim in cream leather pants, wrapped in a cashmere shawl, with her platinum sculpted bob and long burgundy fingernails that radiated their own light. But Florence needn’t even stand at her Info post for you to understand her to be the most refined fashionista and chaste Info-giver. Eventually emancipated from the desk, Florence passed into an upper echelon, floating out into the Info-sphere. She became like Yoda after he died, acquiring the privilege of metaphysicality, just appearing, oh, here and there, as a hologram; you see, at a certain point Florence stopped coming in for her Tuesday shift. Thelma and Cookie took her place behind the desk. And yet: Florence still breezed into the museum every Tuesday, still walked to the Info desk and proceeded to chit-chat with the other two ladies, remaining the entire time on the other side of the Info desk as though she, having come full circle, were now an Info-seeker. As actual seekers approached, Florence just smiled and checked her nails, allowing Thelma and Cookie to fend off the seekers on their own.

I am Florence, Patron Saint of Info Ladies. I am named after that city which is home to 85 percent of the world’s art treasures. That is naturally why I was given my job at the Guggenheim. I was appointed. To understand what Info is, you must understand what Info is not. Info is never an answer, dear — Info is an attitude. Info may change. Something that was Info yesterday may very well not be Info today. So go ahead, ask me anything you want. Just remember: I may point you toward the exit, but you must find the elevator on your own.

While bookmarking outside, I was always on the lookout for intriguing New Yorkers. Back in the Midwest I had striven to put myself under the tutelage of the sophisticated and eccentric, and I figured pickins might be better in NYC — taste, intellect, and excessive peculiarity were celebrated here, so the old story went, in contrast to regional America, where such qualities are generally regarded with suspicion and contempt. I wanted to learn how to become a New Yorker. I wanted to become an artist, too, though I struggled with what kind of artist I should be. In school I had made a series of self-portraits in oil, sometimes channeling Romaine Brooks to envision myself as a wan dandy, other times painting myself as two green figures, one man and one woman, with a sense of some unresolved relationship. Of- ten I affixed a color copy of one painting to a different blank canvas so it looked like another real, and identical painting. I had also been constructing installations using the hair of strangers, writing monologues, and training as an opera singer. Was I set- ting my sights on becoming a human Gesamtkunstwerk? Did I wish to be too many things at once, or did I scamper from one mode to another in order, really, to become no one? Was I simply a fringy dilettante?

As pressing as my aesthetic questions may have been, today there were unavoidable matters of survival on my mind as well, and I was beginning to feel increasingly desperate. For groceries, I could afford only eggs and ninety-nine cent loaves of white bread. To make life a touch grimmer, a junkie had just ran- sacked my apartment under the J train, after removing the door with power tools, and I’d had to take a day off of work to clean up the mess. So under the auspices of selling audio guides, I began trying to establish connections and make friends in the hope that someone would recognize my — well, whatever was good about me — and would, in turn, impart some great cosmic knowledge to me, or at least hook me up with a slightly higher-paying job. First, I tried to imbue “We have audio guides avail- able at the box office,” with élan! I tried to invest it with pathos, even, drawing on my operatic training. The body is the instrument, I’d repeat silently, taking a deep breath. This delivery soon proved ineffective and unbecoming. So I then decided to adopt a more detached approach, adding a dash of irony to my tone in order to represent the public’s doubt about the product and give myself credibility. Now, when some grumpy patron spat, “I never do the audio,” I took to lowering my chin to diabolically whisper, “Neither do I.” And all the while, bookmark to bookmark, I was waiting, like a cannibal for an anthropologist, to be discovered.

One brisk and sunny November morning I was sent out to bookmark the line. I pursed my lips and blew visible breath as though it were smoke. Ah, to be young in every decade and not just this one! I waved to the hot dog vendor and the woman who sold faux African masks on the sidewalk and began making my way down the line. Then I saw him, a dignified older man. He was wearing tweed, sporting a neatly trimmed white beard, and his cheeks were round and rosy like polished holiday apples. He reminded me of Santa Claus, but more clean-cut and tastefully dressed. As he inhaled, his chest expanded, bulging out of his jacket like the swelling breast of a large bird. A big metropolitan rooster, he announced the morning into his cell phone. “Why, yes, it’s just beautiful here in New York.” His voice was deep and clear and his enunciation was as crisp as the air.

I was gripped by an uncanny sense that I should know this man. He brimmed with intelligence and warmth. He might be a famous radio announcer, literary critic, or host a program on PBS. Walking over to him, I toned down my spiel. “We have audio guides available at the box office,” I said with gentle assurance, as though I were a kind nurse informing some husband that his wife was in good condition after a kidney transplant. “Why, thank you,” he replied, appearing genuinely grateful.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled and moved down the line.

Twenty minutes later, as I crossed the rotunda to retrieve more bookmarks, I heard a low voice behind me. “You convinced me,” it said. I turned around to see the Santa-man grinning benevolently with a pair of headphones around his neck. He raised the audio device into the air, as though to toast me.

“It must have been my pitch . . .”

“It was pure poetry.” With that, the Santa-man disappeared into the exhibit. He had seen something in me.

“Returns!” came another, markedly less mellifluous, voice. I turned to see Shira. She was pointing, like the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-come, across the rotunda toward the area where we collect units from people exiting the exhibit. I remained at this station for the next hour, facing an onslaught of tangled audio guides. I couldn’t collect them fast enough. The cords of one family’s audio guides had woven themselves together into a Gordian knot. A father, son, and daughter were entangled and when I tried to help I got tangled up too. As I struggled to free us all, I felt a hand slip something into my back pocket. The Santa- man’s voice came whispering from behind.

“I’m going to a party this evening. The address is on my card. Oh, and no need to change — just come in your work clothes.” At 6 p.m. I defied the Santa-man and took the hour-long train ride back to Brooklyn to change, since I did not want to wear my little audio apron and dingy blue button-up shirt to my first fancy New York party. I put on a black sweater and the shiny black pants I had bought for my job interview. I’d pragmatically left the tag on, tucking it inside where it had scraped my right buttock. Boldly, I now tore the tag off. I massaged some Chap-Stick on my scuffed shoes and ran out the door.

By the time I stepped off the train in the East Fifties, the air had become unseasonably balmy. The card the Santa-man gave me just had a name on it, with no title, as though he were his own title. I kept glancing down at his cursive numbers as I scanned street addresses in search of the building. I eventually spotted Santa waiting in the entrance to a high-rise. “Hello, friend!” He waved and beckoned me. I glanced back at the card. Frank. Santa’s name is Frank. I followed Frank past the doorman, who smiled and nodded.

We got into the elevator. “My friend is the Omani ambassador to the United States,” Frank said. “Now when we get up there,” he continued, pressing button “42” with his chubby thumb, “I’m just going to introduce you as the son of a business associate of mine — sound good?”

“OK,” I said. As the mirrored doors pulled shut, I watched myself agree to this proposition before contemplating it. Why would Santa…? I reasoned that the ambassadors might be puzzled if Frank were to tell them the real story of how we became acquainted — they wouldn’t understand that startling yet warm sense of recognition that struck both of us — and how could they? It’s such a rare and inexplicable experience between strangers. And what business does an audio guide salesperson have at a United Nations cocktail hour?

Frank led me into an enormous room full of well-dressed people. Swarms of servants attired in classic maid and butler uniforms moved about in zigzags, passing out plates of food and snatching up empty ones. “Oman is known for their silver work,” Frank remarked as I viewed my distorted reflection in the goblets, platters, ornaments, and weapons that filled cabinets around the room.

“Hey! Didn’t I meet you at the last one of these things?” a woman in a dashiki asked me, wagging her finger at me and grinning.

“Of course you did!” Frank answered quickly, just as I was opening my mouth. She sees me as belonging, I thought, pleased. Frank guided me to another part of the room, then took me on a tour of the apartment, while continuing to give me tidbits about the culture of Oman.

The host, a small dapper man, introduced himself to me. “Welcome to our end-of-Ramadan feast,” he said, wiping a crumb from his black moustache with a cocktail napkin.

“The feast after the fast,” Frank added, whisking me away from the ambassador. I felt a pang of guilt for being admitted to the feast without suffering the fast. “Now come with me,” Frank said softly, “I want to show you something really beautiful.” I followed Frank to a second elevator, the likes of which I’d never seen, as it was an elevator actually inside the apartment. The elevator took us up, past the servant quarters, to the top floor, where Frank and I stepped out into an enormous room — a room without bounds. The room was New York City itself: its walls were glass.

Taken with the Brooklyn skyline, I pressed my hands, still oily with cherry ChapStick, against the glass. The only time I’d been high up like this was once when I visited the top of the Empire State Building on a trip, but all I could ever remember about it was the chain links that caged me, keeping me from chasing the imp of the perverse over the edge. Now I exhaled onto the glass: in an instant, fog covered the East Fifties.

“Which bridge is that?” I asked. There was a moment of silence, followed by a warm breath in my ear.

“Queensborough,” the Santa-man whispered, making the word sound like a term of endearment. His tongue followed, snaking around my outer earlobe and burrowing into the hole. I felt his hands grip my waist as he greeted me again. “Hello, friend.”

“Come,” Frank said, directing me toward a bed that I barely noticed was in the center of the room. I paused, then proceeded stiffly toward it. He moved his hands over my clothes, and then under them. “Does this feel good?” I nodded blankly, in the manner an amnesiac might if he’d been asked a question about himself and were guessing at the answer.

As Frank reached for my belt buckle, I reckoned with the thought that this event was, no doubt, what he had in mind ever since I told him about the audio guide at 9 a.m. Of course it was. And here I was, being peeled out of my shoes and fancy pants in the bed of a diplomat. I opened my mouth to say something. The words wrong impression and sorry weighed in my throat like coins. But Frank was already on all fours with his shirt unbuttoned half way. He was breathing fast and his breath smelled like broth. My face fell onto the comforter, which was impossibly soft.

I must admit, I was simply not attracted to male seniors. Perhaps I was not attracted to “men” at all, really; I seemed to like boys my age, with long hair, who carried forth some inexpungible sense of juvenility and delinquency, and girls who skewed lesbian and wore tight clothing. Might I pretend Frank was one of these? I closed my eyes and tried as his beard scraped against my thigh.

Retreating into my mind, I remembered similar incidents from my past. Did I conceive of my body as a musical instrument that belonged to no one in particular — banged up and out of tune, the property of some hospital’s activity parlor, available for anyone to pick up and strum a vulgar ditty on? I once let a very unwashed urban nomad girl whose mind I admired have her way with me. I wasn’t feeling it, but it felt like a small price to pay to hear a few more pearls of her drunk wisdom. And then once in a Traverse City karaoke bar some clown named Larry busted into a bathroom stall and grabbed my urine-spurting penis. I was slow to respond, failing to say, “Hey, stop that!” because I was fascinated by his brazenness.

Frank was now pulling down his pants, still panting. I wondered if I might lack what are popularly termed “good boundaries.” My father perceived this when I was little — he was troubled watching me at age eight out on the soccer field: I was lolling around back by the goal post, looking up at the sky (to find shapes of creatures in the clouds, of course) and never looking at the soccer ball. He called me to his “study,” a messy uninsulated room in the corner of the house, to have a talk with me about protecting my space in the world. But I showed up to our meeting wearing a green tinsel wig, leprechaun hat, and sunglasses, with a holster around my waist. I drew a microphone from the holster and held it to my father’s mouth, as though interviewing him, as he tried to make his points.

I did have boundaries, I realized. They were hard, cold, and invisible like the glass walls of this room. It may appear that I do not belong to myself. In fact, I view myself not as a person but as a place, or more precisely, as a trap. Frank walked into my story and he is my captive, haha! I thought, a new sinister air gathering around me as I lay on the bed, now receiving Frank’s attention with all the erotic gratitude of a twitching cadaver.

“This . . . feels a little forced,” Frank said, finally pulling back. His face, crimson from the sexual rush, changed to a rouge of embarrassment.

We put on our clothes and got back into the elevator, each carrying our own special disappointment. I bid farewell to people I had met on my way to the door. “See you next time,” I waved to the woman in the dashiki.

“You better!” she hollered, laughing. Frank walked me out of the building. The air outside had become strangely tropical. We strolled down the street for a while, silent, in the dark. Occasional bodegas cast a sickly glow on the sidewalk.

“What did you think when we met?” I asked suddenly, surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth.

“Well, you . . . ,” Frank responded, eventually, “told me about the audio.” Struggling to come up with something more to say, he added, “and you were very pleasant.” In my innocence, or was it staggering arrogance, I had imagined he’d been as struck by me as I was by him, and that he might report that he’d felt as though he were being offered an audio guide by some figure outside of the ordinary — a baboon, for instance, Audrey Hepburn, or a poltergeist. “Then of course there was the look.”

“The look?”

“Yes, the look that made me know we would be . . . ,” he glanced around and lowered his voice, “compatible.”

A look. Was there such a look? I asked myself. Was I unwittingly speaking in some arcane code? Might my irises be flashing these “looks” all the time? Perhaps I was like the Marvel Comics character Cyclops, who must wear special goggles to prevent lasers from shooting out of his eyes. Perhaps my wild peepers were firing off lust beams, willy-nilly, leading to misunderstandings left and right. Maybe bedroom eyes were the only eyes I had? Maybe my way of being in the world was essentially flirtatious.

I entertained such possibilities. But in truth, Frank and I simply misread one another’s interest. I had conceived of him as a Socratic, high-culture grandfather who wouldn’t likely be cruising at the museum before noon, and he had envisaged me as a bushy-tailed audio tramp.

“Goodbye,” he said.

“Goodbye,” I replied, reaching out my arms to give him a hug. He did not hug me, and seemed to feel damned by the mere invitation, looking nervously around to see who might be watching us.

The next day was slow at the Guggenheim. Nadine had called in sick, though I knew her to be a good-time gal and imagined she simply had a later and wilder night than I. Thelma and Cookie stood behind the Info desk. “How are you?” I asked them. Thelma simply nodded her head, brushing a wrinkle from her de Sadean romper.

“I’m fine!” snapped Cookie. She said this as though I kept offering her a blanket when she wasn’t cold! Thelma gestured towards me, as to perfunctorily ask and you?

“I’m fine,” I replied. “I went to my first New York party last night. At an ambassador’s house.” Cookie raised an eyebrow. Just then I heard the sounds of rustling. Suddenly, up rose Florence like a swan, between Thelma and Cookie, with a stack of Frank Lloyd Wright brochures in her hand. Miracle of miracles: she had resumed her throne behind the Info desk.

Florence set the stack on the counter and straightened them with her long nails. “An ambassador’s house?” she asked, turning to face me. “Well go on, dear. Sounds interesting.” She gestured, like a teacher, calling on me for an answer. “How did this come about?” she pressed. “We want details. Don’t we, ladies?” Thelma and Cookie didn’t respond, but continued to flank Florence, like absentminded backup singers. I knew she wasn’t the type to humor anyone or express interest if she hadn’t any — clearly, Florence believed that I had Info.

All around us I heard a soft crackling of voices, barely audible remarks concerning art objects, emanating from the many visitors who moved in processions along the spiraling ramp above us, having no choice but to circle the museum’s empty center. Round and round they went, like senile birds of prey. Florence lowered her chin and whispered, “I want to be transported.” The word ricocheted through the rotunda as I opened my mouth to speak.

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