exploring art and writing

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: The House Of Books Has No Windows.

In Exhibition, New Media on October 8, 2009 at 2:11 pm
‘New Media’ is a term that has become more and more popular over the last five decades. In one sense it is ambiguous; we know that it refers to technology but in what time and environment does this term become applicable? In another sense, it is a convenient way to sum up a massive part of Western culture and society today, saturated as it is with the digital imagery of the mass media, our immersion in global networks and our familial, augmented state of mind and body with our own Personal Computers; New Media may consist of machines, but it thrives on human beings. The extreme and fast-paced technological developments of the twentieth century, detrimental to war, medicine, media, leisure and therefore, inevitably, art, have made New Media to today’s Western generation the norm, if not blasé, through constant exposure.
The term ‘New Media’ is defined by Timothy Allen Jackson in his essay Towards a New Media Aesthetic as “technologies including all types of computers and other communication devices using microprocessors, digital audio and video, local and global networks” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:352). This apparent state of omnipresence can be used to an artist’s advantage, allowing them to rise up to the challenge of using and creating New Media that self-critiques and consequently possesses meaning, even if only by emphasising such nonchalant attitudes. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s exhibition The House Of Books Has No Windows is an example of this self-analysis through now proverbial technologies, but to understand the How and Why certain theories must first be considered.
Writers and theorists have formed an ever hyper-sensitive ‘environment’ that is ultimately receptive to a media with such drastic social implications. Vannevar Bush, in his essay ‘As We May Think’ acknowledged in 1945 that the technologies that “enabled man to manipulate…that record [of ideas] so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:10) were causing a kind of over-accumulation of knowledge due to mountainous amounts of findings that exceeded the limits of a human brain. He created the analogous Memex, “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanised private file and library” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:11). I will not go on to describe Memex; all you need to do is recall today’s Personal Computer or Notebook, perhaps change a few of the buttons for levers, and there you have it: the prophesised PC, with, most importantly, an encyclopaedic ‘trail’ of near-infinite capacity that is formed and selected by association, or as it is known today, the internet. It is the un-indexed, associative and therefore human characteristic, the possibility to positively expand the human state, that links Bush’s analogy not only to other ideas – Donna Haraway’s hopes of synthesis between human/machine in her Manifesto For Cyborgs being one of the prominent optimistic theories – but also, I believe, to New Media artworks such as those in the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller exhibition.
To begin with, The Muriel Lake Incident, although not a piece that acutely augments our conscious intelligence to the extent that Memex and cyborg are technically capable of, is interactive in a way that does seem to broaden our sense of hearing to a point that temporarily increases our mind’s capacity. With something as familiar as film and sound I thought that the reactions it provoked were quite an achievement: surprise, initially, when you stand and put the set of headphones on and feel Cardiff and Miller’s binaural script and soundtrack enveloping your ears at an uncannily close proximity (your mind begins to imagine that you are in a much larger, cinematic room with different resonance, different acoustics and different company); concentration on the tiny screen contained within its own miniature cinema space (a concentration that is sometimes disguised as distraction in the virtual characters conversation and popcorn munching in your right ear); an eventual grasp of the film-noir-style plot and, when the final event resounds, physical reactions of, firstly, looking around to remind yourself that a crowd of people aren’t really charging out of the room; secondly, jumping in surprise and thirdly, looking round again to make sure there isn’t a crazy man behind you.
The success of the piece relies on our minds’ accepting the binaural soundtrack as a reality in our current physical space, not just as a virtual narrative. Our own inner ‘surround sound’ is expanded to the drastic, all-encompassing level of the cinema space; you could either look at it as suddenly having ten ears or as your head temporarily becoming a large, populated room. At first I understood my enjoyment of the piece to be akin to enjoying a cinematic film; what were Cardiff and Miller trying to get across in such a piece? I couldn’t perceive any meaning as such, but after several more views and some afterthought I realised that the joke was on me, whether the artists intended it or not; playfully – and willingly – I was tricked into becoming, even more so than I already am, a cyborg of the ‘minute’ kind, the kind where the machine creeps up, seemingly apolitically, and for a while makes me feel enhanced. By “taking us to different worlds…to experience things in a more multi-dimensional way” Cardiff and Miller are ‘wiring us up’ to be one small step above just being human. This involvement with the piece that stems from our physical interactions with it is used on a similar level, but in a different way, in The Dark Pool.
‘[Old Woman:] People call it the oracle because they want to have something to believe in. There is no proof that it says anything or shows them anything but their reflections.’ (Cardiff, 2001:60)
This is an excerpt from ‘Soundtrack #3’ from The Dark Pool, part of a collection of narratives, mostly fictitious, that are triggered by floor sensors as you walk through and around the installation. The space and objects seem semi-fictitious themselves; part studio, part fantastical laboratory, dark and theatrical, there are speakers, gramophones, books, ornaments, wardrobes, plus multitudes more that would take a few slow, vigilant trips round to even notice; these things build up the layers of the room and give it a realism that would otherwise be overruled by the theatricality of the lighting and the absurdity of its contents. As lived in as the space may appear, however, Cardiff and Miller’s soundtracks are dependant on the route that the viewer decides to take, so like The Muriel Lake Incident there is interaction, but in this case the technology relies on us to come into being. There was a kind of joy in realising that we were triggering the scripts and music; all sorts of possibilities opened up regarding composition, people were jumping up and down, back and forth, running, sitting down, sticking their head between speakers. I’m sure everyone will have had a go on the Wishing Machine in the corner; it is the sort of space that you must be able to physically play with to enjoy it. Despite this, though, the darker undertones of the piece – represented in the moody lighting and especially the soundtracks – were a sombre focal point. There are constant references to darkness, the pool, vaporous characters, everything imbued with an organic slowness; the whole space and everything contained within it are a fantasy, and like all art to some extent, two overtly personal fantasies: that of the artist and then that of the viewer. “There is no proof that it says anything or shows them anything but their reflections”; there are scripts and objects but we are given the freedom to generate our own context, giving the meaningless some level of significance, and so the fictional nature of the piece allows it to become personal to the observer. To do this in The Dark Pool we must integrate ourselves into the space with the machine and follow the ‘trails’, almost like a soft-core version of Memex and the cyborgs we are transforming into.
Bush’s analogy of the Memex was an uncanny prophesy of today’s Personal Computer and the World Wide Web. So in 1945 when Bush asked “What are scientists to do next?” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:9) there is an irony that cannot be lost on today’s reader. The PC is an example of what science turned its uses and capabilities to in the post-war era, and as field boundaries in the sciences, mathematics, philosophy etc. have blurred and combined with one another, helped enormously by the resulting technological networks we are familiar with today, art could not remain ignorant or impassive. This blurring of boundaries – something that Haraway herself referred to regarding social factors and distinctions that, if eliminated, would lead humanity to a non-gendered and therefore Utopian world – makes it no surprise that artists such as Nam June Paik and Vostell caught on to the ideas and skills that were relevant to portray all kinds of new technologies. Cardiff and Miller’s works are not technologically progressive in this sense; as will be discussed later, in works such as The Killing Machine they may be prefiguring future machines, but primarily their work makes use of now dated, well known methods to procure meaning. Road Trip is a perfect example of this.
The piece itself makes you feel as if you are attending a formal seminar: a few rows of chairs, a projector set in the middle, all facing a white screen. The projector begins to clunk automatically as the slides follow one after the other, all in time with a soundtrack of Cardiff and Miller discussing the journey that we are seeing, one that you eventually realise was undertaken by Miller’s relative to receive treatment for a terminal illness. Initially there is a sense of nostalgia that the machinery and the space seem to be imbued with, both in the inelegant presence of the machine and in the simplicity of the surrounding room. It seemed particularly acute when compared to the sleek, unobtrusive functionality of today’s computer software, but in a way this came to its aid; there was a softness about the piece that is hard to describe, perhaps also due to such a personal narrative and the small size of the room about you. The whole thing seemed more delicate, but oddly so because of the intuitive feeling that you were not supposed to know about this man’s personal memories; whereas all the other pieces in the exhibition beckoned you in, Road Trip kept you at a safe personal distance, although I’m aware that this didn’t prevent people from getting emotionally involved. The very human story, conveyed through such nostalgic means, was a break from the fiction of the other artworks.
It may not seem like New Media now, but at one point the slide projector, sound equipment and technologies used to automatise these were entirely fresh. There is a play in Road Trip with Haraway’s idea of the machines of the past being “machines [that] were not self-moving, self-designing” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144), and then transforming into something more autonomous: “late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144). Here we are hearing Cardiff and Miller’s voices inside the piece, as it were, as part of the machine, but this is not a contemporary cyborg-provoking contraption; it is a part of the early augmentation that began with widespread use of certain technologies. So the artist’s apparent presence inside the machine is almost giving it life back, or life that it never had; giving the ambiguity of later technology to the old, apparently unthreatening nature of previous machinery. But this is just another one of their fictions, a “caricature” (Haraway, in Grenville 2002:144), as Haraway puts it.
The fictional nature of Cardiff and Miller’s work is at its most compelling in Opera For a Small Room. The room itself is a compact, self contained installation consisting of speakers, furniture, sound equipment, lights and thousands of music records. This whole collection of objects gives the piece a look that appears lived in despite the blatant disparity between it and an actual inhabited room from everyday reality; Cardiff’s idea that “only by being in the effect of a shifted world can we really get a glimpse of the world” is evident in the way this room, like The Dark Pool and to some extent The Muriel Lake Incident, parodies a general, familiar space. The mass of the space around it, a huge dark room, gives the installation an initial appearance of vulnerability, accentuated further during the performance by its owner’s lament and the shockwaves of passing (fictional) trains that shudder through the room. Music has been meticulously programmed to form a mournful operatic-rock playlist, while various record players are blindly putting their needles down in time and lights flash, almost like a concert or a dramatic scene in a play. The only human character present, the lamenter, is represented through voice, sound and shadow alone.
It would be easy to overanalyse Opera For a Small Room. There is the presence of an emotive cyborg, a man using music and its technologies to overcome his pain, and there are the trails, associative thoughts and emotions, that lead the character from one song to the other, all connected in his consciousness; an expressive reflection of Memex. It is described by Cardiff and Miller, however, to be “as much theatre as installation” (exhibition guide, Modern Art Oxford). The fact that the audience cannot enter the room and must watch the scene through holes and gaps in the walls, almost like watching television, reinforces this; there seemed to be more joy in listening to the music and watching the timing of the lights than in searching for something more consequential within the piece. It is as much a piece of direct entertainment as it is art; an amazing introduction to warm you up for what is to follow, and therefore a stark contrast in purpose to a piece such as The Killing Machine.
Going back to Bush’s Memex analogy and its wonderfully prophetic content, if looked at closely The Killing Machine, the only directly political work in the exhibition, could be perceived in the same way: precise and slightly absurd, amusing and enjoyable because of its science-fiction-like nature, but also extending the ideas of something that is already in play, something which has been in flux since humans formed the most basic justice systems; in this case, capitol punishment, and indeed also the more general uses that technology is developed for in all macabre walks of real life. Cardiff and Miller state on their website that “In our culture right now there is a strange deliberate and indifferent approach to killing,” no doubt encouraged by the propensity of mass media images, whether TV, video games or cinema, that depict violence in its extremes, these days somewhat ineffectively due to society’s ever increasing – and necessary – immunity to such mental bombardment. ‘The Killing Machine’, thankfully, is more subtle in that there isn’t an organism that is being pulverised or punctured, there is merely the possibility of this; like much of art today, it consists of polarities that are beautiful, political and destructive, albeit to emphasise a point rather than to commit it.
This is unlike the mid twentieth century scientists who, according to Bush “left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets.” (Bush, in Trend, 2001:9). Cardiff and Miller are instead offering a visual commentary on the possibilities of ‘The Killing Machine’, but are glamorising them with elements such as the disco ball and the music to reinforce this destructive potential by masking intention with splendour and absurdity. Throughout history that which is unclear and ambiguous, and therefore possibly unstable, is a threat until empirically proven otherwise through trial in society. So unlike Haraway’s theory regarding the minuteness of the cyborg – and this in turn making them be perceived as “preeminently dangerous” (Haraway, in Grenville, 2002:145) in society – Cardiff and Miller use the opposite approach to an extent that is ironic, if not humorous; the ubiquitous nature of Haraway’s cyborg is there, and blatantly so, but ‘human’ glamour is applied, not to mask the intention but to distract the viewer from it and therefore eventually, hopefully, accentuate the sinister intentions of the piece.
This glamour comes in the form of human objects and characteristics, the former being the disco ball, dentist’s chair, ‘fun fur’, television sets etc, the latter being the two arms’ human-like movements and gestures. This resemblance, however, has been executed to exceed our average level of human grace, almost like two professional dancers collaborating in sync and working with one another towards something verging on perfect. This apparent symbiosis between the two ‘arms’ is in itself a very human feature, but one that again is mechanised in order to perfect its timing and efficiency; it is perfecting whilst mimicking. There is the echo of an ominous suspicion here regarding the machine/human resulting in the destitution of humans as purely organic and autonomous beings, a belief that often challenges Haraway’s longing for fusion between the two entities; this idea would perhaps have bothered me more if ‘The Killing Machine’ had not because of some technical fault been rendered useless for the first two hours of my visit to the exhibition, bringing back angst-ridden memories of data crashes, blue screens and the general world of warped laptops – recollections that can dampen the grandeur of almost any reasonably comprehensible machine.
The only piece in the exhibition that did not directly involve some form of twentieth century technology was The House Of Books Has No Windows, which preceded The Killing Machine as you worked your way through the exhibition. Despite this, however, it was still interactive; you could crawl inside the house, made entirely out of archaic books, and simply sit, wander round or just do whatever you liked. It is the only piece that was made solely for the exhibition and it is difficult to find a connecting thread to the other works, apart from the amalgamation of various similar items, which is a feature of many of their installations. George Bures Miller, in response to Cardiff’s “I find it stimulating and exciting the idea of being wired up to the net and doing the dishes at the same time” claimed, when referring to technology generally, that “it dulls my senses. I really should get away from the computer more often”; so is The House Of Books an escape, a place to prepare for or hide from the Killing Machines?
This brief escape from the digital, a lapse back to “analogic life” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:351), may be necessary in such an intensely technological collection, but it seemed almost tired in comparison to the other works; there were the normal sensory inputs: that familiar library smell, the feel of paper, thousands of coloured spines, but after the enormity of the rest of the exhibition I found myself desiring something more. Jackson’s idea that “New Media technologies…are shaping our world and world view at an unprecedented scale” (in Trend, 2001:347) is now undeniable, particularly in Western Society and culture; Cardiff and Miller, even if they are not referring to these issues directly, emphasised for me how important and engaging interaction is in artworks after years of gazing at static, invariable pieces that resist touch and are set above and away from you. Digital technologies and those that preceded it are entertaining as well as useful in a way that can, and has, transfixed humans, and Cardiff and Miller are playing with the approachable aspects of this. Jackson’s starting point of recognising New Media as having “no distinction between humanity, art, nature, and technology…inextricably linked in a complex system of energy, matter and interpretation” (in Trend, 2001:349) offers a world view consisting of a universal human Memex, a positive cyborg culture that, as Cardiff maintains, allows you to “step outside the dream that we live in and feel more alive”. The question here is where the genuinely beneficial augmentation of digital technology ends and distracting virtual realities begin; an exhibition such as The House Of Books Has No Windows requires the viewer to consider “finding, rather than losing oneself, and remaining connected to the present time and space” (Jackson, in Trend, 2001:351), rather than allowing our human sensory reality to be overwhelmed. So is the diverting nature of The House Of Books Has No Windows successful in producing an awareness that encourages meaning, or is it just another glamorous trail of entertainment?
Bush, V. (1945), As We May Think In: Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Grenville, B. (ed.) (2002), The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press
Haraway, D. (1985), A Manifesto For Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s In: Grenville, B. (ed.) (2002), The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, Vancouver, Arsenal Pulp Press
Jackson, T. A. (1998), Towards a New Media Aesthetic In: Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller official website, Leakystudio.com http://www.cardiffmiller.com/ (accessed December 2008)
Modern Art Oxford, The House Of Books Has No Windows exhibition guide, (2009)
Trend, D. (ed.) (2001), Reading Digital Culture, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing
Whitechapel Gallery London, Interview with the artists, (updated May 2003), http://www.whitechapel.org/content.php?page_id=426 (accessed December 2008)
  1. […] For a more in depth analysis of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s exhibition The House of Books Has No Windows see my previous essay from January here. […]

  2. An amazing story and in depth

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