Are you listening? The sound installation that gets inside your head
Consider a snail without a shell. Is it still a snail?
I think its a slug. Luckily, this isn’t a quiz ... it’s from a new art installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco – an exhibit that’s all about questions.
Brother/sister reporting team Seth and Molly Samuel went to get some answers.
* * *
MOLLY SAMUEL: Alright Seth, ready to go in?
SETH SAMUEL: Ready.
MOLLY SAMUEL: Let’s go check it out.
What does love look like?
What time IS it?
MOLLY SAMUEL: We’re in the Yud Gallery, in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It’s specially designed for sound installations.
SETH SAMUEL: It’s pretty cool.
KEN GOLDBERG: The room is a magnificent 60-foot high, white tilted architectural wonder.
SETH SAMUEL: Okay … it’s very cool.
GOLDBERG: It’s dramatic. (laughs)
MOLLY SAMUEL: That’s Ken Goldberg. He’s a robotics professor at UC Berkeley, and one of the artists who created this exhibit, called “Are We There Yet?”
GOLDBERG: You'll come into this room. It'll be fairly quiet, but as soon as you walk in, suddenly a question comes to you.
Where are you going?
What is history but a fable agreed upon?
Where are the birds?
GIL GERSHONI: In the room we have just around 20 speakers, and they’re above you, all around you. It’s a true surround sound.
Is it possible to believe but not live according to your beliefs?
SETH SAMUEL: Gil Gershoni is another artist that helped create this exhibit, and he's also founder and director of Gershoni Creative Agency.
GERSHONI: You really are able to get this immersive poetry as you walk through it, which is pretty moving.
What is a good life?
SETH: Hard to say.
SETH SAMUEL: As I walk around, a woman’s voice asks me:
Do you love me?
MOLLY SAMUEL: I don’t hear the same questions as Seth. For instance, I’m asked:
If you tickle us do we not laugh?
MOLLY: I don't know about that.
Do you believe in magic?
MOLLY SAMUEL: The exhibit is designed so every visitor hears a different combination of questions.
GOLDBERG: Rather than being a pre-programmed performance it’s changing all the time.
What, me worry?
SETH SAMUEL: Actually, the room seems to know exactly where I am. It feels like the questions are following me as I walk around.
Has everybody a different opinion?
SETH SAMUEL: Goldberg says cameras are hooked up to a computer that predicts where people are going. ... which is about as complex as it sounds.
GOLDBERG: It’s all optical. It’s all using light, and the complicated thing is the light in the room is constantly shifting.
SETH SAMUEL: I should mention here, that aside from this room having dramatic architecture, it also has 36 skylights.
GOLDBERG: So as clouds pass overhead and the sun sparkles over something, you get all kinds of changes and this computer has to decide, at all times it tries to understand, what is going on in the room and what is changing.
MOLLY SAMUEL: The computer is using statistical models to learn where people are, how they’re moving, and to try and predict where they’re headed.
Where are you going?
MOLLY SAMUEL: Also on its mind? How accurate are its own predictions. In other words, the computer is always questioning itself.
GOLDBERG: Rather than saying true and false, We now have models that give you confidence values.
MOLLY SAMUEL: That’s just like Watson, the IBM computer that played human contestants on Jeopardy earlier this year. It not only answered correctly, but it showed on a screen precisely how confident it was of each answer.
SETH SAMUEL: The funny thing is, Watson was asking questions, too, since that’s how Jeopardy works.
ALEX TREBEK: Watson.
WATSON: Who is Michael Phelps?
MOLLY SAMUEL: Watson was 93% sure about that one, by the way.
SETH SAMUEL: This new technology is being applied in more than just game shows and art installations.
GOLDBERG: In the field of robotics there’s a whole host of applications. The Google automatic driving vehicle is an example, a host of cases where people are looking at robots for surgical applications, monitoring environments. It’s got potential and we’re going to see more of it.
Where's the restroom?
SETH SAMUEL: The artists got the questions for this installation from the Bible, from literature, pop culture ... and they’re crowd sourcing them too, with sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Should we think of words as bombs and bulllets or as gifts containing meaning?
SETH: Definitely gifts.
Who do you think you are?
MOLLY: Who do you think you are?
MOLLY SAMUEL: But why questions?
GOLDBERG: We’re bombarded with information, with answers of all different kinds. This is an opportunity to step back and think about the questions. We like this quote from James Baldwin, who said the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers. And there’s the old classic joke, why do Jews always answer a question with a question...
MOLLY SAMUEL and SETH SAMUEL: Do we?
MOLLY SAMUEL: From the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, I’m Molly Samuel.
SETH SAMUEL: And I’m Seth Samuel, for Crosscurrents.
What were you expecting?
“Are We There Yet?” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum though July 31. This story originally aired on April 13, 2011.