Thursday, February 09, 2006

'Paradise' messes with yr. mind

by Thomas Dimopoulos

Inside the room it was dark and quiet and the doors were sealed tight.
There was a cocoon-like feeling being inside the big wooden box that confused your sense of time, so when you eventually emerged you didn't know whether you had been inside for five minutes or five years.

'Welcome back,' announced John Weber when the experience was over. He stood smiling in the doorway, the light from outside flooding around the frame of his silhouette and into the darkened room.

It was as if he was welcoming back a group of space pilgrims re-entering the universe.

'How long were we in here?' Weber was asked. The Dayton Director of the Tang Museum pawed his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.

'Thirteen minutes,' he replied. It seemed an extraordinary length of time.

'Did it feel much longer or much shorter?' Weber asked. The truth is that it seemed both. Simultaneously.

The cause of all this wonderment is a large interactive exhibit called 'The Paradise Institute,' an audio-video installation created by the artistic duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

Weber secured it from the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., for the new exhibition of which he is the curator at The Tang Museum at Skidmore College. It was brought north in two semi-trucks and once unloaded, took six people six days to put together.

If The Who had their Magic Bus and The Beatles their Yellow Submarine, Saratoga Springs now has its surrealistic tool shed. It will reside here through the summer.

The first hint that there was something unusual going on inside the lumber-covered chamber came when Weber initially bypassed it. 'We'll come back to this one,' he announced, walking through the museum as large frames were being hung on walls, small pieces installed and art objects illuminated in preparation for this weekend's exhibition opening.

'It needs about a half hour to warm up,' he reasoned.

When we were brought back to The Paradise Institute, it was a quick five steps up onto a platform and then a short walk into the wood box. Once inside, it inexplicably opens up into a massive theater with a wrap-around balcony and resembles a vintage 1920s theater that has gone from vaudeville house to old movie theater, rock 'n' roll palace to modern theatrical stage.

It is a little like being on the mast of a ship that was built inside of a bottle. Where you enter the 'theater' is high up in the balcony where there are two rows and 16 seats, each seat fixed with its own pair of headphones. You take your seat, put on the headphones and wait for the entertainment to begin.

The headphones use binaural audio recording technology, which means instead of sounds coming at you in two-part stereo, it rushes in waves, coming at you in 360 degrees.

Waiting for the film to begin, you can hear the crowd filtering in. There is the rustling of candy wrappers, random conversation, someone coughs.

Then the movie begins on the big screen with the introduction of an eerie, tinkling piano. There is a scene with a seductive nurse. There are heroes. There are villains. There is a house on fire. Someone seated next to you whispers secrets in a foreign tongue. Another offers popcorn. Their mundane conversations make it hard to concentrate on the movie on the screen.

You want to 'shush' them, but when you turn around, nobody is there. The movie's narrator is in your ear, not describing the movie at all, but instead the role that you're playing in the theater. Just as suddenly, the creepy guy that was in the movie is next to you, whispering in your ear.

It trips up the mind by fooling the eyes and tricking the ears, until Weber stands in the light of the doorway when it's all over and says: 'Welcome back.' Thirteen minutes is all it takes.

The Saratogian


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