Sound and Documentary in Cardiff and Miller's Pandemonium

Words Drawn in Water and Synchronic History

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. [234] 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. [235] 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 Showboat, 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 Showboat’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. [236] The walk samples Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” Jimmie 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.” [237] 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 she meditates on James Smithson’s bones floating across the ocean and offers the user a drink from the water fountain. [238] The narrative also leaps forwards in time midway along the walk when Cardiff’s observations seem to time-lapse into a dystopian future. [239] 

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). [240] 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. 

Words Drawn in Water never convinces as time travel, nor does it mean to. The narrative is partly a pretense to keep the user in close proximity with the artist’s sonic presence. The trompe l’oreille illusion depends on, “how our body reacts to the intimacy of this other body layered on top.” [241] Using sound, Cardiff convinces our bodies to adopt her gait and mirror her breathing. We begin not only to see and hear but also to feel, both in terms of sensuous tactility and embodied emotion. She makes our nervous systems receptive and malleable to sensory experiences and their affects. In this way, the walk primes the user’s body for interpersonal contact, much in the manner ascribed by Leja to trompe l’oeil paintings[242] Cardiff’s walks trigger this intimate affect not by palpably rendered things, but through invisible waves of sound. By the end of the walk, the listener is charged with longing for intimate, interpersonal communion for which the only target is an ambiguous, personal narrative about a symbolically-laden, ideologically-charged public place. 

The walk layers documentary fragments and paradigmatic associations with past, present, and future topographies of the site. Making sense of these elusive materials is a possible outlet for the somatic desire to connect. More than a pretense, the fictional narrative of time travel suggests concrete ways in which interrelation across time and distance could be, in fact, quite plausible and near at hand like the droplet of water that migrated from the nineteenth century into your mouth. Given the pun with James Smithson’s surname, the wedge of sky-reflecting mirror likely references Robert Smithson’s 1969 essay Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan and related artworks in which he attempted to disintegrate nineteenth-century narratives of progress and positivism. [243] As Jennifer Roberts argues, Smithson’s mirrors, “act literally to decompose or to ruin the illusion of continuous space,” subverting a perspectival system structured to control and systemize spatial, sensory, and thereby social relationships. [244]

Cardiff invokes Smithson not only in stream-of-consciousness word play but, crucially, to invoke his efforts at “cancelling historical time” by embracing a crystalline model of ruin and renewal in which history does not unfold in a linear progression but enfolds in its own dynamic, enveloping, cyclical processes. [245] Like Smithson, Cardiff and Miller offer a robust critique of models of history that would configure documentary evidence into a totalizing and anthropocentric teleology of progress. Words Drawn in Water makes an argument that time does not recede irrevocably along a singular trajectory into the past. It sets out to demonstrate how past and future events suspend dynamically together in specific material environments grounded more or less fleetingly in a particular time and place. [246] Cardiff and Miller train the percipient’s awareness on the multiple, ongoing histories—some private and some public, some documented and some intuited or imagined—that compress at any given moment within a bounded physical environment. The percipient is invited, through the audio walk’s trompe l’oreille illusion, to sense residual presences of other sensing bodies in the physical substance of that given environment, whether through consideration of visible objects or invisible forces. These sensations trigger desire for intimate connection which invite the user to reflect in a more careful and sustained way on her own complex relationship to that place in which she is briefly enmeshed. Acts of memory take shape not as some retrospective projection into a separate past, then, but through sustained corporeal meditation on the sensible substances of a particular, experiential present.  

Pandemonium continued these efforts by Cardiff and Miller to create an experience of feeling so close to someone else, “that you’re really there.” Its live, sonic assault absorbed the percipient’s body in an intimate encounter with Eastern State Penitentiary’s physical environment, replete as it was with historical materials that were also concretely of that place in the present. Cardiff and Miller used the conventions of programme music combined with the suggestive power of the Romantic ruin to reel percipients into an entertaining illusion that cellblock seven was haunted by ghosts who reenacted a fantastical version of their own histories. While the ghostly illusion was unconvincing, its intriguing mechanics sustained the percipient’s attention. All the while, noise triggered forceful, sensory response until its sheer volume pulled the rug out from the illusion altogether, landing the percipient concretely in the here and now. At the same time, the artists loaded the composition with signifiers from the history of noise music. This spectrum of noise—alarmingly loud and whisperingly soft, harbinger of conflict and of congregation—penetrated the percipient’s body, revealing it to be continuous with the cellblock’s acoustical space and material history. 

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