“Would I like to be a mysterious person, full of s...

“Would I like to be a mysterious person, full of secrets?” and Other Wandering Questions


Still from Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s “Question Projections” (2000-2003). Image provided by author

I recently interviewed someone who was once my professor, and as she was answering my questions I couldn’t help but re-experience the feeling of sitting in her seminar fifteen years ago and being disgusted with myself for not liking The Emperor of Maladies. I thought about how I’m still ashamed that I’m the only person I know who doesn’t enjoy reading Jhumpa Lahiri, and I still trace that back to the unsatisfying discussion in her class. I felt oblique blame towards my professor, myself, Lahiri; a flood of memories and feelings. Listening to this woman speak in the interview, I wondered how I could have been so unhappy in her classroom. She was thoughtful, patient, and an admirable pedagogue.

The topic of the interview with my former professor was the history of a feminist institution at my alma mater, and the questions spinning around my head—Why didn’t I like that book?” “Why was I so alienated then?” “Did I like any of the books I read in college?”were not exactly on the interview agenda. More importantly, they were questions for me to explore, not her. But these questions were undeniably a gateway to a relevant line of inquiry for me, as I wholeheartedly consider all productive and happy parts of my current self to be a result of feminist communities and pedagogy. Looking back over the transcript of the interview, I can’t tell where I drifted into the space of these interior questions. I don’t think I’ve ever really seen evidence of it—though I suspect I’m not the only one who’s followed a question down a rabbit hole at an inopportune moment.

I recount this particular instance when my mind wandered from the responses of the person I was interviewing to bring up a pretty basic question: what do we do with the questions we ask ourselves? As an oral historian, I’m a professional asker, taking great care to choose respectful language and considering when to follow up on certain details, reference outside information, explore spaces that appear intentionally vague, or to change the subject. But I suppose that with myself, I’m a little less careful. I make no space in my post-interview summaries for me to write down where my mind went when it wandered. And by “wandered” I don’t mean that it wandered away but that it wandered within the space of the interview to a place that wasn’t irrelevant but also wasn’t appropriate to voice.

This spring I saw a retrospective of the collaborative work of artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at the Guggenheim Museum that gave me another way to think about this idea of exploring the questions we ask ourselves. Their work, Question Projections, was installed in the large, open room at the top of the museum’s spiraling ramp. As the title suggests, the work is a collection of questions projected on a wall in a large darkened room. Written in the first person, many of the questions come across as strange, silly, and undeniably self-centered. “Can ghosts see me?” “Is resistance useless?” “Is my ignorance a roomy cave?”[1] They’re handwritten in white in all capital letters, some in English and others in Italian, Japanese, or German. Each question appears for about ten seconds before it starts to fade into the darkness and another appears. They each form a sort of undulating shape, and the result is that, for the viewer, it starts to feel like you’re moving very slowly through outer space.

But it’s not exactly a meditative or altogether pleasant experience; these are questions we ask ourselves—in inner space—and to see them written out is somehow shocking and endlessly fascinating. “What percentage of me is animal?” “Is my being filled with serenity?” “Are countries living creatures?” This was the same kind of space I had accidentally explored during that interview with my former professor. Even though the questions were different, it seemed an apt visual recreation of that strange space where I had unwittingly wandered; when I ask people to self-reflect in an interview, perhaps I can’t help but find myself reflecting a little too, silently mirroring the process.

Is this another dimension of interviewing that’s worth exploring—this series of questions that are a product of the interview process itself? In this case, revisiting this internal inquiry led me to a space where I could re-explore when I first began to consider myself a feminist. And reaching that place of personal understanding allowed me to craft better questions about the institutional and political factors that influenced my former teachers. Yet, in other cases, maybe there’s little professional benefit to (I might as well say it) navel-gazing. Are most things connected with everything else?” “Can everything be thought?” “Should I launch an investigation?”

Regardless, Question Projections leaves me with a visible depiction of what is for me an invisible process of self-inquiry. In this work, “ideas are shared only through the interrogatory, with a pedagogic style that communicates exclusively through questions.”[2] The fact that the questions that are part of this work are odd or humorous doesn’t make them any less applicable to my professional practice as an oral historian because it’s also this quality that makes them so disarming. The non-didactic approach resonates; I too am compelled by communicating in the interrogatory. The question of what becomes of my own wanderings is inconclusive, but articulating the question here—no matter how odd or silly—feels like a step in a productive direction.

[1] All italicized questions that follow, as well as the title of this essay, are reproduced from Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Question Projections (2000-2003), Series of cross-fading multiple-slide-projection installations, each between 3 and 15 projections of 81 slides each, dimensions variable.
[2] Nancy Spector. “Question Projections” in Peter Fischli & David Weiss: How to Work Better, eds. Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2016): 250, 257. Spector refers also to the artist book that accompanies Question Projections, called Will Happiness Find Me?, which reproduces the projected questions.

SARAH DZIEDZIC is an independent oral historian and project consultant whose interests include the visual arts, landscape, and feminist education and practice.