Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
Art in America
January, 2006
pp. 125-126

Rays of sunlight streaming through skylights illuminate a crumbling cathedral-like two-story corridor with rows of cells on either side. The iron-gated cubicles contain the detritus of incarceration and neglect-rusting bed frames and lockers, cracked dirty toilets, lopsided cabinets, a few disintegrating piles of moldy calendars and magazines-as well as signs of desperate life in the occasional green plant that has forced a break in the cement. This is not an installation by Ilya Kabakov, but part of a real prison, one that still stands because the Quakers who built it almost 150 years ago constructed it so solidly that that the expense of taking it down would exceed any profit the land might otherwise yield. Historically, it represents the first attempt to separate prisoners into individual quarters (notorious inmates included gangster Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton), and its oft-imitated design features cell blocks radiating from a central vantage point like the spokes of a wheel. In an effort to find a wider use for the sprawling edifice, which ceased functioning as a prison in 1971, the penitentiary has commissioned a series of site-related art works. While some of these constitute little more than annoying distractions from the intense psychological atmosphere and strange beauty of the prison's finely proportioned monastic architecture, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have utilized found materials and a few unseen technical devices to createPandemonium, a sound installation so perfectly integrated that it only enhances the site's eerie ambiance.

Sound—or the lack of it—was integral to the philosophy behind the concept for the prison, which had its roots in the Quaker belief that people are inherently good. The hope was that if prisoners were left in solitary confinement and silence, uncorrupted by each other and outside influences, their innate Godly nature would be reawakened. In the beginning, guards even wore socks over their shoes so that the sound of their footsteps wouldn't conceal any possible whisperings between cells.

The artists installed bangers such as drumsticks and mallets, attaching them to unobtrusive, externally controlled mechanical devices, one to a cell, so that they produce a plink, tap, knock, bang, or thump when struck against one of the metal, stone, ceramic or wood objects left abandoned there. These movements are externally controlled by a hidden computer programmed by the artists into a 15-minute composition that runs on continuous loop. As a result, bedsprings, toilets, wooden cabinets, water pipes and barrels become percussive sources played by unseen hands, culminating in an orchestrated mélange of acoustic noise that emanates from all parts of the corridor. No matter now many times you hear it, the experience-as long as you keep moving-is always different, as it depends primarily on where in the corridor you happen to be at any given time and what may be occurring in the cell next to you or down the block. In the beginning, there's a sound like water dripping and the hesitant-back-and-forth of Morse code-like tapping. Seemingly random noises give way to fits of rhythmic, almost musical sequences that resemble African percussion and climax in total cacophony—pandemonium—a prison riot. The sense that these are instruments wielded by ghosts is overwhelming, and the piece is a palpable evocation of the boredom, frustration and irresistible need to communicate that were no doubt felt by the unlucky participants in this idealistic penal experiment. [Pandemonium opened May 12, 2005, and will continue to operate at the site for two years.]

-Carol Diehl