Janet Cardiff

There are eight million stories in the naked city, or so the famous voice-over would have us believe. Maybe this is a huge underestimate; or maybe it’s a wild exaggeration. Maybe, as film theorist Christian Metz once proposed of classic Hollywood cinema, there is only one, endlessly retold: the story of narcissistic identification with an idealized other. Commissioned by Artangel, Janet Cardiff’s audio piece The Missing Voice (Case Study B), 1999, uses a novel medium to revisit that psychoanalytic terrain.

Cardiff’s piece involves a visit to London’s Whitechapel Library and the exchange of one’s ID for a discreet, museum guide–style Discman and headphones. From there, an uncertain number of fragmentary, overlapping oral narratives unfold, propelling one first around the library, then out into the winding streets of Whitechapel and Bishopsgate. The city and its population become the mise-en-scène of, and players in, a noirish concoction involving the listener, the narrator (who may or may not be the artist), a murder victim (who may or may not be the listener), a woman in a red wig, a detective obsessed with his quarry, a mysterious guardian angel (or murderer) with voyeuristic inclinations, the characters in Magritte’s 1926 painting The Menaced Assassin (who may or may not be all of the above), and so on. Hallucinatory visions are invoked: strange cult celebrations, scenes of urban apocalypse. Loose threads of plot are left trailing, as Cardiff splices flashback and present action, voice-over and music, real-life dialogue taped on location, and fictional snatches from a dictaphone. Binaural recordings of urban sounds—passing cars, sirens, broken glass tinkling across pavement—prove remarkably deceptive to the ear as one negotiates the city streets.

“I watch your movements on the monitor—small doll walking through the streets.” Cardiff’s aural medium appropriates narrative cinema’s identificatory mechanisms, paradoxically both intensifying and destabilizing them. The Missing Voice makes itself heard vividly, right in the back of one’s head (exactly where Metz locates the movie spectator’s internalized “camera”). Here, there is no frustrating distance between screen and viewer: Choreographed by Cardiff’s recorded voice, and walking in time to her footsteps, the listener’s own body is inescapably identified (irrespective of gender) with the “woman of the crowd” at the heart of the piece. Charged, intimate, even frightening scenarios are unfurled in the first person, in the private space between one’s ears: “I’m blindfolded, my hands tied behind me. I walk naked across the floor. I can feel his eyes watching my body.” However, one consumes these not in the “safe” space of a darkened cinema, but in the street in broad daylight. Cardiff’s script is studded with linguistic shifters (“you,” “I,” “we,” “they”). In this way it continues the strategies of ’80s feminist textual practices, expanding the tradition (as in recent work by Jenny Holzer) with a powerful revelation of the desire both in, and of, the text.

Ultimately, the piece doesn’t quite cohere. The mechanics (warning the listener to mind the road, etc.) intrude a tad too much. Cardiff doesn’t trust her listeners’ attention span, or walking power, to stretch beyond forty-five minutes, and dumps them unceremoniously at Liverpool Street Station just as the medium’s immersive power is starting to take full effect. (Greedily, I wanted the piece to be feature length.) Nevertheless, Cardiff’s experiment is so intriguing, her medium so rich in potential, that these problems pale: One awaits her next production with anticipation.

Rachel Withers