Becoming-Crow, Courtesy of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

"Murder of Crows" (2008) © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin, Luhring Augustine, New York.

The title of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s largest sound installation to date –  ‘The Murder of Crows’ – not only references the collective name for a group of crows but also a fascinating characteristic of crow behaviour: their apparent ability to morn.  Recently installed in the Art Gallery of Alberta, the arrangement of the 98-speaker sound installation visually resembles a minimalist ‘flock’ huddled together to partake in a ‘crow funeral’ – the collective action of a wild flock where, upon the death of one of their number, they congregate around the body and caw, as if in lament, for periods of over 24 hours. While Cardiff and Miller’s evocation only lasts 30 minutes, the complex interweavings of voice, music and sound that make up this collaboratively composed sound-work are set on continuous loop, invoking a form of mourning without end. The title and layout of the work therefore help to provide a thematic entry point into the installation, a work that ultimately sets out to explore, as Jacques Derrida does in Spectres of Marx (1994), how the supposed triumphs of capitalist liberal democracy “have never been so… catastrophic, and in sum bereaved”.[1]

Francisco Goya: "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"

Rather than Marx, the spectre Cardiff and Miller conjure is Goya’s sleeping figure from his etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”. Thought of as the defining work of Goya’s etching series Los Caprichos (c1799), it depicts a man asleep with his head and arms resting on a table while above owls, bats and other creatures of the night menacingly circle. Goya’s dreamer is physically echoed in the installation through the placement of a megaphone speaker on a small desk set in the centre of the murder of speakers.  From the megaphone, Cardiff’s voice recounts three narratives that conjure scenes of violence, fear and loss. These apocalyptic nightmares alternate with a series of unfolding soundscapes built up by the 98 speakers surrounding the megaphone. Mounted around the gallery space on stands, chairs and the ceiling, the speakers’ positionings help to enhance the listener’s experience of the sculptural and physical qualities of sound.

In this installation the artists expand on the technical processes developed in earlier works, such as The Forty Part Motet (2001) and Pandemonium (2005). Using a stereophonic recording and playback system, the speakers create what the artists refer to as an “ambisonic” surround sound system. This, combined with the positioning of the speakers, has the effect of enveloping the listener in a moving field of sound and music. Sounds and noises seem to flit from speaker to speaker around the exhibition space, mimicking the creatures of the night closing in on Goya’s dreamer. As well as conjuring up the sensation of birds flying overhead and a figure walking by, the technique enables large waves to wash over the space periodically. These sound affects help to transition the piece between its alternating narrative and instrumental sections. Soundscapes therefore shape-shift into one another; Cardiff’s hypnotically monotone voice morphing into a guitar and string composition and then into a Russian marching band performing “Svyaschennaya Voyna” (The Sacred War).

The work’s structure seems to follow the illogical yet strangley interrelated morphings of dreams and, for the uninitiated, the disjointed play between enveloping sounds and disturbing narratives can be an unnerving and disorientating experience. Yet by letting fearsome things fly, the artists create possibilities for experiencing a space where “all forms are undone”. [2] The concept of “becoming animal” put forward by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), which presents and enables a form of post-modern un-humaning of the human, is a process of dispensing with the human subject’s identities and subjectivities. While submitting to becoming-crow may seem like an act of dislocation, in this instance it actually helps to re-orientate. Submitting to experiencing a form of collective mourning without end avoids any individuated clichéd emotional closure, testifying to the slippages and complicities between collective remembering and forgetting that characterize our political present. While Goya’s dreamer was a solitary mind in mourning over the political and social terrors of his time, by recycling repressed and expelled elements of our collective historical memory Cardiff and Miller allow forgetting and absorption to play a recuperative role. In this work then, to paraphrase Derrida, mourning itself becomes affirmation. [3]

[1] Derrida J, (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, London: Routledge, 68.

[2] Deleuze G. and Guattari F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 13.

[3] Derrida J, (1994) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, London: Routledge, 143.

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