Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller are internationally exhibited Canadian artists who work and live in Berlin, Germany. They have collaborated for more than 15 years in producing complex audio-visual installations that range from small-scale videos to all-encompassing physical and sonic environments in which the manipulation of space and sound play equal parts in sculpting viewers’ experiences and emotions. They often draw upon the styles, techniques, and technologies of the theatrical arts and cinema to achieve multisensory engagement, eliciting a range of sensations and memories that suggest how everyday experiences are constructed by the human mind in relationship to the external filters-including media and other technical methods of representation-through which we view and construe reality. Their works seek to produce a compelling fantasy of real life while simultaneously dismantling our certainty that a single interpretation of reality is possible.
Each of the video and audio works in the Hudson (Show)Room explores the process by which fantasy is made real and reality is turned into cinematic fantasy. At one end of the gallery, two televisions on pedestals play brief videos that are accompanied by headphone audio tracks. The first, House Burning (2001), depicts a large farmhouse engulfed in flames. The camera approaches the residence from a muddy road and remains trained on the conflagration for several minutes. The audio for House Burning was captured in a binaural format, a method in which two microphones recording separate channels are spaced several inches apart to simulate the way in which human ears receive and process sound. Thus, when a fire truck finally arrives, we hear it gradually coming closer from our far left long before it appears within the frame of the screen. The result is a baffling amalgamation of realistic, all-encompassing sound paired with the limited view available on the monitor. The video itself is equally contradictory and disturbing: the image of a burning home is inescapably mesmerizing and yet simultaneously horrifying. Similarly, in the short video loop Hill Climbing (2002), the absence of visual specificity combines with hyper-realistic binaural audio in order to confound our desire to identify with and place ourselves within the scene. As in a recurring nightmare, we seek resolution, but are not granted it. We climb the hill forever but never reach the summit.
Tucked away in a dark viewing chamber, Night Canoeing (2004) exploits a similar disparity in visual and auditory stimuli. We observe a journey by canoe in the dead of a cold night. From the light of a lamp trained on the shore, we catch an incomplete glimpse of the foliage lining the riverbank. As the unsteady light sways up and down, it obscures our already minimal field of vision by illuminating the thick steam rising idly from the surface of the murky water. Again, we must rely on sound to understand what we are seeing. As the canoe picks up speed and we hear the cadence of the rowers increase, the screen is overtaken by steam and water rushing past. We are hypnotized by the combination of rhythmic audio and video even as we are frightened by the mystery of why the rowers have decided to flee.
On display in the gallery are five pieces from Cardiff and Miller’s Dreams-Telephone Series (2008-2010). Upon lifting the heavy receiver of each of the vintage telephones, one hears the soft, distant voice of a woman recounting a dream. Here, there is no video to accompany the sound. Instead, the listener must pay careful attention to the words of the speaker and the bizarre, fantastical images she conjures. Disjointed and fragmented, the narratives underscore the challenge one encounters when trying to describe something that is both deeply personal and entirely illogical. As the dreamer recounts her tales, she comments on how difficult it is to remember the details of her dreams and how little sense they make when verbalized. As we listen, we are just as perplexed, surprised, and terrified as the dreamer is of the images she is capable of inventing in her sleep.
Finally, we encounter The Muriel Lake Incident, (1999), a large, elevated wooden crate with a wide, rectangular viewing area carved from its front end. Peering inside, we see a cinema complete with seats and a curtained stage that have been painstakingly recreated in miniature. Sets of headphones rest beneath the window, and as we watch the black-and-white movie projected on the miniscule screen, we realize that the audio we are hearing consists not just of the film’s soundtrack, but also the noise of nearby spectators as they whisper, eat, and otherwise disrupt our attempts to pay attention to the feature. In binaural audio, we hear the interference of the imaginary spectators to the right, to the left, and even behind us. As the onscreen story and the one unfolding amongst the imaginary spectators begin to merge, we are drawn in to the fantasy engineered by the artwork: we come to feel and believe that we really are sitting in a theater, surrounded by a noisy, inconsiderate audience. And yet, as we peer down from our omniscient vantage point above the room, we notice how removed we are from the room, which is dull, gray, and entirely devoid of human presence. It is as if we are remembering a dream in which we were watching a film in a cinema. In the dream, what the people around us said and did during the movie becomes just as important to our memory of the experience as our recollection of the film itself. By collapsing these types of voyeurism in to a single moment of looking, The Muriel Lake Incident proposes that watching a film is like dreaming, and in the inverse, that dreaming not so different than watching a film of one’s own memories.