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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Audio Walks

Air Date: Week of

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Canadian artist Janet Cardiff has created a number of "audio walks" in a few select places on the planet. The "walks" are intricate and intimate soundscapes of places and events through which Cardiff guides the listener by using pre-recorded messages and audio images. Alison Lirish Dean profiles Cardiff and her work.


CURWOOD: Taking a walk with someone can be an intimate and personal experience. At least it is if you're walking with Janet Cardiff, and she's not even there, really. Ms. Cardiff is the Canadian artist who about a decade ago began creating a new kind of art installation she calls the "audio walk." You walk with Janet Cardiff by picking up headphones and a diskman at one of the museums sponsoring her work, then follow Ms. Cardiff's recorded directions through streets, parks, wherever she takes you. And, she will take you. Alison Lirish Dean explains.

CARDIFF: Hello. Do you hear me? I want you to walk with me to the garden. Let's go outside.


CARDIFF: Let's walk down the stairs. Try to walk to the sound of my footsteps so that we can stay together.

DEAN: Taking one of Janet Cardiff's audio walks is a bit like being hypnotized.

CARDIFF: It's beautiful here

DEAN: The feeling is at once soothing and disconcerting, as if Cardiff is placing her thoughts in your head.

CARDIFF: Do you see the tree roots?

DEAN: Put on the head phones, hit the play button, put one foot in front of the other, and step into a world that is only partially yours.


DEAN: At first, you might think that the sound of your real footsteps are merging with the recording of Cardiff's walking, as she guides you down into the underground tunnels of a Roman villa, or through a beautifully landscaped park. You have to look up to see if that helicopter is passing overhead...


DEAN: ...or is the sky empty? And those birds, are they real or just in your head, or both?

Cardiff chooses the places she wants to take you for the texture of their environment. "Louisiana Walk #14," for example, leads you through the lush museum grounds of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, which, oddly enough, isn't in Louisiana at all, but in Denmark.

CARDIFF: I want to bring you here because I think that something strange has happened to me walking along this path. I've seen and heard things that I don't understand.


DEAN: There's a reason Janet Cardiff's audio walks feel like they're produced inside your head. She uses a special technique, called binaural recording, to play with sound spatially.


Cardiff records with microphones that imitate the way the human ear processes sound. When you listen back through a pair of headphones, the effect is intense and intimate. Cardiff wants to alter and destabilize your everyday perceptions. The result can be disorienting, even frightening.


CARDIFF: Like, perhaps, if someone's looking at a river, what I'll do is I'll take the sound of the water...


CARDIFF: ...that I've recorded, physically recorded, let's say a foot away from the water, and I'll mix it in so that it comes up and it envelopes you when you're listening to it, so it's like you're right beside the water. And it does this kind of disconcerting thing with you see the water and you understand conceptually how far away that water is and how far away the sound effects should be. But, all of a sudden, the sound is right around you.


CARDIFF: Let's go on. Keeping walking along the path.

DEAN: Cardiff's walks are so powerful partly because people don't listen to recorded sound the same way they listen to the sound that is naturally around them. Everything becomes magnified and enhanced. Recorded sounds mix, compete, and coexist with whatever sound is happening in real time, jolting you into a hypersensitive world in which the ordinary becomes the fantastic.

CARDIFF: When we're listening to the environment we filter out probably 90 percent so that we don't hear the car passing, or we don't even hear the birds. But when you record sound, it accentuates everything. In ways, I think it's like having an earphone for deaf people, in that I think everything gets accentuated. You can't just choose what you want to accentuate. And so that, I think in my recordings, when you're in a natural setting and the birds are lower and my footsteps in the leaves are louder, you hear everything, and it heightens your senses.


DEAN: When Cardiff designs a walk, she starts by researching the history of the location. The recordings often contain references to the past. For example, during "Walk Münster", which guides you along streets in Münster, Germany, you hear an old man's voice describe underground tunnels, built to hide books.

OLD MAN: Books and books, art in wooden boxes, eaten by worms.

CARDIFF: Is that in the future or in the past?


DEAN: It's a glimpse of Münster's history: 15th century religious zealots, as well as Nazis, held book burnings in the town. For a walk in East London, called "The Missing Voice," you hear the sound of a bomb, and people running and screaming. It could be a scene from World War II or an account of an IRA attack. It makes you realize how many layers of history any one place can hold.


MAN: The building's crumbling, fire coming out of the windows, the tall pines look like giant torches in the night.


CARDIFF: When you're talking about something that happened in this street, you can embellish it in such a way as to make it seem more potent -- you can add a bit of music in the background -- and all of a sudden this street that seemed like a normal street has a sense of history, has a sense of memory, but also a sense, perhaps, of danger.

DEAN: Danger in that this particular piece of sound has an uncanny ability to transport the listener in space and time. Hearing it on a walk in East London, it would be hard not to think of the events in New York on September 11th.


MAN: The building is crumbling, fire coming out of the windows, the tall pines look like giant torches in the night-


CARDIFF: The whole concept of walking is so much about the future and the past and how, like, every step you take, one step behind you is in the past, and then the step you're leaning towards is in the future. I really like how that relates to how, when you walk over a street or walk over a situation, you can say a few words about perhaps what passed there.


CARDIFF: (whispers) Just a kiss. I didn't realize that the feel of your lips on mine would transfer years when I kissed you. A thin layer of deception between us.

DEAN: Cardiff's walks can evoke memories that sometimes seem too personal. She'll whisper in your ear her most private, intimate secrets:

CARDIFF: (whispering) .On and ever on she danced.


DEAN: Then, fragments of a conversation between anonymous voices leave you imagining who these people might be and what their relationship is to each other.

MAN: A man is walking along the beach, going to the stairs at the right. Call out to him.

CARDIFF: I don't see him.

MAN: He's there.


DEAN: Cardiff is deliberately vague about these details. She says she wants to leave room for people to bring their own experience and memories to the walks.

CARDIFF: It works in a way that is like stream-of-consciousness thinking. But it's very sort of open-ended, too. I try to use ideas of memories that could relate to someone else's memories, or could relate to a film that they've seen, or could relate to something that they can really identify with.

CARDIFF [on tape:] Sometimes you fall into a story, but sometimes you have to take steps to unravel it. It's night. I'm standing in the Domplatz, where you are now.

DEAN: To appreciate one of Cardiff's walks, you must surrender. Let yourself be drawn in by the dead, flat tone of her voice, and the regular rhythm of her footsteps through the amplified headphone speakers. Today, that's not such a difficult thing to do. Part of the reason we're so willing to submit to such an experience is because technology and media are mostly invisible to us now. We're used to the anonymous intimacy of the Internet, or to losing ourselves in the throes of a video game. If we don't have a cell phone to our ear as we go about our business, headphones connected to some listening device are there to whisk us away from where we are. We're eager to let technology take over.

CARDIFF: I see it as almost kind of a cyborg relationship, in that the voice and the CD player are this added technology that sort of extends the listener's whole persona. You feel safe walking along, and you feel guided. It's like a game. And you've given up your power, in ways. And sometimes, I think there's so many choices in life that sometimes it's nice just to give it up and say, okay, for fifteen minutes now I'm just going to listen to this woman's voice and follow her footsteps.


CARDIFF [on tape:] We're connected now, my breath a part of yours, my thoughts transferred to your mind.


CURWOOD: You can take Janet Cardiff's walk, "The Missing Voice", at the White Chapel Library, in London. A new audio walk will open May 12th, in Warth, Switzerland. And a major retrospective of Cardiff's work will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal where it will open on May 23rd. For Living on Earth, I'm Alison Dean.

CARDIFF: [on tape:] Please return the headset to the building. Press stop, now.

[MUSIC: Boards of Canada, "Amo Bishop Roden", BEAUTIFUL (Warp - 2000)]



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