LOS ANGELES — I am sitting on a bench in the lobby of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the gleaming Frank Gehry–designed building in downtown Los Angeles, as a woman’s tranquil voice comes through the headphones I’m wearing, instructing me to look down at the iPad mini I am holding. On the screen I see a video of the room I am in, and she tells me to follow it as it moves: raise the iPad as the video pans up, to the left as it moves left. At first, the scene on the screen is almost identical to what I see behind it in the real world. But soon a cat materializes in a cardboard box, followed by crowds that aren’t there, and a dapper cat-woman hybrid named Schroeda, the first of many disjunctions between the screen and reality.
For the next 40 minutes, I follow the woman’s voice as she leads me on an unconventional tour of the building titled “Thought Experiments in F# Minor.” Created by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, with original music by Ellen Reid and curation by Yuval Sharon, the tour reveals little of the Concert Hall’s history, instead zig-zagging between philosophical musings such as on Schroedinger’s Cat (the theoretical paradox of a cat inside a box being both alive and dead), footage of intimate performances from the Philharmonic, and whimsical vignettes.
As I wind my way through the building’s lesser-known alcoves and exterior passageways, Schroeda (played by actress Jena Malone), keeps popping up, as if to keep me on my toes when I get too comfortable with the interface. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that, as someone deeply skeptical of technologically aided “interactive” art, I found it to be a thoroughly novel and captivating experience, one that encouraged engagement as opposed to detachment.
In an informal discussion after the press preview, Cardiff and Miller made a point of noting that the work is not augmented reality, the technological innovation by which the real world, as seen through a screen, is modified by computer-generated elements. They prefer to call it “physical cinema.” “Thought Experiments” is simply a video, one which the viewers must actively engage with. It does not respond to them; they must respond to it. (If they get off-track or make a wrong turn, as I did, they can pause and rewind to find their place again.)
The artists began making video tours like this 20 years ago (including projects for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2001), Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (2012), and the Sydney Biennale (2014)) and even though the interactive technology has since become more sophisticated with augmented reality, they often opt for more basic techniques. “We like doing something the simplest way,” explained Miller. This is not to say that they didn’t utilize technology in making the work. It was actually filmed over several months, with some green screen shots and other digital effects added in post-production, giving the impression of a single seamless shot.
The artwork is offered on most days from 10am to 2pm, the same hours as the Music Center’s self-guided audio tour is available. While that tour offers a conventional history of the building and the LA Philharmonic, don’t expect the same from Cardiff and Miller’s. “People who want to find out information, don’t do our walk,” joked Miller.
Disorientation is a key part of this experience. From the meandering narrative of the script that veers out into seemingly unconnected tangents, to the interface that can leave participants dizzy as they shift between cinematic and actual space, “Thought Experiments” offers a refreshing sense of instability.
“The magic happens when you’re really trying to synchronize,” said Miller. “It’s about these overlapping realities … that cause confusion in your brain, make you start to wonder what is your reality.”
“I think confusion is really good. We believe in confusion,” added Cardiff, to which Miller followed without missing a beat: “There’s too many answers.”
“Thought Experiments in F# Minor” by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller is available to the public beginning Friday March 1.