Over the past two decades, Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have become internationally acclaimed for their distinctive and innovative body of works comprising installations, sound-recordings and site-specific walks. For the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire, Cardiff and Miller will create a new commission that will continue to exist after the end of the exhibition as a permanent City of Sydney legacy artwork.
The City of Forking Paths (2014) uses a smartphone or mobile device to visually navigate a route from Customs House through The Rocks. As we walk, we follow the video and audio on the screen, which was previously recorded from the same location, with the intimate voice of Cardiff leading us up stairs, through laneways and between buildings. Against the backdrop of real streets, Cardiff and Miller invent scenarios and incidents for us to discover along the way. In this physically cinematic experience, fiction melds with our immediate location. It is exciting, intriguing and, at times, confusing for participants to blend the two realities: the virtuality of the video component and the concreteness of the real world. We begin to imagine characters in our physical world aligning with the figures on the screen, and vice versa.
In this piece, Cardiff and Miller use the idea of playful wandering to blend time and place, using historical and fantastical situations to question our knowing of time and the real world. The title is a homage to Jorges Luis Borges’ story, The Garden of Forking Paths, a tale that uses the genre of a spy story to uncover questions of time and loss.
The narratives that unfold in Cardiff and Miller’s video/audio walks often explore ubiquitous themes of memory, displacement and desire. The artists employ technology to blend the present moment and the history of a place in delightful and sometimes disturbing ways. Ghost Machine (2005) directed participants on a walk through Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer, a beautiful theatre built in 1907. Moving through its maze of staircases and back rooms, viewers had a behind-the-scenes experience of the historical building as they searched for a man who was supposedly hiding in the theatre attic. The climax brought the participants to the stage, where they themselves were revealed as players in a performance, watched by a rapt audience.
Created for documenta 13 in 2012, Alter Bahnhof Video Walk took viewers on a 26-minute journey through Kassel’s Hauptbahnhof Station. Participants borrowed an iPod and headphones from a starting booth and were directed by Cardiff and Miller’s immersive audio and video through the station building and out on to the platform. The work combined imagined and historical events – such as an impromptu brass ensemble performance and the sound of footsteps, as people ran to the train during the Second World War – with the current, real-time happenings in the station.
Cardiff and Miller create adventures through the past while at the same time grounding us firmly in the present. Both the artwork and the viewer are reliant upon one another to truly come into being. With their use of inclusive language and straightforward directions, the artists encourage the walker to become a collaborator rather than a passive consumer. They take participants on intimate journeys, nurturing a confidential relationship through the positive application of technology.
Cardiff and Miller’s works have been the subject of several significant solo exhibitions, recently including ‘Lost in the Memory Palace: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2013); ‘Ship ’O Fools’, HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin (2011); and ‘The Murder of Crows’, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (2009), Art Gallery of Alberta, Edmonton (2010) and Park Avenue Armory, New York (2012). The duo represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale (2001), where they won both the Premio Speciale and the 4th Benesse Prize.