NOTICE: Bill Drummond’s last performance of The17

Jen Allanson swallows her nerves and puts her trust in artist and musician Bill Drummond. What exactly is The17, and what has she got herself into?

On Saturday I became a lifetime member of an imaginary choir. I responded to a notice to show up at Static Gallery to take part in a performance by Bill Drummond.

I’ve been intrigued by Drummond since he and Jimmy Cauty carried out a protest against the Turner Prize in 1993. Their form of protest appealed to my preference for humour over anger and they sealed the deal by torching £1 million of their own money. Bonkers!

Reading more about their background, I discovered Drummond had a significant and long-running creative relationship with my home city of Liverpool; when the call came to participate in a project to mark his 60th birthday I couldn’t resist.

I’m at Static. It’s a little after 6pm and Bill Drummond is standing on a table. Self conscious, he haltingly explains the concept behind The17 choir. In a broad Scottish accent he describes how The17 “started as an idea in my head”, pausing to tap a spot behind his left ear. The idea, he says, was for an imaginary choir, a choir that wouldn’t exist until the moment its members came together to perform a piece of work. An important aspect, he explains, is that the performance would never be recorded. There would be no distribution, no mechanism to ‘listen again’. The only people who would ever experience the complete performance, he said, were members of the choir. Once inducted all members of the choir would remain so for life.

After eight years of activity, the project that grew from that initial idea would be played out tonight. The17 would give one final performance in Liverpool to mark a commitment Drummond had made to himself to end the work when he turned 60. That landmark is just hours away, and myself and the other people at the gallery are about to become the final incarnation of that imaginary choir.

We are to perform Surround. The instructions are delightfully simple. We’ll walk together and be deposited along a route Drummond has marked on a large map. Managing our expectations carefully he explains that, depending on where we’re dropped off, we may have to wait up to an hour before everyone is in place and the performance can begin. He demonstrates the chant we’re to pass between us. Hand cupped to mouth he calls “Waaaay Oh.” Everyone laughs. My own laugh is partially nerves and partially an acknowledgement of the joyful ridiculousness of it all. Drummond shows no sign of doubt as he tells us that we’ll transmit this call five times around the city. He says this is an exercise in trust. His belief in our ability to do this is absolute, in light of this I decide to give myself over to the process.

“My own laugh is partially nerves and partially an acknowledgement of the joyful ridiculousness of it all”

We step out of the gallery’s darkness to be anointed by long beams of early evening sunlight. A squinty, crowded photograph is made to record the start of the event. With loosely rolled map tucked beneath his arm, Drummond strides down Roscoe Lane and out onto Renshaw Street. We follow.

As we all walk I start to process my new and temporary role. What’s here? An artist with vision and clear leadership skills. A mission, the success of which depends upon a large group of individuals acting collectively. Trust. That is here. He brought it. We’ve clearly already put our trust in him. But what about each other? How can we trust when we don’t know each other? What if theres a guerrilla element among us who will send hoax chants or otherwise subvert the process? What if the subversive element is me? It’s happened before! But despite my silly self-talk I’m completely happy to trust that everyone will play their part as I will play mine. If we fail then at least we’ll have tried.

A gentle hum of conversation, with occasional laugher, accompanies us as we pass the steps of St Luke’s. Drummond suddenly stalks out into the road, halting the traffic in order to shepherd us across. Pleasingly, no impatient horns are blown.

“A web of otherness hangs between us, holding us together in our shared purpose”

As we head down Bold Street I sense an emerging camaraderie. The signs are subtle – smiles between strangers, the odd word, more laughter. People stop and stare as we swarm gently by. Individually, none of us appear any different to them. But a web of otherness hangs between us, holding us together in our shared purpose. This mission temporarily separates us from our environment.

Drummond had indicated that the first drop-off point was on Slater Street. We pass fluidly around a young woman in a mustard-coloured coat. Where she stands is a designated position, not a natural stopping point, on the busy pavement. We smile as we pass, acknowledging her contribution. Every 50 metres or so we flow around another deposited element of our collective. We continue in this manner, a single entity stretching out along the city streets.

Crossing Duke Street, down Suffolk Street and onto Lydia Anne Street, we take a sharp right onto Argyle Street, down York Street, up Forrest Street then onto Park Lane. Ahead, Drummond continues to mark our route in people, making sure each individual can clearly see the person 50 metres behind. To deal with my anxiety, I joke that we’re going to end up in Liverpool One shouting “Whaaaay Oh” surrounded by shoppers and hen parties. And so I begin to think where I’d like to be. Somewhere sunny would be good, with a view and not too many people passing!

We continue to lay our measured human trail along the noisy length of the Strand. As we approach the Liver Building Drummond stops abruptly and calls for us to gather. He quickly counts heads explaining that, if need be, he can recalibrate the route based on the number of people remaining.

Who wants to stay here? he asks. My arm shoots up. He steps forward, takes my hand and shakes it warmly. He then strides off up the road followed by the others.

The17 rounds a corner and I experience a moment of pure delight. How ace is this? What a great way to spend a sunny Saturday evening, taking part in an ambitiously hair-brained scheme headed up by a nutter. Absolutely bloody brilliant!

“A chain of maybe 30 people behind me all ready and waiting for the call to arrive”

50 metres behind me a man in a beige jacket paces slowly in the middle of the wide flagged pavement. I can’t see who is beyond him, but I know that someone is there. A chain of maybe 30 people behind me all ready and waiting for the call to arrive. Ahead of me, Sarah is leaning against a tall street light looking at her phone. Beyond her, at the corner by St Nick’s, Graham has his camera out and is taking photographs.

And we wait. After a while my mind starts to chatter at me to fill the gap. How long have I been here? I wonder how long it will take to get everyone in place? When will it start? I wonder if it’s now? Or now? How about now? What if someone’s already got bored and wandered off? How will we know? How long before we realise they’ve gone? How long have I been here?

I pull out my phone and text home.

Me: “Standing on the Strand as part of a performance of Surround. It’s chilly.”

Dave: “Ace, I love your commitment. Hope you’re all having a ball.”

I text back explaining the process.

Dave. “Oh my god, I didn’t realise the scale of the project. Hope the chant makes good progress. Don’t drop it.”

Damn, I hadn’t considered that.

How long has it been now? Surely everyone is in place? Something must have gone wrong?

I look back toward the man in the beige jacket. He’s still there. I’m reassured by his presence. Perhaps he feels the same about mine? I turn around and Sarah and Graham are still there too. We’re all still here. Everyone else is probably there too, waiting. Something is bound to happen soon.

And then I hear it. Faintly at first but quickly getting louder: “Waaaay Oh,” comes the call, heading toward me up the Strand. I’m both surprised and delighted. Suddenly the man in the beige jacket turns toward me: “Whaaay Oh,” he calls. I swing around: “Whaaay Oh.” I holler so loudly my voice breaks. Sarah picks it up and passes it on. I listen as it quickly disappears around the corner and off up Chapel Street. I check the time. 19:39. Then I do a little dance. How brilliant was that? I get a thumbs up from the man in the beige jacket and pass it on to Sarah. I can’t see her face but I know shes smiling. A feeling of good will connects me to my co-communicators. It worked! We’re doing it. I wonder if it’ll get all the way around.

“I settle in for a wait, but all of a sudden the third call is coming. I’m not ready”

When the second call passes I glance up at the giant clock on the Liver Building. Its 19:43. Just four minutes to transmit a call around 100(ish) geographically-dispersed people. Not bad. I settle in for a wait, but all of a sudden the third call is coming. I’m not ready. Neither is the man in the beige coat whose voice cracks as he swings around and tries to call. I have to call “Waaaay Oh” twice in order to catch Sarah’s attention. It took us all by surprise. Surely that must have been a mistake? I glance at the clock again, less than minute since the last call. That can’t be right. Probably some mischievous drunk in Liverpool One set that one off.

The forth and fifth calls come around at two minute intervals. Now we’re in flow. Yet as quickly as it starts, it’s over. Five complete circuits of the city centre in a total time of nine minutes. Pretty impressive. I wait, just in case there’s one more call. I wasn’t sure about number three. So I wait. And wait. And wait some more. After several minutes the man in the beige jacked turns to me and shrugs. I shrug back to him then turn and pass the shrug on up the line. Looks like we’re done. It worked. When I check in later with someone who was nearer the start they reported five circuits too. So that sub-minute circuit was real. Wow.

It’s a beautiful evening as Sarah, Graham and I walk back through town, toward Static, to end our journey where it began. We pass late shoppers, laden with bags, struggling onto buses. Groups of suited men cross paths with groups of glamorous women, trading calls and comments as they go. A hen party in matching neon pink skirts surround a busker and belt out some Oasis song.

And suddenly everywhere I look I see performance. And each performance, I realise, is unique. And each performance will exist only when its players come together. And each performance will go unrecorded (save for iPhone photographs) to be replayed only in the heads of the performers themselves.

Some part of me, watching from a long way off, reminds me that the only way to truly experience the performance of life is to become a player. And you choose to become a player when you say yes to new experiences – like becoming a lifetime member of an imaginary choir.

Jen Allanson

A Brief But Evolving History of The17

Images courtesy Jen Allanson. NOTICE poster courtesy Bill Drummond

Posted on 07/05/2013 by thedoublenegative