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Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Recent Works

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Issue: 5 Section: Arts Topics: sound art

August 8, 2003

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Recent Works

Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, U.K.

by Max Liboiron

Canada's current Big Shots in the international art world, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, have brought credit, fame and funding to the previously "suspect" genre of sound art. Why? Because they're so dang good. An exhibit of "Recent Works" is running at the illustrious Whitechapel Gallery in London, June 7 to August 24, 2003.

While the exhibit has four pieces, two lag behind as more typical of sound and video art ("House Burning", 2001 and "The Berlin Files", 2003). The other two are strictly audio, and are of the variety that put Cardiff and Miller on the map. "The Missing Voice [Case Study B]" (1999) is an "audio walk": you put on headphones and take a walk as directed to you by the recorded voice, turning left when told to, looking right when told to. Sometimes you even see the people the narrator is describing ("there is a man in a suit in front of you now"), which is both spooky and satisfying. The headphones make street sounds that blend with those in your actual environment. "Forty Part Motet" (2001) is an indoor audio piece billed as a "re-working of Spem in Alium Nunquam habui, 1575, by Thomas Tallis".

Janet Cardiff is the creative force behind the pieces, while her husband, Miller, is the technician. (He is also the person wearing the woman's clickity-clack high heels on the audio walks.) Describing their audio work does not do the experience justice; it would be akin to reviewing an orgasm as "really good". But I can endeavour to describe how the experience comes about.

At the most basic level, art is not about getting it, but about getting "you" in "it." In other words, art doesn't work unless there is a viewer interacting with it. The magic of Cardiff and Miller's work is that they take the effort out of that interaction; actively experiencing sound is much easier than actively experiencing a painting. The work is also temporal. (The audio walk at the Whitechapel is forty minutes long. When was the last time you spent forty minutes on an art piece and still liked it at the end?) The strength that the audio pieces have over the video pieces is that with music or street sounds, you are in the piece, while with video, you are watching something else.

Especially in the audio walk, your reality is blended with Cardiff's. The street sounds on the headphones are difficult to differentiate from the street sounds coming from around you. (On my walk, the police station was playing Arabic festival music.) The narrative the artist/character spins may or may not tickle your fancy, but the experience of following directly in someone else's footsteps, in her experience, is a momentous feeling.

"Forty Part Motet" is by far the most powerful piece in the show. At Whitechapel, speakers are arranged in a circle around the room on stands. (In the Venice Biennial, the speakers were in a chapel.) Each speaker plays the recorded voice of one singer performing "Spem in Alium". You can walk around the room experiencing different aspects of the song. It's a simple concept, but either due to the actual music or due to the intimacy that develops as you stand beside each singer's "mouth", the piece is phenomenal. When the singing ends, the voices begin to clear their throats or gossip about the organist, subtly turning the singers into people who are singing (again, a simple but profound achievement), increasing the sense of intimacy.

It's no small wonder Cardiff and Miller were chosen, new genre and all, to represent Canada in the 2001 Venice Biennial.

Max Liboiron is a visual artist and critic. She has been working and living in Ireland for the past year; in the fall, she will be studying in New York.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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