A reflection on the immersive audio artwork The City of Forking Paths, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Commissioned by the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014) as a City of Sydney legacy artwork as part of the City Art Collection. This article was written by Sarah Barns in 2014 and appears on her personal blog SitesandSounds
So this is how it goes.
You are at Customs House, down at Circular Quay, at dusk, or shortly after. You must be there, at Customs House, at dusk, or shortly after, otherwise the whole thing won’t work.
Janet Cardiff has been here, at Customs House, before, and you are now using your smartphone to see what she has filmed for you to see. What she saw, what you see through the camera view of your smartphone, is quite a lot like what you see, although what she saw was different, too, because it was at another time, though not another space. So different people were milling about in the foyer, they were peering down at the giant model of the city sunken below the surface of the glass floor, pretty much like people now are doing. The model, quite a spectacle, is always itself intriguing and slightly unnerving, with or without a smartphone to look at it through. Janet thinks so too.
Janet is talking to you, she has constructed a soundscape for you to listen to while you follow the journey she has made from this point, around dusk or slighly afterwards, into a city of forking paths. Janet wants you to turn around, to walk towards the building exit, paying particular attention to a man in a dark jacket, leaning by a column, who she saw and she filmed when she was here, before you were here, she wants you to look at the same column and see where the man who is no longer there was standing.
She takes you outside, to the steps of Customs House where a great wide expanse of grey windswept tiles will always be there to greet and confound you. The great wide expanse of grey windswept tiles confounded her too, when she was here. You are now standing on the steps of Customs House, holding a smartphone up and looking through it as though about to take a photo, with headphones on.
The soundscape you are listening to features Janet’s voice, but also the sounds of the space you’re in, when she was here, which she recorded binaurally, in order to sound life-like. A crowd of kids passed Janet by when she stood here, surveying the expanse, they pass you by, too, aurally that is, from the top right of your vision to behind your right shoulder. You can hear them so clearly, and the life-like sounds of these chatterers passing makes you want to swivel around and catch them. But of course they’re not there.
Janet plays these tricks for you. She uses the gaps in time between her being here and you being here to knock at the surfaces of what we see, loosening the tightness of reality into something that might be recomposed just a little.
Is it time, or space, that she’s unravelling? A bit of both, perhaps.
This is her art of ‘physical film’ making: using the space of the city, your passage through it, as filmic substance. This is different to making a film about a city, about a place, about a person; her medium is the physical inhabiting of a place as filmic substance. The trick here is that what is mostly making this film is not so much what we see but what we hear. It is the sound that sculpts our physical film, just as a film soundtrack will always establish the dramatic pretext of a visual narrative.
Janet conjures from this space here a performance. What could be?
Rollerbladers spinning in action, street musicians, perhaps? Let’s see them. They come, they go. Edits in the filming are not smooth. Time and its possibilities are sliced up, orthogonal. Your intimate space is part of this too: a man is seen approaching, he comes a bit too close, he is close to your field of view now, his voice is close to you. It is time to move on. Janet tells you it is time to move on, to follow her steps, keeping the view you see through your camera view matched as much as possible to your own position.
You wander slowly, stiltedly, like a person idiotically trying to walk with a smartphone held up in front of their face, towards Circular Quay, now amongst the flocks of people going about their business at dusk, or slightly afterwards.
You have Janet telling you she’s an artist, she’s alone here in this city, she tells you she’s always an artist alone in a city, somewhere, trying to find some place to eat. She sounds lonely, a bit bored too. She’s seeing tourists here, this is a tourist place, she’s wondering about the networks of travel and mobility that could be mapped here, lines of flight fanning out from this point to many myriad destinations across the globe.
Talking to you, she’s your fellow traveller, we’re both here together, we can share this space, this space fractured by time but knitted back together as filmic space. We encounter the man again: he is the antagonist she created for this physical-film, he is speaking to us now about multiple realities, the multiverse, he asks what if all this was only one sliver of reality? What if there were many more?
We are now becoming the trick. The time in which we’re standing here, at Circular Quay, slightly after dusk, watching this man, through the camera view of our smartphone, listening to Janet tell us to walk to the harbour master’s steps, we’re only one of these slivers of time, too, with no greater claim to know this space than any other of these characters, past or present.
We are standing at the very place where Europeans first settled in Australia. Janet tells us this. The harbour master’s stairs, so different in scale to the ferry docks, the city skyline behind us, feel like a trace from this other time of early settlement. She takes us down the stairs, the stairs are covered in water from the harbour. Is this allowed? Can we get wet feet? She takes us down to the bottom of the stairs, so we stand below the promenade. We can’t see him, but we can hear behind us the man we encountered before getting agitated now, then suddenly somehow Janet has fallen in to the harbour, he has likely pushed her, for a second, in our camera view, there is only water, a view back up to the Quay, to where we are standing. She quickly recovers, it seems, and we are asked to move on.
And so there is real drama in this city-film, but only a little. The falling-in incident goes unremarked upon for the rest of the walk. We are led into the Rocks, taken down some of the more enchanting little streets and alleys one can encounter in this oldest part of Sydney town. Janet knows how to pick a route.
She lets us look with new eyes at the work of historians, curators and landscape architects who have crafted little enclaves within the city here that let the past speak for itself; the little colonial house with no walls but a door and a frame, wooden furniture left to mark the former uses of spaces, we hear the echoes of tour guides as we step gingerly down the uneven sandstone stairs, we hear torrential rain falling, as is so common in Sydney, though it is not falling as we walk this evening.
We encounter more performers: people who make music out of the textures of the alleyways, the bins, the rock faces, discarded metals, steps. Our antagonist continues to visit us, threatening and slightly agitating. He is a loose canon.
We hear residents of Millers Point whose public houses are now being sold off. We hear Janet’s co-creator George talking to Janet sometimes. He says: “think of what we could play here – all that stuff we listened to while researching for this piece” and we here a selection of random old recordings that must be related somehow.
Janet loves the little old terraces that look down on Pottinger Place, so enfeebled in their domesticity against the dramatic sandstone rockface they sit upon. They prompt her to remember the nightmares she experienced as a child; she looks up at the windows and wonders what deeds of wrongdoing could be placed there, in a spooky film.
There are generations of families going back in time here; the alleys are layered by memories of childhood, kids swimming out into the harbour from the wharf. We depart the scene, the forking path takes us away, back to the Harbour Bridge, Janet is noticing the tree roots in the standstone rocks as we clamber up stairs, then she leaves us at the entrance to the foot tunnel under the bridge.
We are left alone, with our smartphone. The smartphone is still playing the film, it takes us now through the illuminated fluorescent walkway, the view tips upside down, perhaps we are the ones underneath the harbour now, alone here, with our smartphones, in the city, at night.
The work of Janet Cardiff and George Bueres Miller has spanned cities and continents, forests and galleries, small boats and abandoned filing cabinets. These artists are in the business of making magic spaces.
They come from the line of Borges, they return again and again to his stories, his metaphors, this city of forking paths is a map that has become as big as the world. For this Sydney project, Janet and George worked on and off for about a year, commissioned by the City of Sydney as the ‘inaugural artwork’ within its ‘permanent art collection’.
How strange for a work such as this to be classified a permanent artwork. Whether an app is a permanent thing is one thing. But the experience conjured is also the very antithesis of what we would ordinarily describe as a ‘permanent artwork’: an experience of time, fractured by spatial passages, layered and forked and stacked without end.
The work is also described as ‘Augmented Reality’, aligning with the tech-boom taking the ad world by storm. We are all going to be augmenting our realities all the time, soon, likely not with clunky smartphones but watches, glasses, earpieces. How quaint all of our glowing rectangles will soon become!
This artwork riffs of our curiosity with what augmentation might feel like, but this is not really ‘digital art’ in a technical sense, there is no geodata underpinning it, but there are loose references to its conventions. You can only access the app that drives the tour at Customs House, from dusk. Any other time or place and you are locked out.
The artists seem to be tricking up the technology conventions here: augmented reality is not only about space as code, it is also about space as a remembered, fractured, haunted territory. At one point we see in the crowds only people walking, looking at their glowing rectangles, talking on them, for Janet this feels ghastly, you know she wants people to see beyond them, just as she uses the device to show you this.
In 1996 Janet made a soundwalk for London’s Brick Lane called The Missing Voice and you could listen to it using a walkman; you had to borrow the tape from the library. She’s added video now and the sound is better but her tugging at the possibilities of space and time plays with the same basic toolset: the re-sculpting of embodied experience using the ultimate augmented reality that is sound, using her voice, urging intimacy, speaking loneliness, placing the strangeness of our urban natures back into our immediate view.
We here in Sydney will know our streets to be a little bit different now that Janet’s been here.
This is the first of two pieces reflecting on The City of Forking Paths