Opera for a Small Room, 2005. Mixed-media installation with sound, record players, records, and synchronized lighting, 260.1 x 299.72 x 449.58 cm., 20-minute loop. Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, NY

Fooling Reality: A Conversation with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller met in college, and, over time, their individual practices developed into a collaboration in which each artist feeds off the thoughts and ideas of the other. At the heart of their practice lies a belief in the ability of sound to transport participants to alternate realities. Audio and video walks that respond to particular locations and indoor installations—situated at the intersection of cinema, theater, radio, literature, and sculpture—immerse viewers in transformative scenarios that range through time and space, using fictional narrative and sound effects to question sensory experience.

Rebecca Dimling Cochran: What kind of research do you do in preparation for your site-specific pieces?
Janet Cardiff: Most of the site works are either video or audio walks, so first we go to the location and wander around. We might also read some books about the area or by local writers to get a feel for it. It’s almost like method acting—I read a lot about the location, but not much comes back into the work. It’s mainly to get a feeling for the situation, although sometimes a little story will find its way into the script.

RDC: Storytelling is an integral part of your work. How does the narrative develop?
JC: The narrative comes out by writing scripts that go nowhere. Sometimes I print it all out, lay it on the table, cut it up, and move it around so the thoughts connect to each other. There’s usually a theme, and the idea is for a participant to follow my voice around to experience what the character in the audio narrative experienced. Münster Walk (1997), for instance, was about a friend of mine who had lost her son, and participants walked in the son’s footsteps.

George Bures Miller: We always have rough ideas, and when we start editing, we add more dialogue if we need it or take it away if we don’t. It’s not like we’re making a movie—we can change things all the time. We can run out with a little crew and be on set and shooting in a day if we have a new idea. The same with the sound. If we need a new line, we just record it that day and put it in and see if it works.

Alter Bahnhof Video Walk, 2012. Video walk, 26 minutes. Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, 2012. Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, NY

RDC: Some of your historical and political references—to the Holocaust in Alter Bahnhof Video Walk (2012) and to torture at Abu Ghraib prison in The Killing Machine (2007)—are quite literal, while others are more anecdotal. For instance, your audio walk through London refers to a man who once lived in a small house along Brick Lane. How do you decide what level of history to use?
GBM: Sometimes it is totally made up and fictional.
JC: That line about Brick Lane came from a historical character that I read about, but the rest of the narrative is about a detective and a woman who disappears. A lot of immigrants disappear in that area, which gave me the idea of a woman who makes herself disappear.

We first decided to work in the train station in Kassel because we needed an indoor location where you could see the iPod screens. Then we learned that this station was the departure point for a large number of Jews being shipped to concentration camps. So we interviewed historians, including a German man, who specialized in the bombing of Kassel and thought the Allies were inhumane.

GBM: We also discovered that the Jews were taken from a different platform than what was believed. There’s a monument on Platform 3, but they’d actually been taken from Platform 13. Historical accuracy was important to us. So, in the video walk, we go to Platform 13; when you stand in that spot, there’s a modern train with people on it pulling away. It’s an overwhelming moment in the piece.

JC: We also use sound to convey historicity. In Münster Walk (2007), we went out into the country and recorded horses pulling wagons on cobblestones. Sound has the ability to transport you through time very easily, so if you give a sense of historical sounds, people are subconsciously taken to that era.

RDC: How much of the sound do you record naturally, and how much are you creating as Foley artists? What about the train in Opera for a Small Room?
GBM: We really like when the sounds are from the location. If we were recording a horse and buggy, for instance, and we couldn’t do it in the location, we’d find a similar location and record it there. We didn’t actually record the train. We were under a time restriction, and though we very rarely buy sound effects, that fantastic effect was better than anything we recorded.

JC: For The Murder of Crows, a large installation with 100 speakers, we recorded crows and ravens all over the place, but we didn’t capture the sound of the wings properly. So, George used a couple of big galoshes to make Foley sounds. On some of the walks, we had to add the sound of footsteps made in the studio—in a loud city like London, you can’t hear them otherwise.

Janet Cardiff, Her Long Black Hair, 2004. View of audio walk with photographs in Central Park, NY, 46 minutes. Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, NY

RDC: It really felt as if you were walking as you recorded the voice in Her Long Black Hair (2004), the audio walk you did for Public Art Fund in New York.
JC: Early on, I used to do everything on location. Then we discovered that it’s really hard to edit scripts and footsteps at the same time. After we’ve done our rough edits in the studio, George tries it out on location and discovers that there’s way too many footsteps. His editing scripts are full of annotations to delete them. It is complex and controlled. We have test people try it out, and if they get lost, we add more instructions; if they get ahead in a section, we take out footsteps.

GBM: When we first started doing video walks, we thought that we wouldn’t need so many instructions because you could see where you were going. But there were a lot of people who couldn’t visualize where a shot was going, so we had to put the instructions back in. Now that everyone has a phone with a video or camera in it, people are more able to follow the movement on the screen.

JC: It’s interesting how it has changed since 2000 when we did our first video walk at the Carnegie International.

RDC: I remember that one; it wasn’t until about halfway through that I became totally immersed in the story because I was spending time trying to orient myself.
JC: Now people just do it unconsciously. They can adjust much faster. It’s interesting how our brains have changed, and we haven’t even thought about it.

GBM: We’re also shooting differently now because we’ve gotten used to what people need to find their way. We used to move the camera left and right a lot more. Now, we try to keep a straight line, and when we turn, it’s much more obvious.

RDC: As collaborators, you each seem to have roles. Is it fair to say that Janet, you do more of the conceptual work, and George, you do more of the technical?
JC: I think it varies on the type of work. With the walks, I do a rough script and keep it to myself for a while until I think I have something interesting. Then I give it to George, who does a lot of rewriting and editing. Sometimes I do the rough editing of the voice, but he’s usually the main sound designer and editor. I have a tendency to want to talk about it more, and George wants to build it right away and see how it works. I think we’re a very good combination of different talents that go together, and we generally agree on what we like.

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis 1556), 2001. 40 loudspeakers mounted on stands, amplifiers, and playback com- puter, dimensions variable, 14-minute loop with 11 minutes of music and 3 minutes of intermission. Sung by Salisbury Cathedral Choir, recording and post-production by SoundMoves, edited by George Bures Miller, and produced by Field Art Projects with the Arts Council of England, Canada House, the Salisbury Festival and Sal- isbury Cathedral Choir, BALTIC Gateshead, the New Art Gallery Walsall, and the NOW Festival Nottingham. Work installed at the Johanniterkirche, Feldkirch, 2005. Photo: Markus Treeter, © Janet Cardiff, Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, NY

RDC: Your works seem to divide into two categories: viewer participation works, like the audio and video walks, and those in which viewers act as observers, like Opera for a Small Room or The Murder of Crows.
GBM: I would separate those two because The Murder of Crows is a bare speaker piece that I think of as another genre, along with The Forty Part Motet and FOREST (for a thousand years…). They’re like movie soundtracks, whereas Opera for a Small Room is a baroque, over-the-top installation.

JC: We don’t start from the premise that we need to work with an audience in some way. It all comes from what we want to make and what we want to see at the time. At first, we thought people would wander around Opera for a Small Room and maybe even go into it. Then we realized that it was much more about performance—this man in his own little world—and the audience should not be allowed to enter. The piece dictates how it develops in relation to the audience.

GBM: We’re wondering whether the piece we’re working on right now will end up interactive or not. The idea is based on the Mellotron, which is a 1960s instrument. When you press a key, it plays from a bank of tapes. It was used on all kinds of tracks in the ’60s and ’70s—the beginning of “Strawberry Fields Forever” uses the flute sound of a Mellotron. It was the polyphonic precursor to the synthesizer. Early synthesizers were monophonic, so you could only play one key at a time; but the Mellotron allowed you to play the whole keyboard, so you could have a huge array of sounds.

Our idea is to make a Mellotron that works in surround sound. We’re interested in the recording of ambisonic sound, where you can create a sphere of sound. In FOREST, our piece for Documenta 13, we created spheres of sound that feel much more immersive than normal Dolby surround sound in the theater. If you hear the sound of a plane flying overhead, you really feel that it’s there. Here, the idea is that you press a key on the Mellotron and you’ll be inside a scene that we’ve recorded.

JC: We’re a little concerned how it gets played, however, and we’re thinking about how many keys we should give to the audience so it doesn’t just become loud mush. We have to make the piece before we decide how people will participate in it.

FOREST (for a thousand years…), 2012. Audio installation, 28 minutes, audio loop. Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany, 2012. Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, NY

RDC: You always seem to be working with new technologies. Your audio walks went from hand-held video players to iPods, and some of your more recent installations include automation. What other things do you want to play with? Is virtual reality in your future?
GBM: People have been asking that for 20 years. The video walks are like virtual reality, but they use a simple technology to create the feeling of being in another place. What interests me really is reality. People have brought up the idea of a video game. We don’t play video games, but we’re thinking about it.

JC: We’re interested in the philosophical aspect of how we know reality. People can be transported into a particular physical situation, and it can totally change their belief about what it is. In The Murder of Crows, we can fool reality by having a bird flying overhead with binaural sound; and in Opera for a Small Room, it almost feels like the character who is speaking is really there. For us, reality offers so much to investigate that we don’t have to go to virtual reality yet. I think we’ve been doing augmented reality for years.

GBM: Using a low-tech version of it seems powerful enough for me. It’s like a book— there’s nothing better than a book when it comes to immersive reality.

RDC: I think that’s why I like Opera for a Small Room. The more time you spend with it, the more you get wrapped up in the story and become almost a part of the piece. Then, all of a sudden, you take two steps back and realize that it is all a constructed set. That’s a real gift to give to your audience.
JC: It is theater. There’s a relationship between Opera and Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, which features a grouchy old man alone on a stage listening to a pile of recordings from his past; it’s all about regret and his loneliness. I’m very interested in how Beckett dealt with emotion while creating this push and pull with the audience and the invisibility of the fourth wall. That’s what we were trying to use in Opera.

GBM: There’s something important about not being able to enter the set, even though you can go right up to it and look into the room. Maybe it’s a more powerful emotional connection because you project yourself in a way that you wouldn’t if you were actually inside the room.

Opera for a Small Room, 2005. Mixed-media installation with sound, record players, records, and synchronized lighting, 260.1 x 299.72 x 449.58 cm., 20-minute loop. Photo: © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, NY

RDC: You cannot enter The Killing Machine either.
JC: The Killing Machine is different because it’s related to sci-fi films. It’s about the phenomenon of the robots becoming characters and watching them dance around. It’s about beauty and pain, about the human ability to be cruel. But it’s also about theater and spectacle and black comedy.

RDC: While your work is very theatrical and acoustically based, it is most often shown in visual arts venues. Has this been a challenge?
JC: It depends on the piece. For the bare speaker pieces, there is a much more deliberate process about whether the site will work. We ask for floor plans, information about the composition of the walls, and pictures of the space. If it looks like it might work, then we send a tonmeister to check out the space.

GBM: Even within the bare speaker pieces, the requirements are very different. The Forty Part Motet, for instance, was recorded very dry so that when we played it back, the reverb would come from the space.

JC: It can’t show in a space with carpet or in a space with a huge glass wall because they affect how we hear the trebles. We’ve learned over the years which spaces are good and which are not. When we showed The Murder of Crows in the Hamburger Bahnhof, we had to buy material to hang throughout the space to take down the reverb. But it was great at the Park Avenue Armory, because it was designed to be shown in a dead space. You can almost feel the sound moving through the space and know where it is coming from.

RDC: I have been fortunate enough to see The Forty Part Motet in three different locations, and in each one, the surrounding architecture has led to a different experience. Do you have a particular favorite, where you felt the sound was at its best?
JC: The Met Cloisters and some of the old churches, because churches are designed for the human voice.

RDC: Do you prefer non-visual arts spaces to white cube galleries?
At least for the bare speaker pieces. Opera for a Small Room can be shown in any black cube space. Every piece that we make has a sheet specifying the size parameters of the room needed to make it work.

RDC: Opera for a Small Room is a full installation that intertwines sound, narrative, lighting, and visual elements. For example, when there is the sound of a train passing by, the chandelier hanging in the space shakes. It’s really quite brilliant. How does something like that come about?
JC: We’re always referencing film tropes. If you think of a film scene when a train goes by, often the lights flicker. We’re using our memories of different scenes. We want to create magic.

Rebecca Dimling Cochran is a curator and writer based in Atlanta.