In 2003 a crucial shift occurred in how the Canadian artists Janet Cardiff (b.1957) and George Bures Miller (b.1960) created their multimedia installations. In Berlin Files (2003) they began using ambisonics to create a spatial soundscape comparable to, but sharply contrasted from, the binaural sound of their earlier audio walks, video walks and installations. Whereas binaural audio uses two microphones to record what each ear hears separately and thus creates a three-dimensional sonic sphere that can only be fully realised through headphones, ambisonics is an open field in which the listener perceives a multidirectional sound within their bodily spatial orientation of a room or space. In Berlin Files, ambisonics emulated the intimacy of binaural audio, but rather than relying on headphones, it situated the audience within a shifting sound field across a suite of loudspeakers, which were precisely arranged within the exhibition space.
This article examines the work of Cardiff and Miller made in the 2000s and highlights the significance of new media and spatial practices. It proceeds from the artists’ carefully worded description of Berlin Files as a ‘spatial environment’. This term recalls many precedents in art history: Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau (c.1923–37), Lucio Fontana’s merging of painting, sculpture and architecture in his Spatial Environments (1948–68) and Allan Kaprow’s ‘environments’ and concept of ‘total art’, in which he sought to transition the viewer into an active state. Following this lineage of emphasising space in installation art, Cardiff and Miller began using the term to stress the physicality of sound in their works. They implemented a new spatial sound and tasked themselves with creating shifts in ‘different types of space’. For the artist duo, the spatial capability of sound and how it impacts the viewing experience of the work was the impetus for its creation, as opposed to the more typically discussed cinematic and narrative qualities.
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