Janet Cardiff

The Power Plant

Janet Cardiff’s installation To Touch, 1993, reminds us that memory is encoded in our bodies and that touch can trigger a flood of associations. This sound-based installation depended on the spectator to establish corporeal connections between sound, touch, and memory. Except for a rough table, worn with the years and still bearing a few traces of paint, the large, dim space was empty. Twenty small speakers hung from the ceiling along the edges of the room. When a visitor approached the table and touched it, the speakers would emit sounds corresponding to specific places on the table’s surface. Startling at first, this effect became a cajoling dance between the visitor and the room, in which quick touches, sustained pressure, or sweeps of the hand brought forth different combinations of sound that moved through the room like a physical presence.

Many of the sounds were actually voices: some snatches of dialogue; one, a woman’s low, sensual voice simply repeating the alphabet. Some were music—romantic movie scores, long electronic sounds—others everyday noises. Touching the skin of this table was like drawing on the inventiveness of an old storyteller—a casual mention inciting a volley of reminiscences and memories—and a capricious storyteller at that, for each time the combinations were different, bringing out distinct resonances. To Touch literally told a story. In an exchange across the room, between two speakers, a woman asked a man to tell her about her scars. “This fish-shaped scar on your eyebrow is where you fell as a child,” he says. “I remember the taste of dried blood mixed with tears,” she replies. Another tape recounted a vaguely sadomasochistic encounter.

Cardiff showed how sound can convert to touch in the listener’s mind, and touch to memory. Memories of longing and pain filled the gallery space, often just beyond intelligibility, so that the susurration of voices produced a response in the viewer that was more tactile than verbal. Other sounds drew on the tactile sources of the verbal text such as when, from one corner of the room, the sound of knives being sharpened made me conscious of the hairs on the back of my neck.

Laura U. Marks