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darkened movie theater
darkened movie theater

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Muriel Lake Incident, 1999, wood, audio, video projection and steel, 72 1/2 × 90 1/4 × 62 inches. Image courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

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.

House on fire

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Paradise Institute, 2001, audio, video, mixed media.

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.

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