Time travel is a tricky business. The bane of scientists, artists and eccentrics for centuries, it's one of those theories that you just can't disprove. Yet, once you start trying to pry apart history's past from its present and future, you have pretty good odds of becoming unglued. Just ask anyone who's tried.
"That's how history plays itself out: the desire to keep moving forward collid[es] with all our pasts rushing back at us," says the time-traveling agent from Comings and Goings, a new installation and audio tour produced by Jeannene Przyblyski and Southern Exposure, the nonprofit community organization and gallery based in San Francisco's Mission district.
And what better place to investigate the dizzying backwash of history than Lands End, where the remnants of similar experimental journeys are literally piled up in layers along the coast -- skeletons of wayward ships, abandoned lighthouses, ill-conceived projects in tidal energy, alongside the eerie ruins of the Sutro baths.
The installation, audio tour, and a companion booklet were created for Southern Exposure by Przyblyski and the cryptic Bureau of Urban Secrets. The very site-specific project invites fellow travelers to explore the coast while listening to the transmissions of an unnamed narrator, who has been sent back in time by the Bureau with the goal of chronicling moments in Lands End's past and future. The podcast is available on Southern Exposure's website, where the agent's exploits can be burned onto a CD or loaded into an MP3 player.
What you and the Bureau receive are diary-like entries from the time-traveling agent, who alternately describes the scenes before her, waxes poetic on the nature of time-travel and exploration, and points out the familiar and hidden markers of change in the area's cultural and natural history. Along the trail, she revisits moments from the known history of the area -- the ships wrecked and encounters made -- and also the rumors, folklore and unresolved stories that lend the area its mystery. Some seasoned explorers might even discover a momento or two of the agent's own adventures.
A narrator (Ryan Verzaal) ends each entry, offering clues on where to go before beginning the next segment, and updating you on the fate of the time-traveling agent. Needless to say, some of the directions are as foggy as the trail itself on a late afternoon. Before you head out, you might want to stop by Southern Exposure's headquarters on Mission & 25 Streets and pick up a copy of the Comings and Goings booklet, beautifully designed by Mitche Manitou to mimic a passport. The booklet contains pictures and more clear-cut directions on where to head to begin each segment, along with related quotes on the history of the area and random thoughts and theory from literary and artistic explorers. Visionary writer H.G. Wells and aesthetic-strategist Guy Debord feature heavily here. It might even be worth flipping through some of the books the quotes are drawn from, most of which are available at the gallery.
As you make your way along the trail, hearing the interwoven stories of explorers past, you can't help but be sensitive to the other mysterious markers of unknown stories -- a lone shoe tangled in a bush, a pile of concrete and twisted rebar dumped over a cliff's edge, a pair of boxer briefs tightly wound around a tree trunk. The podcast seems to slyly usher you toward your own excursion. Its segments have a way of steering you to the trail's many warning signs, which offer vivid descriptions of past journeys ("Stay on Trail: People have fallen to their death from these cliffs."). Any intrepid time-traveler worth her Ipod can't help but be tempted by the worn outline of an overgrown path trailing away behind each sign. And even though you're explicitly warned in the prologue to stay on track, you get the distinct sense that you have clearance to head off into the surrounding fields and foliage.
The Comings and Goings exhibit runs through June 30 at Southern Exposure Gallery. The podcast is available online through July 31, 2007. On Saturday, June 23, the Bureau of Urban Secrets leads a special guided tour.