The artists Janet Cardiff (*1957 in Brussels, Canada) and George Bures Miller (*1960 in Vegreville, Canada) have been working together since the mid-1990s, creating illusionary spaces in which the acoustic perception of sound, as well as its sculptural and physical qualities, play a role. Their installations incorporate visual art, audio plays, film, and theater and have been seen in many solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Haus der Kunst, Munich (2012), the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2009), the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (2007), and the Miami Art Museum (2007). Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller participated in the Sydney Biennial (2008) and the Venice Biennial (2001). In 2011 they were awarded the Käthe Kollwitz Prize. The artists live in Berlin and Grindrod, Canada.

The Magic of Sounds

»We are all searching for the real, for the authentic experience that makes us really, really feel that we are actually here on this earth.« (Janet Cardiff)
»I like the idea that we are building a simulated experience in the attempt to make people feel more connected to real life.« (George Bures Miller)

The Canadian artist duo of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller received the special jury prize at the 2001 Venice Biennial: in the mixed-media installation The Paradise Institute, visitors took the stairs in a simple plywood pavilion to an opulently furnished, dimly light theater of lights. They looked over a balustrade toward a miniature model of a splendid old cinema. Listening through headphones, they followed a film, a genre mix of film noir, thriller, science-fiction, and experimental film, underscored by a highly suggestive soundtrack. Yet, the film showing is interrupted by disturbances that obviously came from the audience. A cell phone rang. “I think I left the stove on,” whispered a women close by. Someone in the audience ate popcorn very loudly. And weren’t there people from the next audience waiting to get in, knocking on the door?

Viewers of Paradise Institute were increasingly immersed in the fictional events, gradually becoming aware of the clever interplay of different levels of reality. Fiction (the film), fictitious reality (the audience), and reality (the visitors to the exhibition) confusingly intertwined.

For about two decades Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have managed to place the viewer in perfectly simulated, emotional, experiential spaces, whether in The Dark Pool (1995), in Playhouse (1997), in The Berlin Files (2003), or in The Killing Machine (2007). In the process “is created an idea of reality and what reality is in general, while we are feigning realities and playing with reality the whole time,” says Miller.

Despite their occasionally strong—even powerful—images, the duo’s multimedia works are mainly intended to stimulate our sense of hearing. Because the artists use an advanced stereophonic process to record and play back the acoustic material, the listener’s perception of sounds in space is intensified, allowing him to be almost physically immersed in a fascinating world of sounds, tones, and music. For their multimedia/sound installation The Murder of Crows (2009), for instance, the artists placed ninety-eight amplifiers around the space and played back through them a composition comprising voices, pieces of music, and spatial sounds, thus creating a three-dimensional sound space with binaural and surround sound, in which the acoustic events took on a hyper-realistic quality. An installation developed by Cardiff and worked out by Miller is called The Forty-Part Motet (2001) and based on a motet by the sixteenth-century English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis. In it the artists seduce the audience with the oldest means known to man, the human voice. A total of forty voices were recorded separately and played back through the same number of loudspeakers—“a polyphony unique to the history of music” (Ralf Beil). Unlike the audience’s situation in a classic front-facing performance or when listening to a stereo recording, visitors here can listen to each individual voice or to the choir as a tuneful unit, regardless of their individual positions.

The immensely atmospheric, suggestive power of the sound installations can be explained when one considers the evolutionary, historical origins of our sense of hearing. It served as an early warning system to preserve us from life-threatening attacks, and to this day, traces of this archaic protective function can still be found in the human subconscious. The ear is, therefore, a more direct, unprotected organ for human perception than the eye, and the audio worlds of these two artists penetrate the body and soul more deeply than mere images are capable of doing.

Cardiff and Bures Miller have two works at the dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel: In Alter Bahnhof Video Walk the duo invites visitors to take a video walk through the Kassel train station, equipped with a playback machine and headphones: staging and reality blend—“a journey into real non-reality, or the other way around?” (DIE ZEIT).

The installation for a thousand years, set up by the artists in a clearing in the midst of a wood in the Karlsaue, “sends a shiver down the listener’s spine. Suddenly he hears the sound of armored tank treads; trees fall, or airplanes approach. Things that are difficult to grasp become real in this field of sounds . . . One is here and at the same time, somewhere else, completely awake and yet caught up in history” (WELT ONLINE).


19.07.2012 Stefanie Gommel

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