Janet Cardiff’s Narrative Sound Installations

Janet Cardiff’s sound installations bring a new dimension to the sound pieces we have discussed so far: narrative. In her museum installations, her pieces each tell a story through the sounds she and her husband and collaborator George Bures Miller combine together with spoken language and visuals. Yet some of the most immersive of these narrative sound installations are the audio walks.

The first work I chose to listen to of Cardiff’s was actually a video walk, the Alter Bahnhof Video Walk. Properly named (Alter translates to “old” and Bahnhoff translates to “railway station”), this piece takes place in an old German train station in Kassel, Germany.

At the beginning of the video clip on Cardiff and Miller’s website, the audience is advised to wear headphones to hear the binaural audio  of the video. Binaural audio results from a recording that uses two microphones, positioned to create a 3-D stereo sound experience for the listener. This surround sound enhances the immersive experience of watching and listening to Alter Bahnhof Video Walk and makes the viewer feel he or she is present in the space within the video.

This truly immersive experience is exactly what Cardiff was going for in her video walk both physically and digitally through the same train station. The audio recording is so believable that as I was listening to it with my earbuds I even questioned whether there was a dog barking outside by dorm room or if it was in the video. When I listen to loud music, I commonly take out my ear buds to see whether or not others can hear what I am hearing but this audio recording in the environment you are watching and standing in enhances the confusion of what is real and what is not by tenfold. On the project page of her website, Cardiff describes the piece as a “physical cinema” in which,

“An alternate world opens up where reality and fiction meld in a disturbing and uncanny way”

This uncanny nature of the video walk stems from the dual reality happening in front of you. Watching a video of a place in that exact place is not a typical experience, especially when aided by sounds that could exist in your present environment but do not. In the video, the narrator says  “or lost somewhere in their mind” directly before the video flips to walking through a forest for a few seconds. While this randomly inserted video clip might seem obtrusive, it reminded me how it was more comfortable to watch a video displaying something that was different than my present environment. The narrator’s eerily calm voice adds to the disturbing atmosphere of the video walk as well, as if something terrible is about to happen any minute.

Many of these elements seem to be universal in Cardiff’s sound installations and part of her style. As I listened to Her Long Black Hair, there were many similarities between this audio walk through Central Park and the video walk through the German train station. Both have a strong narrative implication with an aura of mystery as Cardiff prompts you through a space with instructions on where to look and walk. In Her Long Black Hair, she takes the listener through a mystery in which there are some unsettling moments like discovering a crime scene. While listening, I felt I was listening to an audio book of a mystery novel with supporting pictures; yet, if I had been walking through the actual space I can only imagine how “real” the story would feel, as if it were a news story. It reminds me of the couple times I have had a book open while watching a movie version of the story, following along for a few minutes page by page. The description of the piece on Cardiff’s website describes the illusion of the experience accurately as,

“shifting between the present, the recent past, and the more distant past”

resulting from the listener’s environment, the narrator’s environment as she speaks, and the visuals in the photographs.

In a way, Cardiff’s style relates to the use of everyday sounds like Luigi Russolo or Bill Fontana; however, Cardiff’s works are much more contrived with narrative structure and purpose. Both pieces above speak about the affect of the past on the present and how we can blur time and space through what we hear and see. There is a bit of indeterminacy in the present surroundings of the viewer in the real environment as he or she goes through an audio or video walk. But primarily this juxtaposition of present and past scenarios in the same place is about the listener’s interaction with the narrative so that they feel they are an integral part of the performance. Essentially, the listener is engulfed in an immersive experience that they have no control over, despite being the main player in the story. Cardiff describes her work well, as an

“investigation of location, time, sound, and physicality.”

2 Replies to “Janet Cardiff’s Narrative Sound Installations”

  1. Wonderful research critique. I think it is interesting that you feel that at last we have narrative. That is true, in the way we might ordinarily think of narrative, as the linear unfolding of a story. I would also say there are strong narrative elements in Bill Fontana, but the elements are quite different, more ambient in nature, like the difference between an abstract landscape and one in which there are details that reveal the place and the location. I would like to talk more with the class about physical cinema, because I think this idea is radical departure from conventional cinema, where the imagery is virtual, rather than superimposed in the physical space. Excellent research.

    1. I agree that Bill Fontana had the beginning elements of a narrative; still, I think the lack of control he had over the ambient sounds made by the bridges and other structures he recorded is the main difference between sound he recorded and the recorded narrative voice that drives Cardiff’s audio walks. I also found Cardiff’s physical cinema definition to fit the experiences she created well, as I was struggling whether to call them a virtual reality experience or not.

Leave a Reply