Immersive Media: Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller

Our readings this week, including one by Ontario artist David Rokeby, reminded me that I’ve meant to write about the work of a pair of Canadian artists who use immersive media. Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller are best known for creating interactive and highly engaging art installations and “walks”. The gallery I worked for in Toronto exhibited two of their installations – 2001’s Paradise Institute (which won the major prize at that year’s Venice Biennale) and the Forty-Part Motet – so I’ve had some first-hand experience with their work. While I’m sometimes iffy about the artistic value of their installations, there’s no doubt that they can usually provide remarkable experiences for participants and visitors.

Janet Cardiff's "In Real Time"

Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Millers "In Real Time"

Many of Cardiff and Bures-Millers’s installations, and all of their “walks”, use binaural audio (usually implemented through headphones)and video to animate a space in support of a narrative. That the narrative is obscure and open-ended doesn’t really matter. For a few minutes you are completely drawn in: the narrator addresses you directly, guiding your movements; invisible presences seem to whisper so closely that you can’t help but turn around to see whether someone’s there; the space around you is transformed by the atmospheric sounds. The technology seems fairly simple, but the artists use it in a way that is unparalleled. Their “walks” absolutely transform existing environments, even those already imbued with notions, from Central Park to abandoned prisons to historic sites. Even their simplest-seeming installations can be moving.

Janet Cardiff's "Fourty Part Motet"

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's "Forty Part Motet"

The Forty-Part Motet, which assigns a speaker to each voice in a choir, offers an emotional and strangely intimate experience. It was amazing listening to the beautiful choral music emitted by the installation, but once I found the speakers that “belonged” to the choir’s sopranos, a group of little boys that would whisper and joke between sections, I loved the piece even more.

When Cardiff and Bures-Miller are successful, their work is incredibly immersive, powerful and evocative. It leaves a lasting impression. I would love to see how this example could be translated by museums to generate learning experiences.

Jenny F.

3 responses to “Immersive Media: Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller

  1. I’ve known ABOUT Janet Cardiff for a while now and I haven’t actually “experienced” any of her walks, which I’d love to. I’ve always though those were such an interesting idea. She popped into my head when we were reading about the Learning Trails

    On the topic of contemporary artists and tours, there is this great video you may have seen by Andrea Fraser called “Little Frank and His Carp” – the artist is filmed walking around the Bilbao Guggenheim listening to the audio tour which is describing the building as “sensuous, curvy” etc. She starts rubbing herself and then ends up caressing the architecture.

    I won’t give my own opinion about audio tours because I don’t think I’ve ever used one (!)- but she’s making fun of how absurd some of them are. The video isn’t available online as far as I can tell but here are some stills:

  2. I love this idea of immersive experiences where the world around you is transformed in this case with sound but in some other cases with light.
    I went to an exhibition in Bogota, Colombia by Julio Le’Parc called “Luz en Movimiento” (Light in Movement) and it was fantastic. It was a completely immersive experience that instead of using sound was using simple light phenomena to transform people’s perception of physical space. I would love to see this kind of experiences to be used for educational purposes too, I’m sure it would be a great and fun way to learn. Although, I think entertaining is a very important part of our lives on its own and not every experience has to have an educational purpose, some experiences in live are mean to be only generators of joy.

  3. I saw “Little Frank and His Carp” in gallery installation and I have been searching for this video ever since. I have never seen a better critical response to an iconic architectural work . Actually I think Andrea Fraser is one of the most interesting artists working on museums as a subject. Her earlier performances often involved dressing up as a curator, docent, or come other official museum personage and offering groups of unwitting visitors carefully scripted ‘tours’ of the staff lunchroom, the museum store, coat check, hallways, donors plaques, bathrooms, etc. Amazing stuff.

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