Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller's Pandemonium

A Haunting Narrative

Cardiff and Miller do seem to have conceived Pandemonium as a program of core episodes, each with distinct narrative associations. [87] Torchia, who observed the work in progress, charts six movements: [88] 

1: The first begins with “what sounds like a knock at the door . . . [placing] the listener in the role of a third, silent party, perhaps a prison guard, monitoring a coded conversation.” [89] The artists’ promotional materials encourage this communicative interpretation: “Tip tap tip tap. Is that the sound of dripping or is it someone in a cell tapping a code on the wall?” [90]

2: Torchia delineates a second episode in the free-form sequence of environmental sounds that underscore the entropic conditions of the building-as-ruin. [91] Diehl described the sounds that follow as a single onslaught: “. . . fits of rhythmic, almost musical sequences . . . [that] resemble African percussion and climax in total cacophony—pandemonium—a prison riot.” [92]

3: Torchia charts two militant passages bisected by a dance beat: “A violent explosion of gunshots . . . proceeds to a dirge-like march composed of unison blows” . . . 

4: . . . followed by “the most musical and jubilant passage of the piece, a beat that sounds as if it were sampled from a rave” . . . 

5: . . . until at last, “there is no mistaking the uproar of a mounting riot . . . a frightening chaos, alarming in its scale and amplitude . . . ” [93] 

6: Torchia counts a sixth and final episode in the “conspicuous pause” before Pandemonium begins again, a prolonged silence that makes indigenous noises audible. [94] 
On its surface, Pandemonium set up an auditory illusion that ghosts were haunting the space. Torchia’s episodes help to crystallize a story line borne out by allusive percussive textures and the associative power of the penitentiary. Culture blogger Libby Rosof reported, “It wasn’t hard to imagine a story line for the noises—enforced marches, pounding heartbeats, tapped communications and beaten frustrations.” [95] According to Diehl, “the sense that these are instruments wielded by ghosts is overwhelming . . . the piece is a palpable evocation of the boredom, frustration and irresistible need to communicate that were no doubt felt by the unlucky participants in this idealistic penal experiment.” [96] Pandemonium played with the same powers of suggestion that draw dozens of “paranormal investigation teams” and television programs like America’s Ghost Hunters to Eastern State Penitentiary every year. [97] The museum itself exploits the narrative of haunting in an annual Halloween fundraiser[98]

​In her essay “Hearing History: Storytelling and Collective Subjectivity in Cardiff and Miller’s Pandemonium” published in 2008, art historian Adair Rounthwaite reads Pandemonium - through Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and Walter Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” (1936) - as an attempt to, “[use] sound to create a new narrative for the prison’s history . . . [to] reactivate . . . and ‘actualize [it] in the present.” [99] Rounthwaite argues that Pandemonium makes visitors self-conscious of the limits of vision-dominated efforts to understand its history. Pandemonium’s demand for phenomenological engagement reorients visitors. It “hijacks . . . [the] process of narrative association . . . that occurs naturally when entering the cellblock”—we can presume she refers here to the notion of haunting—and transforms it into a collective, aural exploration “that makes the story a part of [the listener’s] own experience.” [100] To Rounthwaite, Pandemonium’s robotic beaters are insensible witnesses of the unknowability of history, which is paradoxically dependent on acts of witnessing to be absorbed into collective consciousness. [101] While I agree that Pandemonium invites physical engagement with the site and triggers a sense of interconnection, I propose that Pandemonium’s particular uses of sound do not function to reactivate lost histories of Eastern State Penitentiary so much as to underscore its force and potentialities in the present.

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