There is no Gate 13 at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Instead between gates 12 and 14 is Gate ∞ (the infinity symbol), an immersive and interactive permanent installation by Brooklyn-based artist Janet Zweig.
Called “Interimaginary Departures” the installation quietly opened late last year before this summer’s travel surge. The space is fashioned like an airport boarding area yet the rows of seats are set at a seven degree angle and bisect a wall.
The imaginary fights that leave from Gate ∞ head to 120 fictional locations. Spellbound Airlines flies to Narnia, for example, while JaneAir has a direct flight to Pemberley, UntitledAirlines will take you to Peyton Place and ArsLonga flies to the Emerald City. An audio component provides quirky announcements about the make-believe locations.
At a touch-screen kiosk, visitors can answer a few quizzical questions — “If you do everything there is to do, what can you do next?” — before printing out a souvenir boarding pass. A tall double-door stands partially open, bright white light shining beyond.
“Intermaginary Destinations” was commissioned by the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places Program and its $950,000 cost was funded through Austin-Bergstrom International’s Terminal Expansion Capital Improvement Budget.
We asked Zweig a few questions.
Sightlines: Much of your artistic practice has been in the public realm. What about public art intrigues you and engages your imagination?
Janet Zweig: Gallery and museum art draws a very specific audience. When I make a public work, like the one I made for the Austin airport, people from all walks of life experience it. I try very hard to make work that assumes the audience for public art is as intelligent and sophisticated as an audience for gallery art. it’s just a broader audience and I prefer that. I feel that I’m putting art into a wider world.
S: You’ve said “Interimaginary Departures” is inspired by “The City & the City” a novel about a murder investigation in two cities that occupy the same space simultaneously. Beyond the notion of simultaneity, what else informed your creative process?
JZ: ‘Interimaginary Departures’ was inspired by so many things. The physical space of the piece was designed with my studio assistant Kyle Hittmeier in the program Rhino. We designed the space together, tilted it at a seven degree angle and then dropped it into the existing airport space. Like “The City & the City,” the two spaces intersect each other. If you look closely, you will see odd places where they intersect, like the ceiling grid and the coffers of the ceiling, not to mention the more obvious places where the airport benches intersect the walls and our red benches. The gap to the left of the installation is formed as a space of the real airport that is left over by the intersection of the two spaces.
Another visual influence was the film “2001, A Space Odyssey” — we imitated the walls in the last scene of that movie. And the rabbit motifs come from various sources: the carpet holds the iconic “three hares sharing three ears” that crops up all over the globe in art from 6th century Chinese caves to medieval European churches. The “duck-rabbit” illusion on the ticket machine is another image that has always fascinated me. I used this airport piece as an occasion to insert many visual marvels that I have been collecting over the years, providing “easter eggs” for observant viewers who spend time with the piece.
In terms of content, the piece owes a debt to fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. I so enjoyed reading many of the books that contain the fictional locations described in the piece. Mark J. Wolf’s several books about imaginary worlds and Manguel and Gudalupi’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places were great influences.
S: “Interimaginary Departures” is very intricate, layered, dense, and requires considerable interaction. How did you square that with it being in a busy airport, a place where people’s attention is often pulled in so many directions?
JZ: Places of transit are spaces where people are either waiting for a long time with nothing to do, or rushing to get somewhere. For those long periods of waiting, travelers crave something to occupy the imagination. The responses we have been getting convince us that people are really enjoying the layered aspects of the piece and are being kept occupied and amused by the changing boards and the announcements.
S: What kind of responses have you gotten from people who’ve engaged with “Interimaginary Departures”?
JZ: I’m delighted to see that the piece is all over Instagram and TikTok, but I also receive personal emails from people who’ve enjoyed it. For example:
‘Hi there! I wanted to write and thank you for this beautiful installation. I’m in hour 3 of my unexpected 5-hour layover in Austin, and the departure announcements are the only thing keeping me sane. Once the boarding call for Night Vale hits, I may just have to step through those double doors.With gratitude from Present Me, but (more importantly) 10-year-old Me.’
S: In its early days, airline travel seemed glamorous. Since the pandemic, it’s now so fraught with frustration, tension and anxiety. Do you like airports, travel, flying?
JZ: I love travel. I also love reading. I think of reading as a way to travel to imaginary places — that’s what the piece is about. I do hope that when someone receives a ticket to a fictional location or hears an announcement about a fictional location, it might inspire them to search for and read the book.