There are no windows in the boys’ bathroom. There is no ventilation, either, which means it can get stifling warm, and some days there are so many people jockeying for space that I have to collect my things and find somewhere else to work. Usually, though, I sit in there with my papers completely alone, except for the occasional person who pushes the door open and then, seeing me, blushes and ducks out again.
What I do there, for ten dollars an hour, is interview artists, dig through files, and write about the more noteworthy works housed in the climate-controlled vault two stories up. I do these things in the boys' bathroom because the Museum of Contemporary Photography is short on desks. There was a time, I’m told, when my workspace was an honest-to-goodness real-live plumbing-and-all functioning boys’ bathroom. It still has the original bathroom door. The door may be white-washed four times a year as exhibitions go up and come down, but with the metal plates along the bottom edge and above the doorknob, you can tell it's a standard issue public restroom door.
The room behind that door was stripped of plumbing and converted into a storage room years ago, but that conversion didn't include changing the name. Last year the space was reinvented again, this time as a work area for digitizing the Museum’s collection. The room is now full of computers and scanners and all the other equipment to merit calling it, in the words of new our boss, The Studio. But somehow, for whatever reason, a new name just won't stick.
We’ve given it an honest effort. You can actually watch people trying to remember the sanctioned term: their mouths open slightly, eyes turn toward the ceiling, and brows begin to crease – but then, still unable to recall the phrase The Studio, they inevitably substitute something like the basement or the dungeon or the hole. Each invention is apt enough, but not actually an improvement on the boys' bathroom. So, until we can come up with something equally memorable, the old name lives on.
And the more time I spend down there, editing for consistency before the exhibition cards can go to press, or cross-referncing the tangle of alternative titles for the photograph I'm researching, the more I like that we use the old name. It feels sort of noble, a gesture of respect for the history, the provenance of this place.
Still, I have no desire to work in there unless I have to. Without the distraction of phone lines or officemates, the noise in the bathroom can be oppressive. Heavy double doors on the Harrison Street entrance bang closed and rattle the bathroom's west wall. A host of rasps and gurgles grumble along pipes running up through the south walls and across the ceiling. All of which is tolerable, even over the clang of industrial dishwashing coming up through the floor. No, the real problem is on the other side of the north wall: that one long, blank wall which separates the boys' bathroom from the galleries of the museum proper.
The way the museum’s North Gallery is tucked away – a windowless cul-de-sac with a glass door to keep sound in – it functions exceptionally well as a little screening room. PowerPoint, slide shows, films; whatever needs to be projected is seen in the North Gallery.
If that projection is accompanied by sound and you work, as I do, on the other side of the screening wall, it is art that is heard and not seen. Heard the seven hours a day the museum is open to the public, longer on Thursdays, the continuous loop of something that was usually meant to be experienced somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 minutes--an hour, tops.
I've always thought the great perk of museum work was the chance to live with an exhibition. Seeing the same art objects a few times a day for months can seriously change how you look at them. I love the way some pieces take months to affect me, while other things never yield up more than they did on first glance. I can't get over the pieces that stay compelling, that move me each and every time I look at them. This kind of knowledge, living with an exhibition is priveledge. Living with just the auditory elements of an audio-visual work is something else.
In the fall I listened to the continuous loop of Martin Bell’s documentary Twins. Visitors to the museum saw the interviews of participants at the Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio. I heard only the same sets of voices explaining in tireless repetition how they would take their twin along on dates, how their parents confused each for the other, how they were pretty sure the last breath of one would signal the end of both. What they were saying was very intimate, as if we separated by a confessional's screen instead of a wall. After a while I knew the voices, the way you know neighbors you never see and colleagues you only talk to on the phone. And it became unsettling to leave the boys' bathroom, to walk through the gallery and glimpse familiar chatter from the mouth of a stranger. It was better not to leave. But if the lip-syncing was disconcerting, things only got worse when the twins finally left, replaced that winter by performance art.
Patty Chang’s Contortion is a black and white film that records the artist sitting, eyes squeezed shut, as live wet eels writhe in her blouse. If that strikes you as quite the mental image--her white button up shirt, the black whip and flail of the eels--now imagine what it sounds like. Imagine those grunts, those whimpers, those wincing groans, and now imagine them as the perpetual soundtrack of your professional life. Imagine making your living in the boys’ bathroom.