Cardiff Miller: A Sound Choice

It is rare to see so many shocked expressions in a museum — usually you go in, snap a few pictures of some paintings, and leave before lunch. But the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla, “Lost in the Memory Palace: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller,” which runs through Jan. 12, does not include any paintings, sculptures or “normal” pieces of art, but it will have visitors wanting to linger past closing. 
The Canadian husband and wife duo, Cardiff and Miller, creates works that rely on sound and arranges ready-made objects to immerse the participant in a very personal, even slightly jarring, experience.
Cardiff and Miller’s newest piece, “Experiment in F# Minor,” is on exhibit, and it is, very simply, a room with 72 old, mismatched speakers that are activated by sensors at eight-inch intervals on one table; each speaker emanates with the sound of a musical instrument or a human voice. You might stand still upon first entering the room, but after a few laps around the table, you realize that each movement results in another layer of sound. First a steady keyboard, then a double bass, then a cello, then an electric guitar, then what you’re sure is a church choir — at this point you are engulfed by the sound; you are no longer a viewer, but a participant in the piece. All the speakers together produce a surprisingly coherent deluge of sounds, and it turns out to be an eerie, yet mesmerizing, experience. Stop, or stand still, and the sounds are cut off as quickly as the piece began.
Providing a commentary on U.S. death penalty policies in some regions, Cardiff and Miller’s piece “The Killing Machine” consists of a plush dentist chair with pneumatic robot arms that randomly plunge into and assault the imaginary torture victim as a strident, grating violin plays along.
After the five-minute-long performance, the visitor begins to realize Cardiff and Miller’s ironic approach to the death penalty: Everyone is engaged for a short time, but once the news has passed, everyone forgets, just like how the room goes dark, and everyone leaves the piece once it is over.
The last work, “Dark Pool,” is also one of the artists’ first, and it suffuses the room with such immersive and visceral sounds it feels almost intrusive.
On entering the doorway to “Dark Pool,” the viewer notices the ground underneath is taped with various pieces of cardboard. Trash is strewn all over the floor and there is a half-made bed in the corner. Overlapping, sensor-activated soundtracks narrate people’s stories in the background.  
In one spot, the visitor can sit between two large, rusty, brass, phonograph-like horns, and listen to the disjointed conversation of a once-intimate couple. The woman whispers to the man about a shadow of an image she saw of two people dancing, two people that loved each other very much, and the man replies coldly, “That’s a nice story. I’m sorry I don’t see it.”
Another part of “Dark Pool” is the wishing machine, where visitors sit in a chair, write down a wish on a sheet of paper and slide it into a copper slot. An air of desire permeates the room coupled with a crackling radio  playing Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” intermittently.
Cardiff and Miller’s works are refreshing and, more importantly, accessible.  Each piece speaks on a different level to each participant, impressing all with a quiet, and ultimately fresh sensation; it is an exhibit not to be ignored. Admission is free for ages 25 and under   with photo ID. 
By Alex Jen