Janet Cardiff Her Long Black Hair Public Art Fund July 2004by Sonya Shrier
"When you’re in a city like New York you have to think of all the sounds like a symphony or else you go a bit crazy," warns Janet Cardiff at the beginning of her latest audio walk, "Her Long Black Hair," taking place this summer in Central Park. The hour and a half journey, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, takes you through the southern quadrant of the park. As you are guided by Cardiff’s soothing voice, she recalls memories and makes observations accompanied by recordings of ambient sounds that fool your senses, snippets of opera, slave narratives, and poetry. This complex soundtrack for the real life sights and noises of the park makes every persons journey a unique and synchronistic experience.
Every walker takes with them a pouch containing a Discman and headphones as well as a collection of numbered photographs, which you are instructed at certain points to pull out and compare to the scene in front of you. Each photograph, ranging in age from last winter to almost a century ago, corresponds in place but not time to your view. This discrepancy pushes you into a middle ground between the photograph and yourself, allowing you to be a spectator looking at time as a whole. From this vantage point it is clear how unfair the rigid, linear experience of events is that allows only for a past and present and nothing in between. "Her Long Black Hair" fills this in-between space through a constant slippage between the two.
In The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire wrote "for the perfect Flaneur it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world." The form of "Her Long Black Hair" is taken from Baudelaire’s idea of the Flaneur and its title from a description of his mistress. Cardiff puts you in a slightly different position than the Flaneur—not only soaking up the sounds and sights of the city, but also questioning the nature of experience and perception itself.
The true power of this piece becomes clear after the audio ends and you are left to your own devices in the middle of the park. On the walk back you hear all the sounds as a symphony, because you feel a little bit crazy. You are comfortable in the space that the conception of linear time prohibits us from existing in, of being neither here nor there, at home everywhere and no where at home.