I can’t resist writing something about the Theaster Gates performance lecture I went to last Saturday at St. Georges in Bristol. There’s a lot of press about it at the moment, so I’m not going to attempt to contextualise the project or question the ethos behind it. That is simply because when I saw his work “12 ballads for a Heuguenot House” at Documenta, I was knocked out. And I have no questions to ask about the ethos, because it is admirable, ethically sound and pretty damn brilliant.
I’m going to Temple on Wednesday, which I’m truly looking forward to, but I have been thinking deeply since Saturday about the whole experience of going to see the event.
I’m interested in how the evening unravelled, as a spectator, an onlooker and a participant.
Maybe it’s an ethnographic comment on how people behaved, how they interacted.
Maybe it’s because I am going to Venice Biennale this week and have been catching up with online videos about it, Vernissage on YouTube and other video sites. If you haven’t looked at their videos before, do go and have a watch. It’s a good site to catch-up with what’s happening at the international art fairs and biennales if you can’t afford to go, and a way to do people-watching without being seen. The first thing you will notice is that the camera does a lot of people-scanning as well as art seeking. It captures the mostly black outfits, the sophisticated casual strolls of the art viewers, the hands clutching the programme and/or price list. The shoes and boots are the private-view porn shots. Seriously. It’s making me very nervous about what to walk around in for 48 hours in Venice.
So it was a little like that at St Georges on Saturday night. I’ve been to other things there and we do still have a bit of a dress-up-for-theatre tradition in Britain, but that wasn’t visible. I suspect there were some people in the audience, mostly couples, that booked to come for this early evening performance lecture expecting to be entertained, or hear more about the artists work in a lecture format. I did notice there were a few of those left when we got onto about the 5th hymn.
So what I found fascinating to observe was how the audience responded to what happened on stage.
Claire Doherty of Situations Bristol, who commissioned Theaster to deliver the Sanctum Project, introduced the event. She gave some backstory, not standing at a podium, but casually strolling around in her jeans and white shirt, with a jacket over it. She was relaxed, clear and extremely interesting to listen to. Knowledgeably narrating the history of Temple Church and of St George. Providing a historical context for Sanctum. The performance had begun.
There was very little on the stage, a chair, a mike on a stand and a music stand – Theaster entered the stage and told us that he had been making a list of all the hymns he knows while he was in the dressing room. He picked up the mike and began to sing them. It was amazing, beautiful, enchanting, emotional, unexpected and apt. His voice was powerful and deeply sincere. He finished the song and everyone politely clapped, as you do. That’s what audiences do at recitals.
He sang another song, and another, and another. He spoke very little. Sometimes he made humorous gestures while he sang, which made us laugh (maybe nervously?) or fiddled with his clothes, twisting his shirt tails like an anxious child performing in a school play. But he wasn’t nervous, he oozed with the passion he has for his love of singing, for his life.
The more immersed and trancelike he became, the more restless the audience got. People started exchanging glances with each other – initially with those they knew, then with strangers. The discomfort of many people was tangible. If they could have held up signs, they would probably have read:
Help, what is this?
I thought this was an arts performance lecture?
This is awful!
I feel awkward
This is not what I expected
This is religious, I’m not religious, help!
I don’t like it, but others are staying, should I stay?
Am I stupid?
I didn’t think this is what would happen.
Once they started to trickle out after each song, more left after the next. Someone told me 30% of the audience left, but I think that was an overestimate. And those that left did miss the point of the event – but I don’t think that is their fault. They didn’t get what they expected, partly because the marketing left what it might be to the visitors imagination – saying nothing more than it would be a ‘performance lecture.’
Theaster singing, when the audience came to hear him speak and perform, was disorientating. Indeed a project that is absolutely about bringing people and communities together was also having that effect on the audience – complete strangers were looking at each other, seeking support, confirmation that it wasn’t just them that was not getting it, that it was ok.
In some ways the audience were distracted from listening to his beautiful voice by this cross-glancing, these non-verbal gestures expressing empathy for fellow viewers.
So after the leavers had left, the hard-core arts audience stuck it out. They kept their faith – faith in the artists, in Situations, in art. And they got their just reward from heaven. Because when Theaster invited people to sing with him, and gradually more voices joined his, ending with several (including me) singing Amazing Grace, the magic was revealed.
Personally, I couldn’t NOT sing, I am in a choir, I go to Big Sing events at St George, it’s where you sing. As more people sang, the audience harmonised too – not just in voice – but also in knowingness.
Theaster said he sang these hymns not because he is religious, but because they are how he was brought up. They are part of him, they shaped him. I think it is fair to say that the audience felt like that too. Collectively, we believe in art and its power, if we had left we would be renouncing it.
So the whole thing was empowering and moving. Warm, mindful and loving.
It is art with a left-wing bias, but it also generates income for the arts. It results in strong social outputs, without being instrumental. It is meaningful, touching and generous.
I look forward to immersing myself in his house at Temple.
No religion required.