Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Black Birds
So dimly lit are the vast confines of the Park Avenue Armory’s drill hall, which hosts the American premiere of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows (2008), that when we first enter, the space seems filled with fog. As our eyes adjust, we move in, drawn to an illuminated square in the centre of the hall in which a number of wooden folding chairs in a half-circle face a red, folding card table. On it rests a gramophone’s horn, and, arrayed at the fringes of the lighted area, dozens of regular audio speakers (some 98 in all) loom on tall stands, hang from the ceiling, or sit on more folding chairs, as if the disembodied voices that they emit move unseen among us. We hear the sound of footsteps and creaking doors—so real that we turn our heads—but then an electronic thrumming starts, in effect announcing the theatricality of all that follows.
Cardiff’s familiar voice comes from the gramophone horn, tinny, sounding tired, monotonic, as she recounts a series of three nightmares. The first pictures a bloody factory that grinds up cats and babies. A second features a forced march of slaves (a vision disturbing in part because the presence of Caucasians chained together and tortured appears to affect the narrator far more viscerally than the similar travails of black prisoners). And in the third, on a bed inside an abandoned beach house, the speaker finds a leg without a body, but with a shoe and sock (having the perhaps unintended effect of sounding as if she’s stumbled upon a Robert Gober sculpture). Various kinds of music and sounds—including the mechanical noises of the factory, crashing ocean waves and the titular flock of crows—play from the surrounding speakers during the narration, as if the dreams have come to life, as well as during the interludes between the voiceover episodes. The cycle ends with Cardiff singing of a “strange lullaby” that mentions crows and notes that “strange noises always make it difficult to sleep.”
Cardiff and Miller stand as undisputed masters of sound art, and the atmospheric effects of The Murder of Crows are nothing short of amazing. Sound washes over and around us in fantastically convincing aural illusionism, a kind of trompe l’oreille. But their most persuasive art—both as a team and ascribed to Cardiff singly—has tended to downplay verbal and narrative elements in favor of sheer audio experience both exuberant and moving. Cardiff’s magisterial The Forty Part Motet (2001; concurrently on view in New York at MoMA PS1) simply delivers incomparable religious choral music, sung in Latin, while the duo’s 2005 Pandemonium turned the entire wing of a building into a percussive instrument, any narrative connotations resulting from the progression of rhythmic incidents alone. Less successful, to my mind, have been works—including Cardiff’s signature “walks”—that rely upon explicit storytelling. Literary conventions, particularly of the dystopian science-fiction ilk of J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick, sink these pieces for me; the artists’ skills as writers have never seemed equal to their considerable talents for auditory magic—sleight of sound, we might call it.
The Murder of Crows, originally created for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, unfortunately falls into this latter category. Despite its multiple and rather glorious appeals to the sense of hearing, it depends for its impact almost entirely upon the dreams that Cardiff relates. And the script falls short. According to the artists, Cardiff actually had these dreams, and they intend them to reflect various nightmarish occurrences in the waking world. But while Cardiff’s oneiric worries feel authentic, they express a sort of free-floating anxiety, slightly neurotic, instead of any substantive engagement with particular events in the world. Like most of our dreams, Cardiff’s are, in the end, trivial. Also, a reliance on literary and cinematic tropes pervades the work from the episodic structure to the dramatic mood music, and while Cardiff and Miller may have devised a surround-sound movie without visuals—son et lumière without the lumière—they have not escaped the fact that we all know there is someone behind the curtain pulling the Hollywood levers. Throughout, I kept imagining a team of foley artists at work.
“I know something terrible is going to happen,” Cardiff portentously intones at the end of the third dream. But nothing really does. The lullaby begins and then the cycle repeats. Like dreams themselves, The Murder of Crows produces an absorbing mood, which, also like dreams, is fleeting—quickly dissipated, foggy and forgotten.