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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.