"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Monday, 28 February 2011


Walking through London's streets can sometimes feel a little like entering the Tower of Babel - you hear snatches  of conversation in a multitude of languages, jostle with people of all ages, types and nationalities against a backdrop of buildings both ancient and modern. Everywhere is a tangled mass of narratives, overlapping in space and time.

Something of this idea is evident in the work which  sound artist Janet Cardiff devised in 1999 in association with Artangel, a London based arts organisation which commissions and produces site-specific projects by contemporary artists. Entitled The Missing Voice (Case Study B) the work is a compelling audio experience involving listener participation, comprising a set of recorded instructions and enigmatic observations to be listened to on a Sony Walkman borrowed from the Whitechapel Library.  The library is no longer in the same building, but it is still possible to follow the walk 12 years later, picking up the thread from outside the building which now forms part of Whitechapel Gallery. It can be downloaded as a podcast.

Described as 'part urban guide, part detective fiction, part film noir', the listener is immediately transported on a journey through time and space as Cardiff's voice whispers conspiratorially in your ear, her observations intertwined with fevered stream of consciousness scenarios involving memories, a complicated relationship, stalking, pulp fiction, newspaper headlines, a missing woman with long red hair, murder. "I want you to walk with me.  There are some things I need to show you," her gentle yet hypnotic voice intones against the backdrop of ambient noise from the street - conversations, traffic noise, footsteps, sirens, music, dogs barking.  As you walk and listen you see the outside world through her eyes, experiencing unexpected new perspectives on your surroundings, the past and the present intermingling until it is difficult to differentiate between what you are hearing on the tape and the sounds from the real world outside your headphones. Passing strangers briefly become your companion.   "Someone is following you" a man's voice suddenly breathes in your ear..... 

"Have you ever had the urge to disappear," she asks, "to escape from your own life, even just for a little while? Like walking out of one room and into a different one."  Being in the city on your own offers an opportunity to assume different roles, to blend in with the crowd, to observe unseen. "I like not talking to anybody all day, except when I pay for a book or a cup of tea or something." she says, "It's like you're invisible." There are echoes here of Virginia Woolf's Street Haunting where she writes of 'shedding the self our friends know us by' as she slips out of her house and into the streets. She also shares Woolf's delight in dispassionately observing everyone she comes across, noting little details and idiosyncrasies and then moving on. But there is a darker undercurrent of fear and paranoia running through Cardiff's monologue which had me looking over my shoulder on numerous occasions. "There's a man in a black suit walking behind you" the man's voice interjects again suddenly....  

To be continued....

1 comment:

  1. Yes, 'Babel' is the right term to formulate one dominant impression you may have when visiting such a metropole - as I yesterday walked through Amsterdam, I was aware of this variety of languages, cultures...- the whole world is present - all kinds of life and humans being assembled on one place -fascinating idea of a still utopian multi-racial and multicultural world - interesting voice project! I had expected to see some more Babel- pictures.