I wander into the first room of Descriptive Acts, on SFMOMA’s fourth floor. To my left sits a twentysomething girl in front of a laptop at a table, typing continuously. To my right, a rectangular screen is projected, in which the girl’s typed words run from left to right. Together, these two components constitute Instant Narrative, a piece by the artist Dora García.
In the first sentence, I read: “The woman with the patient eyes looks at me. I smile inwardly.” I search the room for a woman with patient eyes; my eyes settle on a woman looking absorbedly at a series of photographs in the same room. She does look kind. Am I programmed to see her in this light now? I turn back to the screen: “A girl with Peter Pan boots and glasses walks into the room.” I watch as the text rounds out its description of me: “She looks comfortable, in a young way.” I like this description. I’m glad I look comfortable. I don’t feel comfortable. Do I ever feel comfortable?
I look around for signs of recognition from other gallery viewers. The room suddenly feels pregnant with narrative potential. With the ventriloquist’s skill, the writer looks fixedly into her screen and rarely looks up, and yet her thoughts brim with pointed and colorful observations about the viewers milling around her. I imagine the memo these writer-volunteers have been given asks them to remain poised, to reveal few expressions on their faces, and to pause as little as possible while typing so as to enable a continuous stream of thought.
I feel my cheeks burn a little as I once again become the subject of the narrative: “The girl in the pretty swing coat is watching the wall text.” I begin to scribble down my own thoughts into a red notebook. The writer responds: “The girl in the swing coat is taking handwritten notes of my typed notes.” I imagine we are having a conversation by proxy, the girl who writes and I, our parallel acts of writing each other somehow bringing us into an intimate space. I avoid looking in her direction to maintain the equality that stretches out between us; she looks at me, but cannot see what I am writing. I cannot see her, but I watch her mediated thoughts flow onto the screen in front of me. Which is the more exposing, I wonder? This process of being written about feeds an interesting hunger to be neatly packaged and tied up as the subject of a story. I’m reminded of the envy I felt as a child when two classmates had storybooks made for them by their parents, in which they played the young protagonists. García’s piece plays into the intoxicating desire to see yourself from the outside.
One man, seeing himself turn up in the narrative, strides up to the projected screen boisterously, grins and poses in front of it, as though for a photo. Typed letters roll across the screen in response: “He thinks he is famous!” Who is the real author here? The girl who sits and writes gallery viewers into her narrative? Or the viewer-performers who are subject to the author’s gaze? Or Dora García, the artist who conceived of this art piece and brought its framework into being?
As time goes by, the writer gains confidence and her personality becomes more evident: “A guy walks in, does a twirl, and leaves. I bet that is how he treats his mother. HA. I am starting to get a little snarky. Please forgive me. “ She is like an omnipotent, all-seeing author-queen. I imagine a kind of power play between us. I want to disrupt the writer’s control of the room. As people flow in and out of the space, I remain stubbornly present and still, continuing to scribble things down into my notebook. If I stand still, she can’t write about me. Or perhaps this will give her license to look even closer at me.
I decide to leave the room, hide behind the wall outside and watch the wall text unseen by the author-queen. I am not alone. Others hide outside watching the text, fearful of becoming the subject of the Instant Narrative. Turning back to the screen, I watch as the girl who sits and writes concludes our textual flirtation: “The girl in the swing coat who has been writing notes on me this whole time just left the room.”