Janet Cardiff’s memory is full of sounds from her parents’ farm in rural Canada. She recalls having to plunge a long knife into the gut of a cow bloated from eating too much alfalfa. “My dad had to get the vet, and in order to save the cow I had to release the air,” Cardiff says. “The air talks to you–it’s just opening and going ‘shooosh.'” This is one of many sounds the 37-year-old Cardiff conjures up in her installation An Inability to Make a Sound at Randolph Street Gallery.

To begin Cardiff’s audiovisual exhibit, you put on a headset, pull back a black curtain, and enter a dimly lit room. Your steps trip off a motion detector that turns on a spotlight aimed at a phonograph playing an instructional record on tap dancing. For the next eight minutes, Cardiff’s mellifluous voice coaxes you to traverse a zigzag of planks balanced on cinder blocks, as an audio collage strings together sound effects like shattering porcelain, provocative dialogue, and snippets of stories. Several steps farther, another motion detector triggers a movie projector running a 30-second film loop of two girls in school uniforms struggling with one another in a wooded area; a fire blazes in the foreground.

The circuitous route takes you past a couple of chairs (one overturned) and a table with an antique tea service. Cardiff enhances your sense of imbalance with an audio track that sounds so real it’s eerie. “Many people have said they took off the headset thinking there were people in the room,” Cardiff says. She gets this hyperrealistic effect by trying to approximate our natural hearing experience, recording in stereo by placing tiny microphones on each of her ears or on both sides of a mannequin head. When played back on headphones, the result, according to an exhibit catalog, is “an aural and visceral sensation of hearing sound three dimensionally.”

Cardiff’s sounds and images connect in a nonlinear way, like a dream that makes no sense, an effect she sets out to create. “You’re trying to make sense of it all, but because you’re moving on the planks you can’t concentrate really on what the person’s saying,” she says. “I play into this whole sense of thinking that you’ve heard something before because everything is so mixed-up; it’s like we’re always having deja-vu.”

Cardiff, who started out as a printmaker and photographer, has been working with sound since the mid-1980s. Her first audio work trekked through a forest. “At one point [the tape] says, ‘Look over across the river. There are two people standing there, walking there,'” she says. “Quite often people would come back and say” they had seen two people.

In An Inability to Make a Sound, male and female voices face off in a game of sexual conquest, saying things like “I want to eat your flesh” and “Spank me till it hurts.” Later a boy tells a girl that her breasts are for the taking and she better get used to it. When Cardiff was a teenager, her older brother had actually told her that. “One of the things that really pissed me off was this idea that this is a man’s right,” she says. Cardiff wields her own sense of entitlement, appropriating incidents like this one for her art. “I think if I overhear something then I can own it,” she says. In fact, Cardiff stole the lines for an argument in An Inability to Make a Sound from a couple fighting next door to the studio in Montreal where the sound track for the installation was recorded.

Cardiff admits a penchant for voyeurism but says she has to be careful: she has a tendency to go overboard when prying into the private lives of strangers. “I hear about situations and imagine myself in them,” she says. In graduate school, Cardiff would shadow people she saw on the bus, imagining what it would be like to be them.

Her tracking days now over, Cardiff says she must censor what films she sees and newspapers she reads because she too easily identifies with the protagonist of a sad tale or the victim of a crime. “That may have come from having a fairly isolated childhood and going to a city and being overwhelmed with information,” she says. “All the sounds around, I have a hard time concentrating.”

An Inability to Make a Sound is at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, through December 23. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 PM. Admission is free. Call 666-7737 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.