Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Pandemonium (2005)

  1. Pandemonium (16' 00")

Tip tap tip tap. Is that the sound of dripping or is it someone in a cell tapping a code on the wall? Now there are many more tapping sounds. Far and near. Loud and soft. Now someone is banging on a pipe, now a cupboard. Now the hall is filled with a cacophony of beats, working their way back and forth, a PANDEMONIUM of percussion. Using the existing elements in the prison cells Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have made the entire Cellblock Seven into a giant musical instrument, producing a percussive site work. This instrument, controlled by a computer and midi system, is made up of one hundred and twenty separate beaters hitting disparate xobjects such as toilet bowls, light fixtures and bedside tables found within the prison cells. The composition begins subtly as if two prisoners are trying to communicate and then moves through an abstract soundscape and lively dance beats until it reaches a riot-like crescendo.

The massive Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world. Its gothic, castle-like towers stood as a grim warning to lawbreakers in the young United States. This was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison intended to inspire profound regret – or penitence—in the hearts of criminals. The influential design featured cellblocks extending like the spokes of a wheel; each inmate lived in solitary confinement in a vaulted sky-lit cell. The prison itself had running water and central heat before the White House, and once held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.

Eastern State closed in 1971. The prison stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and a place of surprising beauty. Cardiff and Miller present Pandemonium in Cell Block Seven, a massive, cathedral-like, two-story wing completed in 1836. It has never been open to the public, and has been stabilized especially for this exhibition. The installation will open to the public on May 12, 2005 and will remain on view through November as well as in 2006.

A Large Slow River (2001)
  1. A Large Slow River (18' 00")

Produced by Oakville Galleries

Cardiff is a grant-supported Canadian artist who does sound installations featuring soundwalks. This beautifully-produced booklet + CD recorded in binaural sound features a fictional mystery inside her narrated walking tour of a lake in Ontario. Part soundscape, part fiction, part picturebook -- at only 18 minutes it's quite short, but very immersive.

The Missing Voice (1999)
  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3

This is a 40 minute walk produced for Artangel that started in the Whitechapel Library and walked through streets in the east end of London. The library has continued to make this piece available. A book and CD has been published by Artangel.

"""Missing Voice"
Janet Cardiff

by Claire Bishop

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff has devised an ìaudio walkî sound piece for an audience of one at a time. With headphones on your ears and a Discman slung over your shoulder, you start where ìX marks the spotî in the crime section of Whitechapel Library. For the following 45 minutes, you are led by Cardiffís confidential, breathy voice on a strange trail around the streets and alleys of the East End. Not surprisingly for an area steeped in the history of Jack the Ripper, the pretext for this piece is some sort of noir-ish crime thriller (a woman with long red hair, a mysterious package, a policemanís deductions) but the narrative is so fragmented by other details (such as when and where to cross the roads) and anecdotes that any ìplotî is hard to keep track of, lost in the general soundscape.

Some of the best aspects of The Missing Voice are the simple aural tricks that heighten awareness of how dependent we are on sound for our experience of an environment, how it can signal atmosphere (the violinist and the church bells on Fashion St.), danger (the car that came so fast behind me on Wentworth St. wasnít actually there), and the presence of others (the footsteps that follow you upstairs turned out to be freakishly disembodied). Such details were eloquent and highly charged moments, especially when coupled with Cardiffís descriptions of characters who seemed to appear on cue (like the businessman with a too-tight collar on Bishopsgate). Merging with the real noises in the streets, the soundtrackís magic (recorded in binaural for complete ìsurround soundî) were uncanny enough without a fictional ìmysteryî and Cardiffís efforts to instill unease (itís kinda creepy) interfering on top.

Together with Cardiffís observations in your ears, you feel invisible, part of another London that the rest of the population canít see. This intense detachment from the environment is an exquisite sensation: the everyday city unfurling before you with the purposeness of a film, in which random passers-by unwittingly become suspects or star performers in your own cinematic masterpiece. For this experience alone it is an exceptional work, mingling art with the environment in a small but dramatic fashion.

(Case Study B): An Audio Walk

By Monica Biagioli

Reprinted from ARTFOCUS/68, Spring 2000 ©ARTFOCUS MAGAZINE

Janet Cardiff's The Missing Voice (Case Study B) is part walking tour, part historical account, and part stream-of-consciousness narration leading you on a disorienting journey through the inner cityscape of East London.The walk lasts some 45 minutes, starting at the Whitechapel Library, where upon receiving headphones and a disc player, you follow the instructions from the narrator on the disc. The voice-over guides you to the crime section of the library, asks you to read excerpts from books, and leads you out of the library and onto the street. There, you follow instructions that take you through narrow alleyways into Brick Lane, past the old Jewish quarter into Spitalfields, and after pausing at the garden steps of a church, drops you off at the Liverpool Street tube station, where the piece ends; leaving you to puzzle your way back to the library, where the piece started.

It is difficult to know whether the listener assumes the role of participant in this work, because you are never quite in control of where you are going and are, therefore, not necessarily participating. Instead, it feels more like Cardiff has stage-managed all of reality and the world itself has become a huge theatrical production, filled with ambient sounds and a loose narrative about a woman wishing to "get lost". Cardiff herself admits she hasn't quite figured out the precise role of the participant. Instead, she is more interested in exploring how we interact with the city and what types of thought processes take place during that function. Thus, internal dialogues--much like those we carry on inside as we walk the city--become disembodied thought patterns that stream throughout the soundtrack. Sounds taken for granted as you cross the street or as you walk past a shop become disjointed from seen reality. In this way, a car horn beeping that plays on the CD forces you to watch out for approaching traffic that never materialises as you cross the street. On the other hand, some sounds become disturbing because they do correlate with the outside world, such as a band heard playing on a street corner. The band is really there and is playing the same tune as the one heard on the headphones, which is quite prescient and disturbing. The overall sensation is surreal, schizophrenic even.

Besides having ambient qualities, sound has a physical component as well, which allows for the stretching and pulling of time. Compressing and expanding time--playing with its linear possibilities--is something achievable with audio, and Cardiff uses it to great effect to draw us into her surreal world. By providing an audio track separate from the video track (what is seen), the result is that you are never quite sure whether what you hear is coming from the headphones or whether it is outside noise. With such disjunction between video and audio in some cases and correlation in others, there is a bleed-over effect: what is heard influences what is seen and vice versa. In the end, you are not quite sure how to orient yourself and become almost entirely dependent on the recording to lead the way. The listener, thus, temporarily hands over control to Cardiff by putting on headphones and is lulled into the rhythm she establishes. The effect is hypnotic and recalls the filtered reality generally experienced through mass media.

To achieve such a realistic sense of ambient sound, Cardiff walked around with two audio sets set up on a dummyhead to capture sounds in situ while she walked. Like a trickster, she makes you believe that something is really there, whether it is or not, and thus expands the dichotomy of what is perceived by the brain and what is palpable through the senses. This idea is carried through in the piece itself, because as Cardiff generates a sensed reality through sound, she concurrently carries through a narrative in the first person voice--one heard in a disjointed way--that describes the internal dialogues that are carried around as one walks down the street. These running conversations are made up, as Cardiff puts it, of "what is the present, memories of childhood, replaying an argument you had with someone the week before".

The piece creates an intimate experience even though it alienates you from the world, like the Walkman did in the 80ís and the Internet does today. It also effectively replicates the way society records reality to verify its own existence and conveys one of the pleasures of living in a big city: the ability to remain anonymous. Still, there is connection (through involvement with the tape) and disconnection (when the tape stops); so in this way, The Missing Voice (Case Study B) comments on our need for relationships that become increasingly difficult to maintain because of moving or travel. We become disconnected from our relationships and yearn to make contact. And so this piece, slightly intimate but removed, provides a sense of connection that goes beyond a sense of time and focuses attention on the immediate experience.

In a schizophrenic way, Cardiff draws you into a heard experience, locks you into an erotic bond, and at the end of the trip, you are snapped back to reality. This effect is worked out at the editing and sound mixing stage (Cardiff worked with George Bures Miller as collaborator on this piece). The work consists of four layered tracks. The first track is recorded right on the street, with a narrator giving directions. This track is interspersed with other tracks, so that if you are concentrating on following directions, you can not follow the sentences in full, and in this way an open-ended narrative is created, where specific phrases stick in the listener's mind. The second voice is recorded at the studio and functions as the thinking voice of the piece (as Cardiff notes, "I recorded it as if I was thinking. I made it flat so as not to remind the listener of another type of recording"). There is a third voice mixed in; and then a voice-over, which functions as the psychological voice. The multiform quality of the sound recording affects the content and is used as a tool to shape the style of the piece.

Through this process, Cardiff establishes various realities occurring simultaneously. As Cardiff states: "when I'm designing the narratives, they are clear. There is a delicate balance between not giving too much away and giving enough information so that the piece grows on you." The weaving and inter-weaving of ambient noise with narrative is intentional, and throughout, a female character slowly emerges, one who wants to disappear from her own life.

In a conversation with Janet Cardiff, Ralph Rugoff described The Missing Voice (Case Study B) as "a film soundtrack layered on reality" which reminded him of "a Sophie Calle piece where she had a private detective follow her around". And so, the narrative of the woman who wants to disappear becomes entangled in the reality of walking through alleyways and resting on church steps--the viewer becomes participant to the piece without having authority or control over the outcome--in a sense, the viewer becomes part cyborg.

In a sharp and clear manner, Cardiff draws a connection between our reality and filmic reality. With the headphones on, we plug into the directions, the narrative, and the ambient sound coming from the CD. We are drawn to perceive the whole of the inner city environment that we traverse as a giant film set, and, in the end, the message is clear: we are just Hollywood cliches. As Rugoff further states, "the piece has quotation marks around it"; in other words, it has a very clear sense of cliche and of its own ability to affect us the way a movie does. There is a pleasure in being drawn in--no responsibility, no sense of control. At the same time, there is also a bit of anxiety--where does this end? As Cardiff states, "sound allows people to use their imagination more than film or video."

Through references to the history of the Jewish quarter and incisive comments about actual places passed on the tour, Cardiff succeeds in holding the listener's attention and keeping the focus on the present, letting the listener decode the city at a sound level, making the listener hyper aware of her surroundings. With its multi-layered effect, the soundscape succeeds in establishing a physical presence for itself, and the listener becomes participant in a film piece which leaves us wanting more.

Editor's Notes:

1.Over the past few years Lethbridge-based Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff has developed a growing international reputation. She has recently made audio works for a number of prestigious group exhibitions including Munster Sculpture Project, l997; Sao Paolo Biennale, 1998; The Museum as Muse, Museum of Modern Art, New York, l999; and The Carnegie International, Pittsburg, PA, l999.

2. Janet Cardiff, The Missing Voice (Case Study B) is on view @ Whitechapel Library, 77 Whitechapel High Street, London, England from June 17,1999 thru 2000.

3. The project twas commissioned by Artangel Interaction & is online @