The Missing Voice – Janet Cardiff

Commissioned by Artangel, throughout 1999 Canadian artist Janet Cardiff realised what was her most ambitious work to date then, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), in London’s East End.

Part urban guide, part detective story, part film noir, Cardiff’s work draws you in as an accomplice in a narrative that shifts through time and space. Seductive – narrated in her own softly-spoken voice – intimate, even conspiratorial, Cardiff’s audio-walks are absorbing – for an audience of one at a time.

Starting at the then Whitechapel Library, visitors were given a Discman. After having initially been directed upstairs to find a specific book, you would leave the building and find yourself transported in time. What was that sound? Who is speaking to you? Where does reality end, and what’s imagined begin…? The confusion between reality and fiction was enhanced by the use of binaural recordings, while visually references were sometimes met in reality by sheer fluke and happenstance (“oh, there’s that banana peel!”)

The Missing Voice (Case Study B), which can now also be downloaded, lasts some 50 minutes, tracing a route through Spitalfields and towards the City of London, with the threads of the narrative being brought to some kind of resolution in a space off Commercial Street.

The Whitechapel Library has closed and the building was absorbed into the neighbouring Whitechapel Gallery. One of many changes the area has undergone since the work was launched in 1999. Whole buildings have gone, shops have disappeared and been replaced by others, or bars and restaurants have sprung up instead. The area around Brick Lane, Commercial Street and old Spitalfields market is one in which regeneration and redevelopment have taken hold firmly. The network of streets The Missing Voice (Case Study B) lets you navigate is still the same, but the way they look continues to change. Doing the walk now, makes you utterly aware of the sheer speed and scale.

This was one of the first Artangel projects in which the question as to what to mediate and translate, and how became primary concerns. How could the core essence of projects be transposed to another medium – primarily books, but many also encompassed sound carriers – so that it would not be simply a set of images accompanied by a couple of texts, and be mere documentation and representation.

In this case Mark Diaper, the designer, came up with a set of propositions that played in different ways with those considerations: the inside of the loose cover contained the entire transcript of the sound piece, so the text could be listened to and read. The meandering route and the notion of being able to follow the narrative visually is embedded through two image sequences, which are printed on both sides of semi transparent paper – where the book has Japanese binding, so the uncut edge is the one that we encounter while leafing through the book. There is a mimicking of the red wig, which plays a key role in the story, as well as the pavement stones we walk on on the outside of the cover, while the foam ‘endpapers’ evoke the foam on the headphones listeners would wear. In the end the CD with the whole story is also embedded. There is a text that places this work in the context of Cardiff’s wider practice (by Canadian curator Kitty Scott), and a brief statement by Janet herself. Overall this project started to go towards what I think has become now a widely practised approach to artists’ books, that combines more ‘traditional’ catalogue elements with that of the book as consider as a work in its own right.


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