creating worlds

installation artist Janet Cardiff destabilizes vision, sculpts sound & redefines reality

Münsterwalk, courtesy galerie barbara weiss, Berlin

I'm strolling through an art gallery in Victoria and I come upon a set of earphones hanging beside a change room. I put the headphones on and in an instant the art gallery is no longer a silent place – it feels as if I’m in a crowded place, brimming with murmuring conversation. Someone approaches and it sounds, it feels, as if they are standing right beside me: “Hello, sorry I’m late. Let’s go in. Go through the middle of the curtains… through the next set… and then sit down.”

I obey the voice and push past the velvet drapes of the change room. There is a chair and I sit in it. I appear to be on a balcony. There are miniature seats below and a constructed stage – both empty and yet the theatre sounds full – alive with a multitude of blurred conversations. A projector starts – an opera singer walks on stage. Someone whispers in my right ear, “She’s going to start.” A piano begins; the opera singer sings “Ach Ich Fühls.”


From the intimacy of the voice, to the singer on stage, sound defines the space and creates a world – and I’m drawn in to the emotion of the performance. Suddenly the singer stops. The audience whispers; they know something’s wrong. The voice beside me speaks again: “There’s a suitcase under your seat. It has everything you’ll need... You have to meet her backstage as soon as it’s over... A car will be waiting in the alley... It’s up to you now. Pause. She knows there isn’t much time… I’m leaving before the police come... Remember to leave the headset on the stand... I won’t see you again... good luck.”  The sound of someone getting up and leaving. Silence.

I look under the chair, get up, push open the curtain, leave the headphones on the stand and walk back into the art gallery, as though I am waking from a dream.

That was my first encounter with installation artist Janet Cardiff and her husband and frequent collaborator, George Bures Miller. The piece is called Playhouse and it lured me into a made-up world so effectively that I felt dizzy walking back through the curtains into the art gallery. What had I just experienced? What role had I played? Was I just an observer? I felt tricked. I remember being quite captivated by the possibility of there being something under my chair – something that would allow the illusion to continue.

It is this fusion of fiction and reality that Cardiff works with. I recently had a chance to speak with Janet Cardiff about how her art deliberately blurs the boundaries of past and present, of narrative and the everyday, and of sound and space, challenging viewers to re-examine how we perceive the world. “In the pieces we rely on architecture to set up a certain expectation,” she explains. “As a viewer you know the space – you’re sitting in theatre seats or you’re looking into a little theatre box and see the stage and understand that there will be content coming off the screen. As artists, we play on those expectations and then pull the rug out from under people – the screen goes black and there is just sound around, or the film burns up and then there’s a gun shot… It makes you think about space and it makes you think about the environment around you as you are sucked into and then pushed out of the film.”

Cardiff’s art also calls attention to how the senses can sometimes be deceptive when we have a certain expectation about what reality is. “During the Renaissance when they first invented perspective, there was a whole rhetoric around reality and how the drawings seemed real, and then when photographs were first invented people were freaked out because they thought the photographs were real. When you follow the rhetoric about reality right up to the present, the dialogue hasn’t really changed that much – and now we have reality TV. What has happened over the generations is that people’s consciousness has changed and so has our ability to understand reality in different levels. But where is it going to lead? We are all trying to push each other to a new understanding of reality – a much more spiritual level, maybe…”

Janet Cardiff first became known by her attempts to facilitate altered perceptions through “sound walks.” These site-specific audio and video tours are now available in cities all over the world. Layering sound onto urban landscapes, she invites participants into a dream world by bringing in the history, mystery and veracity of a location – where “reality is siphoned” into her amorphous narrative. Once you are equipped with headphones and, depending on the piece, a hand-held video screen, Cardiff’s voice leads you on a forty- to fifty-minute journey. The surroundings on the predetermined route are intertwined with a story the viewer is now partially responsible for. It is the participant that brings life to the work.

“I try and create triggers when I am writing the scripts that will let people have their own memories and visions,” she says. “When I did the piece Missing Voice in London there is a section in the East End where there had been a history of bombings… the Brick Lane bombing, IRA bombings, and of course the war. As you’re walking down one street you hear bombs go off, sirens from the Blitz, helicopters, machine guns, and people running past you. It creates this multilayered sensibility – awareness of the past.”

As a participant of an audio walk, I wasn’t sure where fiction ended and reality began. Cardiff’s seductive voice led me deeper into narrative that overlapped my current reality of people walking by, birds singing and cars on the street. I was wedged in between past and present, certainty and illusion – a seemingly exaggerated, condensed version of life that, in the end, confounded my assumptions about both time and space.

Cardiff considers her voice in the walks as a representation of a “mind thinking voice,” the voice that narrates each of us as we walk through life. “It’s sort of opposite to the practice of meditation because in meditation you want to calm your mind; you don’t want it to be going off in all different places and times – you want it to be much more in the now. But with the audio walks it’s completely the opposite and I force people into different worlds.”

The walk made me examine more closely individual elements that make up my experience – becoming aware of the sounds, images, feelings, memories and dreams that entered my mind throughout the narration. It also made me more aware of my own mental thinking and how it creates my world.

Cardiff speaks of what she believes is a “talented viewer,” someone who is more aware of their surroundings and able to experience a deeper connection to the art: “I have had some people go for an audio walk and they have synchronistic happenings – when I say ‘there’s a man coming toward you,’ there’s a man coming toward them or ‘there’s a green car there’ or ‘there’s a bird flying by.’ Other people don’t have this experience – but I think that it’s somehow like the idea that we create our reality and that some people are able to create more synchronicity than others. There’s an openness that happens, an awareness, and of course you see it echoed in life for everyone – some people see opportunities, others don’t.”


Every day, as we face the onslaught of visual information that demands our constant attention, the importance of sound in shaping our world is overlooked. “I grew up on a beef farm – a big country house. I found that when I first moved to the city it was very difficult for me to cope with all the sounds and I am still very sensitive to sounds – a sharp sound shocks me and makes me jump, while other people ignore sound or are able to edit out the person who’s sitting next to them in the movie theatre.” In response to this, much of Cardiff’s art focuses on destabilizing the authority of vision and drawing attention to the significance of sound and hearing.

In 2001 Janet Cardiff won Canada’s Millennium Prize for 40 Part Motet. Sung by an all-male English choir performing Thomas Tallis’ famous Spem in Alium, the piece consists of forty speakers circling the room, each projecting a single voice. The Motet is a powerful reminder of sound’s preciousness as well as its physical impression. Cardiff explains, “With forty speakers the sound waves bombard your body from all round you, creating a complete physical affect. The sound is able to come into your body in such a way that you can’t refuse it…” The ability to stroll freely among the choir provides an ordinarily inaccessible experience.

I first experienced 40 Part Motet at the National Gallery of Canada. The Motet was installed in the gallery’s restored Rideau Chapel. The chapel’s perfectly preserved interior was saved from demolition in 1972, and standing in it, I felt as if I were in a church, not an art gallery. Because of the physical setting of the Motet, the spiritual and religious connotations of Tallis’ Spem in Alium were reinforced, almost foreclosed on. So later, when I saw the 40 Part Motet at the MOMA, in a small white room, I was surprised and curious. Museums are often compared to churches in their grandiose architecture and aura, but would the spiritual significance of the piece be diminished by the stark setup?

I questioned Cardiff on the effect of an ever changing background on her work: “I like the contrast. In a white box space you can more clearly see the formal aspects of the construction of the piece of music. But it still has spiritual connotations. Quite often people start crying and I can tell by their faces that they’re immersed in the music and having a meditative, spiritual experience. Still, in some spaces it is more powerful than others and it’s always an experiment.”

The Motet confirmed that sound can both transcend the space it’s placed in and be informed by the space it is placed in. I also came to see that sound is a tangible element: weaving through the speakers, each voice became distinct while the unity of the choir disintegrated – the conductor was no longer in control. The Motet breaks down the music and focuses our attention on its construction. It isn’t the always beautiful sound that is heard when all singers are in unison – when the composer or the director of the music is in charge. Instead, parts become disproportionate and off kilter.

As I walked among the speakers, bass, baritone, alto, tenor and soprano volleyed back and forth across the room, moulded by my chosen route. My actions and reactions determined the outcome of what I experienced – a parallel of life. And like life, it is impossible to have the same experience as someone else, or even have the same personal experience twice.

Since speaking with Janet Cardiff and reflecting on my own experiences in her installations, I have begun to evaluate myself as a participant, not in her world but rather in my own. I ask myself: Am I actively contributing or passively meandering through life? Do I see the opportunities? What kind of space do I create for myself? Janet Cardiff may not provide answers, but she creates an intermediate space from which to evaluate fiction and reality, where they converge and diverge – and she reminds me of the role of the mind, internal dialogue and the senses in shaping my world.

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From 10 am to 6 pm, Karen Messer is the office manager of ascent magazine and from 7pm to 9am she paints, plants, bakes, eats, sleeps and dreams.

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