First Encounters: Cafe OTO, Vortex, BFI and National Gallery

Spotlight

Discovering a venue is like entering a new universe: if they got it right, their identity – the type of art they programme, the values they carry, the experience they create – is palpable right from the front door. This is how I felt recently about Cafe OTO, an experimental venue in Dalston, East London, where I went in September to see Rodrigo Constanzo (with whom I’m currently working on developing his dfscore project) perform with Distractfold as part of the Kammer Klang series of contemporary chamber music.

Here is Rodrigo performing one of his composition, iminlovewithanothergirl, a solo piece for snare and microphone, right at the end of the set.

The austere feel of the venue – basically a warehouse – creates an edgy focus for the music and makes the listening experience that much more intense. The acoustics are not even that good, there’s a loud fan that comes on between each set, and I can’t describe the seats as comfortable, but the space creates an intimacy not just with the performers but also between audience members: I was on my own, but I could easily strike a conversation with people sitting near me.

Not long after, I was at the Vortex, just round the corner, also for the first time, for what I can only describe as a journey through abstraction and emotion with Electric Biddle, a Jazz Shuttle project (Jazz Shuttle is a creative scheme supporting new Franco-British bands that I’ve recently started to coordinate on the UK side). A team from Paris venue Le Triton was there to film a documentary about the band, and here’s an extract from the first leg of the tour, filmed in France.

My latest encounter with a venue is a double one: I was invited to the BFI to watch the latest documentary by Fred Wiseman, who spend 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. He filmed everything from guided tours to executive meetings and restoration work, and condensed 170 hours of footage into a 3-hour film that celebrate both the art and the institution that hosts it, in all its complexity and contradictions.

I’ve never actually been (yet) to the National Gallery, so this was a formidable virtual encounter. The spotlight is of course on the paintings, but also on people: those who make, buy, care for and admire the art. We’re privy to debates amongst staff over the purpose and limitations of restoration, or on the tension between ‘inclusion’ and ‘excellence’. We also get to eavesdrop on the vast array of education, engagement and participation activities that take place within the National Gallery: from guided school tours to teacher training, a life-drawing class, or a session for visually impaired people observing Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night through touch and words.

National Gallery is a journey through art and humanity told with a multitude of fragments that continue to resonate and build a meaning long after the film is finished. The most powerful moments are wordless juxtapositions of masterpiece portraits and the people observing them: a mise en abyme that connects past and present, art and life, and artist, sitter, museum-goer and film spectator, in an infinite jeu de miroir of “who’s looking at who?”.  I was also reminded of Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, a series of large-scale images showing museum-goers engaged in the process of observing paintings at several institutions, including the National Gallery (below).

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

The film is out in the UK in January 2015. Meanwhile, I’ve been back to Cafe OTO for another great night hosted by Kammer Klang, I’m off to the Vortex for the Emile Parisien Quartet in November, if not before, and I’m planning a visit to the National Gallery in the next few weeks. I haven’t said much about my experience at the BFI, but it inspired my to start a weekly film club at the Cat’s Back, the South West London pub I run with my husband, so surely that’s their job done!