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Carrie Hott Unlocks a Mysterious ‘Key Room’ at the Headlands

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The archive room at the Headlands Center for the Arts, before Carrie Hott's 'Key Room' commission. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the Headlands Center for the Arts’ Building 944, artist Carrie Hott’s Key Room is nearly complete. Behind a red door, every surface in the room is a cool light blue — from the walls to the top of short-legged stool. It’s a permanent installation, a visitor center, a manifestation of a peculiar archive and, for Hott, the culmination of a project two years in the making.

In Hott’s words, the Key Room is “a floating labyrinth maze experience disguised as an organized institution.” To most visitors it will be an obscure yet calming experience, like stepping into an ongoing and lively conversation — the same type of unnerving sensation one experiences at A Remove, A Plan, A Plot, her installation at the San Francisco Arts Commission’s window gallery.

Carrie Hott in her Headlands studio.
Carrie Hott in her Headlands studio. (Courtesy of the Headlands Center for the Arts)

Working at the Headlands on a recent afternoon, Hott puts the finishing touches on the Key Room for its public “unlocking” on March 20. The small room was once home the Headlands’ archive, a space established 25 years ago by artists Phoebe Brookbank and Machele Civey that was filled, haphazardly, with over 1,000 objects left behind by artists, staff and visitors — really anybody.

“No one managed it,” Hott says. “The best part about the collection was that it was completely unselfconscious. People often wouldn’t leave their name on something. It felt very different from other collections that are curated and managed and tracked.”

The archive’s conglomeration of stuff was democratic, but disorderly. “I mean, it made a lot of work for me later,” she says.


Hott started working on the project in 2014, sifting through the objects and placing them in nontraditional categories of her own making: instrument, handle, setting, feature, provision, container, signal, substitute, light, weight, building. These categories and other keywords, like “land, space, dust and fog,” create a constellation of tangible and intangible associations with the Headlands Center for the Arts, located in repurposed military buildings in the fog-tousled Marin Headlands above the Pacific Ocean.

Archive objects from the "container" category at a Headlands Open House.
Archive objects from the “container” category at a Headlands Open House. (Photo: Andria Lo / Courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts)

On display in a tall glass-doored cabinet are a selection of objects that fit within the “handle” category (things that have a handle or are handled): a giant ladle, a sequin-covered wand, a wooden oar, an assortment of mugs.

On the other side of the room a control center of old desk phones (remember cords?) play, at the push of a button (remember buttons?), recordings of everything from coyote howls to ghost stories to artists’ oral histories. Together, the five phones contain over two hours of material pertaining to the Headlands’ geologic history and uses, from tribal land to dairy farms to Nike military site to parkland to contemporary arts center.

Carrie Hott, Project space installation, 2014.
Carrie Hott, Project space installation, 2014. (Courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts)

“One of the things I was interested in,” says Hott, “was trying to create a picture of complexity. Because I feel like before I came to spend a lot of time here, I would see the Headlands through one lens, thinking of it as a military place, or nature. But there’s a lot more here, and I feel like sound is the best way to convey all these things that aren’t visual.”

These absences — of image and object — make the Key Room a space almost magically adrift in time. The case that presumably gives the Key Room its name, filled with expectant nails waiting for the return of the keys currently in use, has labels for a “Make Out Room,” “T-Shirts,” and — cryptically — “Keys.”

In the hallway outside of the Key Room four cases contain lists of all artists-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, beginning with David Ireland and Mark Thompson (responsible for the first permanent artist commission) in 1989. Next to these names, two cases contain rows and rows of blank lists, a poetic promise of the decades of future activity to come.

Carrie Hott, 'A Remove, A Plan, A Plot,' 2016.
Carrie Hott, ‘A Remove, A Plan, A Plot,’ 2016. (Courtesy San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery)

Across the Golden Gate Bridge, another mysterious room bears the traces of Hott’s touch. At 155 Grove Street, the San Francisco Arts Commission’s window gallery currently contains A Remove, A Plan, A Plot, a silver-lined meeting space with furniture painted in primer gray, powered by solar energy and full of wayward wires.

A Remove, A Plan, A Plot proposes a future use for the SFAC’s former gallery space as an off-the-grid gathering place for planning and plotting. Whether the plans involve the next window gallery display, or something more sinister aimed across the street at City Hall, Hott’s installation doesn’t say, though blue-tinged surveillance-like videos have a tendency to look like they’re up to no good.


The Key Room opens in Building 944 at Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands on March 20, 12-5pm. Visit headlands.org for more information.

A Remove, A Plan, A Plot is on view in the SFAC Window Gallery at 155 Grove Street through May 13. An artist sidewalk chat takes place on May 13, 6-7pm. Visit sfartscommission.org for more information.

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