Her Long Black Hair – A sound walk by Janet Cardiff

Comm Lab - Video and Sound

The soundwalk, Her Long Black Hair, was an immersive physical and psychological journey. It merged the world around me, into the world of history, both that of the park and the people who have walked it, and of a woman with long black hair, who is seen in a series of pictures at multiple locations within the park. She uses these pictures as a portal into the past, to evoke emotions and questions and to look at the mundane in an artistic way. She says in the very first track, “Its loud here isn’t it? When you’re in a city like New York, you have to think about the sounds like there is symphony. Otherwise you go a bit crazy”. It was difficult to tell which sounds were coming from the recording and which were there in the present surroundings. Both were equally real when the senses combined.

Started the sound walk on a breezy Sunday. It was warm in the sun, cool in the shade: Perfect weather.

It wasn’t my first time exploring Central Park, but in a way it was. Listening to Janet’s intimate yet instructional voice, sometimes soft and empathetic, at other times commanding, I was made to use all of my senses while my imagination ran wild. Her Long Black Hair got my attention at first, by its near perfect matching of sounds and experiences. Some were set in stone, like physical landmarks, locations of tunnels according to her map. But on several occasions, the words coordinated with sight; baby strollers, a man reading a newspaper, ice cream (or pop-sickles at least), and somehow they were exactly where she put them in her sound walk. These moving entities seemed to be permanent in time.

“Notice the strollers..”

The park was alive with people enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but I was consumed with the history — ¬†real and imagined — that Janet spoke of. Real histories were those of civil war soldiers and things that weren’t a part of the park anymore, like the mention of a polar bear or the fact that people used to shoot stray pigs and goats there.

Trees in the “Enchanted Forest” — “with their roots going all the way into the rock, the same trees that soldiers from the civil war walked next to.”

The fanciful history was about imagined characters; their personal histories to their relationships, and what it reminded Janet of. It sparked concern for the woman with black hair, and made me wonder about her life. It made connections with other fictional characters and their personal histories, wiring together bits and pieces of human sentiments and prompted me to somehow connect the dots.

The woman with long black hair.
Why isn’t she smiling?
What does her expression say about her relationship with whoever took this picture?

Janet induces agitation about the fact that she does not turn around in this picture, and never can.

The point of disquiet in this picture is highlighted by a story told, a Greek myth of Orpheus. His lover dies of a snake bite, and he travels to the Underworld to make a deal with Hades, for love. He is allowed to get her soul back but with the condition that he must not look back at her till they are back on earth. “But of course he had to look back,” ¬†comes to mind when the woman does not. Does that represent a lack of love?

Another story which puts one at unease in relation to the woman is that of a passerby who asks Janet to take a picture. He comments on the pictures in her hand and states that his mother had the same hair. He then tells the story of how she left them when he was seven, making his family incomplete and his father a miserable alcoholic, before realising the time and running to his wife. This little widget added another bit of mistrust associated with the woman, or maybe evidence that she is not well understood.

Perhaps Janet wanted to arm her listeners with the power of being behind the camera. She helps, probably to embody the person taking these photographs. As she comments how she loves photographing her own sleeping husband; “the unconscious observation”, “the one sided attraction” and how the subject is at the “mercy of the viewer’s lens” — maybe she wants her listeners to understand that this woman they are following through out the park has been powerless against what has been captured of her.

“She’s ready to pose but the picture took too quickly.”



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