For more than two decades, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have crafted multimedia environments that offer much in the way of sensory appeal, but do so with substance and depth. Their works incorporate sounds, technologies and objects that seem somehow obsolete. Often fragmentary, this material is orchestrated in ways that allow each element to retain a degree of specificity, offering gaps between images and referents which create the potential for perceptual friction.
‘Lost in the Memory Palace’, organized in collaboration with the Vancouver Art Gallery, surveyed seven of Cardiff and Miller’s works, each a world unto itself which visitors inhabited, losing their bearings. The installations indeed came to function like loci in a memory palace, each tied to spatial locations and yet reaching forwards and backwards in time – never settling, always shifting.
Entering the darkened space containing Opera for a Small Room (2005), viewers initially encountered sound and light emanating from a shed-like, timber structure. People stepped hesitantly up to a ledge-like sill to peer through an opening that provided views of a recluse’s private world: records, turntables, speakers, amps. A male voice, presumably the hoarding occupant of this abode, described his predicament, playing his records and musing about love and loss (‘all that is left is my foolish pride …’). His monologue was intertwined with a decidedly public and orchestrated light show and musical score, featuring an aria, supplying the work’s titular air of operatic tragedy. Details shifted between sites of domesticity and theatricality as though the memories of the one-time inhabitant were being broadcast in real time, using a jerry-rigged sound system. And yet nostalgia was avoided, as other divergent sights and sounds were thrown into the mix: a record skipped, another turntable began to spin, a dissonant guitar riff interrupted the reverie. Headlights seemed to illuminate the walls, accompanied by the rumblings of an oncoming train, causing a chandelier to flicker.
This sort of compositional cocktail was pared down in the sparse Storm Room (2009), which was mostly bare. But this space was hardly barren: visitors were immersed in the atmosphere of torrential rain and lightning. As with the interruptive introduction of a crude guitar riff in Opera, the meditative qualities of the work were undercut by an occasional flash from a fluorescent light, the sudden roar of thunder, or a disconcerting stream of water that dribbled from the ceiling into buckets. While never resorting to theme-park theatrics, these elements created unease, provoking thoughts about how spaces of anxiety may become sites of perseverance. In addition, the sights and sounds of weather staged in this dim, muggy room somehow acquired an agency on their own, with qualities analogous to our breathing bodies, with a beating heart akin to the water hitting buckets.
Such was the case with a new work, Experiment in F# Minor (2013): dozens of old speakers hatched from their casings sat atop a beaten-up wooden table. The bowl-like receptacles invited visitors to stoop and inspect these specimens – a world apart from new and standardized counterparts. Strangers came together, waving hands over the speakers, an action that activated audio tracks such as whispered voices, string instruments and keyboards. This audio assortment also included dissonant interruptions – a sudden striking of a cymbal – and evolved into a cacophonic crescendo that was somehow stabilized by steady percussive beats, and by the installation’s social qualities and relatively intimate scale. Cardiff and Miller’s works are consistently infused with a speculative relationship to technology, allowing for unpredictable and unique sonic (and visual) experiences. The participatory, narrative and DIY aspects of their project combine to suggest an optimistic enterprise, one that encourages others to build their own customized chambers for aural and visual contemplation and remembrance, while avoiding shallow sensationalism.