Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
Berlin is fortunate at present to be hosting not one but two separate artworks by pioneering Canadian experimental duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. They are Murder of Crows, a polyphonic sound installation currently housed in the cavernous Hamburger Bahnhof; and Ghost Machine, a hugely affecting and weirdly unnerving interactive video piece set in the Hebbel-Theater, a building which itself becomes the unlikely star of the show.
The image above gives an impression of the visual experience of Murder of Crows – an arrangement of 90-odd speakers sitting in chairs, placed on stands and dangling at various heights from the ceiling – but can do nothing to communicate either the vastness of the space or the grandeur of the aural assault that make this installation a must-see.
It builds on an earlier piece, The Forty Part Motet (2001), a circular configuration of forty speakers, from each of which a single voice in a choir sings out. The polyphony is multiplied further with this work, in which a 30-minute audio sequence includes spooky snatches of a concerto, a folkie number (sung beautifully by Cardiff), the bellowings of a possibly Russian male voice choir and, most dazzlingly, the wingbeats and frantic cawing of a flock of birds, which one presumes is the murder of crows of the title. At this point, the speakers hanging overhead come into their own – the crow sounds bounce around the configuration, giving a realistic sense of a circling murder. It is faintly ominous, and utterly thrilling.
Having experienced that meisterwerk, we hopped immediately on an S-bahn to Kreuzberg, where the dynamic duo’s other piece is playing (until May). Ghost Machine, described as a “video narrative” or “video walk” by the artists, did not disappoint.
On arrival at the Hebbel-Theater, you are handed a camcorder hooked up to a set of headphones and directed to sit in a chair in the middle of the foyer, facing the entrance. You then press ‘play’ (the camcorder is for watching a pre-recorded film, rather than for recording) and are immediately unnerved by a view of the foyer, as seen from your present perspective. Janet Cardiff, who has sat here before you, begins a narration, instructing you to follow with your camera the film that will unfold. A mysterious and beautiful Asian woman then enters the theatre (in the film) and heads up one of the stairwells. Cardiff instructs you to follow her. And so begins a magical mystery tour of the theatre, winding through deserted corridors, up spiral staircases and out onto the stage itself.
I can’t reveal anything more about the film’s narrative without spoiling it. Suffice to say that much remains mysterious, you enjoy a moment of erotic frisson with the Asian figment, the artist introduces herself by way of a mirror, and you are left with an uncanny sense of having been co-opted into the unfolding drama.
Cardiff and husband Bures Miller have done an incredibly original thing with a theatre. You get to sit in your seat and watch a stage, sure enough. A visit to the theatre wouldn’t be complete without that. But this is not a play, and it achieves so much more than a play ever could.
The artists let you into the theatre’s secrets, its hidden crooks and crannies. Imagine staring at a stage and expecting to see yourself staring back. Or discovering that part of you that always wanted to perform.
It’s a bit like entering a funhouse or a hall of mirrors. On a mushroom trip.
Try not to miss it.