Artist of the ear

D.C. makes artist Janet Cardiff paranoid.

Or at least that’s what it seems like in her latest exhibition – a guided walk through the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Mall to frenzied sounds of helicopters, a cappella chants and snippets of historic speeches.

To take an audio tour, participants must exchange their driver’s license to don an iPod Shuffle with Cardiff’s recording. The tour, called “Words Drawn in Water,” begins in the main lobby of the Hirshhorn, with Cardiff’s gentle, yet commanding, voice contemplating the fountain in the courtyard and the origin of the water. She then orders the participant to leave the lobby.

“Leave through the emergency exit to your left. Don’t worry, they won’t see you,” Cardiff orders, and you are compelled to follow. Out the door, through the courtyard – “People above are watching you,” Cardiff says, causing you to look up at the windows of the Hirshhorn; and then you head across the street, where she reminds you to watch for cars as you cross.

Cardiff made the recording with a technique called binaural audio, which means she recorded it on the site of the tour. This allows for a particularly three-dimensional sound, with the realistic crunching of gravel footsteps, voices on the street and occasional helicopter noises – all adding to the peculiar paranoia that Cardiff instills.

The tour is meant to be a very individual experience, lasting about 35 minutes. The museum tries to space walkers out so that they do not cross paths during the course of the tour, though no more than 25 people can have a headset at any given time. In addition to examining fountains and water, Cardiff espouses her feelings on other artists’ works. She even invites the viewer to get up close and personal with a sculpture in the garden, stepping onto the piece’s platform.

Do not take this tour if you aren’t interested in hearing about her political views. Cardiff, a Canadian, is no fan of the Bush administration or the war in Iraq, which she makes clear throughout the tour. On the Mall, she envisions a war-torn scene, and among the Hirshhorn’s sculptures, she remarks that they may be “gone, sold for the war funds.” She does not limit her feeling to Iraq, discussing the Civil War, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

Political rants won’t take up the entire walk, though. Portions of it are filled with Cardiff’s observations, which range from poetic to pointless. She remarks that she saw a piece of glass on the ground, and thought that it was a piece of sky fallen to the Earth – a sweet sentiment, but it just makes the participant shrug. Some of the tour includes her almost prophetic observations: predictions that a jogger or a couple with a stroller will pass, or that men will be conversing on a bench nearby. These are happy coincidences when they work – which they are likely to do since you take the tour in the middle of the afternoon – but when the men do not appear on the bench as Cardiff says on tape, one is reminded of how fallible this form of art can be.

Perhaps the strangest portion of the tour, however, is being reminded that this stroll is, indeed, a work of art, though not in the traditional sense. It is refreshing to experience art beyond the museum’s walls, and to stroll through a very public place, experiencing it in a very private way. By participating in this walk, you become a part of the artwork – after all, an installation piece such as this cannot exist without people to experience it.

“Words Drawn in Water” will be at the Hirshhorn Museum, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street S.W., until Oct. 30. Headsets are only available Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.

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