Artist Harrell Fletcher reflects on a recent project at Tate and demonstrates the value of participatory engagement and social practice.
OK—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: 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; the audience watches on the web.
As it happened, I only had a few days in London before the performance. Generally, I like to collaborate with local people in wherever I’m showing: I make the structure and organize the project, but local participants fill in the content. I recalled seeing some 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 I would 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 turn the camera towards the middle of the room after each one completed a song—sort of a live mix tape curated from the subway.
I got to London and started spending a lot of time hanging out in the Tube. The trouble was that I just wasn’t running across 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 good singing and guitar-playing coming from below. The music lead me to Stanley Prospere. After he finished his first song, I knew I’d found what I was looking for. Stanley has a resonant voice and is a solid guitar player. He was playing a gospel tune that seemed familiar to me, but different at the same time. Later on he told me that when he saw me staring at him he thought I must have been lost and waiting to ask him for directions. Instead, I told him about the project and asked 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. 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 focus on Stanley and have him perform four songs that represented various aspects of his repertoire: French music, Country and Western, and Gospel. In between the songs I asked him questions about his life and about becoming a busker in London, where you must audition to get a busking 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.
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 it had been worthwhile to participate. After the performance, we all went out to dinner along with a friend of Stanley’s. Two days later Stanley came back to the museum to meet 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 took him on 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 what I did made more sense and he could see the creativity and value in it.
What I enjoy 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 shine a spotlight on the culture that already exists in the places where I live and work.
Harrell Fletcher received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He studied organic farming at UCSC and went on to work on a variety of small Community Supported Agriculture farms, which impacted his work as an artist. His work has been shown at SF MoMA, the de Young Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum and The Tate Modern London, as well as The Drawing Center, The Sculpture Center, and Smackmellon in New York, among others. A participant in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Harrell Fletcher has work in several museum collections. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.