The City of Forking Paths


The 19 Biennale of Sydney that finished last month has left, for the first time, a permanent artwork to the city. Thanks to The Biennale Legacy, the City of Sydney is committed to commission a piece during every Biennale (2014, 2016 and 2018) that will become part of its collection of public art.

The first of these three acquisitions is an impressive work by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff & George Bures-Miller. In the same way as their characteristic walks, The City of Forking Paths goes further and introduces video through a mobile device for a long duration (66 min) dusk tour. The historic precinct of The Rocks beside the iconic harbour is the scene where Janet Cardiff invites us to walk with her following her indications through the headphones. Leaving the Customs House, we start the walk through the busy Circular Quay until we reach the oldest alleys of the city, home of the first British settlers in the late 1700s, mainly convicts and sailors. The narrative used by Cardiff and Bures-Miller puts together elements of performance, poetry and cinema, alternating old stories with the actual facts of the precinct. They also introduce characters that interact with the artist and incite her own thoughts. The artist defines this artwork as “physical cinema” as the spectator is prompted to get around, guided by her voice and following the pace of the movements of the screen. The video on the device shows the same place where we are but with different actors.


“The City of Forking Paths”, by Janet Cardiff & George Bures-Miller. Photograph by Jordi Fernandez

The factor that definitely helps to transport the spectator to a parallel reality is the audio 3D achieved through a binaural recording, which gathers the ambient sound in the same way as the human ear. The outcome is a kind of dream dreamt with open eyes where reality and fiction get mixed up in real-time. In the words of the artists herself “three-dimensional sound creates a visual picture to me. I think on synesthesia, I really see the way audio comes together and I want to create this kind of sculptural environment[1]

I had some false impressions myself during the walk. Because of the uncanny sound I turned a few times thinking that someone was following my steps and startled when I heard a sudden conversation very close to me. Also, when I passed by Garrison Church, I thought it was natural to hear the sound of the organ… until I realized that the church was closed. All these impressions where cooked up in my mind prompted by the sounds of the piece.


“The City of Forking Paths”, by Janet Cardiff & George Bures-Miller. Photograph by Jordi Fernandez

The City of Forking Paths accomplish one of the main principles I think all public artworks should have, that is offering a renewed view of the place. In this case, the place is the area of The Rocks and Dawes Point. Considered the birthplace of the Australian nation, nowadays it is an eminently touristic area where its limited number of neighbours is threatened by the real state speculation.

With The City of Forking Paths the city of Sydney joins the list of cities that have a walk by Cardiff & Bures-Miller (New York, Kassel, Sao Paulo, Munster and Washington, among other)


This video walk is configured so that you can only experiment it at dusk, starting at the Customs House opposite Circular Quay. You can download the app in your own device (it can take up to an hour) or borrow one iPod and headphones right there. The narrative of the piece aims at individual spectators so that if you are in a group you’d rather start the itinerary staggered in order to make the best of your experience.

By Paula Llull

More info:

How to experience the video walk and download the app:

About Janet Cardiff & Georges Bures-Miller’s walks:


4 responses

  1. Great post on what is an almost indescribable experience. It certainly was one of the highlights of the 2014 Sydney Biennale for me. The double take that you mention is unnerving and in a way arresting making the realization of how unaware we often are at the most familiar or accepted situations. A great read of a must do artwork. A great legacy too.

  2. I enjoyed this walk, and now, reading you, I re-enjoyed it again! A great analysis of this artwork. A must for all those who are in Sydney (citizens or tourists).

    • I agree with you, Ana. This video walk invites people to discover a part of the city or to see it in a different way. That’s what I think is a staple of contemporary public art.

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