Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller at Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

By Teresa Retzer

Janet Cardi & George Bures Miller, The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, 2018 (installation view). Photo: Maarten Nauw. Courtesy Oude Kerk, Amsterdam


A dog barks somewhere, horse hooves trot past, a cello plays two chords. The sound of a medieval chorus accompanies the church organ the hallowed space of Amsterdam’s oldest building, transfiguring its ceilings, seeming to raise the soaring roof even higher. Hidden behind wooden screens, where the high altar used to be, in the middle of the Oude Kerk’s choir, stands Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s the instrument of troubled dreams (2018) – a black mellotron. The orientation of three rows of chairs beckons you to sit down and play. Short descriptions of themes have been tagged above the mellotron’s 72 keys, divided into three categories: sound, music and voice. 

We have experienced most of the sounds – the weather, animal noises, etc – of the ‘sound’ keys before. Other sounds visitors will only know in their mediated forms, like machine guns firing and the roar of airplane bombers. For the instrumental recordings the artists worked together with film music composers, the choral and organ portions recorded in the church itself. The 11 narratives triggered by the ‘voice’ keys (and spoken in Cardiff’s well-modulated voice) structure the mellotron’s sounds and guide your imagination through stories from the past, present and future.

“Too many people crowded together, the boat’s toilet was filled by the second day, water was running short,” begins one of the narratives. From this story fragment the mellotron player can layer in the sound of a person breathing heavily. The voice continues: “She thought there must be a murder onboard as the people grew fewer every day and their faces more terrified.” The tragic scene can be underscored with a sound effect like ‘windgusts’, or one can give it the uncanny atmosphere of a 1960s horror movie by accompanying it with the ‘carnival organ’. While the narrator’s story seems to have taken place outside of any particular time, it is impossible not to imagine a contemporary refugee crossing the treacherous Mediterranean waters.

The experience of the narrations recalls consuming fiction, which works – as in the reception of movies, as Stanley Cavell has noted – ‘not as if I am present at something happening, which I must confirm, but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory)’. Cavell also succinctly argued that sound in film creates space, which is seemingly shared by characters and viewers. While the space of a filmic world is visibly present but not physically accessible, the instrument of troubled dreams builds up a merely audible space that we can enter like a sound sculpture. As the acousmatic sounds in the church provide no imagery, we automatically activate our own visual recall to fill the space. The combination of narratives, environmental sounds and emotionally charged music viscerally evokes the experience of a dream, or possibly a dystopian nightmare, one conjured by collective traumas and, more than that, tons of mediated realities stored in our minds.

Cardiff and Bures Miller’s collaborative works play with our perception, attention and consciousness. Not everyone is a fan of this kind of art; the pair’s ‘video walks’ in particular, where viewers ‘follow’ a prerecorded walk on a video camera and while wearing headphones, have been criticised for their engrossing but obtrusive quality. Their critics’ argument seems to derive from a rather outdated theoretical idea relating to the power of manipulative media and the vulnerability of the masses, which is dismissive of the audience’s ability to engage intellectually with the medium. The instrument of troubled dreams, conversely, manipulates the visitor’s perception of both mediated and unmediated realities, and rather than exploiting the senses, actively sharpens them.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: the instrument of troubled dreams at Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, 24 November – 29 April

From the January & February 2019 issue of ArtReview