Her Long Black Hair by Janet Cardiff is a mixed-reality sensory experience that takes the audience through a physical journey across the southern part of Central Park. Janet Cardiff herself narrates the piece and to say that it is mesmerizing is an understatement.
The piece in a way opened my eyes about the amount of detail and realism that can be delivered through audio alone. Other than the living park itself, the piece is only delivered through a series of audio tracks and photographs, yet the detail was on par (if not greater than) most of the VR experiences I’ve even been on. From the sound of a woman yelling at her child not to climb a rock, to the change of resonance as I walk through a tunnel, to the sound of a horse’s footsteps, they all sound incredibly true to life. I was wearing a set of regular earphones (nothing fancy), and the recording made me genuinely question what was “real” and what was only part of the experience.
The mechanics of the piece also intrigues me. As it is only delivered through audio, the narrator incorporates multiple checkpoints and a series of mechanisms to keep the audience on track and on the correct pace. The way Janet Cardiff did it is both practical and elegant. During the part where the audience is supposed to walk, she introduces a series of footsteps to mimic the steps of the narrator as she walks with the audience. This keeps the audience walking in a pace that is consistent with the narration. She also makes multiple notes regarding landmarks, ensuring that the audience is on the right track, yet it is done in a way that is cohesive and feels non-sequential.
“I remember a news article about an Iraqi father who’s all three daughters were all killed by a bomb. He found one of their arms hanging from a light fixture. The photograph shows his face and his hands. But in my mind, I see a photograph of the arm. With fingers relaxed, draped on the light as it posed.”An excerpt from Her Long Black Hair
Throughout the piece, the narrator would go off on tangential thoughts, stories, and “experiments” as she calls it. These short sections are poetic in their own right. Each evokes a different range of emotions and stem new thoughts and questions. As a whole, I am not quite sure how it made me feel. The emotional range that I felt during the experience was quite diverse. Though if there is one thing that I’ll take away from it is that I’ll make more of a conscious effort to internalize my surroundings before moving forward.
All in all, I am thankful that I got to go on this experience. If you decide to go on this journey the audio tracks and the images are available in this link. I would recommend though to traverse it alone as it’ll give a more immersive experience.