Audio Walks with Janet Cardiff

Janet Cardiff is a sound artist who employs narration and binaural sound recordings to present her audience with an experience that is part fiction, part reality. Her website describes her technique:

…the sound of my footsteps, traffic, birds, and miscellaneous sound effects that have been pre-recorded on the same site as they are being heard. This is the important part of the recording. The virtual recorded soundscape has to mimic the real physical one in order to create a new world as a seamless combination of the two. My voice gives directions but also relates thoughts and narrative elements, which instills in the listener a desire to continue and finish the walk.

Her 2004 piece, “Her Long Black Hair” is an excellent example of her work. A scene is described in New York City as the audience is directed to move through the city. Throughout the piece, Cardiff narrates the scene about a polar bear exhibit as she once witnessed it, and occasionally interweaves these experiences and observations with parts of fiction.

Cardiff: You can see the polar bear here on the left if you look down the alley. See the glass in the blue water? Walk over to the gate on the left so you can see him better. He’s swimming back and forth in Figure-Eights

[Recorded chatter from a crowd at the zoo]

Male Voice [Presumably the polar bear]: I was caught and taken back again. He took me to the black smith sho, where he had a ring made of Iron, which I wore on my right left.”

A polar bear from the Central Park Zoo in the 1980s.

Although I am unable to directly experience the audio walks the way they were intended to be experienced, I can see the audio-walk would be effective with physically experiencing the environment. If it weren’t for her decision to layer the narrative with recorded sounds from the environment, the listener would most likely experience the narration as a separate experience, isolated from the environment. But with the recorded chatter of the audience, the listener can be keenly aware that they space they occupy is the space that Cardiff wants them to experience. The listener does not directly interaction with the audio, but passively participates by following the instructions and observing the space they occupy along with Cardiff’s commentary. The layered sound effects in tandem with the presence of the real-life sounds make her work an effective augmented reality experience. It’s a beautiful poetic blend of spoken word, sound, fiction, reality, and passive participation from the audience.