Kate Mattingly on the Forty Part Motet

24 Nov, 2015

Kate Mattingly on the Forty Part Motet

SFMOMA was kind enough to offer The Consortium for Interdisciplinary Research student tickets for the opening and artist talks of the Forty Part Motet. BCNM's Kate Mattingly, PhD candidate in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and Designated Emphasis in New Media, had the opportunity to join this discussion:

On Saturday afternoon, November 14, Janet Cardiff and George Miller described 20 years of collaborations and creative projects during an Artist Talk at Fort Mason Center for the Arts. Their careers are impressive and their projects span a wide range of disciplines and formats. At one point, in the midst of a story about their creation for the 2001 Venice Biennale, Miller admitted they had never been to the Venice Biennale when they were invited to make a piece. Then he paused to ask who in the audience has been to the festival.
Many hands shot up.

This was a cultured and acculturated crowd, familiar with global festivals and blue chip artists. What made Cardiff and Miller so engaging was the awareness, intelligence, and modesty they brought to their explorations. At one point Cardiff said, “The way we work is we follow our intuition, and we’ve been lucky enough to do that.”

Maybe it makes sense that Cardiff and Miller are deeply aware of their resources, opportunities, and surroundings. Some of their most well-known projects are “walks,” that invite individuals to experience an environment using an audio or audio+video accompaniment. On these walks, as people move through a city street or train station, their senses are activated by stories they hear and images they see, both on screen and around them. Sights and sounds become fused with recent and historical moments, with images and memories that are evocative and resonant.

This kind of play with perception and exploration of technologies are through-lines of their projects. In Miller’s 1998 “Jump” a television set hanging in a room appears to swing as its screen shows us feet landing from a jump. Miller described this as an example of our perceptions “messing with reality,” or attributing cause and effect to situations that are not connected. Both Cardiff and Miller are invested in understanding “media as a language,” meaning how media inform and influence what we know as reality. Each of their projects asks us what we see and notice, as well as how we ascribe significance to the sights and situations around us.

Even though their work incorporates acoustic and visual technologies, a human participant remains an essential component. In The Killing Machine, for instance, a human user presses a button to start the choreography of robotic mechanisms. In the walking projects, it’s the merger of lived and recorded moments, these two worlds together, that create what Miller calls “a third world.”

Such immersive experiences negotiate between presence and absence, between what is seen and what is imagined, triggering an enhancement of senses, or “seeing things in a different way.” During Saturday’s talk, Cardiff emphasized the poetic spaces that exist in their projects: gaps between images and ideas are included so that disparate elements are linked or connected through associations and resonances rather than linear paths.

During a question-and-answer session after their talk, SFMOMA associate curator Frank Smigiel asked the artists about the absence of human performers in their creations and the element of “menace” that seems to exist within these projects, especially The Killing Machine and The Paradise Institute, the piece made for the 2001 Venice Biennale.

Cardiff answered that it’s a “completely different emotional connection” when people interact with an environment or installation. Their projects are not about live performance in terms of exchanges between performers and audiences, but rather are highly controlled, pre-recorded (they buy all their own equipment for installations), and reproducible. “We’re control freaks,” said Miller. Their work opens questions about our relationships with technologies, in particular the dialectics between vulnerability and protection, between intimacy and distance. On view at Fort Mason until January 18, 2016 is Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, an installation of 40 speakers transmitting 59 voices singing Spem in alium nunquam habui (I have never put my hope in any other) created in 1573 by composer Thomas Tallis.

Tickets are available here. Click “Get tickets,” then click on a day to attend, then scroll to “Quantity” or number of persons attending, and then pick a scheduled time. Admission is free.