Don’t mistake Thought Experiments in F# Minor, the latest video walk from artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, for a guided tour of Downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Sure, it features step-by-step directions calmly recited through headphones, but the engagingly weird work—available at the hall now, for free—is anything but a straightforward tour.
You won’t find many factoids, dates or square footages as you survey the concert hall with video playing on an iPad Mini in hand; instead, the short film, which switches between narrative and musical scenes, prompts you to truly feel the Frank Gehry building—literally, at one point, as you’re instructed to touch a stone-looking yet felt-feeling wall. You’ll see how the chandeliers slightly sway as if the building is breathing, and become acutely aware of both the presence and absence of sound in areas inside and out of the concert hall.
The 40-minute walk zips by as you’re led into seemingly ordinary areas made extraordinary through pre-recorded video segments that feature a mix of dramatic conversations, spontaneous moments (like a wedding photo shoot) and musical performances by members of the LA Phil (the musical bits are the clear standouts—but more on those in a minute).
Cardiff and Miller dub it a piece of physical cinema, in which you’re tasked with lining up overlapping realities: the real-life scene in front of you, plus a fictional narrative (the video) recorded at that very same spot.
“We like that idea of the overlapping of time,” explains Cardiff. “It shows you that history and gives you the presence of something. You’re really aware that they were sitting right there.”
You could just lazily stare down at the iPad as you shuffle through the hall, but trying to line the device up with the scene in front of you is part of the lo-fi magic.
“I think the magic happens when you really try to synchronize yourself,” says Miller. “Those overlaps cause confusion in your brain and make you start to wonder what is reality.”
The immersive audio goes a long way in that blending of realities, too. The binaural recording, which uses two microphones arranged to mimic the 3-D sound of human hearing, sounds startlingly real (at one point, we went to stare upwards at what we assumed was a helicopter, only to realize the sound was coming entirely from the headphones). The technique lends itself particularly well to the video walk’s exquisite recorded LA Phil performances, including a full ensemble symphony in the main auditorium, a forlorn violin recorded in a narrow hallway and a percussionist’s fills on a metal railing, which reverberate through the hollow insides of the concert hall’s shiny exterior shell. Most memorably, you’ll walk into an empty, multi-level hallway where, if you peer at your iPad, you’ll see musicians stationed on every floor as they play through composer Ellen Reid’s booming commission.
Tying all of those moments together, you’ll encounter a supremely strange video narrative with a heavy emphasis on cats: a fluffy kitty in a cardboard box, ruminations on the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment and a slinking, mesmerizing turn from actor Jena Malone as a dandy wearing a flat-out terrifying, wrinkly, hairless sphinx mask.
Is it the ideal way to explore the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a first-time visitor looking for a photo op? Probably not. But for open-minded art appreciators or anyone looking to see the venue in a new light, it’s a worthwhile 40 minutes—and it’s free, at that.
But seriously, we found that cat mask so startling that we’re hiding it here, at the bottom of this story.
Thought Experiments in F# Minor is available for free during the same hours as the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s self-guided audio tour. Find the hours here.