Q & A with Gil Gershoni and Ken Goldberg Artists of the CJM’s Installation, Are We There Yet?

Bay Area artists Gil Gershoni and Ken Goldberg present a contemporary take on the inquisitive impulse with an installation opening at the CJM on March 31. Are We There Yet?: 5,000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions combines the latest in intelligent cameras and acoustics to create a reactive sound environment that encourages visitors to reconsider the history and future of curiosity. In preparation for the installation’s opening, Gershoni and Goldberg recently sat answered a few questions about their project.

How did you come up with the idea?

It started with a phone call from [Contemporary Jewish Museum Director and CEO] Connie Wolf who began the conversation with a question: Any interest in creating a new installation in the CJM’s Yud Gallery that would engage the broader community?

The possibilities seemed endless, yet it was immediately clear to us that we could combine technology, art, and Jewish ideas to create something completely new and responsive to the space. Together we applied to the Creative Work Fund and were fortunate to receive their support.

We both admired the new CJM building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind. The Yud is the museum’s signature space with no parallel walls and a myriad of interesting restrictions.

Next we assembled an extraordinary team of colleagues and students to design a responsive sound installation that presents rhetorical questions collected via social media. It’s a combination of audio and architecture that's uniquely activated by the physical body of each visitor.

What's the role of questioning in Jewish culture and in your lives?

You had to ask that didn’t you? As Jewish kids, we were both encouraged to ask questions, starting with the Four Questions at the Seder Table. It's a hard habit to break.

You've said that "it's important for all of us to keep asking questions. Like friction, they provide the resistance that pushes us forward." Where do answers fit into that?

James Baldwin suggested that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” By combining tradition with technology, we’re hoping that visitors encounter familiar questions in new ways and discover their own questions in a metaphor for the process of exploration that shapes identity for both Jews and non-Jews.

How does art inform your work, and your work inform your art?

It’s like a magnet. Art pushes us to think about design and technology in the broader contexts of history and culture. Then it pulls tools out of our labs and studios to solve unorthodox problems.

How are you using Social Media?

We invite the community to participate by proposing questions for the installation via a special Internet interface, Facebook, and Twitter. The project is also inspired by the Talmud’s representation of multi-layered Jewish intellectual discourse. The Talmud is a surprisingly contemporary model for communal conversation in the digital age. Rather than resolving each issue with an authoritative unified “answer,” each page of the Talmud reflects the spiraling layers of debate and celebrates the dissent at the heart of Jewish thought and tradition. Open inquiry is fundamental to electronic connectivity and social media: the culture of new media encourages participation and a natural skepticism about the authenticity and authority of information.

Can you tell us more about the voice recordings?

They're by a mix of amateurs and professionals. Some, like Michael Krasny, Susan Stamberg, and Laura Sydell of NPR, and David Harrington of Kronos Quartet, are recognizable though most are not. We’ve included our own kids, who are pretty good at asking questions. We'll continue to add recordings through July based on the questions people propose.

How do the website, app, and installation work together?

The exhibition website, Are-we-there-yet.org, and the free iPhone and iPad app offer different ways for people to participate. Anyone around the world can read and propose questions. We’re receiving questions from all kinds of sources: history, the Talmud, songs and literature, pop culture. The installation is the focal point where your body activates the space to evoke questions in a way that’s never been done before.

What's special about the technology?

Picasso said: "Computers are useless; All they can do is ‘answer’ questions." The custom website interface and iPad app will remain online throughout the exhibit. We also developed a state-of-the-art computer vision system for the installation based on emerging research in robotics. It uses statistical machine learning to predict the motion of visitors in the space to activate the audio. To address the challenges of constantly changing lighting conditions, the system maintains an evolving statistical model of each pixel and uses Kalman filtering to minimize false positives. The D-MITRI sound system from Meyer Labs takes inputs from both the vision and audio systems to index audio from a database of thousands of vocalized questions. We designed custom space maps, trajectories and audio workflow to create a fluid auditory user experience.

Where can we expect to see this sort of technology? And, what are some real-world applications of it?

The Meyer digital sound system is being used by Cirque du Soleil and in concert halls around the world. Statistical machine learning is mostly in research labs but it played a key role in IBM's Jeopardy Challenge and is being used at Google and Amazon to predict user interests and to steer driverless vehicles. These systems constantly revise their own confidence in their predictions which is not to say they’re infallible.

What about the title?

It can be funny or philosophical. We want visitors to consider their own questions about what is and what is not being questioned today. It might be related to the many promises being made about the future, to Gertrude Stein's quote about Oakland ("There's no there there"), or just a reference to the joys of family vacations.

Tell us more about the Yud.

Libeskind created a space inspired by the 2nd Commandment: Thou shall have no graven images. The space forbids representational images. That's an interesting challenge for an art museum.

Are the projection and website moderated?

Yes. We're interested in new structures for social media that represent the wisdom of crowds rather than anarchy. Not that we're against anarchy.

Are We There Yet: 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions is at the CJM March 31–July 31. Check it out at: are-we-there-yet.org


Anonymous said…
Sounds fascinating! Looking forward to experiencing this innovative, creative sound piece.

I have heard Jewish Culture referred to as the culture of argument and of questions followed by another question.

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