Rock Star PJ Harvey Jumps on the Art Bandwagon

Can recording an album truly be considered an exhibition?

PJ Harvey in a promotional image of Recording in Progress (2015)Photo: Seamus Murphy courtesy of Artangel
PJ Harvey in a promotional image of Recording in Progress (2015)
Photo: Seamus Murphy courtesy of Artangel
PJ Harvey, <i>Recording in Progress</i> (2015)<br>Photo: Seamus Murphy courtesy of Artangel

PJ Harvey, Recording in Progress (2015)
Photo: Seamus Murphy courtesy of Artangel

From this Friday until February 14, British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey and her collaborators will record a new album during a series of sessions open to the public, which will take place inside a custom-made, site specific architectural installation at London’s Somerset House.

This is no institutional gimmick. Recording in Progress, which is organized in collaboration with the visual arts commissioning agency Artangel, was initiated by Harvey herself.

“Polly came to us with the instinct that it would be interesting to exhibit the process of recording an album,” Michael Morris, co-director of Artangel, told artnet News. “We explored a number of different ideas, locations, and contexts. And in the end she chose this rather extraordinary space, where we have created a site-specific studio environment.”

The space, a former staff gymnasium and rifle range, is located in Somerset House’s New Wing, an area of the splendid Neoclassical building that has never been open to the public before. “There is something quite uncharted about it, which interested us,” Morris explained. “And its scale was exactly right.”

Not a Participatory Project

A maximum of 35 people will be allowed in at the same time, which will make for a rather intimate experience. But despite its experimental nature, the project is not a participatory one. Harvey and her musicians will work behind a glass divider, a device necessary to ensure the acoustic requirements necessary to record what will subsequently become her ninth album in the best conditions.

Despite the musicians’ total inaccessibility, the public seems rather keen: Tickets for the allocated 45 minutes sessions sold out within minutes of being released.

“I don’t want to sound naive but I don’t think any of us expected such a huge interest and excitement from the public,” director of Somerset House Jonathan Reekie told artnet News. “I think there is definitely a real appetite for cross-disciplinary and process-based practices.”

Such appetite, however, isn’t exactly new. The spilling of musical endeavors into visual arts’ territory has been a key fixture in the history of the avant-gardes. The tradition began with the Ballet Russes—which gathered composers like Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky with artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, and choreographers like Vaslav Nijinsky—and continued with the Velvet Underground concerts at Andy Warhol’s Factory, Laurie Anderson’s early performances, and the recent Kraftwerk retrospectives at Tate and MoMA, to name but a few known examples. Later this month, coincidentally, White Cube will host weekend performances by the London Sinfonietta ensemble as part of Christian Marclay’s forthcoming exhibition in London.

What seems most unique about Harvey’s project, however, is that it offers access to an intrinsically private experience, such as the act of creating music and recording an album. Thus, something which normally takes place behind closed doors—before being performed in public—is poised to become the event itself.

“The main challenge of this project is actually external: How to present it to the world and explain it, particularly to the media,” Reekie told artnet News. “The art media is obviously much more receptive and understanding, but lots of music media outlets want to write and review this project as a music project, when it’s in fact an art project.”

This is clearly how Harvey sees the project too, stating: “I want Recording in Progress to operate as if we’re an exhibition in a gallery. I hope visitors will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process.”

Harvey’s Artistic Background

Harvey is no stranger to the crossover of creative disciplines, having an artistic background herself. Before the music world beckoned, she studied sculpture at London’s celebrated art school Central Saint Martins, and still draws and makes sculpture regularly.

The musician—who during her 27-year career has racked up an impressive number of music accolades, including two Mercury Prizes, and was appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2013—is something of an institution in the UK. But despite her fame, she is known to be private and somewhat eccentric, a reputation which sits at odds with such a revealing art project.

“Polly is a tremendously open collaborator, who knows very much what she wants; she has very clear ideas and is very thoughtful,” Artangel’s Morris told artnet News. At Somerset House, Reekie chimed in: “Polly has this extraordinarily singular vision for Recording in Progress which, I must stress, is absolutely her own,” he told artnet News. “It is an idea that she brought to us, and it was very fully formed. There’s nothing better than working with an artist that has a strong vision for something. Even if it is really demanding!”

PJ Harvey’s Recording in Progress runs from January 16 to February 14 at Somerset House, London.

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