Entering on a Wednesday night, 21 days in to a 24-hour-a-day, 24-day continual performance, I am greeted by a full house who watch a woman intoning an incantation intensely. She is wrapped in what looks like a curtain, talking to a full house about The Oneness. There is some chanting. She then gets her ear pierced, which she explains happens in every performance. A helper steps up with the gun as she reveals that this will be her 20th show and her 20th piercing.
Then the Performer (is that the appropriate word?) advises that we may wish to sing and this may be ok, whilst giving (me, at least) the distinct impression that we probably shouldn’t. And then she declares “And now I will sing for the rest of the hour.” I look at my watch. I don’t know what time this started, but it’s not quite quarter-past seven. So, will she sing for 45 minutes….?(Yes, she will.)
As people in the place realise this, it starts to empty out. A friend has spotted me and after a very quiet Hello, tells me he’s seen this performance already, at three in the morning, lying flat on his back in front of her. I daresay drunk and prostrate may be the ideal state to experience this. He leaves; he doesn’t need to see the same thing again, especially as the whole programme is on a rotation, so you never know what you’ll get. As if to prove this, there are instruments set up at the back of the room, with full drum kit, amps and keyboard and stuff (I can’t see it all, I’m short, and I’m at the back).Sanctum is a sound/art/performance project in a temporary wooden structure in the ruins of the 12th century Temple Church (complete with leaning tower) in central Bristol. The structure is built from re-used wood; doors and windows are recognisable, cut to fit a triangular shape. Considering it’s temporary, it looks pretty sturdy. Particularly given the huge lean on the church itself; if you look at it long enough, I reckon you can see it falling over. (Very very slowly. I wrote a poem about it a while back, but no one reads this blog so it’s never been read. If a self-regarding, self-published poet writes a poem in a bombed-out ancient church and there’s no one there to brush off its’ significance, does it matter? (Nope.))
Outside the church, there’s a tea stall, an information booth and some portable toilets (heaven forfend punters should enter either of the two pubs just outside the place to use a toilet). There’s more security than I would’ve expected for an experimental art project, but to be fair it’s in the city centre in an eight-hundred year-old building with a serious lean-on, it’s a continuous 24-hour-a-day event and inevitably the council are probably somehow involved.
Helpers (staff? Who for? The COUNCIL? Probably) bring more chairs to the back of the room, at just the moment they are no longer necessary. There is some nearly silent discussion on where to place rows of chairs for people who are not in the room. Like The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco. I like the idea that this is part of the performance, so I retain it.It’s a miserable night. After hitting the tea spot, still wondering if the singing will last the full 45, I head back in. I hear two staff on the door talking and interject.
“She’s changed it”, the security guard says to his colleague.“Her?” I ask, indicating the performance space.
“Yeah”, he replies, “Don’t think it would’ve gone down too well – she was saying ‘Allah Akhbar’ before, but that’s what they shouted before they blew themselves up. Might kill the mood a bit.”
– “Depends what the mood is.”
He concedes the point with a quiescent shrug as I head back in. I thought she was saying “Allahu Akhbar” all along, but maybe not…
It’s busier as I head back in. The rotation of punters is not quite as constant as I would’ve thought, given the performance on show; most people don’t tend to have a lot of patience for this kind of thing. I do, mind. Because I appreciate art and spectacle and the unusual, and I’m interested in religious ritual. Because I’m better than them. It’s still all about The Oneness in here; and I’m still sure she’s singing “Allahu Akhbar”, so I don’t really know what would have changed. I wonder if it was all about Allah (as opposed to The Oneness) last week, and she’s changed that as well. I suspect not. And I sincerely hope not, because if she has responded in this way to the shocking attacks in Paris, it suggests a level of success in using violence to make us a bit more afraid of each other.
Sanctuary is another definite theme here, and a word the Artist (if that is the right word) uses frequently. This is somehow somewhere in between art and religion – the Muezzin (if that is the right word) could be having a genuine religious experience with an audience, it could be a performance, it could be some mix of the two. Or neither. Or somehow both. I missed the start, so I don’t know. There’s a blackboard with words written on it, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Sometimes it’s better not to know these things. It has a sense of mystery, it needs interpretation, it makes me think. It’s Art. (Unless it’s not.) A lot of that might be lost if it was all spelled out, like the plot of a Disney film.
Apart from the occasional look around the room, with a benevolent, even beatific, expression on her face, the Actor/Worshipper/Vicar/Imam (if those are the right words) sings on and on, not exactly tunelessly, like Lou Reed or one of them lads, but not really tuneful either, like Adele or one of them lasses. Not quite thin and reedy like Bieber or one of them lads, but not powerful like Aretha or one of them lasses. Just lost in it. When you hear people singing from the Torah, reciting….well, it’s kind of like that. You know, the sort of religious stuff you probably don’t like. It’s hypnotic and I also get lost in it. We don’t need to be here for this to happen, but we’re here anyway…if a religious person sings “God is great” in a temporary wooden church and there’s no one there to hear it….well, you know. I find the notion oddly comforting.
I’m interested to see that there is no supplication at all in this act (if that is the right word), no kneeling. The whole thing seems like a version of orthodox Islamic prayer/worship (not that I am intimately familiar with these things), but without the kneeling and facing East (perhaps the Chanter (if that is the right word) is facing East, I don’t know (I am not well acquainted with maps or compasses)) which characterises most orthodox Muslim prayer.
So, I do feel this is something of a sanctuary, and not just from the miserable weather outside….near the end of the hour, Maccy B rocks up and looks like he doesn’t want to disturb the Congregation (if that is the right word).
We step outside so as not to spoil it with our Hellos, and he looks a bit freaked out. He starts to tell me a story and I suggest he needs a tea, so head back to the stall. We’ve missed the end.
Back inside, just as people are either leaving or milling about waiting for the next thing to start, I ask a stranger:
“How did it end?”
“The same way it started.”
Brilliant. Missed the start, didn’t I. (I can guess, though.)
The next thing has started: It’s called Endlessness (unless someone has just written that on the blacklkboard for a laugh (in which case, fair play to them), or as a satirical comment on the previous performance (in which case, fair play to them.)) It’s an ironic name, given that we’ve just seen an hour of singing the same three or four words in no particular tune. Most reviews would probably not get 1500 words out of this. If a reviewer has only a self-imposed deadline but still churns out 1500 words about a performance art piece and there’s no one there to read it on a (broadsheet) news website and make an ignorant, racist and abusive comment underneath it about Palestine/Israel, does it still exist?
Endlessness (if that is its real name) sounds like the chill-out room at a Techno night. It’s that kind of two-dudes-bobbing-over-a-big-mixing-desk-and-a-couple-of-futuristic-looking-machines-with-loads-of-buttons-and-flashing-lights-where-people-look-over-and-wonder-what-they’re-actually-doing sort of thing. Are these pre-programmed beats they’re cueing up? How much of it is created live? I have absolutely no idea, but it sounds pretty good, and is starting to build. It’s still fairly gentle, but a slightly industrial edge is creeping in.
Just as it’s getting interesting, we need to jog on. C’est la vie. We’ve got an appointment with a Rap Legend…
TO BE CONTINUED