The first work of Janet Cardiff’s I encountered was Whispering Room. I entered a room at the Art Gallery of Ontario where a series of audio speakers mounted on thin metal stands emitted a soft murmur of conversation. As I got closer to each speaker, I could make out individual texts. At certain moments, my movement would trigger a projected image of a young girl in a red dress dancing in the woods.
It’s difficult to express my excitement in this room. I had the sensation of being in the middle of a film that was still being formulated; that was still in someone else’s mind. I was completely overwhelmed by the collision of technological artifacts—speakers, projectors, lights, wires—and narrative abstraction. I found myself drifting through the emotional residue of a personal trauma that was both immediate and distant, visceral yet disembodied.
Whispering Room was an experience of installation art as a forum for dramatic storytelling. It made me feel inspired, and at the same time frustrated by the constrictions of traditional film practice.
Atom Egoyan I often find it discouraging that no matter how radically a film may experiment with form, structure and visual texture, it’s ultimately presented to the viewer in an extremely formulaic way: on a projection screen or monitor. One of the things that excites me about your work is that you take your dramatic narratives off the screen and into streets and gardens. Your characters occupy our physical space. The degree of interaction is profoundly respectful, yet extremely invasive. Have we outgrown film and television screens?
Janet Cardiff I don’t think so. You could compare it to the longevity of the painting format. It’s a perfect “window” to escape into. The framing becomes invisible so you can see the message or the film without being sidetracked by an experimental format. However I agree that we’re in a time of change—there are all these crossovers now from filmmakers like yourself and artists like myself. Also, I think some of the audience is open to new stuff, because we’re a society accustomed to interacting much more than an audience of 30 years ago. For my work I do push the format; there is more of an immersing experience for the audience. With the audio walks I want people to be inside the filmic experience and have the real physical world as the constantly changing visuals of the screen. Every person will have a different experience of the piece depending on what happens around them or where and when they walk. I want the pieces to be disconcerting in several ways, so that the audience can’t just forget about their bodies for the duration of their involvement like we do in a film. But please don’t take away that flickering screen and those comfy seats, it’s nice to just relax and escape sometimes.
AE It’s interesting that you relate the idea of projection to a sense of physical comfort. Some of your most recent work, most notably The Paradise Institute, seems to contain a reference to the notion of home cinema, in its sensorial mimicry of the movie house experience. As we climb the stairs, we enter the illusion of being in a theater, we almost forget that we’re in an actual space that’s no bigger than a bedroom. I loved the simulation—the process of finding a seat, the hyper-real perspective of the distant screen, even the realistic balconies on the sides. As a cinephile, this was one of the most tantalizing virtual spaces I could imagine! While the work makes an explicit connection to the experience of being in a public space—an old theater full of people watching a movie—its actual physical scale, with seating for roughly 20 people, could be contained in someone’s basement. Have you ever been tempted to watch one of your favorite movies on DVD while seated in the installation of The Paradise Institute?
JC Actually, as soon as George Bures Miller, my collaborator, and I started to build it we intended to have our friends over to the studio to watch our favorite movies in our “own” theater but then time ran out before it had to be shipped to Venice. I hope some day we’ll have a house big enough to do that. We could show your film, Family Viewing, which would be really appropriate for that structure. I think you hit on something there with the idea that it’s not only about the comfort of the seats but that The Paradise Institute does have a weird public and private thing happening. The people with you in the balcony are in more of an exclusive and private space than all of the invisible, imagined people below, in the empty seats of the main theater.
AE When I saw The Paradise Institute at the Venice Biennale, there was a huge line of people waiting to get inside. When you’re in the next group of 15 to get in, you’re put into a roped-off “VIP” section, where you get to feel that you’ve finally made it. Then, as you enter the installation, you’re led to the last row of the balcony, which is the worst seat in the house! There’s a wonderful play between the contrast of privilege, marginalization and hierarchy that accompanies film events. Did you completely plan the outside part of the pavilion experience? Could you anticipate that the work was going to be so popular?
JC We knew there would be lines at Venice although we never imagined it would be so extreme. We did want to minimize the chaos involved in getting as many people through as fast as possible so one of the things that George and I thought about was the Disney World model of handling lines. If you’ve ever been there you know how some of the rides, like the outer space or flight simulator rides, have people enter into a structure into several rows from one side and then exit from the other side. That’s the most efficient way so that’s how we planned the main structure of the piece and how it would fit into the pavilion. George joked that we were making a “cinema simulator.” We also thought about how when you’re in a Disney line you think you’ve almost made it through the line and then all of a sudden you’re into yet another, different section of the line. They are really grand masters of the lineup. We also had the people tending the line echo a weird airline stewardess behavior, giving instructions about cell phones, and taking coats and bags and then directing people into the inner section. One thing that they started doing by themselves was to delegate team leaders for the two lines and accentuate the stewardess behavior, thus making the experience even more extreme in terms of a controlled situation. We decided that we liked that, that it was quite funny yet created a situation where each group could be personalized, as well as allowing for the subtexts that you mentioned. About the popularity of the piece, we really couldn’t predict how the piece would be viewed in a major art context like Venice. In the film world it’s good to be entertaining, but in the art world there is a certain bias against art that’s too accessible. It’s a fine line to negotiate. Some people are afraid that if it’s entertaining then somehow it can’t be serious enough to be real art. At events like Venice it’s also so much about spin. We were happy that the people who saw it the first days understood the complexity of the piece—that it isn’t just fun to experience, but that it also has other layers investigating perception and cinematic theory.
AE It’s great that you created your own film for The Paradise Institute, with its broken momentary narratives—a cabaret singer, a nurse and patient . . . There’s been a real trend lately for artists to use clips or famous scenes from preexisting work. I’ve felt that a certain type of installation has become too reflexive, too much of an inside joke for cinephiles. Are we coming to the end of that?
JC I think we are. It must be amusing to you as a filmmaker to see artists playing with films as if they were raw collage material. In the last decade artists and curators have had such a love affair with the cinema—not so much as producers, but as educated viewers creating a type of didactic intervention. It’s about stealing beauty under the guise of deconstruction. The filmic investigations that interest me have been ones such as Steve McQueen’s film that replicated the falling house from Buster Keaton. That’s about really paying homage to Keaton but also about McQueen having the guts to put himself in the precarious position of the filmmaker.
George and I never thought of using pre-existing footage. We had to shoot our own not only because that’s what we’re interested in but because the piece was a 3-D narrative experience. The film was just one element written into the script. Part of the story was the audio that went on around the listener and the relationship of the wooden structure to the content of the video and audio. One of my favorite parts is when it appears that people are banging on the outside of the structure itself and it makes the audience physically paranoid, as well as affecting the interpretation of the image on screen. After producing it, I have to say our respect for filmmakers went way up. Sometimes I think the real reason some artists use preexisting stuff is that it’s way easier than shooting it yourself.
AE The other huge attraction to using preexisting footage is that you don’t have to deal with the political structure of film production. The reason I find myself so interested in installation work these days is that it allows me to address the more formal aspects of my work without needing to explain to distributors why masses of people would want to see something. You mentioned an earlier film of mine, Family Viewing, which I now regard as a dramatic installation that uses a screen and 16-millimeter projector. I’m often torn between the sense of concentration that a gallery viewer brings to their experience of watching something in a dedicated space, and the need to reach out to a larger audience. In the past decade, a number of artists have tried making feature films (Rebecca Horn, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, et cetera) with varying degrees of success. Are you drawn to this format? And if so, why?
JC I would be drawn to feature films if I could have more control in the presentation, especially the sound system. I just saw Mulholland Drive last night for the second time in a small theater here in Berlin. It wasn’t as good as the first time (which was in a better cinema) because the sound system was deficient. It really showed me how much the film gets influenced by the soundtrack. One thing about presentations in the art world is that if you want to you can totally control how your piece will be viewed, which speakers you will use, et cetera. Some artists don’t really care about the final presentation but it is super important to George and me. There is a lot of freedom in the art world and a lot of openness to alternative approaches to cinematic pieces, but I think for some artists, including myself, the attraction to the film world is about getting access to a larger audience and even more than that, the poetics of the space. Cinemas, especially the larger ones, are just so cool. I have ideas for films but I don’t think I could ever deal with the “political” structure—as you call it—of producing one. It’s too much of a foreign language to me. One other major problem I could foresee is that only the best or first-run theaters have really good sound systems and the type of work I would make would probably not get to show there. It’d be relegated to the rep theaters, or every place my work was shown would have to be retrofitted with 20 new speakers. Not very practical, and it doesn’t really work with the established distribution system does it?
AE Yes and no. Getting back to the idea of home theaters, the sound quality you can get in your basement with a decent surround system is amazing. I completely agree that sound is an essential element of film projection, and that a lot of repertory cinemas have inferior sound. But there’s nothing more annoying than being in a first-run theater and listening to the ambient sound of people eating popcorn, or whispering to themselves. You deal with this phenomenon in your work. It’s amazing how you allow discrepant noise to infiltrate your track. Do you actually find yourself listening to other audience members when you’re watching a movie—allowing that to become part of your sonic experience in a John Cage sort of way—or do you find extraneous noise as irritating as I do?
JC I do find it extremely irritating, but also funny. Especially the slow opening of a cellophane bag behind you, when the person opening it is trying to be quiet. Crackle, crackle, pause, crackle, pause. I feel like turning around and saying. “Just rip the thing open, okay?” For The Paradise Institute we use these moments intentionally. I think this sort of subtext is as interesting as what could be seen as the main content of the piece, like the line politics you were referring to earlier. People get really sick of the woman sitting next to them (that we’ve put on the soundtrack) eating the popcorn or talking because they want to listen to the movie, but her comments and actions are integral to the screen plot. Many people told me they got angry at other audience members when a woman answered her cell phone, because the attendants had asked them to turn their phones off before entering. The cell phone call was on the soundtrack. Why is that interesting? One reason is because it’s just plain fun to fool with people’s perceptions but also I think because it asks questions about how tightly we’ve ordered our world and how strict our rules are even when we’re in an art piece.
We wanted The Paradise Institute to be about the whole experience of the cinema including the background noise in the balcony, audience comments, et cetera. It’s about undermining what people expect to see at a film and also undermining ourselves as filmmakers in a comedic way. For example, in the intimate scene with the nurse kissing the bound patient, when someone behind you (on the soundtrack) jokes “that’s excellent nursing,” it pokes fun at the film but we’re also in on the joke. It comes back to what we were saying about format as well. People really don’t want the format disturbed. This is what John Cage did, he frustrated people’s attachment to the established consensus of what music was. As a culture we are used to agreeing to be silent when listening to a film, agreeing as a whole audience that it’s not appropriate for other audience members to spontaneously start singing or making comments out loud (unless it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show). I’ve heard that this isn’t true in all cultures, that in some Italian movie houses there is a lot of commenting and noise. In Playhouse, which is a similar piece only with a single opera singer onstage and one viewer in the balcony, people get really annoyed because I have the audience laugh at the singer for no apparent reason. I also mix a filmic detective plot into an operatic setting. These things really make many people uncomfortable; they feel bad for the singer being laughed at, they feel cheated when there is no suitcase under the chair when the character beside them has said there is. One viewer told me that when she found herself seated in an opera house in her street clothes she felt annoyed because she was underdressed. I think this all means that we take our play very seriously.
AE The viewers take the work seriously because you are able to completely disorient their usual frame of reference. They have to listen to the directions and information you provide, because they would otherwise be completely lost. That’s what’s remarkable about the walking pieces. They lead the participants through a physical path they might be familiar with, then impose an entirely new set of expectations through a sense—hearing—that we filter most unconsciously. [In Cardiff’s audio walks, the viewer is given audio cues—directions, novelistic descriptions and Cardiff’s blissful voice layered with binaural, environmental sounds, as he or she walks a designated route through a Louisiana forest, the high plateaus of Lethbridge, Canada or the London haunts of Jack the Ripper.] Your work speaks of the permanent disconnect most of us in the world live with—the split between location and the events that surround us. Media gives us images and a sense of things that are happening far outside of our bodies. Are you searching for a way to reunite these two parallel realities?
JC I think many people long for a more synesthetic relationship to the world. I’ve read that babies don’t have the same sensual differentiation that adults do, in that visual and auditory stimulation create the same response for them, and that they hear, feel and see odors as much as smell and see sounds. Perhaps when the differentiation between senses finally develops in a child there is also a new alienation between their body and the world, this split that you refer to between our inside thoughts and our outside perceptions, between location and events. I do think that unconsciously the walking pieces are a strange attempt to join our separate worlds through a mediated one, to create a symbiotic relationship between the participant and my voice and body but also to heighten the senses so that you can experience or be part of the environment in which you’re walking. Walkmans have always been criticized for creating alienation, but when I first discovered the walking binaural technique I was attracted to the closeness of the sound and the audio bridge between the visual, physical world and my body. To me it was about connection rather than alienation. I think it’s partially because the audio on the CD meshes with the audio in the “real” environment but it’s also because sound does come into your unconscious more directly than visual information.
But there is something else that connects you to the environment: the narrative information, which is always mixed with a layer of description. “There’s a green door to your right, turn left at this corner, around the post. Watch out for the bike!” Some of what I say reinforces what you see in front of you so that my description parallels the voice inside your own head: “Yes there is a green door, yes there is a corner, I’ll turn left.” You are lulled into a complacency but then Bam! there is a disjunction: “Where is the bike?” I’m not sure why this technique interests me, but I think it works to push and pull people in and out of the experience. People that work in hypnosis have told me this is a trance technique, so perhaps that’s why it works.
AE In much the same way, most commercial films are “didactic tours” through different genres and formulas. I used to feel that sitting in a cinema when the theater darkened and the screen lit up was to be in the presence of magic. Psychological and environmental factors could combine to create an openness to wonder and suggestion, what Amos Vogel called an “unlocking of the unconscious.” The cinema could be “a shrine at which modern rituals rooted in atavistic memories and subconscious desires are acted out in darkness and seclusion from the outer world.” This seems a far cry from the experience most people have in modern multiplex screenings. The problem seems to be that it is almost impossible to forget where you are. There is a peripheral ambient light in most of these places, the overwhelming presence of commercial enterprise. The film experience should be physically total, isolating and hallucinatory. Is this only possible in a contemporary gallery setting?
JC Your description of the theater—an openness to wonder and suspension—I love that. In several cyberpunk novels there are perfect devices that block out the world completely so that you jack into a virtual world, even your senses collaborating on this level. I think contemporary cinema is one stage of a long journey in which people have been attempting to create virtual worlds. I guess it started with cave drawings and continued through linear perspective in Renaissance paintings, then into photography and film. I think my video walks and installation pieces are a continuation of this obsession.
Back to your question about the art gallery; I think some artists attempt to have complete control of the presentation of their artworks and museum installations in order to ensure a concentrated, isolating and magical experience. I’d say about two percent of installations in museums are successful in this way. Perhaps because it’s the arena that I work in I see all the faults but I don’t think the contemporary gallery space is a perfect solution. I’m waiting for the personal transport chambers or jack-in pods, like in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.
AE Any particular significance to the fact that the solution might come from a fellow Canadian, such as Cronenberg, or perhaps even Canadians in general? Aren’t you suggesting that our bodies might eventually become the medium, the message and everything in between?
JC Yes, for sure. Also I do think Canadians have a special relationship to personal media as we are a nation of people cut off through distance and weather as well as being attached to the largest pop culture machine in the world. Media is a first language for us, but at the same time we have an ironic or intellectual distance from it by being outsiders. We need to push the boundaries or else no one will notice what we do. You’ve hit on it with the body being the medium. Our Western investigations in virtuality over the centuries have been about getting closer and closer to the experience of the photographic image, bigger screens, more immersive sound, until as an audience we want to go further and be inside them with our bodies. The pieces that you did and George and I did at Venice, as well as my video walks, are attempts at narrowing this gap. The problem is that our desires as producers and consumers are way ahead of the technology and formats available. I’ll put in an order right now though for a “feelie TV” and maybe it’ll come for my 80th birthday. I bet I could use another body, even if it’s virtual, by then.
Atom Egoyan is an acclaimed writer and director. His most recent films include Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey, and a screen adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. He has also written and directed the operatic works Salome, Elsewhereless, and Dr. Ox’s Experiment. Egoyan has received five Genies, the Grand Prix and the International Critics’ Award at Cannes and two Academy Award nominations. He lives in Toronto.