The inspirations for Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installation "The Murder of Crows" were eclectic, to say the least: dreams of disembodied legs wearing socks and tennis shoes; bombastic Russian choirs; the quiet hum in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall; the sci-fi side of Kathmandu. The piece was originally created for the 2008 Sydney Biennale, and in August it comes to the capacious Park Avenue Armory in New York. Though one edition of the installation takes up nearly a football field’s length in the home of a Brazilian collector, and occasionally brings software to a halt with its 1,000 tracks, Bures Miller insists it’s really just a big stereo. Alexander Forbes spoke to the artists in Berlin, where they work when not at their second home base in Grindrod, British Columbia.
Alexander Forbes: In the four years since you first presented "The Murder of Crows," has your relationship to it changed?
Janet Cardiff: It changes every time we get to experience it. I think when you’re making a piece you’re so in tune with it right at the moment, you’re so involved in it, that you can’t really see it. You only get to hear a piece like this every couple of years because it can only be shown in a huge space — so then you have a lot more time to get away from it, and when you mount it again you can see it in a fresh way.
George Bures Miller: I think the Armory will be a great location, because you have complete control over the lighting. And it’s such a beautiful space — it has a bit of that science-fiction quality. It’s got a nostalgic feel as well, and it really suits the piece.
JC: Yeah, space really has an influence too on how people interpret it. If it’s not a great space, then the sound really suffers, and therefore the piece really suffers. I guess it’s the same with all art; I mean, if you present an installation in a crappy space, it’s not going to look as good, but with sound you also have to deal with the acoustics. If you just have a white box space, the sound is horrible. You need high ceilings, lots of texture, wood floors like they have in the Armory.
AF: Do you recall a distinct starting point for the piece?
GBM: We were in the Tate Turbine Hall, and some of the turbines were still operational off to the side, and you could hear the humming. So we thought that you could take that hum, if you put 3,000 speakers in the Turbine Hall and you have people actually doing that hum, each speaker could be a voice and the hum would start moving through the space. It was 2005 when we had that conversation, and the technology really just wasn’t there for us to do high-def audio with 3,000 speakers. But this idea led to "The Murder of Crows." The piece completely changed, and it was still a lot of speakers in the end: 98. In the final iteration, in Australia, we were still having trouble getting 98 speakers to actually play back.
AF: So how did you land on 98?
GBM: It’s funny because we use a device that has 24 outputs, so it’s easy for us to work in divisions of 24, so that gives us 96. But then when we were in Australia, Janet wasn’t there, and Titus Maderlechner — who does the mixing and a lot of our recording — and I were there and were like, “We need two more speakers!” I don’t know what we were thinking, but we had to have two more speakers! So we went out to buy some little device to have two more outputs. It just seems ludicrous now. Why did we need it? But it just seemed like the most important thing to have those two speakers at the last moment.
AF: "The Murder of Crows" is essentially sound art, but has a sculptural physicality with both the arrangement of the speakers and the movement of the sound itself. Do you see the media intertwining or interacting?
GBM: We’re always just experimenting, really. For this piece it was about the sounds moving around the viewer such that the space almost becomes a movable sphere of sound. It’s like a movie in your head that’s moving all around you, all the time.
JC: What we wanted to do was create a sculpture that has a virtual presence, but also a kind of physical presence.
GBM: There are all kinds of things that happen in different spatial areas, but the focus definitely is on the horn that sits on the main table where Janet’s voice comes out. It’s nice to be in a spot where you can hear that clearly. The structure of the piece is three horrific dreams that Janet had in Kathmandu, where we spent six months. That city is an interesting place because it’s quite like science fiction. It’s almost like living in "Blade Runner" except without the crime: There’s very little crime, but it feels like there should be.
JC: I would wake up in the middle of the night. I had my tape recorder there and I must have recorded about 30 different dreams. You know, when you wake up, and you go, “Oh man, was that ever bizarre!” That wasn’t part of the concept originally for "Murder of Crows," but we felt that it needed structure, so that’s when the dreams came in. It was also a reference to the Goya etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters," where he’s lying on the table with the nightmares around him, and he can’t wake up.
AF: So there’s a distinct sense of trauma?
GBM: The piece developed in the middle of what I call the Bush decade. It wasn’t a decade but it was a dark time, and we were living in Berlin mostly at that time, and we read a lot more newspapers, which were very depressing. It was such a contrast. 9/11 is such a splitting point for the world. Pre-9/11, there was lots of bad stuff happening, but people weren’t paying attention to it. The news media was more interested in Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. This piece was in a way a requiem for the old world, the old optimistic world that we lost. We wanted it to feel oppressive and depressive and moving as well. We wanted it to be something that would hit you with a punch in the solar plexus. A sound punch.
AF: On one hand you have something that’s completely ephemeral: You’re making sound and you’re throwing it right away. It’s a very postmodern gesture in a strange sense, but it seems like it’s almost an elegy for a time before postmodernism, sometime that was more hopeful.
GBM: An elegy is a better word than requiem, yeah. That’s interesting. We do use sound because it bypasses your intellect. Sound can hit you such that you can’t stop it from coming in. It somehow gets around all of our filters. As soon as you have a cello playing right here behind you and on the chair—just that bass note, the way the vibration hits you in the back and goes into your body, you can’t stop the emotional reaction. You can’t cover your ears. We don’t have earlids; we have eyelids.
This article appears in the Summer issue of Modern Painters magazine.