Transcript for Creating Wonder - Janet Cardiff


Jim Fleming: Can you make wonder? Create it deliberately? You decide after listening to Anne Strainchamps talk with international acclaimed artist Janet Cardiff about her 'sound art'.


Anne Strainchamps: Well Janet I wanted to begin by asking you if you would walk us into your 'Forty Part Motet', kind of be our virtual guide.


Janet Cardiff: Well, quite often when you're walking into the pieces of Motet, you start hearing the singers before you even enter the space. And so you're wondering 'What is there? There's a choir in this room?'


When you walk into the room there's stands with forty speakers set up in an oval around the space, and as you walk up to one of them, each one is a separate singer. So you really get a sense that that speaker somehow has the spirit or the ghost of this particular singer. You know the anthropomorphic sense of that speaker is an absent person.


The Forty Part Motet is what I call a reworking of Thomas Tallis' 'Spem In Alium' which was a piece of music written in about 1573. It's an incredible 40 part harmony piece, and when I heard it on just a two-track system, I thought immediately that wouldn't this be beautiful as 40 different separate speakers? So a lot of technical innovation afterwards by my partner George Bures Miller, and we recorded a choir in England, we finally got the system played back onto 40 separate speakers.


And it's quite fascinating to watch people because they sort of walk in quickly, and all of a sudden they go into slow motion. And their faces have this sense of 'Oh my goodness; what is this?' and then they slowly walk into the center of the oval and they stand there. And then you hear the breath of the first choir going [gasp], and then they start with Spem In Alium.


[Spem In Alium plays]


Strainchamps: That's gorgeous music to begin with, but the experience must be like being in the middle of renaissance polyphony on steroids.


Cardiff: [laughs] For me it was an interesting piece to do because I was very interested in having this up-to-date technology playing back a 16th century piece of music. You can follow the music as it goes from one choir to another and to another. You can hear it moving around in a sculptural way. I just love the feeling of sound coming from one side, and another, crosses over you to another, until all of those sound waves are hitting your body. It's quite an effect.


Strainchamps: People must cry.


Cardiff: Yeah, it's an interesting effect, because you see people and they do burst out crying. Or they just sit there, and they sit there for maybe two versions through, and I remember watching a three year old conduct them - the whole choir - which was wonderful, too. And people lie on the floor; there might be twenty people in the space, but they're all staring into somewhere, whether it's an interior space in their minds.


Strainchamps: We're talking about wonder in this hour; your work on this piece in particular seems to me to be all about creating an experience of wonder. Is that something you think about consciously when you're creating a piece?


Cardiff: I think wonderment in our work is something that we really concentrate on, because we love to experience it. And we make work so that we can feel it, and so many of our pieces have this sense - whether it's through trickery of technology, or playfulness - it gives you a sense of 'Wow, how did they do that?' or all of a sudden you realize you're in one space in your mind, and in the physical reality you're all in different spaces and your mind kind of goes through this point where it can't concentrate and so it goes into a state of wonderment, I think.


And that is very important to me because I'm almost political in my views that the art that I want to create should be transcendent.


Strainchamps: Is there something contradictory about setting out deliberately to try to manufacture wonder, or an experience of wonder? Because I think of the experience of wonder as a kind of cosmic gift.


Cardiff: Well I think there's so many different definitions of wonder, right? If it's the wonder that you get when you watch a magician; that's wonderment. But it's also… I was just in the Prado Museum in Madrid, and looking at The Paradise [sic] of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, and people were all standing around and just going 'How did someone create this world?'


So I think artists deliberately do that because we enjoy it, and I don't think wonderment, which comes naturally in the physical world of course, but I think it's quite fine if it's manufactured.






Strainchamps: We should talk about some of your other pieces. I mean, you've become really well known for the audio walks you've created all over the world. Will you tell me about the one in London's East End?


Cardiff: There's always a bit of a narrative behind some of the audio walks, and the narrative behind this is that this woman is invisible and lost in London. She's walking around, but she's listening to a tape recording she did herself from years ago. But you also hear the character - the woman - which is my voice, giving you instructions as you move around. And she's listening to her past voice.


[audio walk playing]


Strainchamps: But then you start embroidering; new stories come up, things happen, and after a while, honestly, I'm just sitting my office listening to this and I got this strange feeling that I wasn't entirely sure where I was.


Cardiff: Yeah, I think people get very much in a trance when they do the pieces. And the reason I try to have them at the right place and the right time is that things sync up, like I'll say 'There's a lime-green car parked across the street', and I knew that was a painter, Chris [sp?] apartment right there, and I knew he had a lime-green car, and it was quite often there. So when people were doing it, Chris told me later he looked out the window and he'd see people stop and just the look on their face was just 'Oh my God how can that car be there, and she knows it's there, and this is the past?'


So I'm manufacturing these kinds of synchronicities. I see them as how you put poetry together; you put images of sound.


Strainchamps: I'm curious about, out of all the media you can use - and you trained as a visual artist first - you use sound. Why is that? Do you feel that sound takes us places? Offers us something that the other senses don't?


Cardiff: Well definitely. When I started working with sound I just felt like 'Yes'; it felt just right. You can still work with visuals; you create the visuals in peoples' brains. For me it's a medium that can go into peoples' minds in a way that's not intellectual.


Strainchamps: I imagine viewers must respond very differently, and of course your work has been seen in many different countries; you've got installations up in Sweden and Brazil and Canada and all over the place. Do you find that people respond differently? You know, some people readier to play?


Cardiff: I definitely do, it's interesting that you say that, because we've had a lot of success in Germany. Germans have a huge sense of curiosity, and I think curiosity in the viewer, in the audience, is very important. We found that some pieces don't go over in America because of such a short attention span. People, when they go to museums sometimes, want the answer right away; they want something right away. They don't want to wait 20 minutes for a piece to unfold itself and then have to think about it, whereas a lot more I think in Europe people are much more open to that.


And I shouldn't say that generally because we've had lots of work in America, and the Americas. It's all been pretty successful. But I do notice when we have shows and there's New Yorkers coming in, you know, they're texting while they're listening to Forty Part Motet or something.




Strainchamps: That's a challenge to the magician in you; you're just going to have to try harder to stun us.


[audio walk playing]


Fleming: Janet Cardiff is an installation, sound, and video artist. You can hear her uncut conversation with Anne Strainchamps on our website. That's ''

Comments for this interview

Spem in Allium (Leslie Caplan, 09/20/2013 - 2:28pm)

I was at the Metropolitan Museum some years ago, heard Tallis being sung somewhere in the music, followed the sound and ended up in the installation of Spem in Allium. I was ENCHANTED by it and spent the entire afternoon there, listening to the music, moving from spot to spot to hear different singers and different parts and listening in on all the conversations taking place BETWEEN the takes. It was one of, if not my MOST favorite museum experience of my life!

thank you! (tamsen, 01/22/2013 - 10:11am)

I have been a fan of Janet Cardiff's since i did her east end walk many years ago. This is a wonderful interview with her. As a New Yorker who just enjoyed her installation at the Park Armory...she's so right about NYers not being very good at patience. Bill Viola's work also unfolds similarly. Good things come to those who wait. and wonder!