coronavirus

Artist's ‘Distance Tarot' Midnight Pop-Up Offers Answers in a Time of Questions

Danielle Baskin doesn't advertise the time or the place, so late-night walkers in San Francisco can only score a free tarot reading by serendipity (or perhaps by fate?)

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What to Know

  • When the coronavirus pandemic put some of her other projects on hold, Danielle Baskin was looking for ways to interact with the public and meet strangers while safely behind her front window
  • An amateur tarot reader for 12 years, Baskin sees the cards as a way to get into deep conversations quickly and become open to new perspectives
  • Strangers passing by Baskin's window can call a phone number to talk to her through the glass as she shuffles and draws cards in response to their questions

On a silent, deserted street in San Francisco, a traffic light changes from green to yellow, and then to red — even though there are no drivers or pedestrians around to heed its instructions.

In the normally-bustling Mission District, seeing a street so quiet on a Saturday night is an almost-surreal experience — made even more surreal by the red neon sign softly glowing in a first-floor window that reads, "Distance Tarot."

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Don't tell anyone, but Danielle Baskin's "Distance Tarot" sign isn't technically neon. It's an LED sign with movable letters that she repurposed from an earlier art installation.

A smaller sign, closer to the sidewalk, offers instructions: Call the phone number printed here to have your cards read through the glass. Don't wait in line, it warns — if someone's already here, you should circle around the block.

"I was thinking of ways that I could still interact with people, but from behind my own window," said Danielle Baskin, the mastermind behind this quirky art installation.

A woman lit by dim purple light attaches a clear sign to the inside of a window. "For a reading behind the glass," it says, and offers a (415) phone number.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Baskin set up a phone number especially for Distance Tarot so she can communicate with people on the other side of the glass.

Baskin is, in fact, an experienced tarot reader. She's been doing it as a hobby for the past 12 years. Her primary passion, however, lies not in divination, but in crafting unusual and timely experiences through art. The COVID-19 pandemic has left her with no shortage of opportunities.

"I think people are looking for delightful, funny, magical things that are unexpected," she said. "If your life and your habits are suddenly disrupted, I think discovering interesting, unexpected artwork is an antidote, it feels like a relief."

a couple stands in front of a window with a sign in it that says "distance tarot" and a woman below the sign wearing a pointy wizard's hat.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Baskin said she expected visitors to stop and take pictures of her Distance Tarot booth — but what she didn't expect was the length and depth of the conversations that followed.

The idea for Distance Tarot came about when Baskin learned she had to move out of an art studio she'd been renting because the building was being demolished.

"I thought ... at some point before we all have to leave the building, I would love to just have a tarot shop," she recalled. "And right around that time ... this whole pandemic happened, and we went into lockdown."

Baskin staged her first Distance Tarot installation in the ground floor window of that studio on the night she moved out.

"In the hour and a half I was out, I only did tarot readings for three people," she said. "But everyone who stumbled into it was just so delighted, because they did not expect to find anything open or find anything to do."

A woman wearing a hat holds up two piles of cards in her two hands from behind a window
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Conventional tarot reading involves allowing the participant, or querent, to shuffle and draw the cards. For the sake of social distancing, Baskin handles the cards herself, asking her querents to tell her how she should shuffle and cut the deck.

On the night we joined Baskin for her second Distance Tarot experience, she had a similar turnout: three tarot readings, on an otherwise-silent Saturday night. One of them indeed seemed fated to happen.

"I was just saying I really want to get a tarot reading!" exclaimed a woman who was passing by and excitedly stopped upon seeing the sign. "Literally, like two hours, three hours ago, I was just talking about it."

Standing on a ladder inside the window, wearing a pointy wizard's hat and a pair of earphones, Baskin invited the woman to tell her when to stop shuffling and which way to cut the deck.

A woman inside a blue-lit window at night pulls one of three tarot cards from clear plastic holders affixed to the window glass.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
After shuffling, cutting and drawing the cards according to her guest's instruction's, Baskin comes down off her ladder to lay out the three- or four-card spread and interpret the cards one by one.

"Normally, these would be in your hands, but I have to be your proxy," she said over the phone.

The reading touched on some intensely personal topics, and lasted nearly half an hour. Baskin said that's been the case with almost every Distance Tarot reading she's done.

"I ended up having these half-hour long, in-depth conversations about what's going on in people's lives," she said. "I feel like I really connected with all the people that stopped by for a reading."

a woman in a blue-lit window shows a tarot card to a man standing out on the dark street. we see only the back of his head.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Baskin said her average Distance Tarot reading lasts just short of half an hour, and sometimes involves drawing follow-up cards for clarification.

This is far from Baskin's only pandemic-related art venture. She's gotten media attention for a molded nose-and-mouth face mask that's recognizable by Apple's Face ID, and she's gone viral on Twitter after figuring out how to print a photo of your lower face — or someone else's — onto a fabric mask.

But Distance Tarot taps into a different part of our new reality, Baskin says: People are worried, and have lots of questions.

"Right now, I'm just noticing that strangers are way more vulnerable with each other," she said. "I feel like tarot's kind of perfect for that, because its focus is just on what's going on in your mind."

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