The art of the question: Robotic algorithms put visitors in an auditory sea of queries

If you enter the top-level Yud Gallery in the Contemporary Jewish Museum these days, you’ll be greeted by a question.

It could be any number of questions — from a bank of 2,500 different questions, in fact — and the proximity of the voice you hear will change depending on where you are in the room. A small camera, unseen even to the knowing eye, will follow your every move, using robotic algorithms to calculate mathematically which of 20 floor speakers to activate. The walls are white and bare, and the only sensation is crisp, clear sound.

Bay Area multimedia artists and frequent collaborators Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni spent two years collecting the questions for their sound installation, “Are We There Yet?” — running now through July 31 at the CJM in San Francisco. The exhibit is subtitled “5,000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions.”

“Jews have been kicked out of countries for thousands of years,” Gershoni says. “After a while you get pretty good at asking questions.”

Artists Gil Gershoni (left) and Ken Goldberg stand in the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Yud Gallery. photo/cjm/megan bayley

The questions one will hear while slowly moving through the gallery include talmudic musings, life affirmations, quotes from literature, Jewish-oriented questions (such as the Four Questions) and pop culture references — such as “What’s up doc?” or “Do you feel lucky?” or the classic Jimi Hendrix query “Are you experienced?”

“We wanted to play. We didn’t want it to be too heavy,” Goldberg says. “The questions are multi-faceted. But overall, the criteria was that we wanted these questions to be rhetorical. We want people to hear them and reflect on them, maybe consider them in new ways.”

That’s because questioning and reflection have been and always will be central to Jewish cultural and spiritual identity, says Connie Wolf, director and CEO of the museum.

Which is why this exhibit is perfect for a Jewish museum, she says, adding: “What better way to be reminded that Jewish values and traditions continue to have significant meaning and relevance today?”

Many of the questions in the installation come from social media. The artists set up a website and iPad app in which anyone around the world could submit a question. They received thousands of responses, from all over the United States, Brazil, Japan and other countries.

“In any piece that engages the audience in this way, where they participate, it’s tricky,” says Goldberg. “It’s our job is to guide that experience, but to a large extent we can’t control it.”

The installation (also referred to as a “reactive sound environment”) references tradition and technology, architecture and audio.

The inspiration for the project was at least partly the 2,200-square-foot Yud Gallery itself — a dramatic, jewel-shaped room with 60-foot ceilings and 36 skylights that create unique patterns of light. The gallery’s angular configuration is the result of architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for the museum being based on the two Hebrew letters of chai: chet and yud.

“It’s about activating the space — you complete it by how you move,” Goldberg says.

“Really, the show is about tradition and technology, which is so close to the heart of Jewish culture in many ways,” Gershoni adds.

Gershoni, who grew up near Tel Aviv and now lives in San Francisco, and Berkeley resident Goldberg became friends and artistic collaborators more than a decade ago. After meeting through their artist wives, the pair found complementary features in one another.

Goldberg, a professor in robotics at U.C. Berkeley, contributes mathematical models to their always-interactive pieces. Gershoni, who founded the branding agency Gershoni Creative, is compelled by questioning and curiosity, drawing information out of clients.

“It’s the impulse. It’s the curiosity that drives what we do,” Gershoni says. “We tend to look at the same problem with different perspectives and it ends up being more well-rounded.”

Their first joint project — for the 2000 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York — was a tongue-in-cheek piece on using Ouija boards. Since then they’ve collaborated on a handful of different projects, including “The Tribe,” a documentary on American Jewish identity (using Barbie dolls) co-written by Goldberg’s wife, Tiffany Shlain.

When recording the voices for “Are We There Yet?”  over many months, the artists turned to their wives and children, but they also nabbed a few well-known voices. They recorded audio tracks in a variety of places, from professional studios to their own cars.

Moving around the exhibit, one might recognize some of those voices, such as KQED’s Michael Krasny, NPR’s Susan Stamberg and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington.

But even if you do recognize a voice or two, the sensation of the installation itself isn’t likely one you’ve felt before.

“Our goal,” Gershoni says, “is that when people walk into the museum with answers or assumptions, they get to walk out with questions.”

“Are We There Yet: 5,000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions”
through July 31 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information: Submit a question: