Cally Spooner creates thought-provoking, philosophical, almost literary performance works, translating words into song, dance, and powerful visual content. Based in London, the artist has been exhibiting since 2008, building a body of work that ranges from live stage performances to full-length films. I had the opportunity to talk with Spooner about her recent projects, culminating in her solo presentation for Frieze Film 2014. She cited a keen interest in advertisements and in observing “what happens when our speech and our language is put to work like self-promotion” as a central motivator for her latest oeuvres, namely her 2013 musical production And You Were Wonderful, On Stage,and the three-channel video and performance project IT’S ABOUT YOU presented this past September on the High Line in New York City.
Commissioned in the spring of last year by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and subsequently performed at Performa 13 and the Tate Modern, And You Were Wonderful, On Stage was born from thinking about what Spooner names “different modalities of communication.” The performance’s narrative, combined with the musical and physical elements, observes the ways in which language and performance can be “technically-aided” and automated. Performed in the absence of a traditional stage, an a cappella chorus of 26 women emerge from and mingle with the audience, periodically reflecting on various celebrity incidents wherein a public figure was caught relying on an exterior technology to aid, enhance, and enable their performance. Included are Beyoncé’s infamous inauguration lip-syncing debacle and Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, along with the more benign usage of speech writers by politicians—clear moments of the self and one’s public persona being “outsourced” and polished to perfection.
Continuing to consider this phenomenon of inauthentic and ultra-polished presentation and promotion of the self, Spooner orchestrated a performance on the High Line that included a three-channel video, created by filmmaker Pierce Jackson, and a trio of opera singers. Footage of dancers performing repetitive, precisely arranged phrases of movement was overlayed with flashing lines of text pulled from Twitter, for any tweets tagged #Prism, both in reference to the NSA’s controversial surveillance program and Katy Perry’s new album, blending pop with the political; the vocalists sang the words appearing on screen as if reading from a teleprompter. Says Spooner, she wanted to capture the “muddling up of the different public realms,” wherein self-promotional content becomes equally relevant—or irrelevant—as actual news. The current modes of communication available engender what Spooner aptly identifies as a “sense of having to technically moderate or organize speech because everything we [say] is somehow going to essentially turn into an advertisement.”
For Frieze Film, Spooner has created a series of commercials for the upcoming film adaption of her 2013 musical production And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, set to be released in February 2015. Videography for the project was again executed by Jackson, who, incidentally, has shot a fair amount of commercial work for companies such as Coca Cola and various luxury clothing brands. Inspired by elements from Spooner’s other recent projects, including visual content from IT’S ABOUT YOU and the musical composition “The Ballad of Work,” which appeared this year at Frieze Sounds in New York, the commercials feature characters from the musical in clips that Spooner says are similar to pop music videos, performing song and dance numbers from the original production. Incorporating song, dance, and a healthy dose of social commentary—though Spooner says her work is more “journalistic” than critical, aimed at simply laying bare the current state of affairs—the commercials are both art and advertisement, playing on screens around the fair in between other events. With this monumental project, Spooner seeks to continue her thoughtful examination of the mechanization of language and performance—in both the personal, professional, and commercial sphere—and the resulting patterns that tend to dictate communication.
The theme song from the film’s soundtrack, to be featured in the clips for Frieze Film, was inspired by a transcript of a TV director correcting the speech of an actor preparing to speak in a commercial. Composed by Peter Joslyn, the piece is vaguely operatic, building into a repetitive, multi-layered chorus as more and more voices chime in, intoning “try again,” “learn to work,” “what else are you doing,” and “need to finalize.” Paired with these progressively hectic vocals is choreography by Adam Weinert, who previously collaborated with Spooner on And You Were Wonderful, On Stage and IT’S ABOUT YOU. The movement is directly transcribed from the music; key words were pulled out and assigned dance moves, mingled with the familiar gestures of celebrities. On film, the lyrics and dance moves combine to illustrate what Spooner describes as the “algorithmic” nature of language to which we ascribe, as we become increasingly like the technologies upon which we rely.
The concept of commercial interruptions at an art fair is novel, yet feels appropriate given the commercial atmosphere of the fair. Spooner commented on the juxtaposition of filling what is a not-for-profit section of the fair with advertisements, noting that it is in part a reflection on the marketplace of Frieze, where galleries and artists alike engage in a sort of self-advertisement. Spooner’s ads will appear amidst the general activities of the fair, “coming out of the body of things that [are] occurring already,” as she says, much like the format of the musical production that forms the film’s basis. A subtle, yet inescapable reminder of the way we communicate and the impact it has on our daily lives.
Cally Spooner’s project for Frieze Film 2014 was co-commissioned by Frieze Projects and High Line Art, and curated by Nicola Lees.
Cally Spooner’s Frieze Film project will be on view at various intervals during the day throughout Frieze London, open Wednesday, October 15th – Saturday, October 18th, 12 - 7 p.m. daily.
Portrait of Cally Spooner courtesy of the artist.
He’s in a Great Place! (A film trailer for And You Were Wonderful, On Stage), 2014Live and prerecorded live broadcastSix minutesPart of BMW Tate Live: Performance Room, Tate Modern
Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great SadnessTerminated In Any Manner, 2014opera singers and surtitlesInstallation view, ‘La voix humaine’ Kunstverein München, Munich
And You Were Wonderful, On Stage (dress rehearsal), 2014Live performance 50 minutesBMW Tate Live, Tate Britain
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory