JANET CARDIFF & GEORGE BURES MILLER: Storm Room (2009)
Originally installed at the Japanese Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in 2009, Storm Room has continued on to tour outside of its original context. Created as a site-specific work for the Triennial, the work maintains its’ references to Japan and to the dentist’s office in which it was housed (Cardiff) through the aesthetics of the installation space. In its iteration at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) from April 6-August 18, 2013, the installation is a self-contained room within the room of the space it temporarily inhabits. Upon entering the gallery space, the spectator is able to choose to enter Storm Room via a ramp which leads to a door, or to circumnavigate the wooden frame of the space, the exterior of which has an under-construction aesthetic. The raw wood and beams of the structure are exposed, as is wiring, and one can peer up into the windows to explore the lighting and audio connections integrated into the installation. From the exterior, your vision is limited to the mechanics of the space; the frosted windows prohibit inadvertent glimpses of the interior, its decor, design and inhabitants.
Upon entering the room, the spectator steps into sparsely decorated and seemingly abandoned room, designed with a modern Japanese aesthetic. Much of the space is generically industrial—the floor is a peeling linoleum with 1970’s era patterning, the drop ceiling and fluorescent lights speak to inexpensive modular design for offices and the walls are blank except for a few peeling and yellowed flyers and a mirror and sink in the far corner. It is in the details of the design that the Japanese aesthetic is established—the flyers contain (presumably) an Asian character-based text, and without translation, there is no way to know what they might contain. The large windows are of a characteristically Japanese design with a double-paned, sliding mechanism and wooden slats between the interior and exterior panes of glass. The sink and mirror offer very little information, holding a roll of dental floss and a few other articles of (im)personal hygiene. A standing fan is motionless in the opposite corner and a series of buckets are dispersed around the floor to collect the slow drip of water from the ceiling. As the spectator stands in the space, the sound of a light rain begins to knock against the window panes. The air is hot and stagnant, and as the rain begins to fall harder and harder, thunder and lightning strike around the room. Flashes of light through the windows and the rumbling bass of thunder roll through the floor and into the spectator’s body, engaging them in the experience of a summer storm. Water pours down the window panes, the ceiling drips increase to torrents, the fluorescent lights flicker, and as the storm climaxes, the standing fan kicks on to move the air around the room. Then, just as quickly as it came, the storm passes and the electricity it generated dissipates.
The key word for this installation is electricity. Although the installation references its Japanese origins and roots in a dental office (through the dental floss and other paraphernalia), the key to this work is the experience of the storm, which is not site or culturally specific. It is a wholly immersive simulation of an event that most people have experienced and can connect with. It is emotional and tense; suspense is built up through the violence of the storm, and as the arc of the storm’s narrative progresses it feels like something is about to happen. Like much of Cardiff and Miller’s other work, there is a cinematic feeling about the installation and the event. It is an experience that one can suspend belief in order to fully participate, however there is always something uncanny about it. The term uncanny is used here in reference to Freud’s understanding of its meaning as something which exists in a double relationship of being familiar and yet unfamiliar simultaneously (Freud), which is a trope that Cardiff and Miller often draw on. In much of their work, the artists reveal elements of the mechanism behind the illusion in order to stimulate a critical embodiment in the space. Oscillating between knowing that it is an artwork, and being swept away by the experience, the viewer is situated in a powerful double experience. It builds a tension and suspense that is often associated with the generic sense of uncanny as a feeling of dread or that ‘something is coming’. Once again, this feeling is often associated with the cinema; film noir and mystery films utilize it to build tension and immersive engagement with the characters and action, and horror or thriller films use it to set up the climactic event. Stepping into Storm Room is like stepping into a movie in the middle of the action, as one of the characters. There is no information about what has happened or what will happen, and you have to discover it for yourself. Being embodied in the actual space creates a sense of stake in the proceedings, unlike watching it from the safety of a theatre seat, the safety net here is dropped so you can stand in the middle of the action.
The sense of cinematic is also reinforced by the staging of the space. Although I’ve mentioned that the decor references it’s origins, by staging such a specific cultural space for a non-local audience, the artists also ask the spectators to draw on their own cultural references, whatever those may be. As a Western spectator, much of my personal experience is through cinema and through the news. Personally, the sparse and grungy decor immediately prompted an investigation of the space. Like a detective, I scrounge through the posters and props to determine the narrative behind the room. Who lived there, what had they done? It seemed abandoned. Why would they abandon it? The storm seemed violent and disastrous. Something bad had happened. An accident, a disaster, an apocalypse. Any number of realistic and fantastic options come to mind, and many of them recall Japanese horror, action and crime films I have seen. I also draw on reality (in a sense)—the tragedy of the Japanese tsunami in 2011, and the devastation of typhoons and hurricanes regularly shown on the news. Less dramatically, but equally powerfully, I also draw on my own memories of storms. The delight I feel in the power and drama of the thunder, lightning and rushing water. I think about the excitement that comes with a storm, as it softens the boundaries between the safety of my everyday existence and the uncontrollable forces of nature. This dual reaction of fear and delight once again echoes Freud’s uncanny, and activates a critical embodiment that empowers Storm Room.
Stepping outside of the immersion, the remnants of personal items like dental floss and posters reference the presence of the past owners, as well as the other spectators who are sharing the experience of Storm Room. Many of Cardiff and Miller’s other immersive installations like The Paradise Institute (2001), An Opera for a Small Room (2005), and Forest (for a thousand years) (2012), create spaces that are experienced by multiple users simultaneously. Spectators crowd into the space of the artwork and experience it together, without actively engaging with one another. Paradise Institute most directly references this collective and anonymous watching through the audio soundtrack built into the pieces, which overtly recognizes fictional viewers in the simulated theatre space, however the other works do not acknowledge spectatorship as directly. In Storm Room the audio reveals the presence of coughing and shuffling in a fictional adjoined room after the storm is finished, which draws attention to the narrative of the ghostly characters that may have taken refuge in the next room, or the owners of the space who have left their belongings behind. In addition, by crowding with other spectators into the space, and exploring with them, one is also forced to acknowledge their presence in the room as you share the experience. I watched one young man stay for the entire experience of the storm, obviously enjoying the thrill of thunder, lightning and rain as much as I was. However, I also watched many other individuals wander in for a few moments and leave again quickly. I also watched the young man watch the others, and watch me. I also found that in that act of voyeurism with other spectators, I was still completely isolated from them. The mix of emotions stirred up by the storm were so complex within my own body, that I could imagine how others were reacting, but I was acutely aware of the separation of our experience. On their website, Cardiff and Miller describe Storm Room with a question: “Have you ever found refuge from a summer shower under the eaves?” (Cardiff). By establishing the experience as a “refuge”, the artists remind us of the unplanned and unpredictable nature of a storm event. When you are forced to take shelter, you are often in strange places with strangers, and the only commonality you have is that shared moment of refuge. However, as much as you are sharing the experience, each individual is solitary in their minds and history, and once the storm has passed, you will part ways. As with the other installations mentioned above, this group experience is not about working together as a group, or connecting with other audience members, as much as it is about drawing attention to the solitary embodiment of the spectator within the immersion. It is a fine balance between experience and criticality that makes the artwork so successful, and gives it a sense that there is more depth behind the intent than just a fun theme-park experience of an exciting event.
Art Gallery of Ontario. “Lost in the Memory Palace: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.” AGO: Art Gallery of Ontario | Musée des beaux-arts de l’Ontario. Art Gallery of Ontario. Web. 17 September 2013. <http://www.ago.net/lost-in-the-memory-palace>.
Cardiff, Janet and George Bures Miller. “Storm Room.” Janet Cardiff George Bures Miller. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, 2013. Web. 17 September 2013. <www.cardiffmiller.com>
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001. 929-952. Print.
Zabrodski, Sarah. “The Sensory Worlds of Memory.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents. Going Off Script/Hyperallergic, 7 June 2013. Web. 17 September 2013. <http://hyperallergic.com/72238/the-sensory-worlds-of-memory/>.