Night Walk for Edinburgh: 'The virtual world becomes part of your physical world'

night walk for Edinburgh

Location photograph for Night Walk for Edinburgh. Courtesy the artists. / credit: Chris Scott

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's new art walk takes participants on a surreal journey through Edinburgh's Old Town

Janet Cardiff takes a big gulp of tea and tells me she was up at 1.30am recording footsteps. She and her husband and collaborator George Bures Miller have been working all hours to finish Night Walk for Edinburgh, a one-on-one journey through the Old Town presented in partnership with the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh Art Festival and Edinburgh International Festival.

The Canadian artists have created walks for cities all over the world but have had their eye on Edinburgh since their exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in 2008, The House of Books Has No Windows. Still the gallery's most popular show, it presented a series of immersive installations that seemed to come alive in the viewer's presence with a touch of that rare quality you might call magic.

In Night Walk, they are aiming for a similar frisson, but outside in the 'real world'. Walkers follow a route through the Old Town guided by Cardiff's voice, while watching a film the artists have made in the same locations. The immediate experience is overlaid with scenes – the ghost tour, the homeless man, the street magician – which make us question, constantly, what is 'real'. Binaural headphones make footsteps and whispers sound like they are coming from just over our shoulder.

'We call it physical cinema,' says Cardiff. 'You have headphones on and you're watching this little screen, but as you walk around you also hear the other environment, the physical environment. You see real people and they become part of the virtual world, and the virtual world becomes part of your physical world.'

Cardiff and Bures Miller have been making walks since 1991; the first was an audio walk using cassette recorders and edited on reel-to-reel, and they have gradually grown more sophisticated as technology has developed. 'Our first video walk used cameras with a flip out screen. Then the camera people stopped putting headphone jacks on their machines, so that nearly put us out of a job - and then the iPod Touch came along. Technology has been feeding us over the years.'

Night Walk for Edinburgh: 'The virtual world becomes part of your physical world'

Curtosey of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller / credit: Chris Scott

Cardiff started out as a printmaker, Bures Miller as a painter, but both also trained in film. They wanted to push the boundaries of art, creating 'paintings' you could walk into, and developed the kind of hybrid practice which is common now but was rare in the early 1990s.

Night Walk for Edinburgh is the product of months of research, writing, walking and filming in the city streets with a large cast of performers and extras - sometimes at 1.30am to avoid 'tourists and noise and drunks'.

As a printmaker, Cardiff was drawn to collage and juxtaposition. In Night Walk, she collages snippets of poetry and overtones of James Hogg, Stevenson and film noir with the fabric of the city itself. Lighted windows and back closes give glimpses into private lives - and the past is always present.

'Really, Edinburgh was overwhelming - especially for a North American. For us to go back 900 years or something, it's too much!' she laughs. 'So this is not a historical tour, it's maybe more about how history comes in and affects us in different ways.'

It's part psycho-geographical derive, part interactive game, part whodunnit. 'The playful aspect is important,' she says. 'It's like Simon Says, we all like to give up our power, our decision-making, for a while. I hope people have fun with it.'

More seriously, when she made her first walk in Banff, Canada, in 1991, she said she 'had finally found a format that reflected my curiosity about how our brains work': how one thought triggers another, how we live in different realities at the same time. And that's even more the case today, when many of us walk around plugged into headphones and devices.

'It's about our sense of identity,' Cardiff says, 'the sense of being in the world as a person and how we become other people too. It's a philosophical inquiry, because the only way we can know what reality is is through our senses - and our senses can be so easily fooled.'

Night Walk for Edinburgh, Fruitmarket Gallery, until 25 Aug (not 12, 19), 8pm, £15. Walks start and end at The Milkman on Cockburn Street.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Night Walk for Edinburgh

The image of the street comes up on the iPod screen. It appears that it has been shot in the exact location that you are standing in, almost as if it is in real time. A figure walks past on the video as another passes by in the real world, the two realities aligning. The sounds from the headphones are startlingly…

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