Visible Thresholds: The Imaginary Cinema of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

By Davina Quinlivan

dark-pool-janet-cardiff-george-bures-miller.jpgDark Pool, 1995

“I could not go abroad in snow – it would settle on me and expose me. Rain too, would make me a watery outline, a glittering surface of a man – a bubble. And fog – I should be a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity. (...) in the London air – I gathered dirt about my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin.” – H.G. Wells, from The Invisible Man (1897)

Surfaces, textures and traces of dust all tend to mark visible thresholds between the material world and the invisible environs that Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller attempt to invoke. Their work stimulates sensory perception as a means of communicating hidden worlds and forgotten existences sensed as material remains. The way in which they perform and enact such haunted worlds bears strong comparison with the intimately experiential and transformational qualities of the cinematic medium.

Each of the five galleries in their recent Oxford exhibition The House of Books Has No Windows requires a physical and psychological orientation to separately unfolding and looping ‘live’ narratives in which the ‘protagonist’ of each piece must be located. The material remains we are faced with evoke an uncanny sense of curiosity and even longing. In particular, the recurrent imagery of disorderly piles of artefacts and empty chairs articulates a strange absence that is acutely felt as we become drawn into, and moved by, the realm of each cinematic narrative. Indeed, our emotional investment in fictional narratives is most at stake here and Cardiff and Miller use their installations to externalise and make visible the troubling relations between emotion and imagination.

While The Muriel Lake Accident, a conceptual ‘cinema-in-a-box’ featuring a soundtrack of ‘phantom’ members of the audience, and Road Trip, a projection of images from a journey Cardiff’s grandfather took, are explicitly cinematic, the three dimensional mise-en-scène of the other exhibits suggest the plasticity of the medium. Entry into the first piece triggers a set of audio cues, conversations and stories which play out inside a room resembling an abandoned film set. In The Dark Pool bare light-bulbs project a golden tint over large wooden tables scattered with thick, faded books with titles such as ‘Little Sins’ and ‘The Knife’. Cardiff and Miller have described The Dark Pool as an environment which enables us to stir up dusty memories into sounds and stories that can be heard while moving through the space. Certainly, the past can be resurrected in this room; it forms the image of an archive or film frozen in time which patiently awaits our engagement.

While life is resurrected in The Dark Pool, The Killing Machine is a mechanical, absurdist execution chamber condemning the American system of capital punishment. Inspired by Franz Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919), a large button seductively elicits tactile interaction. Behind the button, a frame consisting of several robotic arms and various empty units overshadows a large, pink furry chair. Releasing the button sets in motion a discordant, whirring intensity of guitar strings giving the sense of something about to take flight or a wildly throbbing heartbeat. A silver glitterball hangs ominously over the pink chair, its starry reflections compounding a sense of sudden light-headedness. Robotic arms steadily arch around the chair before piercing into it. Finally, in silence, an innocuous, dim light draws attention to the button which will start the process all over again and we are reminded of our active involvement in operating Cardiff and Miller’s killing machine.

Situated at the other end of the same gallery level as The Killing Machine, orchestral music can be heard coming from Opera for a Small Room. The sound suggests a live musical performance, starting with the noise of an orchestra warming up and ending with applause. The room itself evokes the clutter and nostalgia of The Dark Pool on a smaller scale. An antique gramophone plays and hundreds of records line the shelves. The implied record collector, a middle-aged Canadian man, can be heard talking over the music and his melancholic recollection of moments from his life displaces the ‘listener’, at once inside the public space of the opera and the private den of the music enthusiast. This sense of displacement is also rendered through the spectacle of a large chandelier, which casts an apparition of the opera’s decadence, swaying and ‘breathing’ inside the room as if it held the very soul of the singer.

While we cannot fully inhabit the space of Opera for a Small Room, we are invited to crouch and sit inside the title piece of the exhibition. A strange reversal takes place: the smell and texture of the books intoxicate and inhabit the bodies invited to occupy its silent space. Finally, in the house of books, it seems that we cross the threshold of imagination and enter a world of fantasy where the only view desired is that of the one inside our very own imaginary cinema.

The House of Books Has No Windows was at Modern Art Oxford (15th October 2008- 18th January 2009). Visit

Davina Quinlivan is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at King’s College, London. She has several articles forthcoming with Peter Lang Press and Palgrave.