By Bartholomew Ryan
The Revival, 2007. A Performa 07 Commission.
Adam Pendleton’s The Revival took place in the Stephan Weiss Studio, a cavernous white box chosen for its capacity to accommodate a double world: the rarified white cube gallery and the white revival tent. The audience formed a half circle around the three-tiered podium that served as a stage. Pendleton, in the role of “preacher,” dressed in white jacket and shirt, jeans, and a pair of green shoes, occupied the middle tier (although he moved around a lot), while from the other tiers poet Jena Osman, artist Liam Gillick, and soloists Renee de Neufville and Vaneese Thomas delivered occasional “testimonials.” Directly behind Pendleton, on a Fazioli piano, sat celebrated jazz composer and pianist Jason Moran, accompanied by bass guitarist Mark Kelly and drummer Kendrick Scott. They in turn were flanked by two bandstands, on which stood a 30-person gospel choir. Black ceramic cubes, along with rows of spare, elegant plywood benches, provided seating for the audience. The general effect was somewhere between International Style, Minimalism and Church.
The Revival combined the traditions of the Southern gospel revival with experimental writing, each of which come with a certain set of expectations. To cleave to stereotype, the gospel revival is the ultimate in emotion-laden, ecstasy-ridden religious fervor. Based on a communal journey that seeks to give praise and invoke the Holy Spirit, it involves notions of confession, charismatic performance, a linear journey toward some form of salvation and a climactic rise culminating in transcendence. Experimental writing on the other hand, the cliché would go, rejects the lyric poetry that spins universal truths out of the tortured craft of the genius writer. Seeking instead to make language material, even at times abstract, experimental writing reveals the structures of communication and subject formation by playing on the opacity rather than the transparency of language. Often incorporating found language, chance operations, procedures, puns, and grammatical subversions, American experimental writing has been driven in recent years by a loose association of writers linked to the Language movement of the 1970s and ’80s, along with writers of a younger generation who have variously adapted many of that movement’s tenets. The Revival placed these worlds in conversation, creating in performance a unifying template for the disparate approaches. A productive pluralism emerged, one that frayed conventional perspectives through a generative cross-fertilization across multiple channels, feedback loops and relational sinews.
Gospel comes from the Sanctified Church, a post-Reconstruction evangelical tradition in African-American culture that rose in opposition to the “mainline” Baptist churches. Unlike the Baptists, who rejected the guitar and drums as hedonistic instruments linked to the Blues, the sanctified churches encouraged their congregation to “testify,” using anything that could invoke the Holy Spirit. Talent was God-given, so if you could play guitar, play guitar, and if you could sing, sing. And people did, in an improvisational and communal play that often lasted for many hours. These services were the experimental grounding for much of what we know as twentieth-century popular music. For this and other reasons, gospel arrived at the Stephan Weiss Studio fully loaded, as did the potential and rigor of experimental writing. The Revival cut through the formulas implicit in these contexts, in American culture, and in contemporary art. It presented information with a degree of complexity that bypassed stylistic dogmas. It was something of a provocation, evoking what the poet Amiri Baraka, writing on jazz, referred to as an attitude—something political and social but also something exceeding these terms.
Originally printed in Everywhere and All at Once: An Anthology of Writings on Performa 07 (jpr|ringier 2009).
Photo copyright Paula Court.