New York

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Someone is being followed; someone is not telling the whole truth; footsteps crunch on gravel; the view careers along a lonely pedestrian underpass or through dark trees; an urgent whisper startles in one’s ear. Shots ring out. Somewhere the narrative conventions of cinematic thrillers, detective stories, and radio serials and the frustration of such conventions by strategies of appropriation and fragmentation slap each other on the back and acknowledge that, as paradigms for storytelling, they are no longer opposites but instead old pals who, as it were, can finish one another’s sentences. We, their audience, in turn no longer expect the crime apparently in progress to be specified regarding victim or motive; we are not surprised to discover that the blonde who seemed to be the heroine disappears as the scene shifts. When the loop begins again and we’re back in the middle of the uncertainty, we don’t feel dreamlike déjà vu or shocked bewilderment. We know this is our cue to take the headphones off and let somebody else enter the installation.

Herein lies the problem with recent work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. As ever, they are experts at creating binaural audio recordings that provide uncannily convincing experience of whispering, etc. They also know how to compose compelling filmic images and to modulate the release of dramatic information across time. In fact, Cardiff and Bures Miller know too well. In their recent show, they presented two large-scale pieces: The Berlin Files, 2003, a video projection with immersive sound, and Cabin Fever, 2004, a miniature diorama/drama including headphones with binaural audio. Both polished, professional productions, they were technically impressive but affectively stillborn. There were also two smaller pieces—a Victrola horn projecting from a suitcase, which broadcast Cardiff’s bewitching voice improvising a lullaby; and a Marshall amp and pedal in an apparently silent, haphazardly soundproofed room. The first of these was a bit of sentimentalism, and the latter was the best part of the show.

The Berlin Files concerns a bottle blonde and an apartment that isn’t empty and a boy in a sequined jacket and a light that won’t turn on; that is, a tale of youthful anomie and Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide. Again, Cardiff’s husky, tender voice singing the Bowie classic is wonderful. But the rest is neither poetic nor strange enough to disguise the fact that we’ve seen all this before. Cabin Fever courts received plot points even more aggressively: There’s a domestic fight with screams and shattering dishes, and a pair of surveillance agents hunkered in the woods. Beyond the setting’s elegance—the little trees and the lit windows of the cabin in the falsely deep-box perspective—and the weird convincingness of the audio, there isn’t much to think about.

The same components of nonlinear filmmaking and binaural recording were used to great effect in The Paradise Institute, Cardiff and Bures Miller’s movie-theater manqué celebrated at the 2001 Venice Biennale and later exhibited in New York and elsewhere. And, of course, Cardiff, working solo though assisted by her husband and collaborator Bures Miller, has reenergized sound installation with her orchestrated “Walks” through public settings. Her amazing ability to shape space through sound was unforgettable in Forty Part Motet: A Reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, 2001, a forty-track recording of a sixteenth-century chorale presented on forty separate audio speakers, which could break your heart. And so there’s no reason not to expect amazing art from the Cardiff–Bures Miller team, if they move beyond their recurrent fascination with stale cinematic quotes. Perhaps Feedback, 2004, the amp-and-pedal piece, points the way. The walls are hung with muffling, quilted mover’s blankets that, by chance, have “Made in America” tags sewn on. When a visitor steps on the pedal, a deafening slice of a musician covering Jimi Hendrix’s ravishing, enraged Star Spangled Banner pours from the amp; step off the pedal and the anthem ceases. Off, on; silence, music; homage, indictment; individual power, collective power. It’s appropriative too, but fierce and live.

Frances Richard