Before Dora García’s Instant Narrative was installed there, the apse of the local university art museum was the kind of space I’d cut through on my way somewhere else. The bathroom, the contemporary galleries upstairs, the auditorium in the basement. Nineteenth-century American landscape paintings line the walls, visible between marble columns. The mood: quiet, cold. The mood: formal, save the rumpled students slouching through on their way, like me, elsewhere. Before Instant Narrative, I moved through the apse largely unnoticed and unnoticing.
But this January, Instant Narrative re-booted this otherwise snoozy gallery space—and the passive museumgoer’s place within it. I had read about Instant Narrative on the museum’s website before I saw it in person:
In Dora García’s Instant Narrative, visitors encounter a complex situation of feedback and surveillance in public space. A projected text on a wall manifests an ongoing narrative that attracts their attention as readers. This work is on view during Museum hours and performed live by a series of local writers who each interpret the given situation differently, allowing different narratives to become manifest, “instantly” including the public as unwitting, complicit, and at times actively engaged actors in the production of this continuous narrative.
In other words, as I entered the museum in search of Instant Narrative, I knew a bit about what I might find there: a writer at work observing and recording the traffic in the apse and a projection of those records on one of the walls.
As I entered, I saw the projection immediately, a square of bright light where a painting might otherwise hang. When a line of text appeared at the bottom of the square, it pushed another up and out of sight. Knowing I was being watched, I played it cool. I tried to hide my foreknowledge of the piece by fixing my face in the shape of polite surprise and contemplation as I wended my way towards the projection. I scanned the room for the silent observer I hadn’t yet located, hoping to be included in the narrative. I spotted him at a table tucked into a corner of the vast space, inconspicuous, looking down at his hands as he typed. He glanced up and found me watching him; I snapped my head towards the skylights in mock curiosity and then re-struck my thoughtful, museum-going pose, still waiting to see myself in the text on the wall. He wrote, “A woman stands before the piece as if waiting to be included in the narrative.” Was I that easy to read? My desire to be seen was so blunt, obvious. I had to leave. I left.
Although discomfited, I returned three more times to Instant Narrative. Why? Perhaps the piece appealed to my easily appeased ego. As a child, before I understood the concept of surveillance, I loved to watch myself on the closed-circuit televisions at gas stations and convenience stores. I’d wave at myself to see myself wave back. I’d grab my dad’s sleeve, frantic and thrilled. I’m on TV! I must admit, that familiar pleasure isn’t far from the small thrill I felt the first time Instant Narrative included me, the first time I saw myself up on the gallery wall.
But the draw of Instant Narrative is more than that, too. It’s more than passing. It’s urgent, fraught, and bittersweet—I think of Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. Eros, she writes, “involve[s] two factors (lover, beloved) in terms of three (lover, beloved and the space between them, however realized).” Instant Narrative takes this shape, the triangular shape of desire. Its three angles: observer, observed, and the space between where language appears and disappears on a lit wall. Carson writes, “There is a triangular circuit running from the writer to the reader to the characters in the story; when its circuit-points connect, the difficult pleasure of paradox can be felt like an electrification….The effect is as you would expect: triangular, paradoxical, electric.”
Who are the characters in this story, then? The story of Instant Narrative? Us, the viewers? The second time I saw Instant Narrative, I sat on a bench facing the projection, and aside from a security guard stationed at the entrance and the writer at her table, I was alone in the apse. I pulled my black leather planner from my bag, and—too self-conscious to search for one of the lined pages at the back of the book—began writing on the page I opened to, the first week of May, yet to come. Up on the wall, there I was, a protagonist:
She enters from the connector. Stops. Reads.
Sits and searches in her bag.
Removes a book…journal…something to write in.
Writing, writing, thoughts? Observations?
And still she writes and writes and writes.
But what if Instant Narrative is more a portrait of the silent observer herself, not the people she observes? I visited the museum again just a few days ago and detected, for the first time, the sly ruse of the writer’s objectivity. Again, I sat at the bench, but this time the writer chose to exclude me from the narrative for fifteen minutes. I read the narrative and jotted down notes while the silent observer described a group a students and their instructor. Lines of text appeared slowly, intermittently. The students skirted the perimeter of the apse, exited, and returned. The silent observer wrote, “The woman returns with her class. She points around the museum.” Another museum employee approached the writer; they chatted; and for a few minutes, the writer stopped generating text altogether. When the writing resumed, I saw myself:
…a woman writes in a notebook.
She keeps looking up at the writing.
This quiet observer was not updating as frequently as earlier
Regrets if she’s been writing about this
The only observable person in the museum right now
anyway back to our regular scheduled programming
a group is seen on the second floor
the writing woman shifts and stands
Though this writer selected who and what to include in the narrative, her word choices belied this subjectivity—“a group is seen on the second floor.” Objectivity was an effect, not a cause, and as such, the record of her observations was just that—a record of her. When I left the apse, I turned and waved at the writer. She waved back. I hid behind a wall, where I could see the projection but the writer couldn’t see me, waiting for our wave—a little fissure in the protocol of the performance—to register in the text. It never did. She left it out.
Anne Carson writes, “Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.” Who is the real subject of Instant Narrative? It is that hole—the space where reader and writer meet, linked, though the distance between them remains intact. It’s the space of paradox, the space of projection, perception and misperception, chance and design, lines of text rising like mist. It’s bittersweet. In other words, as Carson writes, “Mere space has power.”