Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller

The Poetry Machine, 2017
interactive installation, words and voice by Leonard Cohen

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are multidisciplinary artists whose work often explores sound. Their immersive installations utilize audio, theatrical elements, and narrative direction to create large-scale environments that augment the viewer’s reality.

Road Trip, 2004
computer controlled slide projector with audio

In 2023, the pair opened the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse in Enderby, British Columbia, a venue that showcases their large-scale installations. Housed in a converted furniture showroom in a rural farming community not far from where the pair live and work, the space is part of “a movement toward community-based projects,” Cardiff told The Art Newspaper, and will allow many of their works to be shown in Canada for the first time.

In 2020, Cardiff and Bures Miller were awarded the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize, given every five years to artists working in sculpture. Dream Machines, a 2022 exhibition at the Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Germany, celebrated the prize and served as a comprehensive overview of the pair’s career, from their first interactive soundscapes in the 1990s to more recent immersive installations. The exhibition traveled to Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland in 2023. 

Janet Cardiff, Don’t leave me now…, 2021
acrylic paint on archival inkjet print, 14-3/4 x 11-1/4 inches (framed) [37.5 x 28.6 cm]

Since the early 1990s, the artists have created interactive “walks,” site-specific experiences in which a viewer is guided through a space with the use of a binaural audio soundtrack and video. The artists’ seamlessly blend reality with a fictional narrative, manipulating the perception and experience of a physical environment. Their “walks” have been staged in locations ranging from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles to Villa Medici in Rome, and in sections of cities including London, Sydney, the Old Town district of Edinburgh, Scotland, and New York’s Central Park.

Others have been set in museums and their grounds. The Telephone Call, a site-specific video walk commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, leads viewers through the museum. Originally shown in 2001 as part of an exhibition focused on the intersection of art and technology, Cardiff and Bures Miller recently updated the piece to reflect changes in the museum’s architecture, and it was featured there again in 2023. A collage of video images, music, ambient sounds, and Cardiff’s own voice, the piece incorporates “layers of real and recorded sound overlap, creating a rich and ambiguous sense of space,” John Weber, a curator of the 2001 show wrote. “In nearly two decades of curating, I have never seen anything like the kind of intoxicated audience response The Telephone Call generated.”

Dream Vacuum, 2021
mixed media with sound & electronics, 14 x 5-1/2 x 7-1/2 inches (overall) [30.5 x 14 x 19.1 cm]

In addition to their “walks,” Cardiff and Bures Miller also work with installations, creating immersive environments that use sound and other elements to surround viewers. The pair created FOREST (for a thousand years…) for Documenta (13) in Kassel, Germany. The piece is set in a clearing in the forest, where, rather than moving through the space, the audience is seated on wooden stumps. A soundtrack that includes airplanes and explosions, wind, birds, horses, and gunfire plays around them on more than 30 speakers, building into chaos and then retreating. Originally created in 2012, the piece was reprised in 2018, when it was presented in the University of Califonria’s Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden. In Art in America, Gregory Volk describes the uncanny experience of hearing the natural and recorded sounds, layered together. “A remarkable thing about Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s utterly captivating sound installation is how it blurs distinctions between site and art,” he writes. “In turn frightening and deeply touching, ominous and serene, Cardiff and Bures Miller’s forest soundscape is a wonder.”

FOREST (for a thousand years…), 2012
audio installation, 28 minute loop, edition of 3

Another installation, The Poetry Machine, features a vintage Wurlitzer organ from the 1950s surrounded by an array of old speakers. Rather than playing musical notes, each key is programmed with a poem from The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen, read by the celebrated songwriter and poet in his distinctive gravelly voice. Originally commissioned for a tribute to Cohen at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the piece made its U.S. debut at Fraenkel Gallery in 2018. In a review of the exhibition in SF Weekly, Jonathan Curiel writes, “Press multiple keys at once, as an organ is normally played, and you’re surrounded by a cacophony of Cohen voices, all emanating from the scores of speakers set up around the organ and nearby walls, emanating simultaneously at different sound levels.” As Cardiff notes, the piece “creates new connections through all of the poems,” and gives participants the ability “to create new poems out of his words.”

Opened on like a film set (crap), 2010
telephone, solid state playback device, 5 1/4 x 9 1/2 x 8 inches [13.34 x 24.13 x 20.32 cm]

Cardiff and Bures Miller’s work has been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;  MoMA PS1, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and Tate Modern, London, among many others. Their work is in the collections of public institutions including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and others. In addition to the Lehmbruck Prize, in 2011 they received Germany’s Käthe Kollwitz Prize, and in 2001 they represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale, for which they received the Premio Speciale and the Benesse Prize.