“Brace yourself,” Janet Cardiff said to me politely. “Here comes the big boom.”
It was an overcast Tuesday evening in Kassel, Germany, and I was sitting in a cramped, cluttered trailer at the edge of a forest with Cardiff and George Bures Miller, her husband and collaborator of nearly 30 years, trying to make myself heard over the sound of artillery fire. The idyll of the twilight woods around us was being severely compromised, just then, by what might reasonably have passed for the soundtrack of the end of the world: the droning of airplanes and the shouting of soldiers and the thunder of bombshells detonating on every side. Miller and Cardiff were sipping Earl Grey tea and observing me with quiet amusement. “Kind of like being a war correspondent, isn’t it?” Miller said with a grin.
“What comes before and after, though, is just as important,” Cardiff added. “The other sounds, I mean, and the quiet between. It’s important that you get that sense of peace.”
Cardiff and Miller are artists who have become known for their work with sound, and the woods of Kassel’s normally sedate Karlsaue Park are home to their latest installation, “Forest (for a thousand years),” one of two pieces featured in Documenta, the twice-a-decade survey of contemporary art that is arguably the most lavish group show on the planet. In visual terms, “Forest” barely registers as an artwork: 18 shoebox-size speakers and 4 subwoofers arranged discreetly in the underbrush, with tree stumps to sit on. The piece depends on Cardiff and Miller’s use of a technology known as Ambisonics, developed in the 1970s by an Oxford mathematician, which creates a three-dimensional sound field out of whatever noises, vibrations or explosions they have recorded.
“Having this trailer makes us feel a bit like filmmakers,” Cardiff said. “But we aren’t filmmakers, even when we’re working with video. Sound feels more directly tied to memory, and to dreams, which are important to our — ”
Before she could finish, the big boom arrived. It was loud enough to make the trailer shudder, but what made me clutch at the corners of the table wasn’t simply its volume. Like the hundreds of other noises out of which “Forest” has been fashioned — the cawing of ravens, the hiss of wind, radio static, laughter, gunfire — the explosion felt as real to me as my own heartbeat.
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