A group of crows is called a murder.The term seems ironic in its violence, because one of the peculiar things about crows is that they seem to have an unusually developed capacity for empathy, or something very like it. When a crow dies, the extended flock gathers to bear witness, often for a whole day, cawing for hours on end.
"We've seen it happening," George Bures Miller said to me a few weeks ago, when he and his partner Janet Cardiff met with me in an upstairs office at the newly opened Art Gallery of Alberta, in Edmonton. Their 2008 sound installation The Murder of Crows is the flagship contemporary work being shown for the new museum's launch. "There were three or four hundred crows, and they stayed there, near our neighbour's house, for almost two days," he remembers. "They were cawing constantly. I think that experience was the starting point."The couple lives half the year in the wilderness of the British Columbia interior, and the other half in Berlin. It enables them to experience the best of both worlds: the museums, theatres and concert halls of Europe, and the rugged scenery and crows, owls, bats, lynx and bears that prowl around the edges of their ranch outside Vernon, B.C.
I don't think art can actually change things, but I do think it can create a community of thought. Janet Cardiff
Cardiff says the term "murder" for a group of crows comes from early English literature and usage, where the birds were often noted for their grisly habit of picking over the battlefield remains. (Goya's The Disasters of War are being shown concurrently at the museum, a suite of etchings in which crows are pictured doing just that.) Crows also demonstrate an uncanny ingenuity that makes them seem a little too like us. "Crows are linked to the idea of death," she says, "but they are also the tricksters, linked to magic and illusion." Just like artists.
In the gallery, the 98 black speakers have been arranged on their stands at various heights, congregating crow-like around a central table. Upon the table sits an old fashioned gramophone speaker from which comes Cardiff's soft voice, recounting a series of dreams. Visitors take their places in chairs, arranged in like configuration. People come together for many reasons: to mourn, to worship, to work, to celebrate. But what is this gathering about?
The work takes us through three dreams, with Cardiff in the role of narrator. Two of the voice recordings were made on the small tape recorder she keeps by her bed. In the first, she visits a horrific factory where animals and babies are ground up and blood runs on the factory floor. In the second, chanting and cymbals (recorded during the couple's 2007 sojourn in Nepal) give way to a nightmare about military brutality. As she watches, a young prisoner is pulled out of a lineup by a general who threatens to amputate one of his injured feet. The final dream recounts her discovery of an abandoned beach house, in which she finds a severed leg, still with its sock and shoe. "Where is my leg, where has it gone?" sings the operatic aria. Swerving between sheer terror and a kind of punch-drunk lunacy, the work reflects the trauma of bearing witness.
These tales are enhanced by 600 tracks of sound effects and music, including commissioned passages of experimental music by Montreal composer Freida Abtan, a Russian men's choir and orchestral sections performed by the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.
"We wanted to create a whole sound field," Cardiff says of the piece, their most technologically complex to date. "We wanted to see how sound and music can really push you emotionally," Bures Miller adds. "It effects you in a way that is way below your intellect. We use it to get underneath that."
Dread is the prevailing tone. "For us, I think the piece came out of the mood in Germany during the Bush years and still now, after 9/11," he says. "We were struck by a feeling of futility and powerlessness."
"I don't think art can actually change things," Cardiff adds, "but I do think it can create a community of thought."
Finishing each other's thoughts, they dip and dive into each other's mindscapes. We chat about different theories of dreaming, from aboriginal dreamtime to the higher mathematics of J. W. Dunne.
We talk, too, about their life, drawn between geographic and cultural extremes. Like several Canadian artists of note - Stan Douglas and Jeff Wall stand out as examples - they build their art out of the interplay between frontier experience and the sophisticated realm of ideas in which they are immersed. "In Berlin, we have this community of friends, we can go and hear music with and see theatre and talk about books and we collaborate with them," says Cardiff. "But we never would have come up with the idea of the walking pieces if we hadn't lived in Lethbridge," she adds, referring to some of their earliest works, artist-guided narrative journeys through various locations, with the sound delivered via headphones.
"We had a dog then, so we were out walking all the time in the coulees. Who knows?" she laughs. "If we hadn't had that dog none of this might have happened."
The Murder of Crows continues until May 9 at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.