“We believe in confusion.” Finishing one another’s sentences, internationally renowned artist duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller describe their new site-specific video and sound installation at Walt Disney Concert Hall — and, more broadly, the uncertain, intra-sensorial spaces into which their work plunges participants.
Commissioned for the L.A. Phil’s centennial and curated by Yuval Sharon, Thought Experiments in F# Minor is, roughly, a narrated walking tour featuring surround-sound headphones and a 40-minute video guiding you through the hall and its grounds' salacious curves and quiet nooks. The idea is to synchronize the view per a mini iPad, held in front of you, with the external real-time experience as you move about.
A dispassionate narrator (Cardiff) weaves a dark bit of storytelling, unlocking a shadow world full of conceptual Easter eggs and moments of delightfully warped subjectivity. Music is the muse, but the effect of layered voices and other abstracted sounds funneled through your headset may keep you looking over your shoulder and sidestepping phantoms. The surrounding space and objects in your path — reality, as it were — become part of the experiment, sucked up into it; like you, neither here nor there.
The unfamiliar sensory pairings and disruptions can be disorienting — but they also tease out deeper levels of your encounter with the architectural and exterior spaces and enhance the engagement with the musical performances (there are “live” L.A. Phil rehearsals in various spaces, a dance sequence and also original music by Ellen Reid).
“I think the magic really happens when you fully try to synchronize yourself,” Miller says. “It’s about these overlapping realities, about past and present aligning; for me (it) has this magic. And the confusion, those overlaps … it makes you wonder, what is the reality?”
Drawing on inspirations as divergent as philosophy, science fiction and quantum mechanics, Cardiff and Miller tackle contemporary questions of isolation and connectivity head-on, giving you permission to walk around with your face buried in an iPad while simultaneously ruminating on the transcendent power of music to heal and unite people. A mysterious waistcoated cat character, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s Stalin-era novel The Master and Margarita (Cardiff was reading it during early visits) and played by actress Jenna Malone, performs some of the White Rabbit’s tricks here, instigating and punctuating the journey.
Cardiff and Miller have been at this since 1999 or so, making work prescient of the smart devices that now consume us. Their first walking tours were done with camcorders. “It was really cool because (participants) felt like they were shooting the video then,” Miller says. “And what’s nice about the iPads, they still have a camera in them … so you still have that feeling.”
The two politely disagree with the term “augmented reality,” which L.A. Phil’s marketing department is using as shorthand to explain the work. “More like dis-augmented reality,” Miller says. “I haven’t seen anything in augmented reality that comes close to that disconnect.” Instead they call their genre “physical cinema,” built on a script Cardiff describes as “three-dimensional writing” and likens, in this case, to the structural composition of music.
Offered during the same hours as existing audio tours of Disney Hall, Thought Experiments in F# Minor further engages with the daily rhythms of the building, which helps to synchronize the experience. “We thought that would be really cool, you have some people on the screen and some people in the space,” Cardiff said.
The result is a deftly blended cocktail of introspection and engagement — a fresh experience of one of the city’s most iconic buildings and the forces that animate it.
Thought Experiments in F# Minor is free and open to the public beginning March 1.