When first making my way into the world of new media art, my first instinct was to look for works focusing on the computer: coding, languages, digital, analog. Anything apparently technical seemed appropriate. But when digging deeper, I encountered works that seemed reminiscent of those wonderful gadgets and gizmos from Doctor Who, seemingly ordinary objects and structures that became “bigger on the inside” or had “hidden secrets to reveal.” That’s what I found in the works of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.
The first work that piqued my interest was The Paradise Institute. It was the perfect example of something that looked “bigger on the inside.” The work itself looked like a wooden box with two doors. The viewers enter the doors and sit in red movie theater seats. The illusion is created of a 1940s cinema. I was already captured by the idea of transporting people into the past, and creating the illusion of a cinema. But the illusion is extended as the viewers put on the headphones. Besides hearing the dialogue of the film they are watching, voices are simulated, as well as sounds, of the people around you. You occasionally hear voices of other nonexistent members of the audience, commenting about the film or asking if you would like more popcorn.
The idea can almost be seen as reminiscent of the movie Inception. As the phone rings in the audience, the film character’s attention is caught. The disjoint images of the film and the intertwined actions and reactions of the audience make for a surreal experience, where the film becomes one with the viewers. “The installation not only blurs the distinction between narrative sense and nonsense, it also breaks down the boundaries that exist between the actors in the film and the observers in the audience.”1 This work is much like Miller’s solo work Conversation, Interrogation.
The viewer is taken into a 1984-type of living space, as he or she interacts with a television interface; the image on the screen talks to you, and then slowly begins to interrogate you. While we find the phenomenon quite common in movies, it becomes much more eerie in person. “As the title suggests, the tone of the virtual interview shifts from banal chatter to manipulative interrogation, and its intent is never clear. The nausea produced by pseudo-conversation with an inflexible humanoid machine—now a fact of our daily life –—is central to the nightmare quality of the experience.”2
But not all of Cardiff and Miller’s works take on the mysteriously dark approach to life’s illusions. Some actually invoke the magical world of Doctor Who, where far-off planets and people can be quite unusually wonderful in their obscurity. The works in particular I call to mind are The Cabinet of Curiousness and Ship O’ Fools.
When seeing The Cabinet of Curiousness, I was transported to the land of Gallifrey, Wonderland, and Mordor. The work unassumingly take on the appearance of an antiqued card catalog, which now has gone out of use with current computer databases.
The work invites the audience members to open the drawers, unlocking the secrets within which can’t be more surprising: sounds. Each drawer contains a sound, unlocked as the drawer is pulled open to reveal. The audience member becomes a disc jockey, mixing the pulled and “unpulled” drawers in creative ways. This work especially was a great treat for me because I’m an avid lover of music and old-fashioned things. And this simple combination of the two was a great new look at life I had never considered. Bringing to life the imagined, especially in real time like this work, was where I finally understood how true interactivity can be a medium in new media art.
Then there was the Ship O’ Fools. From the outside, it seems sculptural in its design, but actually the artists salvaged the Chinese ship; the real work is hidden inside. Inside, there seems to be an aimless Rube Goldberg invention.
The work makes use of the various contraptions to invoke the many references to this entity in literature and art. Like all the other works, the various devices create the atmosphere. To invoke the ideas of the underworld and how the Ship of Fools contains obscure and aimless passengers without a captain, they create a cacophony of sound and images, juxtaposed with the normal interior of a Chinese ship.
In all, Cardiff and Miller spoke to me through their pieces because they seemed to bring to life all the wonderful things I thought possible only in films and stories. Better than magic, they use engineering and robotics and technology to make the world of Doctor Who come to life, where technology and society and space are merged into one. I was reminded particularly of this philosophy when reading a comment by Cardiff, which reiterated one of the hallmarks of Doctor Who culture: “When [people] first enter in [Ship O’ Fools], they would be expecting to see what you would normally find in a ship — beds and a galley and a little toilet…But what we decided to do was create a maze that made them go to the right and to the left and then back again and thus create a space that was much bigger than it actually was.”3