Basel’s got talent? Artists invite visitors to make their multimedia installations sing

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The Canadian artist duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller began officially collaborating almost by chance, despite being married and having previously helped each other with their individual practices for over a decade. Cardiff had been invited to do a show at the artist-led space Western Front in Vancouver in the mid-1990s, and after working in their shared studio on what would become The Dark Pool (1995). “We couldn’t remember whose idea it was,” she says. “So we asked the organisation: ‘can we do this as a collaboration?’” The fruits of three decades of working together have now been brought together for a new show at Museum Tinguely, which will include 14 multimedia works.

Making works sing

As well as being a collaboration between two artists—“We work well together because we have different skills and different patience for different things,” Cardiff says—the works also rely on the attention and participation of audiences. “Some viewers or participants have a magic that enables them to see things that others don’t,” Cardiff says. Whether it is a table covered in speakers activated by the movements of visitors (Experiment in F# Minor, 2013), or intricate details that may be missed inside the diorama windows of Escape Room (2021), the presence of what Cardiff calls “talented participants or talented viewers” can really make works sing. While the artist is referring to the curiosity and participation of members of the general public, on occasions the visitors really are talented, as was the case in New York recently when the musician and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne turned up unannounced to play on The Instrument of Troubled Dreams (2018). “It was great,” Cardiff says, “the gallery kept texting us images of him playing.”

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller’s Escape Room (2021) © 2023 courtesy of the artists; Luhring Augustine, New York; Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo; and Fraenkel Gallery, San Fransisco. Photo: David B. Smith

When struck, the labelled keys of The Instrument of Troubled Dreams trigger a variety of recordings, from singing to the sounds of the sea and even windmills turning. Cardiff says that the duo will likely slip in surreptitiously to play it during the Basel show, doing “a Hitchcock”, she says, in reference to the director’s reputation for making cameo appearances in his own films.

The Basel exhibition came about after the artists were awarded the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize in 2020, which led to a show at the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany, which has now travelled to Basel. The sculpture prize was first awarded in 1966 and there have only been ten other recipients, among them Richard Serra, Joseph Beuys and Jean Tinguely. It may seem like a slightly odd choice, given that, although Cardiff and Miller’s work has sculptural elements to it, their practice is much more wide ranging, embracing elements of theatre, video and sound design.

But Cardiff sees it differently. “I’ve always thought of sound as sculpture,” she says. As an example, the artist points to The Forty Part Motet (2001), an installation consisting of 40 loudspeakers arranged in an oval shape. “To me it [is] completely a sculpture,” Cardiff says. “The sound becomes so physical, the way it hits you and moves around.” The duo often use “ambisonics” in their work, a spherical-type of surround sound that can engulf listeners. “I think it was invented in the 60s or 70s by a British mathematician,” Cardiff says. “We use that a lot; George is able to move the sound around a lot in this ambisonic sphere.”

Cardiff also says that “a lot of our pieces are standalone sculptures, even though, like The Killing Machine (2007), they move and are robotic.” She adds that “The Killing Machine is the most similar to Tinguely”, an artist whose work is “not inspiration necessarily” but shares a “connection” with that of Cardiff and Miller’s.

Hybrid artists

“We’re hybrid artists. We’ve always liked contemporary theatre that pushes the borders, we like any sort of medium that pushes the borders,” she says, citing other influences such as sci-fi, the books of Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Chandler, film and contemporary dance. “My biggest early influence was La Jetée by Chris Marker,” she says, referring to the experimental 1962 feature made mostly from stills that pushes at the boundaries of film-making. “We just follow what’s interesting”.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Dream Machines, Museum Tinguely, Basel, until 24 September

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