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Interviews / April 4, 2013

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller Chat About Their New AGO Survey

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto April 6 to August 18, 2013

George Bures Miller is distracted, and for good reason. Storm Room—an uncanny simulation of a Japanese thunderstorm as experienced within a small, shuddering room—is leaking. Our interview seems a quandary of energy-use: spend time parsing work for a journalist, or make sure that that work actually works. When Bures Miller’s priorities skew to the latter, his creative and romantic partner Janet Cardiff—bless her soul—enthusiastically fills in the blanks.

Storm Room is part of “Lost in the Memory Palace,” a spectacular new exhibition debuting April 5 at the Art Gallery of Ontario and due to travel to the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2014. The show offers seven works from throughout the internationally celebrated art duo’s career. Among these are 1995’s Dark Pool, an antique-filled storeroom in which old speakers sound mysterious messages as viewers pass by; 2005’s Opera for a Small Room, a chilling vignette of a shack-bound, music-addicted recluse (there are almost 2,000 vinyl records in this installation, and eight active record players); and a new work, Experiment in F# Minor, in which speakers play music based on viewers’ movements around a table. Also on view is Cardiff’s crowd-pleasing The Forty Part Motet from 2001, a moving recording of a 16th-century choral piece across 40 speakers.

During their interview—and amid the persistent cacophony of set-up, and of the works themselves—Bures Miller and Cardiff discussed technology, magic and the ongoing nature of their decades-old collaboration.

David Balzer: How long does it take to put together a show like this?

George Bures Miller: It’s a ton of work. Just with Killing Machine, we’ve been working on it a lot in the past year, trying to come up with systems that are more reliable.

Janet Cardiff: Ever since it was built [in 2007] we’ve been sort of rejigging it.

GBM: The technology always changes.

JC: Also we have two other copies that are in collections. Before they went there, we had to make sure they were going to work.

DB: Is every time you install a new troubleshooting experience? Do the pieces improve?

JC: They don’t change.

GBM: Just the functionality.

JC: The reliability.

DB: So you won’t tweak anything that you thought didn’t quite work the first time?

JC: The very first shows, maybe, but I don’t think so…

GBM: There’s a point where the piece is done and then it stays like that. Dark Pool always shifts because it’s often in a different-sized space. [At the AGO], we’ve got a 15-by-30-foot room…

JC: It’s normally 20-by-32…

GBM: So we tweak it to make sure that it feels like Dark Pool. That’s about all. We try to stay true to the works.

JC: But also, now, all these major works, except for the new piece, are set up by our assistants. They have their notes and everything, so they always stay the same. Robyn [Moody] sets up Dark Pool. We haven’t set up Dark Pool ourselves for 15 years!

DB: So your assistants have very personal relationships with the works.

JC: They’re great; they’re amazing. They’re a family.

DB: It’s like you’ve married off your pieces.

JC: They’re our kids. [laughs]

DB: In terms of the selection of works, there are only two earlier pieces, Dark Pool and 1999’s The Muriel Lake Incident; there’s a significant focus on the mid-2000s to today. What went into that choice?

JC: We were working with [curators] Bruce Grenville and Elizabeth Smith, and they came up with the idea of rooms. So we went with pieces that suited that. Opera for a Small Room is a room in itself. The Killing Machine has a room structure. Dark Pool is a storeroom. We had to convince them about Road Trip [from 2004] because we wanted it in the show, so we said it was kind of like a rec room. [Curator] Kitty Scott came up with the idea of the “memory palace”—wandering into the space of the rooms and getting lost.

DB: I do have an investment, and maybe it’s quaint, in beauty and magic in art, and I’m always disappointed with work that is really fixated on demystification. With your work, you draw attention to viewership, and yet there’s an intensification of mystification rather than a demystification. Watching Muriel Lake again, it felt more poststructural and metafictional than some of your recent work. I’m curious if you’ve changed your ideas on viewership over the years.

JC: Yeah, usually there’s some point at which we show the technology.

GBM: Or pull the rug out from under the illusion.

JC: With Storm Room, we do show the lights behind everything but the main experience is the thunderstorm—that feeling that puts you on edge. I think some pieces need it and some pieces don’t.

GBM: Agreed. It just depends on the work, really. Sometimes you want to do that and sometimes you don’t.

JC: The Forty Part Motet is a choir, but we didn’t decide to hide the speakers because people see speakers as invisible anyway. They have them in their homes. They’re so used to them. With The Murder of Crows, we could have gotten postmodern and poststructuralist, but we decided we wanted it to be about how music and sound can move you emotionally.

GBM: Pieces just develop sometimes. It’s like how writers talk about how characters have their own needs. A piece is often a lot like that. It goes one way or the other. We’re not necessarily in control; we’re just trying to do our best with it.

JC: For Opera…, we had all sorts of ideas on how to get the figure in there, but then it worked out that the speaker was anthropomorphic enough.

GBM: But his shadow is in there sometimes.

JC: And it is a direct reference to Krapp’s Last Tape. So there’s the literary reference…

GBM: For me, not so much.

JC: For me, it’s strong.

DB: Whenever I see your work, I’m reminded of growing up in Winnipeg and going to the Museum of Man and Nature, now the Manitoba Museum. There were a lot of rickety dioramas you could walk through, and immersive sound pieces. I wonder if it’s extra-gratifying or appropriate for you to see your work in an institutional context?

JC: Well, you have the white walls and you know you’re being transported. The audience coming to a museum is ready for this kind of experience.

GBM: They do look nice in a museum, don’t they? These decrepit, dirty machines. They look better than in our studio, where it just kind of matches them. But I mean, Forty Part Motet is great in a church, too.

JC: I think the reference to the diorama is really important. We even have a smaller piece called Cabin Fever that we did in Berlin; we went to the natural-history museum there and shot all sorts of ideas for dioramas. We’ve always loved that old-fashioned museum with the dioramas. But another thing you connected with is the idea of magic, and the suspension of disbelief. Some people are really good at it, and some people refuse. We’re going for the type of audience member who wants to play, who doesn’t mind having theatricality and fun in an artwork. For a while in the late 80s and 90s there was no fun in art at all in Canada.

DB: Some people might superficially read your work as antiquated and analog when in fact you are using very sophisticated digital technology to create and drive it. Do you see this thematically at all—that, as 21st-century artists, you’re negotiating with how to present and use technology?

JC: Technology is not the subject matter for us, although we do use it with iPhones and the audio walks, and it runs all our pieces. We need the latest computers; we need fast computers.

GBM: The concern is only in what it can do for us. How can it make things interesting? What we often do with technology is we find what we need to find in order to make an idea work. We don’t like to farm things out; we like to do it all in-house. We discover things and discover how to program Macs if we need to. The first time we used Macs is on this new piece, Experiment in F# Minor. I just figured that out.

JC: George has an amazing ability to learn and problem-solve. I think a lot of artmaking is problem-solving.

DB: Is one of you more attuned to the technological side of the work?

JC: I’m an electronic genius. Actually I’m not. [laughs]

GBM: She’s a lot more technical than you’d think.

JC: I built amplifiers for Whispering Room, back in 1991 when I had to. Now we have the money to buy stuff. Did you read The Tipping Point? Malcolm Gladwell talks about how in a small community, you don’t need to learn such-and-such because you know who does it really well. And we’ve been together for so long that when we’re making dinner or doing something, we know who has the skills for that. A lot of the technological pieces he does. I’m involved in some of the rough-cut edits. He has the patience for fine-tuning it.

DB: Janet, your voice has become a real presence in the contemporary art world. I wonder if you had to learn how to speak differently or to develop a craft of speaking? It’s so characteristic and specific.

JC: What we discovered quite early on was if we hired other actors to do my voice, they could never get it flat enough. What we wanted was a voice that didn’t sound acted. Somehow it had to be flat enough that you go into your subconscious. I didn’t realize it at first, but when I’m recording for the audiowalks or anything, I go into a state. It’s like, you’re living the words but it’s calm… and it’s also intense. It’s a hard state to remain in.

GBM: We also do a million takes. If you listened to all the takes it’d be a giant somnambulistic theatre.

DB: It’s always been a fantasy of mine to have your voice on my voicemail.

JC: A friend wants my voice on their doorbell. I should just sell an app. [laughs]

DB: This is the first time I’ve seen The Killing Machine, and it really throttled me. It reminded me of something Eric Fischl said a while back, that there hasn’t been much satisfactory art made about 9/11 and the “war on terror.” The Killing Machine seemed pretty satisfactory to me. When you made it did you set out to do a political work? Your work tends to be escapist and otherworldly.

GBM: We didn’t set out to make a political work. We were reading “In the Penal Colony” by Kafka and it seemed appropriate for the time. I think our work always reflects what’s going on in the world, what we’re concerned with. Opera…’s about solitude, living in the middle of nowhere, having records that you listen to. When we made The Killing Machine, we were in Europe, reading the Herald Tribune every day.

JC: I was doing a series of poems and articles about the war.

GBM: There was just this constant barrage of war imagery, watching BBC World. But we didn’t think, “Now we’re going to do a political work.” We didn’t think about what we should or shouldn’t avoid saying.

JC: We don’t think about the kind of work we’re going to do before we do it. We come together with a little bit of an idea and we both do sketches. I mostly imagine how sound functions. That’s often what excites me. But sometimes I imagine things and I can’t build them. George can. That’s how we started working together.

With Road Trip, for instance, it’s a performance but it’s unscripted.

GBM: We only edited in a few lines to tie it together.

JC: It’s a portrait. Road Trip was supposed to be a piece about slides going back and forth; it was supposed to be part of Opera…. It was going to be musical, the sound of the slides acting as the beat of the drum. But then we played it back and thought it was interesting in and of itself.

DB: So it’s an accurate portrayal of your relationship?

JC: Have you listened to it?! I edited it, so I took out my own bad parts. [laughs]

GBM: Those are my grandfather’s photos. It’s not a fiction at all. We always have some element of reality. That’s how we work. We start with reality.

DB: Opera… seems very Canadian to me, in that classic, Northrop Frye “garrison mentality” sort of way. But you live for a good part of the year in Berlin and show internationally. Do you ever think of yourselves as Canadian artists?

JC and GBM: No.

GBM: It’s just part of us. It’s part of how we look at the world. It’s different. Canadian artists are similar to Americans, but it’s a mediated stance. I guess Jeff Wall could be from anywhere—but no, I don’t think so. Those photos couldn’t be anywhere but Vancouver. What creates identity? Listening to CBC Radio? Growing up on the prairies with two TV stations, CBC and CTV? But we don’t think about it. We’re proud to be Canadian, but we don’t go into making an artwork thinking about it being distinctively Canadian.

JC: How many Canadians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

DB: I don’t know. How many?

JC: Five.

GBM: One to screw it in…

JC: …and four to say, “Hey, this guy’s Canadian.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. For more on Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, please visit their artist page.

David Balzer

David Balzer is the author of two books, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, winner of ICA London's 2015 Book of the Year, and the short-fiction collection Contrivances. He has written about art and culture for the Globe and Mail, the GuardianFrieze, Artforum, The Believer and others, and from 2016 to 2019 was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of Canadian Art.