Imagine yourself encircled by dark jungle. Exotic flowers nestling amid the vines and creepers invite you to step nearer ... Then comes the shock: these apparently exquisite blooms are riddled with disease and decay. At that moment you notice the brooding skies and the insistent beat of drums ...
Next month, visitors to the Roundhouse, in north London, will be able to immerse themselves in this neo-Romantic nightmare. Sordid Earth, a 3D animated film by the artist Mat Collishaw, is among the attractions of Ron Arad’s Curtain Call, an installation uniting artists, musicians, designers, writers and hotshot technicians in three weeks of imaginative events.
Exhibitions in New York and London have recently brought Arad’s alluring, semi-surreal objects to a wider audience: his polished steel but-can-you-sit-on-them chairs; the bookcase in the shape of the United States; the chandelier that displays text messages. These objects are an end in themselves, but the latest invention from the designer/sculptor/architect is also a platform/canvas on which to mount live performances and display interactive art.
Arad’s curtain consists of 6,285 eight-metre silicon strips suspended from a steel ring to form an 18-metre-diameter cylinder in the centre of the vast Roundhouse space. A bank of computers will drive projectors that will beam images on to the curtain from all sides. Members of the audience will be able to slip through the curtain, pushing aside its flexible fingers, as with those curtains made of plastic strips used to keep out flies. Here you’ll become both part of the screen and part of the image – “a captive and a creator”, as Arad puts it.
Last year, the Roundhouse initiated a series of summer installations, commissioning the musician David Byrne to create Play the Building, an ingenious set-up in which members of the audience could play different notes on a keyboard from different parts of the building. This year, the theatre’s artistic director, Marcus Davey, approached Arad as the pair chatted casually in the street. “I just said, ‘Why don’t we do a round curtain, with a 360-degree projection on it?’” Arad recalls. “He said, ‘That sounds good.’ But I wasn’t serious! I’d pitched an idea standing up, within a minute of being asked to do something.”
The idea stuck, however, and having abandoned an initial plan to use LEDs, Studio Arad whirred into action to make the curtain happen. “I hope it doesn’t look it, but it’s a big operation,” Arad says. “We can simulate it, but there is no way of actually seeing it before we install it. We will see it only a few hours before you see it.” The control room, he says, is an installation in itself. “There are 12 projectors, 12 monitors. It looks like science fiction – I’m sure some of the audience will be more interested in that than the performances.”
Technophiles and geeks may well be intrigued by the computer wizardry that delivers Jonathan Safran Foer remotely as a Rude Oracle. Some years back, the American novelist commandeered an LED advertising strip over a hardware store in a busy part of Brooklyn where he lives, because he felt the potential of the sign was wasted. “Once a week, for a couple of months, we set up a payphone with a one-way radio inside,” he explains. “I could hear the person, but they couldn’t see me. They’d ask a question and across the street, on a huge screen, the answer would appear.”
Without leaving home, Safran Foer is reprising the act for the Roundhouse. “I liked the idea of live interaction with the viewer,” he says, with a hint of mischief. “One person steps in and asks a question, and an answer will appear on the curtain.”
And Christian Marclay’s contribution can’t fail to impress. After his 24-hour film The Clock (which recently won him the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Biennale), the Swiss-American returned to his computer to make Pianorama for Curtain Call. For this, he has taken snippets of music played by his friend Steve Beresford and collaged them together to fit a film of hands on a keyboard that fills the entire 360 degrees of the curtain. Beresford will also perform live, under the towering keys of the piano and his own giant hands.
Mat Collishaw’s Sordid Earth, an exploration of our love affair with media images of disaster, also involves performance. On the film’s opening night, ominous drumming will be provided live by a Brazilian band, and recorded for later screenings. Sordid Earth will become part of a loop that includes Marclay’s Pianorama and an animated film of a naked figure in big boots, who paces slowly round the curtain, groaning audibly, by the Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley. “Most of the characters in my work are a bit weird and this one is definitely conforming to type,” says the artist. “It’s a minimal piece, but I was really interested in the idea of making a 360-degree animation.”
An interactive performance with a difference will be on offer from designer Paul Cocksedge, once one of Arad’s students at the Royal College of Art. Inside the curtain, he’ll have three ovens to cook up old vinyl records and mould them into cones that can be used to amplify music played on iPhones and BlackBerrys. “The new technology is fantastic, but because the speakers are so tiny, the sound is not as good as you’d want it to be,” he says. “This is a way for the old music to help the new.”
If Ron Arad feels that some aspects of Curtain Call are still up in the air, so too do some of his performers. “I still don’t really know what is involved,” laughs the cellist Steven Isserlis, who’ll be performing Bach, Britten and the Australian composer Carl Vine. But for Barcelona-based artist/designer Javier Mariscal, who co-directed the animated film Chico and Rita, spontaneous creativity is what both the installation and Arad are about: “The curtain should be a laboratory, a surprise.”
Many of those involved in Curtain Call are old friends of Arad. Others, such as Christian Marclay, were inspired by his “willingness to try anything”. For their part, the artists and performers have surprised Ron Arad. “I made a wish-list of people I wanted to take part, in each case imagining what they might do,” he concludes. “To my delight, none of them came up with anything remotely similar to what I thought they might do.”
‘Curtain Call’, Roundhouse, London, August 9-29. www.roundhouse.org.uk