Janet Cardiff: The Missing Voice (Case Study B)


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Ben Barker

25th November 2011

It might be ten years old and I’m definitely guilty of being that amount out of date, but Janet Cardiff’s audio tour at the Whitechapel gallery, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), is an enchanting aural dream through the back streets of Whitechapel and Brick Lane. In no way obsessed with historical details but instead a journey into the memories of the female narrator and the sounds of East London.

Cardiff’s work is filmic. The girl with the red hair, the overtones (and they are overtones not subtle or implied) of crime and romance. The beauty lies in the tension between the visual, which is real and makes physical demands on you and the audio track which is poetic and pulls you out of reality then dumps you back in with street names and warnings of danger. There are jokes that knock on the fourth wall (or one of the walls anyway) too, like a warning to cross the road carefully which is followed by the sound of a motorbike accelerating past.

James, not doing it for the first time, assured me that the experience hasn’t lost anything, even if it has spanned the change from diskman to iPod. It might even have gained a detective element given the many changes to the area in the ten or more years since it’s recording.

Cardiff makes you look in the streets for protagonists to play the roles in her switching narratives. Then serves memorable observations for you to attach to them, an idea that stuck with me went something like: ‘I look at the builders and wonder if they know that they are the creators of the city.’

At one point on the route I unknowingly dropped a lens cap. A man saw and was calling for my attention, but so good is the sound that I dismissed it as part of the experience. Only at the end of the street when I turned and saw him waving at me did I realise that Cardiff had completely woven me into her London.

The earphones empower too. They take you down streets you might otherwise avoid, into churches you did’t know you could enter and have you staring at strangers you would otherwise avoid.

The Whitechapel gallery describes the experience as a ‘twilight zone of aural hallucination’. It is.