Volume 1 Issue 1
Fall 2003/Winter 2004

"A World of Sound" by Aruna D'Souza


Janet Cardiff has created installations that use sound and visual effects to give the viewer a sense of disconnection from the world. She uses, in her installations, binaural sound, audio of her own voice, and tours through the museum or a movie. While the viewer is watching the film, or taking the tour, he or she can hear Cardiff's voice coming through a sound system, sounding much like she is standing right behind that person, commenting on the surroundings. In the tour, the viewer begins to watch the movie, or go on the tour, as anyone would-feeling like an individual having an "alone" experience, but still in the middle of people…through the use of binaural sound, Cardiff tries to imply that the sense of being an individual, nor the sense of community truly exist. We "are neither alone nor connected, but rather exist somewhere between the two, constantly caught up in somebody else's story."


Most of Janet Cardiff's works rely on a particular recording technology called binaural sound that results in a startlingly precise, located sound. D'Souza explains that Cardiff's work exposes the fragile sense of belonging that the wired world entails. People are neither alone nor connected, but rather exist somewhere between the two, constantly caught up in somebody else's story.

Full Text

High-tech effects, B-movie suspense and urban alienation all take a turn in an internationally touring exhibition that surveys Janet Cardiff's installations and audio walks.

Walking into the gallery at P.S. 1 where Janet Cardiff s Forty-Part Motet was installed, you found little to see. Nothing but 40 speakers mounted at head height on metal stands. If you came into the room at the beginning of the 14-minute piece, you experienced silence. Then the room filled with murmuring voices coming from all directions, the sounds of a choral group
greeting each other, finding their places, exercising their vocal cords, chatting with their friends. They are called to order and begin to sing, solitary voices joined by others, until the sublimely beautiful and intense Spem in Alium by the 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis is heard in its entirety.

Like most of Cardiff's works, Forty-Part Motet (2001) relies on a particular recording technology called binaural sound. This results in a startlingly precise, located sound; one senses that voices are coming from very particular directions-over your shoulder, forward and to your right, sometimes even within your own head-thus creating a completely spatialized sound environment. It is perhaps not surprising that Cardiff, after working with this technology for a number of years, tackled Tallis's complex, polyphonic piece. Even in live performance, each of the 40 singing parts is practically indistinguishable from the others, so that one really hears the blending of the voices rather than the individual components; it is only through binaural recording technology that it becomes possible to hear the constituent tonal threads that make up the resulting piece of music. By placing a microphone in front of each of the singers, recording the sounds in a spatially precise way and then playing them back on speakers that ring the room, one is able, as Cardiff says, "to `climb inside' the music, connecting with the separate voices."1

This, of course, while standing in a nearly empty room. And yet, for its lack of material presence, Forty-Part Motet embodies a genuine spatial concreteness and even, one might say, an architectural one. When the work was originally installed at the National Gallery of Canada (it won that institution's 2001 Millennium Prize), it was placed in the Rideau Chapel, a small, reconstructed, 19th-century neo-Gothic affair. The music, which was recorded in Salisbury Cathedral, in effect "blew out" the walls of the real architecture: one heard the recorded music as if standing in the cathedral's cavernous space, rather than the much smaller and more delicate chapel. In its P.S. 1 incarnation, the work was installed in a very different room, a large, empty, loft like space with very little by way of architectural detail but for large windows that look out onto the Queens neighborhood. Hearing Tallis's music there lent that banal, neutral space a monumentality and gravity to which it would otherwise have little claim.

The paradox of the installation is that, even when you were the only person standing in the gallery, the space seemed full: phantom presences surrounded you, whispering in your ear, taking up room with only the sounds of their voices. This, perhaps, is the essence of Cardiff s work, which can be roughly divided into three groups: walks, which take the form of recorded tours of museums or urban sites; cinema-based pieces, in which a moviegoing experience is re-created along with a binaural soundtrack; and room installations, in which gallery spaces and their contents are transformed into a veritable architecture parlance.

There is a challenge in mounting a survey exhibition for an artist whose artistic practice takes so many forms, especially given that much of the work is site specific. Add the complications that most of the pieces require a sustained time commitment on the viewer's part, and that-- because several also require the use of headphones-only a limited number of people can
experience each piece at one time, and you have a quite demanding curatorial task. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, until recently a senior curator at P.S. 1, solved part of the problem by focusing the exhibition around five major installations made between 1993 and 2001 (two of which were done collaboratively with Cardiff s husband, the artist George Bures Miller) and commissioning one site-specific, guided audio walk Of the installations, only two (The Dark Pool, 1995, and The Muriel Lake Incident, 1999) had been exhibited in New York before. In addition, a number of audio walks were documented in a separate room (Discmans and video-playback cameras were provided to stationary viewers), and a few smaller audio-video pieces were included in the show.

Despite the diversity of their forms, many of Cardiff's works focus on a type of situation that makes one feel alone in a crowd: listening to music in a cathedral, losing oneself in the darkness of a movie theater, walking on a busy city street. The walks are particularly interesting in this regard, especially since, from Baudelaire on, the figure of the flaneur, that solitary walker who revels in his isolation amid the urban throng, has come in many ways to symbolize modern experience. However, while the
literary fiction of the flaneur was a fantasy of distancing and disengagement, such that one was merely a voracious eye that could take in the sights of the city without being threatened by its heterogeneity, Cardiff presents a much less comfortable experience of flanerie.

Made for a variety of different urban and institutional spaces starting in 1996-including the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, the city of Munster, the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome and the exhibition spaces of the Sao Paulo Bienal-the audio walks
invite the participant to don headphones and follow Cardiff's guided tour. What you hear is the artist's voice, flat-toned yet insinuating, whispering in your ear, first telling you to adjust your footsteps to match the sound of her clicking heels so that you can keep up with her as she leads you along; soon her voice is interspersed with other, fragmented narratives, bits of music and movie soundtracks, ambient noises and voices of a crowd that seems to surround you.

Although you are wearing headphones-a device that usually isolates you from the world around-you are thrown into psychological and bodily relation both with Cardiff, whose voice is a constant and not quite reassuring presence for the duration of your trip, and with an invisible, recorded crowd. Whether the walks take place inside a museum or out in the city, one experiences these sounds as an uncanny doubling of aural sensation: street noise on tape vies with actual sounds and voices as you make your way down the sidewalk, and the footsteps you hear come from the same direction as your own. A measure of disquiet is also produced by the realism of the recorded sounds and the distinctness with which you hear them; in natural aural experience, a person sorts through a barrage of audible stimuli, filtering out irrelevant background noises in order to home in on significant or meaningful sound.2 In her audio walks, by contrast, Cardiff overrides our filtering mechanisms:
traffic noises, buzzing flies or passing conversations are heard with an almost excessive clarity, so that one is over-stimulated aurally for the duration of the tour.

The stories that Cardiff narrates in these walks are fractured and multiple; the genres of film noir and the detective novel play a central role. Early on in one of the most successful of these pieces, The Missing Voice (Case Study B) of 1999, which took the participant on a 39-minute tour of London's East End, Cardiff whispers over your shoulder ("I want you to walk with
me. There are some things I need to show you.") while a B-- movie score portending horrors plays in the background. The plot thickens when a male voice, heard in the "surround sound" mode of a movie soundtrack rather than the precisely located, binaural sound of Cardiff's speech, interjects with a sort of cinematic voiceover, "One of the librarians recognized her
from the photograph." He is a detective, tracking Cardiff's-and by extension our own-movements through the city. Pieces of the mystery emerge slowly: Cardiff prompts you to observe your immediate environment as she inserts, in an audio montage, bits of this other, noirish narrative-something to do with a photograph, a detective and a search for a red-haired woman who
may or may not have been murdered. The cat-and-mouse game of the detective's pursuit is figured, at least in part, as an erotically charged series of missed encounters, and the participant-who walks in the narrator's footsteps-is placed at the center of this scenario.

If the standard recorded walking tour is constructed to help the visitor make sense of a particular place, Cardiff's fractured commentaries do quite the opposite: the site or the city is made discordant and contradictory, rather than clear and rational, thanks to the multiple and competing tracks. This effect is no less present in the artist's museum tours, which often
turn the participant's attention away from the objects on display instead of explaining them, as one might expect. In The PS. 1 Walk (2001), commissioned by the museum for this exhibition, Cardiff leads you away from the galleries-as is typical of her museum walks-and instead guides you through the hidden spaces of the institution, back stairwells, underground passages, rooms and studios not usually open to the public. In the 12-minute tour, she intersperses precise directions (turn right here, go up these stairs) with a more poetic, and slightly threatening, narrative; at certain points you feel vulnerable, as when she asks you to sit in a dim and smelly stairwell and look at the wall for a few moments. There is a frisson involved in pushing your way through doors marked "DO NOT OPEN," and when you hear the narrator whisper in your ear, "it's amazing that one can still find places to hide in a place like this," you cannot help but agree. At one stage, you are led into a bathroom that is currently home to an eerie installation by Jocelyn Shipley. Gothic horror-movie music swells. And when Cardiff says to you, "Let's get out of here, it's sort of creepy," it is not quite clear if that creepy quality is the product of the installation itself
or of the mood of suspense produced by her narrative.

In all of her walks, Cardiff is interested in the recovery of a sort of memory of place. In The P.S. 1 Walk, the building's former use as a school is revived through sound: children's tramping feet and high-pitched voices stream past you while you sit, as directed, on a bench outside the classrooms in the basement. Though this has worked to great effect in her other walks,
P.S. 1 was, from its inauguration as an art space, designed to keep the building's past in mind, and so Cardiff's interventions here seem a bit too obvious; they reiterate what we already know about the institution, rather than revealing something new about it. When we are abandoned in an empty, cavernous, nonpublic space on the second floor at the end of
the walk-Cardiff regularly ends her audio walks abruptly, leaving participants to make their own way back to the starting point-it feels more anticlimactic than usual, despite (or perhaps because of) a soaring rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow that still seems to ring in your ears.

Cardiff and Bures Miller's most ambitious collaboration, The Paradise Institute (2001), was commissioned for the Canadian Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Though not in the P.S. 1 survey, it is currently on display in New York at Luhring Augustine Gallery. To experience this work, you enter a wooden construction that houses a miniature theater, sit in a row of velvet-upholstered theater seats, and look down-as if from the balcony of an old-fashioned movie house-to a small screen placed at the end of the radically foreshortened space. Through headphones, you begin to hear noises-people settling into
their seats, whispering to one another, munching popcorn-while the lights dim and a movie comes up on the screen. The film is their mock spy thriller and involves a nurse, .a very sick man and an evil doctor. Your viewing is continually interrupted by Cardiff's voice, whispering in your ear. Then, at a certain point in the narrative, the evil doctor from the movie seems to sit down beside you and speak as if you were a traitor in his spy game; he intimates that your friend Cardiff is about to come to a horrible end.

The particular features of this piece-the reconstructed playhouse, the intertwining of movie soundtrack and Cardiff's voice, and the melding of cinematic narrative and real experience enlarge upon elements of an earlier work by Cardiff and Bures Miller, The Muriel Lake Incident, which was in the P.S. 1 show. This is a much less elaborate construction, consisting
of a freestanding wooden box on a metal frame, containing a diorama of a cinema; the whole thing stands just over 6 feet tall and accommodates three headphone-wearing viewers at a time. You lean into a hole cut into the side of the construction and imagine yourself settled into a seat to watch a film.

The movie seems to be set in cowboy country and includes scenes of two men (one played by Bures Miller) plotting, intercut with images of a woman (Cardiff) dancing in a trancelike state, dressed in a black slip and high heels. Over the movie's soundtrack on the audio is Cardiff's voice-she has obviously joined you for the film-whispering a different yet equally
complicated scenario involving a man who is following you and her own plans for a clandestine meeting with him. As the cowboys in the film sneak up to a house to carry out their nefarious scheme, Cardiff leaves your side to meet her mysterious man; at the climactic point of the movie, the film seems to break up and bum, and the screen turns black. A moment later,
gunshots ring out in the theater, a woman screams and the audience goes crazy. A man-presumably the man that Cardiff went to meet-laughs insanely.

As film theory has described it, the classic cinematic experience is one of disengagement. On one level, this detachment is the product of the physical experience of seeing a movie: you sit in a theater in the dark, as if alone, despite the fact that you are surrounded by a mass of other people, and are dissuaded from talking to the person next to you or engaging in any
sort of social interaction during the course of the film. Both the architectural design of movie theaters and the social etiquette of film viewing construct a sense of isolation. On another level, however, the sense of detachment is more profound and is part of the narrative structure of the movie itself. Classic Hollywood cinema is organized around an experience of psychic projection, in which you as a viewer are asked to identify with particular characters on the screen and to immerse yourself in their celluloid world for a time. Even as you take part in this fantasy, however, you know that it is all make-believe, and that when the house lights go up, you will be left relatively unscathed, your involvement having been only vicarious.

Cardiff and Bures Miller, in the best moments of their cinematic simulacra, reverse almost all of those terms. Your sense of physical isolation is constantly interrupted by a barrage of intrusions-people snacking, unwelcome conversations, and other sounds that we, by habit, normally screen out in these sorts of situations. Beyond this, the effects of Cardiff and Bures
Miller's interventions are even more significant. Losing oneself in the movie is not figured as pleasurable, but sets up, rather, a mode of helplessness in the face of an opaque and fragmented story line. Nor does the convention of a closed-off, cinematic realm survive these artists' interventions. Quite the contrary, the suspense that exists within the film on-screen seems to infect the actions of the people who (on the soundtrack, at least) sit next to you in the theater-including the overly intimate Cardiff.

All this is effected in a work that expresses a deep and affectionate fascination with the movies, even as it self-effacingly parodies its own relation to them. In both The Paradise Institute and The Muriel Lake Incident, you hear the female narrator mistake the deliberately amateurish film on the screen for specific Hollywood classics. It is hard to mistake the anachronism-ridden The Muriel Lake Incident for Citizen Kane: despite the vaguely "Old West" character of the scenes, one sees Cardiff dancing in an antique-filled room with a wired fax machine sitting on the piano, or Bures Miller (as the cowboy) sitting on an Ikea folding chair in front of the campfire, for example. These "errors" interrupt any claim to realism-a realism otherwise
suggested by the uncanny three-dimensionality of the audiotrack-that these works might possess, bringing you to a sudden consciousness of the film as a constructed fiction, defying your ability to suspend disbelief for the duration of your involvement with the piece, disrupting the reality effect that narrative cinema depends on.

Two of the earliest pieces in the show-To Touch (1993) and The Dark Pool-are highly instructive regarding Cardiff's and Bures Miller's relation to the technology they employed in their subsequent work. To Touch, a work by Cardiff, consists of a darkened room, in the center of which sits a spotlighted table; 16 small speakers are mounted along four walls. The table is wooden, old and scarred, and when you run your hands over its surface, you trip sensors embedded there, triggering a series of nine different soundtracks: conversations between a man and woman played back on separate speakers, people breathing loudly, snippets from 1950s movies, foreboding music, chanting voices and various other sounds. The viewer of the work thus becomes a kind of performer (Cardiff has described the role as akin to that of a DJ3) allowing these various narrative fragments to be "released" from the table and its architectural surround.

The Dark Pool, which Cardiff made in collaboration with Bures Miller, consists of another darkened room, lit only by bare light bulbs hanging from wires. The room is filled with stuff-old clothes on a rack, a rickety cot, tables stacked with books, curios, outmoded scientific equipment, dusty armchairs, dirty dishes and apparently purposeless mechanical objects. It appears
to be a sort of laboratory, abandoned by its occupants-described by Cardiff as a scientific couple4-who were in search of a fictional geological anomaly called "The Dark Pool," a lake that defies the laws of physics. As you move through the space, you trigger audio playbacks: a man and a woman conversing, various voices (including that of a child) reading fables and
pseudoscientific texts about the Dark Pool, the sound of a man counting from 1 to 500. Only slowly, as you explore the idiosyncrasies of this cluttered room, do the contours of the disjointed narrative emerge.

In both of these pieces, technology is figured in a curious way: while relying on a relatively sophisticated use of motion sensors and audio playback devices, the installations deflect a viewer's awareness of the technology. What you are faced with, on the contrary, are quite emphatically nontechnological objects and devices: a battered old carpenter's table with no visible wiring in the case of To Touch and, in The Dark Pool, an accumulation of objects that declare their outmodedness at every turn. The books are old, the Viewfinder through which you are asked to peer is a favorite, low-tech toy of the
artist's distant youth, as is the cup-and-string "telephone." The machines (such as a contraption labeled "wishing machine" set up in the corner of the room and the vaguely mechanomorphic device that transfers liquid along a tube in an endless circuit with the help of a motorized pump) seem not just purposeless, but decidedly antirational. If in To Touch the mechanics
of the sound technology are hidden, in The Dark Pool they are subsumed in the tangle of electrical wiring that snakes down from the ceiling to connect to old-fashioned lamps and trumpet-shaped Victrola speakers, such that it becomes effectively camouflaged. We are not meant, in either case, to notice the newness of the technology, but simply to experience its effects,
an intention that applies to the cinema-based works and the walks as well.5

Much of Cardiff's work and her collaborations with Bures Miller rely on active participation (to go on the walk, to explore the room, to run hands over the table) or at least a refusal of the spectator's usual passivity (as in the film works). Yet to experience the art is to be placed at the center of sometimes menacing and always fragmented narratives where you are strangely ineffectual: you cannot determine their outcome, they move on despite you. Cardiff's work forces you into imagined relations with spectral presences that surround you, relations that can be profoundly comforting, as in Forty-Part Motet, or threatening, as in The Paradise Institute, while simultaneously pointing out your powerlessness in the face of the spectacle taking place.

This is the fundamental ambiguity that makes Cardiff's work particularly compelling: she defies your attempts to isolate yourself in the midst of the crowd or to lose yourself in either the narrative fantasies of cinema or the transcendent experience of the art museum, even as she denies you a stable or comfortable position in the real world of social relations. Not satisfied with merely reproducing the effects of modern technologies and entertainments, Cardiff exposes the fragile sense of belonging that our wired world entails. Walking down the street, going to the movies, seeing a museum exhibition: all imply at once an individualism and a sense of community, neither of which, Cardiff implies, truly exists. We are neither alone nor connected, but rather exist somewhere between the two, constantly caught up in somebody else's story.


D'Souza, Aruna. "A World of Sound." Art in America. 90.4. April 2002. New York: 110-15. (Accessed from ProQuest 11/3/03).

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