Voyage of discovery, or experiment on how to best make use of gallery space? C James Fagan signed up for the Humble Market experience.
Is it me, or is it hot in here? As I walk into FACT, I wonder whether they have turned up the heating in order to provide a balmy tropical atmosphere. Something to go with the Brazilian influences which underpin the cross-platform exhibition, The Humble Market: Trade Secrets. The scene is one of people milling around what looks like the backstage of some Vegas nightclub. Above, a number of carnival headdresses are exploding brightly against the grey walls of FACT’s public space.
I book my slot among the first group to go into The Humble Market. There are four of us, and we exchange the how’s and why’s about our decision to take part, and our fuzzy ideas of what we are about to undertake.
Suddenly we have a guide. We’re asked to choose one of the headdresses. I go for a pleasing blue number and take a stool in front of the mirror. I put the headdress on. We’re meant to look in the mirror. For me it’s a really awkward moment, the best thing about this face is I don’t have to look at it. I instead look at the crowd reflected in the mirror; they seem to be enjoying the display put on for them: four bright birds unknown to each other or anyone else.
Our guide is holding up a sign which reads: how can you know yourself, how can you know other people? For the moment, this group is defined by the exotic plumage it has donned. An example of how the themes of identity will permeate this experience.
Here we are, four strangers embarking on, to us at least, the unknown. We enter what is the gallery one space of FACT. In the darkened space sits a yellow taxi, familiar to anyone who has seen a film set in New York. Looking back, it seems to be Generican. That is, a generic version of something American. So many of our signifiers are at once universal and influenced by America. We are quickly gathered for a group photo, ‘Act Brazilian’, the instruction. How do you do that? Feebly I stick out my hand and wave it about a bit, photo taken for who or why I don’t know, it didn’t occur to me to ask. We surrender our plumage and are ushered into a taxi.
Inside, it’s claustrophobic; I don’t know these people I share an enclosed space with. The opaque windows don’t help. The window burst into life! Outside, a carnival is going, bright party peeps are kettling us. Waving and pointing at us and rocking the cab. The radio comes to life, and a South American voice comes out of the ether. Initially it seems to be a radio phone-in and it’s odd to hear the husky accent interact with the voice of a Scouse girl. The voice turns to us. We are to take part in a game like ‘Simon Says’. We are to raise our hands in agreement to the forthcoming questions. Against the sound of the bussle outside the questions come. ‘Are you political?’ ‘Would you ban fox hunting?’ and more along similar lines.
The questions seem generic, and yet they can easily tie you to a set of values and ideas, quickly revealing a lot about you. I answer honestly; I can’t say the same for my fellow passengers. I wonder if it matters. Are we to be individuals or a group? Answering such questions in a binary way can leave you exposed. You can make friends and enemies very quickly. The broadcast stops, as does the projection. Everyone in the taxi is suspended. How quickly you become conditioned in these situations.
The next thing I know I’m taking off my boots on the bequest of my whispering guide. Now she appears to be unzipping part of a wall. We’re asked to crawl through the freshly opened gap, over discarded sleeping bags and suntan lotion bottles. I get the sensation of being surrounded by a malleable architecture. As we head toward a strange humming sound, I consider the possibility that this may be the closest real life gets to a Michel Gondry video.
We pause to take a breath, then carry on through another set of tent flaps, onto Astroturf then up onto an artificial plateau. On that plateau is a shrine to no-one in particular, but candles burn for the unidentified. We crawl to individual blankets, and are asked to don headsets – the kind you see air traffic controllers wear – along with 3D specs and rest our heads on grassy pillows. I do this and above me a huge full Moon is bearing down. Through the headset floats the voice of our guide explaining what is about to happen. We’re to discuss the big questions, about life and death. The questions come flying out of a cheap looking firmament which is being projected above me. ‘Is there life after death?’ ‘Are you disappointed with your family?’, and so on.
There are quiet, distant voices in my ears. I assume that these are the voices of my companions, though I’m uncertain. They could be coming from anywhere. I could be spouting my ill-informed, half-arsed new-age nonsense to a dark and empty room. This section over, we descend from the plateau, get our shoes back, and find ourselves in the bowels of FACT. Briefly I consider that this could be an afterlife, all bright and harsh, the muffled music I can hear seems to indicate there’s a much better afterlife going on somewhere else. Passing through the backstage of FACT it feels as strange and exotic as anything we have previously encountered.
Eventually we arrive into a space, where inscribed in large letters on a wall is the word INTIMATRON, underlined by an arrow pointing toward a rustling screen door. On the other side there awaits a set of phone booths, it feels quite sci-fi; I could be in line to speak to Wintermute here. I’m not far wrong, after selecting a booth; I pick up the receiver and listen. It’s a test, to see if I’m compatible with the Brazilian lifestyle. The voice warns me that the questions might be exposing. There are times when I wince at my answer. I’m surprised about my honesty, but I also begin to feel paranoid. What if all this is being broadcast in big bright letters to the crowd gathered in FACT’s public space?
I wonder if the others have these paranoid feelings. For the first time, the experience has felt personal, intimate. As I begin to have concerns whether this is the best way to finish – I only half-listen to the voice, expecting something to occur in the room – I find myself standing by the phone, my hand gently resting on top, in a small act of intimacy. Have I developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome with this automated voice? Before exploring the possibility further, I’m instructed to hang up.
I’m then ushered through another screen door in an ante chamber, where some cheap looking white wicker furniture awaits me, and a TV showing This Morning. The rooms normality, it’s banality makes it feel very strange, slightly unreal. I help myself to the provided refreshments and we are told that we can collect our results which sit in anonymous envelopes. I open mine and it’s nonsense. All the information taken from me, converted into data, and averaged out until it becomes almost abstract.
Experience over, do I have a greater understanding of the complex social-economic forces which surround us? Honestly no. Going through The Humble Market, the experience I had touched instead on how we identify ourselves within a group, within a society. Whether it is in a group of 4 or 4000, our individuality is much more malleable then we would hope. Though it can be considered a solipsistic experience, the presence of other people reminds me that there are different perspectives to consider.
Immediately after leaving, clutching my envelope, I know I’ve been through something but I’m not sure what. What I’m sure of is the ambition of this project, and the willingness to approach the gallery experience in a different way. Therefore making me re-evaluate what I can expect from a gallery, something which FACT’s fellow galleries could take note of.
C James Fagan
Image courtesy Brian Slater
The Humble Market: Trade Secrets continues at FACT until 26th August