Who Can Tell a Forest’s Secrets? Janet Cardiff on What It Takes to Create a Truly Epic Work of Sound Art

Think the life of a sound artist is all long, solitary nights spent wearing headphones and staring into a computer screen? Think again.

For Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, the process of creating a 28-minute sound installation is as collaborative and ambitious as making a feature film. To produce FOREST (for a thousand years…) (2012), which was acquired by the Glenstone Museum in Maryland this summer, the longtime artistic collaborators traveled across Europe, the US, and Canada collecting sounds. The husband-and-wife team recorded everything from Estonian choir music to their own child’s growls.

The final installation, originally commissioned for documenta 13 in Kassel, is making its North American debut at Glenstone, the private museum founded by collectors Mitchell and Emily Rales on a 200-acre former foxhunting estate.

The experience is uncanny. You enter a clearing populated by tree stumps, sit down, and listen to the sounds of rustling trees and bird calls. An airplane zooms overhead. Someone laughs. It is nearly impossible to determine which sounds are coming from a recording and which sounds are live. Then, machine guns begin to fire. An explosion detonates. It feels as if the forest is replaying the many horrors it has witnessed over the centuries.

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