Janet Cardiff: A Survey of Works, Including Collaborations with George Bures Miller P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center October 14, 2001-January 31, 2002by Daniel Baird
You are standing in the room beside the stairwell on the second floor of P.S.1. It is a gray Sunday in October, a day of openings, and P.S.1 is packed with people, irritable journalists with their stick-on press passes, posturing hipsters, and squealing children. But despite the commotion, you are enveloped in spacious quiet, just the ambient sounds of an empty building, a stray cat passing outside, calm, slow breathing. You are standing at a broad window facing the street, when a voice comes through the headphones you are wearing, very intimate and a little melancholic, asking you to notice the person standing on the corner on the other side of the street; and although no one is there, although you know the voice is drawing your attention to an experience which may have occurred weeks earlier, you still continue to gaze at what has become a strange, haunted absence. The woman’s voice then asks you to walk with her out into the crowded hallway, already in a kind of trance, focused entirely on syncing your steps with the sound of her steps, your breaths with her breaths. Over the course of Janet Cardiff’s eerily moving PS1 Walk (2001), you walk down stairways, sit on a chair planted under the stairwell, cross through the basement, and wander empty back rooms: “even in a building like this,” Cardiff purrs, “you can find a place to hide.” Using binaural audio-recording technology, in which microphones are positioned ear-distance to create uncanny, three-dimensional effects, Cardiff’s walks place the participant in a sculptural sonic space, a private, alternative inner world that is separate from, yet intersects with, the site in which the walk takes place. Cardiff’s voice, sliding between tour-guide directions, reveries, and memories, is intimate, erotic, and dream-like, and seems both internal and external. Near the end of PS1 Walk, there is a woozy, distorted rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “Do you remember the story of the girl trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?” Cardiff asks. “No matter how fast she walked, she could never get there.” Then Cardiff abruptly says, “now you have to go.” And it is somehow devastating.
Based in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canadian artist Janet Cardiff has received increasing international attention for her poetic audio walks, as well as for her videos and installations, on which she frequently collaborates with her husband, George Bures Miller. Indeed, Cardiff and Miller received two awards and wide critical acclaim for their installation at the 49th Venice Biennale this past spring. The work on view in P.S.1’s modest and flawlessly curated Janet Cardiff: A Survey of Works, including collaborations with George Bures Miller, which is accompanied by a catalogue, is rigorously conceived, personal, and deeply sensuous. Although sophisticated to a fault, Cardiff’s work is not at all urban or cosmopolitan, is not the knowing, glamorous, public art of the so-called global art community; it is, rather, quite, lonely, private, and introspective, saturated with longing and memory. Apart from an amusing small print, “Three Thoughts” (1986), the earliest piece in the show is the installation To Touch (1993). In To Touch, there is an old, well-worn wooden table, a work table perhaps, a farmhouse’s kitchen table, directly lit in the center of an otherwise dark room that is lined with speakers. Passing one’s open hands over the table’s smooth surface, sensors activate a variety of sounds: a phone rings, a car passes, someone sighs, a voice muses “what will I make for dinner?,” a voice furtively commands “touch my wrist.” Standing at the table, hands outstretched, eyes open or closed, as though at a séance, one drifts into the privacy of a kitchen, a bedroom, a mind, the voices close, caressing, and palpable. To Touch subtly troubles and displaces the primacy of the visual, of the optical, without wholly relinquishing them, creating an invisible space afloat in time that exists somewhere between the mind, memory, and the immediate surface of the skin, between the inner and the outer. In To Touch, one seems to be seeing what is absent and past with one’s whole body. The slightly earlier Whispering Room (1991), not included in the current survey, has a similar effect. A stuttering 16mm image of a girl tap-dancing in a forest, an image halfway between innocent home movie and creepy fairytale, is intermittently projected on the wall, which a softly murmuring, barely audible cacophony of female voices comes from speakers set on stands positioned throughout the room. As one moves through “Whispering Room”, individual voices come into focus, speaking to themselves but also whispering their passing anxieties and reveries directly into one’s ear. To be in Whispering Room is to be inside the myriad, subjective cosmos of a Leibnitzian monad, inside the aimless flux of a mind suspended between memory and presence. The image on the wall provides a fragile, visual counterpoint, giving the eye the illusion that there is something to see, ambivalently evoking a fantasy of childhood. “There’s a forest I remember from when I was a kid,” Cardiff says at one point in PS 1 Walk, “I used to sit there and daydream…” Cardiff’s work is often straining back toward the lost innocence and dreams of childhood, which are now colored by the sense of being part of a story, a fairytale, that is frightening and uncertain.
One of the most complex pieces in the exhibit is the collaboration with George Bures Miller, The Dark Pool (1995). The installation resembles the cluttered, musty attic of some old eccentric. There are racks of moth-eaten dresses, there is a bare pinewood coffin, I.V. tubes with iridescent green liquid flowing through them, gigantic antique phonograph speakers, and also a long table covered with old science books, the remnants of experimental weird games, stuffed animals, and a beat-up trunk. As one meanders through the room, a mechanical bird wing mysteriously flutters, a scratchy recording of Judy Garland’s waifish yet already sullied voice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays, snatches of melodramatic film noir dialogue crackle through speakers, a woman keens “it’s me again, tell me what you see,” and a woman’s voice narrates truncated fragments of the story of the "Dark Pool." The "Dark Pool" is an oily, pitch black lagoon which inexplicably oozes up out of the ground in the middle of nowhere, and is a kind of black hole in which anything that comes into contact with it disappears without a trace: children, animals, the delicate hands of young girls. In the trunk on the table is an intricate replica of the sinister lake, strings of lights festooned around it as though it were the site of a carnival, the astonished inhabitants of the town gathered on its shore. Scientists and distinguished scholars spun theories to explain the appearance of the Dark Pool, even as frightened, mesmerized locals began throwing devotional objects into it. Whereas pieces like Whispering Room and To Touch occupy a sensuous, inward, poetic space, The Dark Pool, like The Muriel Lake Incident (1999), also a collaboration with George Bures Miller, is wryly comic, its self-consciously mannered, gothic narrative alluding to pulp films and dime-store novels. Although the transporting sensuality of Cardiff’s solo work is here and there present, in The Dark Pool experience is mediated and ironized by cultural memory. Loitering in The Dark Pool, picking through its accumulations of junk and stories, which evoke the set of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, “covered with final dust,” one gradually realizes that the middle of nowhere in which the Dark Pool appeared is anywhere whatsoever, that we are always living among the antiquated remnants and gaping absences left behind by the Dark Pool. The Dark Pool is a specious, devouring present which does not allow anything to remain whole, that fractures stories, that makes science and desperate mysticism equally futile, and that is also an entertaining, self-loathing spectacle. It is appropriate that Cardiff and Miller designed an online version of The Dark Pool for the Banff Center in Alberta. There, one can follow the stories, the evidence and theories associated with each object in the installation in endlessly complicated, circular, irresolvable loops.
The immense space on the northern side of the second floor of P.S.1 is entirely devoted to Forty Part Motet: A reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis 1573 (2001), which was the winner of the first international Millenium Prize given by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Renaissance British composer Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Allium is a relatively intimate work, written to be performed by four or five voices at most, not a massive, sweeping choral work of the kind Handel later wrote. Forty Part Motet, on the other hand, involved separately miking a forty-member chorus performing a presumably reorchestrated version of Tallis’s motet, then playing the digitally enhanced recording through speakers set atop stands arranged in a rough ellipse. The result is a dizzingly complex polyphony in which, depending on where one is standing, voices are heard, not just as independent strands woven into a whole, but as private individuals singing, almost speaking, to the rapt listener. The impact of Forty Part Motet comes from the way it brings the intimacy of the voices in works like Whispering Room, To Touch, and the walks to an epic, even spiritual scale, while still remaining an essentially personal work. The voices create a labyrinthine, whirling physical volume, their clarities, their center of gravity and focus, shifting around the room; and yet, despite their grandeur, their ravishing beauty, each voice is lonely, striving, and idiosyncratic: one almost expects them to go flat and off key, to suddenly become hoarse or squeaky, to suddenly forget the words, though they don’t. The voices separate off from the elaborate architecture of the composition and exist irreducibly in space, and the work as a whole elides the private and introspective with the sublimely cosmic. In the midst of rising choral thrusts, huge harmonic unities, one can still discern the tiny, inner voices worrying “what should I make for dinner?”
In addition to the PS1 Walk, P.S.1 has made available a selection of Cardiff’s walks, which, though taken out of their site-specific context, re-pay listening. Of special interest are the two walks which, in addition to the audio component, employ small digital video cameras. In Real Time (1999) and The Telephone Call (2001). In In Real Time, for instance, Cardiff wanders, video camera in hand, through the library at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. She seems to have a secretive, clandestine purpose, as though spying on people or attempting to steal documents. She pauses in front of a woman reciting her memories into a tape recorder, and is shooed away; she passes by the cubicles in the microfilm room, commenting, “how do they know that no one will remember?” “Somewhere in the labyrinth of stories,” Cardiff says, now deep in the library stacks, zooming the camera in on the bindings of random books, “there is a book I need to find…” Similarly in The Telephone Call, Cardiff creeps up and down the stairways and through the crowded galleries of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, instructing the participant where to go and look, but at the same time she herself seems to be trying to flee, to hide. She is interrupted by a cell phone call and a man’s voice says, “what are you thinking of?” She is interrupted again and then again. Eventually she is looking out a window and sees a man in a suit with a cell phone looking up at her from the street. “There are things I should have told you,” he says, “goodbye…” Like her perhaps overly gimmicky, filmic collaborations with George Bures Miller, In Real Time and The Telephone Call address the relationship between the privacy of experience and communications technologies which increasingly erode the boundaries of self, eliminating the odd, quiet corners in the basements of busy buildings where one can hide and think. Cardiff is by no means a politically oriented artist, but she implicitly understands that the principal menace in our mass society is not so much the repressive, disciplinary gaze of corporations and the state, but the more mundane and inexorable destruction of solitude. Like all of Cardiff’s walks, both In Real Time and The Telephone Call rely on the gap between the place being walked through and the soundscape, and the introduction of the video camera adds another dimension to that gap. Watching and listening to both pieces in a cubicle at P.S.1, one has a strong sense of the jittery randomness and ephemeral contingency of visual experience; for Cardiff, the purely visual is thin and mechanical. With “In Real Time” and “The Telephone Call”, Cardiff’s moving investigation of the dialectic of sameness and difference, presence and absence, of the unreplicatability of experience and the irreversibility of time, mediated by our vain need of technologies to freeze events in the “real world,” in “real time,” is taken another step.
The current exhibit of Janet Cardiff’s work at P.S.1 is in many ways a model “mid-career survey.” The concept of a “survey,” much less a “mid-career survey,” is at best problematic—consider the almost invariably debilitating retrospectives of living artists periodically staged at the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art—in part because it imposes a specific kind of timeline and arc on an oeuvre which should still be in flux. Fortunately, the P.S.1 exhibit does not attempt to be exhaustive or representative of all phases of Cardiff’s career, but is centered around recent work: three of the major pieces presented are dated 2001. Nonetheless, the show has sufficient depth to suggest the rigor, clarity, and beauty of Cardiff’s very much continuous and ongoing project.