The Anti-Explainers

The Anti-Explainers

“The Anti-Explainers” (2012-2015) is a collection of experiments and interventions performed while in residence at the Exploratorium’s Center for Art and Inquiry in San Francisco, including the public artwork “DAYLAY” (2013-2014), an interactive audio installation on The Embarcadero that captured sounds to be played back after a twelve-hour delay.

The Exploratorium’s “Explainers” program has been an integral part of the museum’s identity from the start – a core group of young people with a diverse range of interests and backgrounds who interact with visitors, perform demonstrations, and act as role models within a process of open inquiry. Neither audience nor institution, Explainers build understanding through practice, trying things out to see what is possible. Do artists build understanding in the same way, by learning in public? Perhaps the order of operations is reversed – artists may dismantle understanding, problematizing and expanding the limits placed on knowledge. There are many “ifs”. For now, let’s consider artists as the Anti-Explainers, a corollary, and a necessary response, to the Explainers.

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anti-explainers book

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“The Anti-Explainers” (2015, 204 pages) documents research done in residence at the Exploratorium’s Center for Art and Inquiry from 2012 to 2015. Examining the role artists can play in complicating, augmenting, or responding to explanation, the book collects exhibits from the museum floor that exist outside of explanation, along with documentation of artworks produced in response to the desire – both public and institutional – to engage in a process of explanation. The centerpiece of the book is an entire week of transcriptions from Lucky Dragons’ installation “DAYLAY” (2013-2014), in which visitors were invited to leave messages to be played back after a twelve-hour delay.

The Anti-Explainers



“DAYLAY” (2013—2014)

Produced under the auspices of both the Exploratorium’s Outdoor Gallery and Center for Art and Inquiry, as an interactive exhibit situated within a fourteen-foot diameter circular hole in the publicly-accesible area of Pier 15, directly adjacent to The Embarcadero. Two signs, each with an identical explanatory text and microphone, were placed along a railing that circled the hole. Four speakers and a ring of LED lights were suspended out of sight beneath the rim of the hole. The lights faded up as the sun set, and faded down as the sun rose—“photic memory, ” as a staff scientist commented. The microphones continued to record, and the speakers to play back, more or less uninterrupted for eighteen months, from May 2013 to November 2014.

The exhibit was designed to perpetually record sounds and then play them back in the same location after a twelve-hour interval, all sounds being subject to the same delay without discrimination: seagulls, trolley cars, skateboarders, church bells, school groups, office workers, tourists, families, lovers, foghorns, delivery trucks, queries, fantasies, confessions, wind, rain, screaming children; the audibly prurient thoughts that occupy people of all ages speaking into the void. Our intent was to produce two irreconcileable results: on the one hand, to render a realistic portrait of the natural and social sounds of one time overlaid onto another time (a sort of factual window for listening through to a different time at the same location), and on the other hand, to invite visitors to contemplate and engage with their own imaginary experience of this other time—to actively touch the other (as yet non-existent) time. Our project here is to examine the feedback loop produced by these twin results, not by categorizing, but by presenting their complexity verbatim.

Is the relevant learning experience to be found in focused attention on sound (both as a material and a signifying medium)? Is the exhibit’s primary purpose to play back / to present for the listener, or to offer, in the process of time-shifting, a platform for experimental performance? We propose that a relevant learning experience can be found in the creation, by speakers and listeners alike, of a common imaginary, a virtual space for contemplation external to our lived experience. I wonder where my voice went (what does it do for twelve hours?). I consider the qualities of a moment lost inside a vast duration. I switch places with the listener, bringing a message backwards from the future into the past. Why not?

Taken as a continuous document, the recorded messages present a rapid and unpredictable montage of emotional forms. Some speakers invoke complex and playful narratives consisting of interactions between multiple characters, story-lines, and time-space locations. Other speakers laugh or curse when nothing is obviously funny or upsetting, leaving an embarrassed phantom shocked at its own creepiness; uncanny for being a recording, and irresponsible for being delayed.

Why speak, if the audience can’t be verified? Paranoia interrupts, the un-knowable listener is cast as “inhuman,” albeit an inhuman that we share space with and can communicate with: “Nobody” will be there / “Nobody” was here—or “Whoever is here, I hate you,” “I will kill you,” “I hope you die,” and so on. Often this takes gentler forms, as interspecies communication (whale song, “Sharks come out!”, “Hello, fishies!” etc.), or command utterances seeking a cure for disarray: “Go to work!”, “Go Home!”, “Get a job!”, “Go to sleep!”, “I hope to be at home safe.” For a group encountering the piece all at once, the mania of showing off, along with a tendency towards imitation, results in funny looping stutters, as variations on the roles of teacher, student, reporter, monster, victim, etc. are worked out.

How do we rationally understand a time scale or duration outside of what we are able to sense? Every interaction is also a test of the channel’s openness, a question uselessly waiting for an answer to travel across an interval that, while not impossible, is improbable for anyone finding themselves at the installation site to directly experience. Leaving a message as a ‘proof’ or ‘truth’ of a proposition that is un-testable (un-thinkable?) in the present moment engages a need very close to our own desire to collect and convey these messages, first through the mechanism itself, and now through these eavesdropped transcriptions. In the act of composing messages for future listeners, each speaker has given a unique form to the sensation of holding one’s attention in two times at once. As artists-in-residence transiently interacting with communities of practice, our research is presented beside the work of explanation and inquiry carried out by visitors and staff every day. In the usage described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: “Beside comprises a wide range of desiring, identifying, representing, repelling, paralleling, differentiating, rivaling, leaning, twisting, mimicking, withdrawing, attracting, aggressing, warping, and other relations.” As artistic research, this project is not to essentialize, nor to act as role-model or interrogator, but primarily to listen, and to provide forms that are able to preserve contradiction.

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