2. Editorial & AV Portfolio: Margot Douaihy



    Aural exhibition by Janet Cardiff marks a military chapel’s rebirth.

    by Margot Douaihy

    Union Square, 9am. To your right, a truck idles so rough your spleen quivers. To your left, a woman belts an aria for money. In front of you (or is it behind?)—a cascade of car alarms, horns, sirens, and the shrill baying of a beagle. For some New Yorkers, headphones aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity. Muting cacophony on demand is City Survival 101.

    Canadian artist Janet Cardiff investigates sensorial dynamics like these, specifically the interplay of sound, physicality, and malleability of perception. Her immersive artwork, often made with her partner and husband George Bures Miller, has won laurels such as the Millennium Prize and La Biennale di Venezia Special Award. Now “The Forty Part Motet” (2001), perhaps Cardiff’s most famous acoustic high jinks, is beguiling listeners in Rockaway!, a free public arts festival in Queens. The festival, sponsored by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, was conceived by MoMA PS1’s Director, Klaus Biesenbach, in collaboration with Patti Smith. This showcase is celebrating the reopening of Fort Tilden—a former Army garrison—and the ongoing recovery of the Rockaway Peninsula after Hurricane Sandy-related damage.

    "The Forty Part Motet" is a crowd favorite wherever it travels (20-plus cities since its debut), but in Fort Tilden’s military chapel—with its narrative of rebirth—startling new complexities are revealed.


    Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001) shown at The Cloisters museum and gardens. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wilson Santiago)


    HEAR & NOW

    Cardiff’s canon is varied in medium—from vertiginous audio walks to a hand-built cinema—but anchored in inventive applications of technology. Simultaneously exposed and carefully integrated, Cardiff’s technology is both the centerpiece of and backdrop to her action, and her applications are critical to her process. In her site-specific audio walks such as “In Real Time” (1999) and “Her Long Black Hair” (2004) the journey becomes the destination as the listener walks with the voices and musings of unreliable narrators. Each audio walk opens a portal into an oneiric soundscape of scripted and diagetic sound. The ephemeral quality is enhanced by the multi-sensory nature of the art: you won’t remember your route, nor care to. All that matters is the moment-to-moment experience of the aural lost and found.

    Cardiff and Miller have also created high-definition video installations that further examine the relationship between sound and drama, particularly the psychological impact of surround sound. In “The Berlin Files” (2004), sound itself is an unstable character that lurks and morphs, like driving through sudden fog, elevating the sense of foreboding.


    Most of Cardiff’s artworks share innovative technology designs, but “The Forty Part Motet” channels the particularly transformative power of sound. It’s a beguiling installation in which forty separately recorded voices are played back through forty separate floor-standing loudspeakers. The black B&W speakers, mounted on metal stands, are arranged in an oval and play a recording of “Spem in alium,” a masterwork by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. Tallis used music as both a bridge and an exaltation—creating compositions for Protestant and Catholic monarchs. “Spem in alium,” which translates into “In No Other Is My Hope,” was scored to commemorate the fortieth birthday of Queen Elizabeth I. 

    "The Forty Part Motet" begins not with music but with the din: the coughing, breathing, vocal exercises, prattle, and laughter of the choir. Circumnavigating the installation, visitors detect fragments—comments about the music, nonsense, and echoes of existential inquiries: “As if life’s essence ebbs away.” Suddenly, the clutter of conversation is replaced by a prominent male voice heard at one end of the configuration; his breath is so shallow and short that his nervousness virtually spits out of the speaker. He then breaks into his opening note and leads the chorus with stentorian confidence. Tallis’ Motet is a polyphonic yet direct conversation with imperfection; the chorus—men, women, and children—rises and falls, like the syncopated billowing of curtains. Many voices become one.


    While the installation’s speakers and song are always the same from museum to museum, the acoustics, the shape of the room, and the people in it all influence the Motet’s playback. The vaulted interior and hard, reflective surfaces of Fort Tilden’s chapel afford ”The Forty Part Motet” a haunting soundstage. 

    Cardiff explained in an ”Art in America" interview that her Tonmeister, Berlin-based Titus Maderlechner, “sets up the Forty-Part Motet up at every venue where it’s shown around the world, because basically it has to be tuned to the room’s acoustic properties.”  

    Also notable is that “Spem in Alium” is an antiphonal work. As Chad Longmore of Sotheby’s Realty and the erstwhile Larissa Goldston Gallery, opined, “Given the period and the fact that this was for eight choirs of five voices, it was probably conceived as a performance in the round—or at least some variation which was in vogue for antiphonal compositions at the time.” Cardiff’s dexterous spatial interpretation literally comes full circle in Fort Tilden’s chapel by “highlighting the idea of sixteenth-century performance practice/surround sound with modern technology,” Longmore said.

    As you walk the oval, single voices capture the listener’s attention so completely they morph into full-fledged personalities. The score is punctuated with silence—muted moments that disorient and underscore the drama of the music and the mundane. Soon the listener experiences the song from that singer/speaker’s perspective; it’s easy to forget that it is not a real person producing sound. This inverted ventriloquism is a common effect in Cardiff’s work as she erodes the boundaries of technology and the senses. On the floor behind the speakers are the un-sexy nuts and bolts—non-descript plastic raceways and audio interconnection cables. By exposing the wires, they become invisible. 

    "The Forty Part Motet" doesn’t mask reality—a speaker is a speaker. Generic technology paired with sublime harmony shouldn’t work—it’s like putting Duncan Heinz frosting on a matsutake mushroom. "There is a falseness, a dryness incommensurate with the lush ambient recordings so often associated with recordings done in a church," Longmore added. "I think that it results from the close recording in a very ambient space, but regardless, it is surreal.”

    By the end of the choir’s journey—and Tallis’s, and mine, and your’s—it’s time to begin again. The speakers on metal stands feel urgent and alive.


    Since concentricity alters our sense of time and balance, the installation’s shape—an imperfect oval—is another key. There are entry points between the segments of speakers but there is no beginning or end. You choose where and when to climb in. And there are subplots of the circularity of the speaker placement. The speaker arrangement, like the recording itself, forms a loop. As ellipses have two foci, there is no one place in the center where the balance would be equal for all 360 degrees. As Longmore explained, “Like the ever changing vistas of a sculpture in the round, it requires the viewer/listener to navigate the work to activate an ever-changing sonic landscape of this otherwise static, prerecorded loop.”  

    Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001) shown at The Cloisters museum and gardens. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wilson Santiago)

    If seeing is believing, what is hearing? In “The Forty Part Motet” the ear becomes the “I”; hearing becomes the emotional input. Of all the senses, doesn’t music possess the bizarre ability to comfort, dismantle, inspire, and paralyze? Whether it’s sacred kirtan, air raid sirens, or that Morrissey song after a breakup, sound is a passport.  

    As you float through Fort Tilden, the silence and sounds of this artwork get into your head, and others’ thoughts unfurl as your own. You become the music, the space within the ellipses, and a five hundred-year old song feels surprisingly new.

    —Margot Douaihy (www.margotdouaihy.com)


    Exhibits at Fort Tilden are open to the public free of charge on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Noon–6 PM. The Surf Club exhibit is also open to the public free of charge Monday–Friday, Noon–Midnight; Saturday–Sunday, 11 AM–Midnight. The Forty Piece Motet by Janet Cardiff will be open through August 17 only.




    Walk with Janet Cardiff in 3-D

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