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- 1 2015-08-16T21:23:08-07:00 Cecilia Wichmann 570c894159ad998517c62537a60758b7099e0270 All Images Cecilia Wichmann 11 All images plain 2015-09-30T22:35:43-07:00 Cecilia Wichmann 570c894159ad998517c62537a60758b7099e0270
- 1 2015-08-16T23:22:25-07:00 Cecilia Wichmann 570c894159ad998517c62537a60758b7099e0270 Words Drawn in Water Cecilia Wichmann 1 Content related to Janet Cardiff's 2005 audio walk Words Drawn in Water plain 2015-08-16T23:22:26-07:00 Cecilia Wichmann 570c894159ad998517c62537a60758b7099e0270
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Pandemonium for its percipients in a peripatetic confrontation with Eastern State Penitentiary. Located in Philadelphia’s downtown Cherry Hill neighborhood, the site was an operational prison from 1829 through 1971 then abandoned and reopened as a prison museum in 1994.  Its eleven acres are enclosed by imposing perimeter walls.  The penitentiary faces Fairmont Avenue, a broad east-west thoroughfare that turns to parkway half a mile due west along the Schuylkill River, where it winds past two other stalwarts in Philadelphia’s modernizing city infrastructure—the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmont Water Works. One enters the penitentiary at its formidable south wall, a “severe and ordered” surface, 30-feet high and built of “long, very carefully jointed and coursed stone.”  Massive scale and medieval-inspired details like crenelated turrets suggest both fortress and ecclesiastical complex, “[injecting] notes of the heroic and sublime” consonant with its Romantic period conception. Within the walls, 15 cellblocks, constructed piecemeal between 1822 and 1959, reveal themselves gradually. From the prison yard, the visitor enters the outer limit of a cellblock and traverses its length to a large octagonal space. Here the penitentiary’s radial plan becomes suddenly clear. Cellblocks extend from this central observation room, like spokes on a wheel. Free of partitions, the hub provides sightlines down the central axes of seven cellblocks original to architect John Haviland’s (1792–1852) plan. Haviland conceived this design to promote, “watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation,” for the purpose of administering an especially hygienic panopticon.  Cellblock seven, where Pandemonium held court, is the last built under Haviland’s supervision in 1836 and, “arguably the most visually dramatic block at Eastern State Penitentiary.” Barrel-vaulted like a cathedral, cellblock seven is 356 feet long, 30 feet high, and crowned by three colossal skylights. 131 cells flank a central aisle at ground level and in recessed upper galleries. According to Cardiff, the artists chose this space for its “high arched ceilings, two storeys of cells and beautiful skylights.”  Cells repeat one after another in parallel rows, facing across an aisle. Narrow, rectilinear doorframes echo the orderly balusters of upper gallery railings. A balcony stretches between second-story catwalks, its sweeping vista culminating in a rounded, vertical window above the outer door, a luminous recapitulation of the cellblock’s overall form. The block appears perfectly symmetrical, partitioned into equal, isolated units much as the individual person within was to be smoothed and reformed body and mind to the civic ensemble. Order now crumbles at the level of the unit, however; inside, each cell is a picture of material disintegration.Being in the space is only obliquely suggestive of prisoners’ experiences. The site instead provides a visual record of ways in which history folds in on itself. The air is cool and damp, stilled by the museum’s conventional hush made yet more solemn by the subject of incarceration. When operations were suspended in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary was left to decay until the late 1980s.  Its selective restoration as a “stabilized ruin”—a curious, late-twentieth-century adaptation of a Romantic conceit—rendered it accessible for tours in 1994.  Now layers of paint peel and plaster flakes from walls. Dust and odd remnants of furniture co-mingle in the cells, left over from multiple periods in the site’s 142 years as a dwelling. Cells are left in disrepair or selectively restored to approximate appearances at certain decades. Didactic wall panels mediate the visitor’s interpretation, as does “The Voices of Eastern State” audio tour, included in admission, with its blend of documentary detail and sensational information about celebrity inmates and the site’s use as a film set. 
Visitors more than likely heard Pandemonium before reaching cellblock seven.  Parts of the composition are terribly loud.  One might enter the corridor at any point in the sixteen-minute loop, beckoned by its sounds or following a tour route. How to attend, from which vantage and for how long, were decisions largely up to the individual. One person might stand transfixed through multiple cycles, at the entrance to the block or deep within the space. Another might wander up and down the cellblock for one full cycle, turn immediately to leave, or come and go freely, listening at a slight remove. The visual effect of the cellblock is so powerfully stunning, moreover, that taking it in may have, at first, overwhelmed efforts to listen. Pandemonium involved not only listening and looking but also moving the body and feeling vibrations of sound pass from the ground through the feet and through the air to one’s skin and hairs. These many simultaneous modes of sensing the artwork would have been impossible fully to disentangle even when they conveyed conflicting information.
Words Drawn in Water
Cardiff’s audio walks layer documentary-style testimony about a particular historical site into this trompe l’oreille situation. Words Drawn in Water (33 minutes, iPod shuffle) guides users from the Hirshhorn Museum along the Mall to the Smithsonian Castle and Freer Gallery.  Similarly to Wall’s photographs, the audio track achieves great verisimilitude through binaural recording even as its narrator—voiced by Cardiff—refuses to assert fact. Addressing the user conspiratorially (“I want us to walk now—get up and go to the left”), she persistently hedges the credibility of her information, issuing caveats that each idea is something she ‘thinks she remembers’ or ‘may have heard somewhere.’ Trust is further complicated by the deliberately blurry relation of the narrator persona to Cardiff’s own autobiography.Interspersed with this direct address are field interviews Cardiff recorded in Washington, DC.  Their function as documentary evidence is obscured by their subjects’ semi-anonymity: a man, perhaps a guard, humorously tells Cardiff about the commission of Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac (1891–1898, cast 1965–1966); a women, purportedly a fifth-generation, DC-resident, talks about her grandfather, an African American laborer listed in a directory of DC property owners; a man, who seems to be a docent, explicates Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1884–1889, cast 1953–1959); another man, apparently a veteran, describes his reaction to the representation of horror on the faces of figures in a new war memorial; a man and woman discuss a third party’s plans to move back to California after struggling to find a job. Each recording loads auditory signals about the speaker’s age, race, and relation to Washington, DC, yet renders them impossible to verify. Personal, narrative fragments surface and fade, leaving the user to decide what, if any, message they deliver about the site.Words Drawn in Water also includes found or reenacted footage. A rich bass-baritone performance of Ol’ Man River frames the walk at beginning and end. The solo from the musical Show Boat, which debuted on Broadway in 1927, is sung with pathos from the perspective of Joe, a formerly-enslaved man now working as a stevedore. Paul Robeson (1898–1976) portrayed this role iconically on stage and in the 1936 film. In later performances, Robeson subverted Show Boat’s sentimentalizing racial stereotype and empowered the song as protest. Cardiff’s narrator tells of her mother’s devotion to the star and memories of his concerts. She seems indirectly to reference the performer’s 1940s appearances in Toronto and Windsor, Ontario, in solidarity with Canada’s communist party and Ford Motors strikers.  The walk samples Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream" speech, Jimmy Stewart’s coded anti-Vietnam War monologue as Charlie Anderson in the 1965 Hollywood Western Shenandoah, a cowboys-and-indians skirmish from the 1960s television series Daniel Boone, and American news commentators circa 2004 discussing the then-ongoing Iraq War. The audio track layers numerous sound effects: applause, rain, water birds, helicopters, Native American drums and chanting, cavalry, fireworks, and bags unzipping for security. Field interviews, found footage, and effects might cohere into a sonic litany of ecological and social injustices figured by the National Mall, meditating on their divergences from purported national ideals, if not presented by so transparently unreliable a narrator.
Cardiff embeds this reality-based material in an imaginative narrative of time travel. The motif of water structures time as fluid and synchronic, while making sumptuous appeals to all five senses. After the opening strains of Ol’ Man River, Cardiff’s persona brings up James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s (1834–1903) Thames River “Nocturnes” (1870s) and directs the user’s attention to the massive fountain at the core of the cylindrical Hirshhorn building (1966–1974), remarking:It’s strange to think about, but a molecule from that river back then could be in this fountain now. Winding its way down the drain, through the pipes on its way to the Potomac River. Next year that same molecule could be in an apple you’ll eat. Thoughts and memories are like that too . . . connecting from one time to another and from one person to another. She leads the user to another fountain in the sunken sculpture garden, up along the Mall where she recalls a visit in pouring rain to the Vietnam Memorial, then into the Smithsonian Castle where, at the crypt of its patron, she meditates on James Smithson’s bones floating across the ocean and offers the user a drink from the water fountain.  The narrative also leaps forwards in time midway along the walk when Cardiff’s observations seem to time-lapse into a dystopian future. The climax of the tour begins as Cardiff’s narrator pauses in front of the Freer Gallery. There she remembers having felt disoriented by a small piece of mirror she saw lodged in the sidewalk:For a second I thought it was a bit of sky sunk into the earth.Inside the museum, past another fountain, a formidable Kongorikishi figure, and Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Battersea Reach (1870–1875), the walk concludes in Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–1877).  Here the sound quality changes altogether, dampened and interiorized through the effect of binaural recording. Time travel seems to materialize as Cardiff’s voice describes the artist at work in the room’s original location, home of shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland. She keys this description to all the user’s senses—smells of paint and burning coal, a soothing promise of warm tea, and the striking of a match to light a cigarette. She guides the user out an illusory front door into London rain and abruptly bids goodbye.