For Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller art is an extraordinary imaginative machine driven by the nebulous matter of dreams and memories. It is a very gentle meditation on the meaning of life and being - a sort existentialism sung in verses - through the most natural act of man in the space: walking. Testimony to such is the recent video walk of the Canadian couple made in Kassel - together with the sound installation entitled FOREST (for a thousand years...) in Karlsaue Park - on the occasion of the 13th edition of Documenta. Alter Bahnhof Video Walk (2012) takes place at the train station of the German city: equipped with iPod and earphones, one is led by the video images and Cardiff's mellow voice through a physical and emotional path within the building. The artist's words give basic walking instructions and, at the same time, unearth - through a fresh and highly imaginative narration - personal memories, past stories and repressed dreams. The whistle of the trains, the melody of a trombone and the sound of footfalls on the floor interweave with appearances of dancers and street musicians. It is an all-absorbing experience, a game of hide and seek between the here and now reality - time and space of the viewer - and the virtual world generated by the video displayed on the iPod screen and by the sounds emitted by the headphones - a chimerical as well as material universe made up of the peripatetic attitude - a flânerie that, having lost the typical heedlessness of vagabondage, now keeps to a path and is oriented towards mapping a certain reality.
Cardiff & Miller's practice intends to explore the sculptural potential of sound: noises and melodies shape invisible spaces and realities - opening the doors wide to the magic and the phantasmagorical, a characteristic aspect of their installations (to name but a few: Ship O' Fools, 2010; The Murder of Crows, 2008; The Forty Part Motet, 2001). This sonorous plasticity can be achieved through the sophisticated Ambisonic technology able to create a three-dimensional auditory field, a sort of "spatialisation" of sound stimuli. Undoubtedly, it is no coincidence that Kasper König invited Janet Cardiff to undertake one of her audio walks for the 1997 edition of the Skulptur Projekte in Münster - the "walk" as immaterial sculpture, shaped by the artist's voice and by the sounds of the city.
To go back to the origins of the video walks - the most original work by the Canadian duo - one has to go back to 1991, the year when Janet was an artist in residence at the Banff Centre in Alberta. During a session of recording sounds in the open air, the artist experimented for the first time with the concept of the audio walk: her voice describes what she is seeing and tells what she is feeling, in dialogue with the sounds of the world. Forest Walk (1991) by Janet Cardiff came about from that experience; it was the first audio walk conceived by the artist. Since then the couple has developed this research through a close collaboration - Janet elaborates the scripts while George is involved in the editing: the outcome is a series of audio walks made for external environments (from Louisiana Walk of 1996 to Jena Walk of 2006) and interior spaces (first of all museums, like in Chiaroscuro, 1997, MoMA Walk, 1999, and PS1 Walk, 2001). The inclusion of video, namely the filmic image, occurred in 1999 with the work In Real Time, audio-visual walk within the Carnagie Library in Pittsburgh: fitted out with headphones and the camera, the visitor starts his emotional journey through the rooms and corridors of the library. We do no longer participate solely in the materialisation of an interior space, as happens in the audio walks - "soundtracks for a movie projected by our brain through the eyes into the surrounding landscape" -, but we are also faced with the philosophical question on the essence of reality in relation to its representation: an unsteady and unexpected walk made on the shaky territory between truth and interpretation. It is Janet’s voice that softens this estranging effect, a voice able to lull the viewer through the tale, by the narration with literary overtone. Thus, in the same way as a novel, a video walk allows us a temporary escape from the world, with the aim of observing it also from afar and knowing deep down. To use Cardiff’s words “sometimes you came across a story, but other times you have to take a few steps to reveal it”.
Published on Arte e Critica n. 72 (2012)