Whitehot Magazine

July 2010, Interview with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller and daughter Aradhana


Interview with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
Ship O' Fools, commissioned by Luminato

Ship O' Fools is unequivocally the work of well-established artists. The resources necessary to construct it are considerable, as is the confidence and experience required for the laissez faire thematic approach to such a large-scale piece. Playful, carnivalesque tendencies have been a consistent factor in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's work over the past two decades; they have been focussed this year in The Cabinet of Curiousness (2010) and The Carnie (2010). In Ship O' Fools, these inclinations have been given free reign with an 'everything and, sure, let's toss in the kitchen sink' approach that privileges free-form exploration over tightly strategic execution.

The physical basis of the piece is an antique Chinese junk. The only thing unusual about it externally is its transplantation; a delightful and enthusiastic anachronism, it also holds a slightly melancholic air of lost place and time. The guts of the vessel are where everything happens. The hold has been re-constructed as a maze of inexplicable elements. As you inch your way through, a dense, mechanised assemblage twitches and quakes according to a pre-programmed five minute sequence. The action begins slowly with occasional drumsticks smacked against pots, the slow, heavy sloshing of a rocking water-tank, low bursts of static from old radios, a few rough notes from a lurching violin... By the final minute things have crescendoed into a riotous convulsion of sound and motion. Sea shanties blare while pointless gears spin madly and countless objects beat frantically on each other. Without ever approaching the grotesque, there are certainly some Rebelasian nuances. Via Bakhtin (Rabelais and His World), the most interesting association in that respect has to be the comedic theatricality of it all and the relation there to laugher: "True ambivalent and universal laughter does not deny seriousness but purifies and completes it." (122) Under this rubric, in playfully poking fun at art and artists, as this piece does to a degree, it also affirms their significance.

I met with Cardiff, Miller and their daughter Aradhana on-site in Toronto's Trinity-Bellwoods Park. As turned out to be very fitting, we sat and watched Aradhana play as we discussed Ship O' Fools.

Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, Ship O' Fools, 2010
Installation detail
Courtesy of the artists and Luminato Festival

Kyra Kordoski: I thought I would start by adressing some of the specific objects in the installation. One of the smaller elements that stood out were the little square palettes. They became sort of an art-historical reference, in terms of the progression from painting to installation and sound work.

Janet Cardiff: You mean the paintings? Those are Aradhana's paintings. We wanted to make the thing quite lose so there wasn't a lot of editing beforehand. We'd go through the studio and see her paintings and think, 'This would be nice in the boat.' Or she'd be making a little sculpture at the same time as I'd be making a big sculpture and she'd say 'can I have this in the boat?' And we thought... if you allow happy accidents like that, the serendipitous events, it will add to the whole experience as being non-specific, not about anything particularly, so that you go through and you have an idea of this, and then this, and this and this... and it creates a sort of cacophonic experience.

Kordoski: One of the more obviously intentional focal points were dioramas, which were very theatrical - small, sparse 'stages' and spotlights. They seemed to relate to Paradise Institute. The miniaturisation echoed through. And like the tension there between the performance and the distracted, fictional audience, these were also intense, localised dramas enveloped by life just carrying on in all its madness.

Cardiff: That's true, they're sort of these quiet moments amongst the cacaphony. They're more like the subconscious, or people removed from everything else - they're in their own little world.

George Bures Miller: They're almost like film noir stills, in a way. They're kind of pregnant pauses.

Cardiff: I saw them, too, as a reference to Edward Hopper paintings.

Miller: Especially with the lighting.

Cardiff: And Cornell's boxes. Someone said to me that the whole piece is like a big Cornell Box.

Miller: Someone said that about Dark Pool as well. We love Cornell and we love the way your mind enters his work and the box. I think in a way we're building very large-scale versions so you can actually enter them yourself as opposed to only with your mind. But we've talked about this with models - the fascination with miniaturisation. There's a way that we're allowed into something through our imagination when you build a model, or a doll's house... Why does that trigger this magical imaginary feeling in all of us? We're quite fascinated with that, though I don't think we can explain it.

Cardiff: That's a very good point. I play doll house with Aradhana quite a bit, so in way I see this piece as kind of an investigation of play and how the art world connects with that.

Miller: Or not. Because quite often the art world doesn't connect with play.

Kordoski: Which leads to my next question... Could you talk about the idea of art as event as opposed to object, and the unpredictable, exploratory nature of that? You mentioned those uncontrolled elements - one of the striking things about walking through this piece is, because the space is so small and tight, the experience is really affected by whoever you end up randomly going through it with.

Cardiff: So it's kind of intimate. Forced intimacy. I never thought of that.

Kordoski: It was less busy when I was saw it, but there were a few small children and it was pretty absorbing to hear them ask about everything. Their parents just had to say 'I really can't tell you what that is - I have no idea.'

Cardiff: [Laughs] That's great, that idea. It's fantastic - that they have to just answer 'I don't know." But I think the element of unpredictability relates a lot to the walks. When someone is walking along they'll see a completely different thing than someone else. So with this piece, when you're walking through, you may get clacking or the crazy part right away, or you may get the quiet, low part - there's a whole sequence of events in the 5 minute program. It is a different piece for everyone. I like the idea of it being an event.

Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, Ship O' Fools, 2010
Installation detail
Courtesy of the artists and Luminato Festival

Kordoski: The physicality overall was really interesting, both in terms of the tight space and divergent scale, but also in terms of the sound. As opposed to there being one pre-recorded soundtrack of a different time or place or idea, so much of the sound is created in the moment by the objects in front of you.

Cardiff: What I really enjoy about it is that there's a mixture. There is recorded sound. There's the sound of the engine on a sub-woofer - that really serious 'sound' - and there's the recording of George's grandfather from 1966 singing a sea song. But I really like the idea, too, that there's 'clack, clack clacking' at points and you don't know if that's on the soundtrack or if it's real, so it creates the virtual presence of a performer, or of people who were in workshops doing crazy stuff, and they're gone now, but their objects are still going. It's like Killing Machine in that way.

Miller: And also with the water, insofar as the idea of physical presence, this whole feeling that the boat is actually sinking. We tried to get across that idea. And also that it's underground. The underground dioramas are about that. We're throwing everything in, basically, and we leave it up to the viewer to make all these connections and figure out what's going on. Normally we we work more in a narrative sense, we have kind of an underlying story. Opera for a Small Room is about this guy in his shed who's got seven or eight record players, and you delve into his life through the whole narrative. It's not very explicit but it's all there. Whereas with this piece, we didn't really have a narrative. The 'Ship O' Fools' title came from us thinking about ourselves as being totally foolish for buying this boat. We spent all this money - we bought the boat on the internet, right - we spent thousands before we could even do anything with it, and we're looking at it thinking 'We're nuts, what are we going to do with this thing?' So that's where the title came from. It's the ship and we're the fools. But then from that title came all these ideas. We started reading The Ship of Fools, and then also making inexplicable objects and foolish things. And there's the idea of art being a foolish activity - considered by 95% of society, anyway. It's not just a cacophony of sound, it's a cacophony of ideas.

Cardiff: It's a lot looser than say Dark Pool or Opera, though it's the same kind of genre.

Miller: The other thing we were going for, physically, is we wanted to create space. Even though it's a huge boat and you end up with an exhibition space of a hundred square feet or something. And so the reason for the maze, basically, was to create a Tardis-like effect, like in Dr. Who when he walks into police box and it's much bigger than you would imagine it to be. You look at it and you think, oh it can't be that big, but you go in and all of the sudden you're lost inside a maze in a boat.

Cardiff: Time travel's a good metaphor, too - the Tardis as time travel - because they don't make boats like that anymore in Hong Kong, they make them out of fiberglass. This old wooden boat is a piece of history.

Kordoski: And, historically, a ship is a strong metaphor for exploration - in a scientific sense, too. The nests behind glass have very biological or taxonomic associations.

Cardiff: That relates to the Cabinet of Curiousities.

Miller: It relates to Darwin, as well, all the discoveries he made while on a ship, travelling around the world.

Kordoski: Those, combined with all the 'useless' machines on board... there's a way in which it could all be read as a very bleak comment. The objects that have been collected are a bit dusty and falling apart, and the machines don't really do anything and aren't really completed... as a metaphor for human endeavour it makes you stop and think 'what are we doing?'

Cardiff: I actually thought about that as well. It's funny, that sort of thing. You can look at the world like that. I mean look at what all our time is spent for. You look as some of the what they call 'primitive' cultures of the world, it's such a different life than our North American life that's obsessed with shopping and commercialism and money.

Miller: But our work always has a kind of a...

Cardiff: ...explorative space.

Miller: We didn't set out to make a political statement with this piece. In some ways the title is a political statement itself, and we're talking about our society, I guess, so it is there, but it's very undercurrent. We were much more explicit in the last few works where we're really talking about the last fifteen years and the way things have gone. In this one we were still referring to the Bush administration, perhaps, with the title alone. You could make that connection.

Cardiff: Look over there [points to Aradhana]. That is so much what it's about. It's so inspiring being with children. She just made this piece of sculpture there. It's so beautiful and so inventive. And then they just destroy it. It's much more of a Buddhist sensibility. It's like being in the now.

Kordoski: You've been quoted saying that about your video and sound work, too: you create something and then it's just sort of gone. The event can't be recreated elsewhere.

Cardiff: That's true.

Miller: We're not going to destroy the boat, though.

Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, Ship O' Fools, 2010
Courtesy of the artists and Luminato Festival