Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller's Pandemonium

Recovering Pandemonium

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. [9] Its eleven acres are enclosed by imposing perimeter walls. [10] 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.” [11] 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. [12]
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. [13] 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.” [14] 
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.” [15] 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. [16] Its selective restoration as a “stabilized ruin”—a curious, late-twentieth-century adaptation of a Romantic conceit—rendered it accessible for tours in 1994. [17] 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. [18]
Visitors more than likely heard Pandemonium before reaching cellblock seven. [19] Parts of the composition are terribly loud. [20] 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.


This page has paths:

This page references: