Where I’m Calling From

Project for the Tate Live Series
Tate Modern, London, UK

Okay, so a couple of curators, Catherine Wood and Kathy Noble, from the Tate Modern in London sent me an email asking if I’d like to take part in a new online performance series that they are organizing. I said sure. The idea is that they select five artists a year for four years to do performances that happen in a small gallery in the museum with just one camera to record what happens. The performances are live and unedited, but the audience is entirely on the web.

The way it worked I only had a few days in London before the performance happened. Generally, what I like to do is collaborate with local people in whatever place I’m showing in rather than doing something that I create on my own. I usually make the structure and organize the project, but local participants fill in the content. I recalled seeing some really amazing buskers (musicians playing for money in public) in the Tube stations the last time I had been in London, there was even a small classical orchestra playing down there one time. So I told the Tate folks that what I would do was wander around in the Tube for a few days and select several buskers to perform at the Tate if they were willing. I kind of had it worked out that there would be one performer in front of each wall of the gallery and that I’d l just turn the camera in the middle of the room after each one completed a song–sort of a live mixed tape curated from the subway. Catherine and Kathy seemed to like the idea.

I got there to London and started doing some serious traveling and hanging out in the Tube. The trouble was that I just wasn’t running across very many buskers and the ones that I did encounter weren’t interesting to me. Then pretty randomly I was heading down an escalator in Liverpool station and I heard some really good sounding singing and guitar-playing coming from down below. The music lead me to Stanley Prospere, and after he finished his first song I knew I’d found what I was looking for. Stanley has a great resonant voice and very solid guitar playing. He was playing some sort of gospel song that seemed familiar to me but different at the same time. Later on he told me that when he saw me staring at him that he thought that I must have been lost and was going to ask him for directions. Instead I told him about the project and asked him if he could come to a rehearsal at the Tate that evening. He agreed.

It turned out that Stanley had moved from St. Lucia in the Caribbean to London eight years earlier to take care of his aging mother. His mother had moved there when he was two as part of a government incentive program that brought in low-wage-workers to the UK from developing countries. She thought she would be there for a short time, but ended up staying for fifty years. Back in St. Lucia Stanley had done a lot of performing and had even recorded a CD with a small band, but when he got to London he worked in a senior care facility until he realized he could make more money and enjoy what he was doing busking in the tube.

The rehearsal went great and I decided that rather than work with several buskers I’d just focus on Stanley and have him perform four songs that represented various aspects of his repetoir—French music, country and western, and gospel. In between the songs I asked him questions from off camera about his life and what is involved with becoming a busker in London (which requires an audition to get a license). Immediately after the performance Stanley and I sat down with Catherine and Kathy to do a short interview about the project that included questions that were sent in from the online audience.

All of that went well, and over the next few days about 50,000 people from around the world viewed Stanley’s archived performance on You Tube. The Tate paid Stanley for his work and he seemed to think that overall it had been worthwhile to participate. After the performance we all went out to dinner along with a friend of Stanley’s. Two days after the performance Stanley came back to the museum to met up with me and Capucine Perrot (an assistant curator at the Tate who was very involved with the organization of the project). Stanley had never heard of the Tate before working with me, so we wanted to give him a tour of the museum to give him a better idea of the organization he had been involved with. He took a lot of pictures in the exhibitions and said that he liked it enough that he would come back again. After that he and Capucine came with me to the Hayward Gallery where I was teaching a week-long course on Art and Social Practice as part of a project there called Wide Open School. At the class Stanley was able to talk about his experience with the project and to learn a little more about my larger practice. At first it seemed odd to him to think of me as an artist because most of his art associations involved paintings and sculptures, but when he thought of me more like a producer then what I did made more sense and he could see the creativity and value in it.

This of course is just one example of many different kinds of projects that I have worked on over the last twenty years or so. For me the great thing about my work is that it takes me out into the world to encounter people and activities that go way beyond my own scope of knowledge and experience. Instead of trying to make art objects in a studio by myself and then offer it out to people through galleries in various locations, I am able to continually learn and highlight the culture that already exists in the places that I work in.