Pleasure Principals: The Art of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have created, each in their particular way, a contemporary version of son et lumière. Not for the sake of spectacle, although the theatrical is a tool they find engaging and functional, having used it to good effect in many of their pieces. In fact, Janet Cardiff’s voice in your ears, winding through your cochlea, insinuating itself thoroughly into your cognitive operations, is as theatrical an event as the average person would wish to experience. It’s a cousin–for effectiveness–to another theatrical use of the ear. Think of Claudius, uncle to Hamlet, pouring poison in the king’s ear and how direct a device that was. In the case of Cardiff and Bures Miller, however, we have an intimate, not toxic, potion coiling to the consciousness of the listener.

Janet Cardiff said, in the interview that follows, that the primary thing about her work is the “physical aspect of sound,” its effect on the body, not the work’s narrative quality. Cardiff’s and Bures Miller’s intention is to build with sound and make the aural material, give it the dimensionality of sculpture, realize it synaesthetically. And this they do.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. Photo: Markus Tretter. Installation view.

Fix the headphones to your ears, turn on the portable CD player, and what you have is the ear quickening the heart, the ear tightening the belly. One sense is stimulated, another feels the probe.

You follow the recorded voice, you do as you’re told, you’re walking but you wouldn’t say you were a flâneur. This is not idle strolling; it is directed. When you pressed start you gave up control. It’s the way they want it, these collaborators, well-schoolled in the techniques of film noir. While you’re wearing the headphones they are the directors and what you see as you look out from the space inside your head–this real world that you see–accommodates their production and becomes the “visual” of the film they’re directing. For the duration of the audio walk, the world is their temporal theatre. There is a sense of menace, there’s the sexual frisson of having yielded control and then there’s the unavoidable intimacy of someone’s voice, someone’s breath soft in your ear. There’s the startled dissonance, the anxious confusion you feel when what you hear is betrayed by what you see, and then–what is to be believed? That disorienting rush triggers the adrenalin that moves you to startle or smile or cry out–exactly the mix Cardiff and Bures Miller are after. It’s their gift to you of making things fresh, of heightening your awareness.

What they do in their work is juxtapose sound and sight, and the sensory information received from ear and eye builds a new structure, a montaged and layered perception. It’s this subtle complexity, this layering that gives the work its pull and weight. Apprehending it, then, becomes a process of archaeology as the various strata reveal and yield up their histories.

Seeing is believing. We know that. And Cardiff’s and Bures Miller’s work urges us also to utter, ‘I can’t believe my ears.’ They offer a richness and confusion of senses that up-ends the platitudes we draw on for comfort and when we’ve experienced their pieces we recognize that indeed they perform as art ought to do. They take you away, move you along, show you things fresh, enchant you, transport you and return you safe. And most remarkably–safe, but not unaltered.

Robert Enright interviewed Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in Toronto in November 2000 when they returned to Ontario to film footage for their Venice work, The Paradise Institute.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. Photo: Markus Tretter. Interior view.

BORDER CROSSINGS: I want to start with how you began to collaborate.

JANET CARDIFF: We started collaborating when we first met I was a grad student at the University of Alberta and George was an undergraduate. He was a painter and I was doing printmaking and we met through a friend. George had this idea that he was going to quit and go to film school in Montreal. We both had an interest in narrative film, so we’d go to screenings together. We’d do things with experimental sound and then we started doing these short films with George’s friends from high school. Ironically, they ended up going into film school and we didn’t.

GEORGE BURES MILLER: Those were just experiments. We also did this super-eight feature film called Guardian Angel; it had a really bad plot that we don’t want to go into.

JC: It had a car-chase scene in it and detectives.

GBM: A movie is not a movie without a car chase, in my opinion. Actually, we discovered from the experience that we weren’t really interested in becoming filmmakers because of the whole collaborative aspect. You have to get so many people involved. Even with super-eight it’s still a huge process. But our first official collaboration happened with The Dark Pool.

JC: You know how it is, living with someone who’s working on a project; you help them out and they help you out. I was doing printmaking and George was very involved in helping me print. I’d say, what do you think of this? I’d be going on and on. In many ways our whole practice is still based on the same model. We work individually on our own stuff but if I need someone to do camera work or help out in any way, then George helps out. I do the same when he needs help. The only problem is I’m not as useful as he is.

BC: Is it the project that determines when you do individual work as opposed to when you collaborate, or do you set out from the beginning to say, I think it’s time we collaborated on something?

GBM: No, it’s a development. We’re always talking ideas, but if we develop an idea together, then it becomes a collaborative project. With The Dark Poo_l I think Janet had been asked to do a residency at Western Front. We’d been talking about this larger project for a long time but because we were both busy with our individual work, we’d never had that chance. Then Western Front basically said, if you want to do a collaborative piece, that’s fine. But it developed out of discussing whether an installation involving all these diverse materials would work. What was interesting about doing _The Dark Pool was we’d been working separately for 10 years, but when we started to collaborate, it became a bit confusing. When I work for Janet or Janet works for my projects, there’s always a boss. I throw in all kinds of comments about her work but if it’s her project she makes the final decision. When we were working on The Dark Pool we’d have arguments and there was no one to make the final decision.

BC: Because nobody was the boss?

GBM: Exactly. Also I think we discovered a lot about how we individually approach making art. We work very differently.

JC: It’s a very subtle difference if someone’s leading a project or if someone’s giving creative input. For my walks I lead the project and then George does the editing. I couldn’t use anyone else because George is really a very collaborative editor. They go under my name because I write the scripts and conceptualize the project, but George acts like a very creative producer. He’ll say, I don’t think this section works, and I’ll say, you’re right, and then he says, this will be better. So it is a fine line between what is collaborative and what is individual.

GBM: The walks are very much like filmmaking and I’m like a film editor. Now they involve videos as well so I edit the video.

BC: Do you do the camera work on the video walks?

JC: George does. I can’t handle it. He wears girl’s shoes so they sound like my shoes.

GBM: We pretend it’s Janet.

BC: It’s supposed to be your feet in the point-of-view shots?

GBM: They’re not high heels, okay. They’re not girlie shoes. But for the Carnegie piece it took us three weeks to find a person with the right-sounding shoes.

JC: There’s one pair I’ve used for all my walks because they have a particular sound, not too clicky and not flat. It’s got the right kind of heel. They are getting very worn out. For the video walks, George does the shot because the sound has to be recorded by a binaural mike at the same time as the video so he wears the other girlie shoes. Then I put my voice on top afterwards. With the audio walks I’m recording and quite often talking along with the walking. So it is subtly different, but I think it’s conceptually interesting to people because you have this woman’s voice saying, okay, turn to the left, and you assume the footsteps you hear are hers, but they’re actually his.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. Photo: Federico del Prete. Installation view.

BC: Do you storyboard so that you know exactly what it is you’re doing, or do serendipity and accident play into the process as well?

JC: What we do is figure out which is the best route on site and then I generally stand around a lot and see what patterns evolve. On our first visit we do a lot of video tests, replay the tests on the site to see what actually interests us, and then I write the script so it’ll be appropriate to the site. Then we go back a couple of weeks later and do the final audio or visual shooting. When I’m recording audio I may be speaking the lines or I may add the lines in the studio afterwards. By chance there might be two people walking by, talking, and that will be recorded and subtly work with the narrative; or there might be a car alarm in the background or something like that. Then we add tons of layered sound afterwards. I’ve only done two video walks. They are quite different because people are lining up the video reality with real reality, so you’re using your visual information as well as auditory information. And they function quite differently from one another.

BC: Are they obliged to be more like film than the audio walks?

GBM: In the audio walks you’re using reality as the visual of the film and the CD provides the soundtrack. What’s different with the video walks is the hypnotic quality. The audio walks are hypnotic too, but there’s something about moving back and forth between the video on the camera you’re carrying and reality that makes the audio not as important–the image becomes much more important. People don’t even notice that they’re actually listening to a recorded sound; the sound becomes almost real to them, whereas when you’re listening to the sound in an audio walk and you hear a car go by that you don’t see, then you’re really aware that it was recorded.

JC: What is interesting with the audio walks is how they accentuate the visual and accentuate the reality. You know how it is when you’re walking along, listening to music on a headset. It’s like the real world becomes a film with a soundtrack. That’s the way the audio walks work. I read in some recently published study how, if you put an audio reference cue before you show someone a visual thing, people will see the visual thing more intensely.

BC: It’s actually physiological, then?

JC: Yes, and I didn’t realize that. People just said to me, wow, it really accentuates the visuals. Why is that? And I didn’t know. I just thought, because it was heightening your senses. But the video walks, where people are concentrating on the screen and what’s happening there, become the reality and the real world becomes secondary. George has an earlier piece called Conversation Interrogation that some of these pieces really relate to, especially the video walks. What happens is that people sit down in a seat in front of a monitor and see George talking to a screen on the right, and then all of a sudden the screen cuts their image into the sequence, looking off-screen left. It appears as if they are watching themselves have a conversation in this room in the monitor. It’s very strange; it’s like taking your own body and throwing it into another space, in your mind. The video walks really relate to this sense of the way video talks to our particular consciousness of how media works. It can talk to us about how we relate to media and how it’s very disorienting; it’s not just off there. Our whole body has become part of it.

BC: Is the purpose of the collaborations to confuse the sensory apprehension of what it’s like to be in the real world? Every critic comments about a dislocation that leads to some extraordinarily intense perceptual pleasure.

JC: I think it’s the same thing. It confuses the viewer because we think that video is just something that’s controlled by us, and all of a sudden the video is controlling the machinery in real time, like in George’s Jump piece or else the video and the TV screen are becoming the reality. And it is dislocating. What I find interesting is the “Aha!” experience you get when you catch something you can’t really explain–like how we’re integrating with media, how we’re reacting, how we understand perception and how we understand reality.

BC: Does the place give you its rhythms for the audio walks?

JC: I go there and I see. It’s very much like the traditional analogy of how Rodin would look at a piece of marble and know what he would do. When I’m walking the site, it gives me ideas and situations–this could be cool here, this kind of sound would work well here. The site gives me ideas.

BC: So does the story come out of the sound fragments?

JC: What’s weird about it is that it’s like writing three-dimensionally. If I’m writing, I’ll videotape the particular route and site I think will work the best. A route has to be constructed so that it’s got texture. It goes back to traditional media; it’s like a drawing where the viewer will be affected by a particular type of texture. So as I’m walking, I videotape the whole route and then I write the script. Sometimes the pacing works on paper but it won’t work on site. The words have to resonate with the site in a particular way. The thing about the walks is that because the physical environment is always changing, you can do one several times in the same site and it will be completely different. Sometimes I’ll do the walk and things won’t line up and then at other times I’ll be testing one and I’ll say in the script, a man is walking in front of me, and there will be a man walking in front of me or the lime green car will be there. Then you say, oh yes, it’s happening today, the world is in complete order. The synchronicity really freaks people out.

GBM: The synchronicity is weird. I tested it five times at Meunster. There’s a spot where she says there’s a red car parked on the street and every time one came up. It was a different red car but it was too freaky.

BC: Allen Ginsberg has this notion that “mind is shapely.” That the actual process of the mind doing things ultimately ends up in some form or structure.

JC: I believe that. I remember Kaspar Koenig telling me the first time he did a walk was at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and a helicopter went by on the soundtrack, and he looked up and there was a helicopter going by above him. I think that’s the moment he invited me to the Muenster Sculpture Project. He thought, if this woman can control the world, she should be in my show.

BC: When you’re involved in scoring and layering the piece with sound, what’s the content, as far as that idea of sensory apprehension goes?

JC: Sound enters your body without any filters, whereas, I think, visually our brain has a way of analyzing what’s coming in. I can sit there and I can stare and stare and not really see anything. With sound you can’t really do that.

GBM: Also the way we record the audio makes it even less perceptible as a medium because we’re using the Kunstkofp Binaural System of recording, so that basically your senses are being fooled. You’re not sure what you’re hearing, especially because quite often it’s recorded on location. In _The Muriel Lake Incident _we set up this miniature theatre but we recorded the sound in a real theatre. So aurally you sense the presence of a giant theatrical space. It’s another dislocation of the senses.

JC: It creates 3D sound images.

GBM: You have a microphone in each ear basically, so it reproduces the way we hear. It’s an old recording technique they’ve used ever since they invented stereo. It’s just much more effective now with digital technology because you have good microphones and it’s totally clean, without any hiss. It doesn’t work if you play it over loudspeakers but when you play it on headphones you’re hearing exactly what the person who recorded it would hear. In Muriel Lake, you’re looking at a miniature theatre–it’s only about four feet by four feet–but you’re hearing the sounds of a full movie re-recorded inside a large cinema.

BC: You hear someone eat popcorn and it pisses you off.

GBM: Yeah, Janet eating popcorn. That disjunction of the senses happens in the walks as well, but in the walks it’s more disorienting because you don’t know what’s real and what’s fake. You’ll hear a car go by and you’ll automatically stop because you think you’re going to be hit.

JC: Even in The Missing Voice in London, there’s one part where a car comes down Wentworth Street and I say, stop and wait for the car. And even when I was replaying it to test it out I’d have to wait for that car. My body wouldn’t allow me to step on the road, even though I knew it wasn’t there. That’s the thing about sound coming in an unmediated manner. I love it when children listen to 3D sound. They go crazy because they don’t have any filters.

GBM: They’re breaking headphones all the time. Anyway, you’re listening with headphones and you’re in front of this theatre box and at the end of it there’s a scream and actual gunshots. We get to have lots of fun doing these pieces. In Korea people were running away from the box, headphones were getting ripped off and cords were getting broken.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. Selected film still.

BC: It’s almost like _The War of the Worlds._

JC: It’s very interesting that this happened in Korea. In North America we get 3D technology all the time and we’re so film-oriented it doesn’t faze us.

BC: In _The Muriel Lake Incident, the sequence that shoots the crumpled bed, moves to the chair, shifts to include only the high heels and lower legs of the woman, and then dissolves to the cowboy at the fire, is a beautiful filmic sequence. It’s a Sam Shepard moment. There’s something about the cowboy and the girl and her dishevelled revelry all together which creates a loaded atmosphere. There’s a real psychodrama going on that the viewer can’t quite figure out. Was that very carefully planned from beginning to end?_

GBM: I’d love to say yes but we were just shooting tons of stuff on digital video. That mood was exactly what we were trying to get, but the shooting sequence was chaotic.

JC: That’s why we’ve never really been interested in being real filmmakers. We’re not the best at pre-conceptualizing and pre-visualizing everything. We can imagine the scene, shoot it and recognize that it doesn’t work. George really has an editing mentality. He’s always saying, let’s try this here and let’s try this here, so sometimes a piece can completely change. That’s why it’s very difficult to give scripts in advance. Even the names of the pieces change three or four times. For us it’s a sketching process.

BC: So the pictures always tell you what you need. You see what you’ve got and then know what you need to get. Is that how it works?

GBM: Yes, quite often. Or sometimes we just slow it down, or we do whatever we have to do in order to fix it. I thought we had nothing after we finished three days of shooting the cowboy shots up in Muriel Lake and it turned out that I loved that shot too.

BC: There’s also a great moment when the cowboy unwraps the gun from a newspaper as if it were an order of English fish and chips. What is that about?

JC: I thought that was kind of funny.

GBM: That’s Janet’s scriptwriting. The whole piece is trying to trigger the fact that you’re seeing this movie but you’re also getting quirky things which make absolutely no sense. Like the woman who says, I thought this was supposed to be directed by Orson Wells. We’re making fun of ourselves because we’re so bad at making movies that people are going to say, wait a minute, we’re in the wrong film here.

BC: When you do that dance, it’s quite an affecting performance. Do you think one aspect of your art is about being an actor?

JC: Yes, because when I’m writing some of these parts I’ll call myself “she,” or even when I’m talking about my walks, I’ll say “she said this” or “she said that.” I talk about myself in the third person. In my script I had put spastic dancing. We were just doing a test, so I put on the makeup and the hair and everything. It was in our living room; the real shoot was supposed to take place at this cottage up on a beach. But we did the test and we could see the fax machine in the corner and his mom was moving so there was tons of stuff in the room. It was a weird set. Then we shot the real stuff and it didn’t look good. We couldn’t get the lighting right; my dancing was bad. It’s funny because sometimes the sketches work out the best. You just never know.

BC: I’m intrigued to hear you refer to the fun you have in making the work, because one of the things that emerges for me much of the time is a sense of unease. I have an apprehension that something unfortunate, if not downright dangerous, is going to happen.

JC: It definitely is there. I think it’s connected to our love of Raymond Chandler and film noir. But the fun element is really important. When you go to a movie, you know it’s a safe environment. We can go to a scary movie and while we wouldn’t want to see anybody killed, or to see real guns, we do go wanting to be scared. It’s like rides. We’re providing a relatively safe environment in which we can scare people.

GBM: The ride thing is interesting, because a lot of my work, your walks, and our collaborative work are like low-budget theme rides in a way. We were recently in Disneyland and saw the original version of Pirates of the Caribbean, which was amazing. And it’s such a fabulous ride. I was like, wow, this is what I want to make. Then we went to one of the new Indiana Jones rides and it was totally boring. So the walks are like a low-budget ride, here’s your Walkman and your headphones, go walk around the city. It was the same with the this immersive environment in _The Dark Poo_l.

JC: It’s that aspect of experiencing art where you’re taken out of yourself as a viewer. Where you let go of yourself, which is the same sort of thing that happens when you go to a film. That’s why we really like the film experience._ Muriel Lake_ is very much about that; it’s not about the product, it’s about going to a film. It’s the same thing with the piece we’re doing for Venice: it’s going to be even more about going to this box that is a theatre and having to give yourself up for ten minutes.

BC: It’s what the Romantics called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Do you want people to give over to that magical transforming moment of belief?

GBM: That’s right, even though we’re not filmmakers, we envy the filmmakers’ ability to have that power.

BC: In some of the reviews, critics talk about being held hostage and they bring up the idea of manipulation. In a way, the walks do control you; there is a sense of being literally held inside the instructive nature of the piece.

JC: That’s part of the point to the pieces. Have fun! It’s very pleasurable to give up your power, to enter into something that you know is safe. It’s like the early childhood games where your eyes are covered and they say, turn to the left. There’s an eroticism involved in it, sort of S&M stuff. But because you’re in a safe environment you can give up your power to someone else.

BC: Does all art manipulate us in some subtle way?

JC: Matisse’s Red Painting is pretty manipulative but, of course, we want to be manipulated like that. We want the pleasure involved. Actually, almost everything in our society manipulates us–sidewalks, road signs. To me it’s a non-issue; only in Canada is it ever brought up.

GBM: To me it’s like a magical mystery. You’re trying to discover something; it’s almost as if you’re on a treasure hunt. There’s a very child like aspect to it.

BC: Is that the reason the narratives are fragmented? There seem to be, not necessarily competing, narratives, but different ones. So the listener has to figure out what is the story being told. Is that a deliberate strategy of incompletion and fragment?

JC: In a simple way the narrative is a strategy to get people to walk. Because the subtext of the piece is really the text. This idea that people are walking in my footsteps, hearing what I heard, is important to me. In ways they’re becoming cyborgs and there’s this weird intimacy that happens. The narrative enables that because they can feel as if they’re going to unravel a story. I use the conditioning of society to unravel the story. But I’m not interested in a sense of completion at the end. The type of short stories, novels and films I’ve always enjoyed are the ones that leave me wondering. You want to get a certain sense of completion and some of my walks aren’t successful because they leave people too unconnected. It’s a very fine line between connection and abstraction.

GBM: That’s what we’re working towards–to see how much information is too much. We’re always taking out lines and putting in lines during the editing. And we’re always re-recording when we’re editing.

JC: Or if there’s a way to say it with sound, rather than going to a direct voice. It’s much better if you can tell someone something in a peripheral way, or in metaphors. In the art world you have the freedom to do that sort of thing. In making Hollywood films you have to fill in all the blanks and that’s mostly why I can’t stand them. They tell you everything. I like coming in at the middle of a film and then figuring out who the characters are and what are their relationships. It’s the only way to watch a Hollywood film.

GBM: That was what we were trying to do with Muriel Lake. You’re thrown into the middle of this film and you have no idea what the relationships are. Then it’s over before you ever figure them out.

BC: _In The Dark Pool, there is an entrancing narrative fragment about the dangers of reaching into the oily pool. What is its source?_

JC: I think we got the idea from reading a lot of Jorge Borges and the way he creates mythological places and these time-travelling environments. When we were writing this stuff, I liked the idea that there was a place that we called _The Dark Poo_l that could defy all the known laws of science. George is always reading me these articles on wacky science concepts and stuff like that, so I think it probably comes from him. He has a much more scientific mind. I had the idea of a story about a pool on which nothing could float. You could stick your hand in it and it would disappear. So there was this alternative reality. But it’s also a metaphor for the brain. The whole environment is a metaphor for how artists work on things that don’t seem to make any sense. Artmaking is really an inexplicable activity. The work used the analogy of a scientific couple working in a room researching, and they just leave all this stuff and disappear. It’s a portrait of George and me working away on these things.

BC: It’s interesting you would say that _The Dark Pool is a portrait, because going through it seems like being on a journey inside the head of someone who makes art._

GBM: Yes. But we really wanted to create a space as if you’d fallen outside the gallery. You go through this door and you’re in somebody’s attic or something. It’s dark and dimly lit and then these sounds start triggering.

BC: There is a gothic sense mixed with a certain kind of absurd humour, like when you encounter a stand where you buy knick-knacks. But what about the gothic? Did you want that theatrical darkness, with hanging heads and all the severed digits?

GBM: That was what we wanted at the time. It’s all coming back now. It was a reaction, in a way, to the cleanliness of the Canadian art world. We’d discussed this piece for a long time and we wanted to do something that was totally over the top and layered and encrusted and really, really hard to set up. We wanted to make this environment where people would feel they weren’t anywhere near a gallery or a museum. As if they’ve fallen outside the whole art system.

JC: We did a hypertext thing on the internet when it was shown at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff. It relates to the way the internet and hypertext works, because the stories come off each other. The main thing is an older woman talking about her journey to The Dark Pool. She’s a really elderly lady with a British voice whom we’ve used a couple of times. There’s also a love story between Allan and Tara. It was actually based on a friend called Allan (his picture is in there), and about a relationship he had with a beautiful, young, ideal woman, who didn’t really exist. So these narratives entwined. She was this Ingmar Bergman character, who would come down the stairs. He had an incredibly messy house and she’d float down the stairs in this beautiful spring dress. Anyway, it’s the personal stories we see that come back into the piece.

GBM: Then we layered our own story on top of all the fictional narratives. It’s very encrusted and we really wanted people to trigger it as they moved around. The music starts up over in this corner and then you hear Judy Garland play over here. And there was a cup with a string attached to it, and someone’s yelling hello, hello.

JC: And the wish machine, which was quite interesting because people would write a lot of wishes. This wish machine was built from an electronic circuit diagram out of a book called On The Fringes of Science that George had been reading. It’s a very wacky book written by a physicist.

GBM: He had all these experiments that he believed actually worked, so you could build a cardboard pyramid to keep your razor sharp 200 times longer than normal. He was talking about all these things that work and we don’t know why they work, and that this will be the science of the next century. The wish machine was one of these things that supposedly could kill bugs in your garden. We wanted to take it beyond bugs in the garden, so we just told people to put their wishes in and we got amazing results.

JC: Especially in New York. Kids saying, I wish mommy’s boyfriend would stop hitting her.

BC: So all that psychodrama was going on inside the piece as well?

GBM: Yes, and we were building our own perfect space in a way too, because we had all these popular mechanical magazines and books everywhere and an encyclopedia from 1910. So basically it was a resource room that had stopped gathering resources. But you could go in there and sit down and read the various encyclopedias.

JC: It was interesting how the idea of knowledge in 1910 was so ridiculous and in another 100 years people are going to look at our idea of knowledge and say, oh, how ridiculous, they didn’t know why pyramids kept razor blades sharp, or why this dark pool wasn’t able to have anything floating on it, or why it was defying the laws of gravity.

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. Selected film still.

BC: So in one sense the whole piece was a projection into a doubtful future?

GBM: But it was also about the accumulation of knowledge and how impossible it is to actually know anything.

BC: Did you have sources for your notion of layering text and sound? Were there models–either literary or visual–that you had been thinking about?

GBM: We were reading a lot of science fiction, a lot of Philip K. Dick. In some ways he’s a really bad pulp writer but he has incredibly interesting and weird ideas. We were also reading William Gibson, the cyberpunk novelist.

JC: And that fantastic book by Neil Stevenson called Snow Crash that has interesting ideas of layering and the analogy of cyberspace that relate to Borges and his Library of Babel. As well as to the original Tower of Babel.

BC: What I find in your text are poetic moments that seem to be very suggestive, conscious writing. How much pressure do you put on yourself as a scriptwriter?

JC: Quite a bit actually. The writing goes through tons and tons of modification. I consider myself quite a bad writer so I have to really work at it. The type of writers that I like are Michael Ondaatje; Coming through Slaughter is amazingly layered. Perhaps it’s just where we are in our century or something. Because of editing on television we’re able to understand the language of fragment and this structure of fragmentation. Kids today can read books, watch TV and listen to a CD at the same time and get meanings out of all of them.

GB: A lot of Canadian writers have that layering sense Janet mentioned. Robert Kroetsch is an amazing Western writer.

BC: One of his poetry books that I’ve always admired is _Seed Catalogue. It has the line “bring me the radish seeds my mother whispered,” a fragment that suggests a subtle degree of intimacy. The reason I raise it is because whispering has a lot to do with the way your pieces work. You’re literally in the listener’s ear and giving gentle instructions or teasing insinuations, like, “I’ll tell you about that later.” How does intimacy play into the work?_

JC: Something you said made me remember that when we were building The Dark Pool at the Walter Phillips Gallery, our nephew, he was 14 at the time and had lived on a boat all his life, came into the room and said, this is just like Myst. He understood it as a completely interactive world.

GBM: Only it’s three-dimensional Myst.

JC: But he was touching everything as he went along, because his is a hands-on generation. But to answer your question more directly: intimacy is a really important part of it. To me it’s like surrogate relationships. I get letters and e-mails from people all over the place about how important the walk was for them. It’s a false intimacy that’s set up, of course, but it’s the same kind of intimacy that you get from a writer’s voice when you’re reading. This way it’s actually connected to you. I think what accentuates it is that you hear the footsteps and you begin walking in the body and you hear my breath right behind you. It’s as if I am part of their body.

GBM: It’s your voice as well. She’s recording using a binaural head right at the back, so it’s like her voice is tickling the back of your neck. Her voice isn’t an actor’s voice. We work very hard to get beyond acting, beyond reading. It seems to exist outside any kind of mediation, like a thinking voice, a voice inside your head. It’s also pretty sexy.

JC: It’s a deliberately invisible voice. When I’m working with actors, I’m always saying, can you just make it a bit flatter? It’s really, really hard to get it flat but with emotion.

BC: George is right, it’s a sexy voice. Is it caused by the circumstances of technology or are you actually working to insinuate yourself beyond what the technology can offer?

JC: Well, I do say lines like, “I want you to walk with me,” and then I sometimes accentuate the idea that we’re together in the experience.

GBM: I don’t think we considered the quality of her voice when we started doing the walks. It just happened; it’s something you can’t define and it affects you in a certain way.

BC: Are your own footsteps metronomic for you? As you’re walking, it must be like having a drum beat.

JC: Yeah, I’m monitoring at the same time as I’m recording, so I do hear them.

BC: Your movement is embodied, then?

JC: Yes. The reason I started doing these walks was because I was recording with the tape recorder out in the cemetery. I had a headset on and I was walking around doing research, just recording the names of the people on the headstones. I don’t know what it was for; it was a totally senseless activity. Then I pressed stop and instead of pressing go again, I hit rewind by mistake, so I had to press play to find out where I was. All of a sudden I heard my voice describing what was in front of me and my footsteps walking, so I rewound it again and I went back to the exact places where I was recording and listened to the whole experience. I was electrified. It was really, really incredible. That’s how I started doing walks. It was totally serendipitous.

BC: Are you shooting here in Toronto because it’s convenient or is it actually something you intended to do?

GBM: We’re shooting here because we’re here. Is that right?

JC: Mostly. We came for another reason but we had three days extra to blow and we knew a singer and a friend runs a bar.

GBM: It seems like it’s going to work out, we have the bar scene we needed to get.

BC: Aren’t you burning a barn as well?

JC: A house. But that came after we knew we were coming here. We were thinking of inserting an image of a house burning because we’re using this character who builds big fires. We thought, will we do it by making a model house? Then I remembered there’s a derelict house on one of my father’s farms. Maybe he’ll burn it down for me. People haven’t lived in it for 30 years. That’s the way they do it in the country if they have to get rid of something. Next year it’ll be a field.

BC: I realize the Venice piece is a work-in-progress at this stage, but do you have a sense of what it will be by the time it opens at the vernissage?

GBM: We have a sense and while everything changes, I don’t think this one will change that much. It’s definitely derived out of the _Muriel Lak_e piece, but we wanted to make it more immersive and in a way more disorienting. It’ll be a theatre for 16 people. You’ll sit in a balcony situation overlooking a model of a theatre.

JC: We’re building a bigger version of Muriel Lake that you will actually sit in. You go into this particular situation and then experience what’s on the screen as well as what’s around you. Because of the way George and I work, we don’t want to do another version of something we’ve already done. It’s always about asking, how can we push this medium, this format, into the next more interesting thing?

BC: So how are you extending _Muriel Lake in this one? Is it moving closer to environmental art?_

GBM: Definitely installation. In a way it’s like The Dark Pool except that you know it’s a model. The Dark Pool had models in it too. There’s something fascinating about them; a lot of artists, especially Canadians, are working with miniatures.

JC: It’s about throwing your mind and your body at this particular little space. It’s also about being a child again.

BC: What’s satisfying about the miniature is that it allows you to comprehend its entire meaning in one glance. Your work operates in quite a different way in that you’re inside the thing and it’s around you. I imagine it as a much more intense experience of comprehension.

JC: It’ll be disorienting and, we hope, intense.

BC: Why is that your intention?

JC: It’s a good question. I think it’s because we live so much of our lives as robots and when something disorients you, you notice it. It’s like we’re all sleeping half the time and all of a sudden we’re awake again.

GBM: It makes us aware of our senses.

JC: It makes you feel alive, it gives you those “Aha!” experiences. It’s also about reflecting what interests us, because basically George and I want to make art that we want to see.

BC: I guess you can’t afford to allow the process you’re taking people through to be boring.

JC: It’s okay if it’s boring for a little bit, because you can use that sense of slowness to put people into one state and then switch it to shock them into some other one.

BC: I assume the difficult part is arriving at the rhythms that allow you to make those switches.

JC: Yes. We try to go to dance performances because we both find them interesting. It’s like the way you feel watching Pina Bausch; you’re sure you’ve seen this scene and then all of a sudden she switches it and these fragments of narrative open up, one upon the other.

BC: Do you privilege any one sense, or are you after something more like synthesia, where you engage as many of the senses as you can in the experience?

JC: I think the concentration is on sound and how it affects the body physically. That has been the case with all my work, even things like To Touch the Table or Whispering Room. I’m very interested in how you can build things in a three-dimensional physical world that’s a virtual world. It’s not really there. Even though sound waves are invisible, they have a real physical effect.

GBM: I do a lot of movement and kinetic sculpture, so I don’t know what sense that is. Again, I’m after disorientation. I often talk about my work as creating spaces that imbalance the viewer. If you take a chandelier and start moving it, it creates a space, and because you’re not used to it moving, it affects your whole body. I guess a lot of my work is about balance, but our collaborative work deals with that as well. I think any artist wants to do something that changes people, or that somehow makes them more aware. In our most successful pieces, that actually occurs.

BC: What about _Forty Part Motet, the piece you installed at the National Gallery in Ottawa and which won the Millennium Prize?_

JC: It relates to our talk about the physicality of sound. I was listening to this piece by Thomas Tallis, a 16th-century British composer who did an amazingly beautiful polyphonic piece called Spem in Alium. He’s a choral composer and he wrote it for 40 different harmonies. When you listen on your stereo it’s so frustrating because you know all these people are there, but you can’t hear them. I just wanted to climb inside and hear them individually. Originally, he wrote the piece for a chapel that had eight different alcoves, so he had eight different choirs of five voices each. As the choirs sing, the sound moves back and forth. Sometimes they’re all singing. I worked with a British producer and with a choir in Salisbury and we recorded each individual singer. So as you listen, you’ll be walking through this sound piece, as if these performers are standing there. You’ll be able to hear the music from the viewpoint of a performer. As I said, one of the main things about my work is the physical aspect of the sound. A lot of people think it’s the narrative quality but it’s much more about how our bodies are affected by sound. That’s really the driving force.

Volume 20, Number 2: Canadians in Venice

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #78, published May 2001.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.