Janet Cardiff, The Missing Voice (Case Study B
Whitechapel Library, London Ongoing
Take the tube to Aldgate East. Come out on Whitechapel High Street. To the left is the Whitechapel Library (to the right is the Whitechapel Gallery), go in and ask for the Janet Cardiff piece. You'll be given a discman. Press play and follow the instructions. "I want you to walk with me," she whispers insistently, "there are some things I need to show you." Do everything she says. You'll want to, for her voice is as hypnotic as it is intimate.
The Missing Voice was commissioned by Artangel in 1999 and continues to live quietly and intensely in the Whitechapel Library. For over a decade now Canadian artist Janet Cardiff has been creating site-specific audio walks all over the world. This one takes place in east London, which has the greatest concentration of contemporary art spaces in all of Europe. (When you're done with The Missing Voice, grab a map from the gallery next door and keep walking.)
As you twist through the streets of the East End, Cardiff's multi-layered narrative spills into your ears. The plot - a detective mystery - is secondary to the experience, but it sets the pleasantly insidious tone. "Try to follow the sound of my footsteps," she breathes, "so that we can stay together." The tapping of the footsteps are like heartbeats in your ears. The duality of the streetscape and Cardiff's observations of it are uncannily timed. For this brief spell, your thoughts are subsumed by hers. You see what she sees, you hear what she hears, and perhaps, you feel what she feels.
Whispered intimacies born behind closed doors, late at night, are overheard on noisy, unforgiving city streets. The labyrinth of the city mirrors the corridors of the mind. Its history pounds with the melancholy of memory. "The city is infinite every possible permutation, unlimited but cyclical." The narrative winds from past to present, dreamtime to daytime; and between the irreconcilable permutations of the heart and the reality of the street.
"Sometimes when you read things, it seems like you're remembering them." And sometimes when you hear things it seems like you're dreaming them. Cardiff's lilting, hypnotic voice is intrinsic to the poetry of this piece. I'll say no more, for the mystery of the work is its beauty. All you have to do is listen.