(In a Forest of Signs)

Brighton Community choir does... ' without you'

The wooden sign weighs heavily against my shoulder, pulling coarsely against the damp wool of my suit. The men and women that surround me are drunk and snarling, laughing wildly, fighting one another in doorways as I approach. The first of them turns and sees me - a hen party with matching angel wings, fedoras, and feather boas. The hen, I presume, reaches wordlessly for the microphone clutched in my left hand, bends down to lick it, immediately turning it into some phallic symbol while her party giggle and scream in unison. And then it begins...

‘I can't forget this evening, or your face as you were leaving...’

Three or four muscle men storm past, one striking me with his fist as he does so, winding me. I struggle to keep the sign aloft, to maintain my frosty composure, suddenly filled with a very real fear. The women sing louder now, joined by the passengers of a car pulled up at the lights, then by the smokers loitering outside the nearest pub. One very bearded man, charged with a captivating gusto, begins to lead the assorted group of strangers through the refrain, arms raised high above his head...

‘you always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows, yes it sho-oows...’

The words momentarily trail off, the group struggling to recall the next line in vain, before the hens get bored and launch straight back to the beginning, the others quickly following. I turn, head further up the street, through the heaving crowds. Soon I pass a man handling his own sign, a walking advert for a nearby pizza shop. Our eyes meet. He looks... confused, rushes to put down his sign lest he is seen as part of my act, and in doing so drops the thing onto the pavement, where it clatters loudly between us.

I continue up the road for a time, pausing every few feet when- ever people break into song, or dance, or hug. At the top of the hill I am suddenly accosted by a group in their mid-twenties, their bodies forming a triangle across the pavement, blocking my path. Their leader, a lady struggling to speak without the obvious slur that betrays the degree of her inebriation, wobbles forth, finger out- stretched and poking me in the chest. ‘Why?’ she demands, jostling forth. ‘Why?’ Lacking an answer, she repeats herself at greater volume, turning to her playmates momentarily, before returning her gaze to me and adding, with venom, ‘Are you really this sad?’

I face her in silence, unwilling to explain or justify. She stares back at me, visibly angry. Her entourage, two equally inebriated men, saddle up, one puffing out his chest, the other, shorter, more pensive, meekly suggesting ‘Maybe it’s his religion?’ As if to answer him, the queue of people at the cash point behind them suddenly erupts into song, its meagre queue linking arms and twirling in circles, voices thrown high into the tense, dank air.


In Brighton Community Choir Does... Without You I was keen to explore ways to interact directly with the noise of Other. As with previous interventions, the work revolved around the introduction of a new resonant object to its site as a means of fostering participation – in this instance, with the hope of creating a community choir.

It was important to choose a site in which people could autonomously participate without transgressing the expected or afforded behaviours of its locale. With this in mind, I selected the clubbing district of a Brighton’s West Street - a highly ritualistic space, replete with inherent codes concerning its costumes, utility of space, and permissive behaviours. Crucially, however, the nature of the site’s ritual is such that it actively celebrates its own transgressions. Acting outside of general
social norms, and the collective punishment of that acting out, is commonplace, and acts such as blocking traffic, shouting, and fighting are an expected manifestation of that community. I was interested in harnessing the exist- ing energy of the site to invoke new modes of creativity among its participants. In particular, I was interested in the specific users of that site, a demographic (17-30 years-old) who had shown the least interest in getting involved with my previous interventions, and who are often considered a hard-to-reach group in general. I wanted to create an event that prioritised some aspects lost by traditional participation and impact assessment models – notably, to avoid self-reflection at the cost of accessibility, to critique the linear relationship between process and outcome, and to utilise existing community spaces in the same manner in which the community autonomously uses them.

Like many of the interventions, the work is ostensibly very simple, involving nothing more than the act of a performer carrying a sign adorned with the lyrics to Mariah Carey’s Without You through the clubbing district on a busy Saturday night. The goal was not to patronise my participants by suggesting they lacked a specific quality or skill that only the artwork could restore, but to demonstrate their existing creativity, for which a familiar pop song acted as a vehicle. The function of the artwork was not to elicit a specific outcome (even, as with community choirs, if that outcome is allowed the freedom of amateurism), but to channel the volatility of the community into a creative, musical act.

The community of West street share an intimate and highly resonant space – replete with social performances, dress codes, games, and rituals - and yet their interactions rarely involve any form of mass creative collaboration. In my numerous visits to the site I noticed that, particularly among men, the frequent confrontations that occurred were almost exclusively centred around attempts to exhaust the creativity of others as a means of promoting an individual’s status. My own passage through West Street was often hampered for this reason – the communal sharing that my sign offered drew attention from the individual to the community, a shift in focus that resulted in numerous acts of violence from those seeking to regain control.

This is not to suggest that there is an inherent conflict between autonomy and community. The nature of Brighton Community Choir does... was such that it sought to harness individual spontaneity as a means of encouraging participation. By doing so, the work actively critiques the imposed binary that might see the individual as fundamentally opposed to the community. Those who choose to obstruct the creative act, however violently, do so in relation to their community – their individuality is entirely indivisible from those around them. The decision to participate, as well as the manner of that participation, are autonomous, since the instigator asks nothing of those present, relying instead on a third term occupying, and making resonant, the space between facilitator and participant. In this respect, Brighton Community Choir... serves to demonstrate the aversion to fixed states that my practice has so far explored. The work does not provide a new space in which you are invited to come and join an artist in some carefully constructed - whether conceptually or practically - rendition of a specific artistic act. Instead, it relies on participants' existing knowledge, context, and capacity to explore the distance between interlocutors. The elucidation of community that Brighton Community Choir... achieves, occurs because it seeks to counterbalance accessibility (replete with its ‘way in’ that presupposes a lack of complexity or specialism) with a flexible ambiguity that allows for the straining by which community is brought into being. Indeed, the underlying rationale behind community choir projects in general - certainly those I have previously worked on - has not been to achieve a splendid rendition of such-and-such a song, but to use the embodied act of singing to bring a community physically, and cognitively, together. This embodiment - which might be seen as a returning of creative agency to a culture in which the activity of singing has become a specialised skill - amounts to the reinvigoration of the individual within the community, celebrating the autonomy and difference of the elements that make up its whole.
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