There was an odd moment at about 4.25am during my attempted 24-hour sit-in at Sanctum, the continuous programme of music and soundscape events in a bombed-out city centre church. Sitting alone inside the dark chapel-come-sculpture that juts up from the empty husk of Temple Church, I watched 11 mostly middle-aged women sat in a circle blowing raspberries at each other. It felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t be, an accidental fly-on-the-wall at the start of some twisted séance. Or something like that.
Granted, I was tired, and a lot of things felt like a séance at times during my sleep-deprived trip to the opening night and day of what has been described as “one of the most ambitious arts projects likely to happen this year”. But there was still something eerie, foreboding and odd about Soulroots Acapella warming up their vocal chords in Temple Gardens just for lonely old me.
Funny thing is, that wasn’t most odd thing to have happened since proceedings began at 6pm on Thursday. I’d already witnessed a man called Colin dressed dressed in black and white overalls swing a chair around his head screaming and a woman standing with her back to the audience wrapped in a shroud repeating the same call to prayer for 55 minutes, until most of the audience had left.
But picking out the stranger bits – and there were many to choose from – of my 24 hours inside Sanctum doesn’t do this project justice. The brainchild of Chicago artist Theaster Gates, this 24-day, 522-hour rolling performance piece is as brilliant as it is bizarre. Packed with some of the city’s best musicians, Gates has called it an “amplifier of Bristol”.
I arrive at around 5.30pm to see if he’s right. There’s free hot drinks tonight, I’m told by the press officers when I arrive. Last time I stayed up all night listening to music I needed more than a cup of tea to keep me going. Hopefully I won’t be sick in a bin this time.
I sneak in to the venue just before the start, in time to watch the first punters arrive. And it is the look on their faces which is perhaps most revealing about what this place offers visitors. Entering through the leaning tower in Temple Gardens, off Victoria Street, and crossing the bridge made from Redcliffe clay bricks, they come gently through the wooden doors built from parts of the old Greenbank Chocolate Factory in Easton.
As they tentatively enter the hall a small smile creeps across their faces as they come to terms with what they’ve stumbled across. It doesn’t matter who’s playing – or who’s swinging what around their head – the show-stealer is the beautifully uplit, wonky and jagged wooden prism where the gigs are taking place. This is not a perfect construction. It is rough around the edges. But its lines and form keep lifting the audience’s eyes back up to the ceiling as the music continues, and continues.
A full bagpipe and drumming crew, Bristol Pipes and Drums, kick off proceedings at 6pm, followed by the soulful Celestine whose voice fills the room and proves it can hold its sound. Sea shanty a cappella group Roaring Trowman give a stirring – and, at points, amusing – performance at 7.10pm and Simon Capet tops the night off at 10.30pm with a stunning classical piano recital which cuts through the cold air with a deep warmth.
But before he had taken to the stage we heard and saw a lot of Colin Self. Now, Colin is odd. Arnolfini odd. The American artist, who happens to be performing at the gallery the next day, came on at 9.50pm dressed in baggy overalls patterned in such a way to make him look like a bit like a cow. Colin’s music is pretty good – ranging from drum and bass to something close to the Bristol Sound – but his act is just weird. There’s a lot of screaming and some movements which are hard to explain. His set, fortunately or unfortunately for organisers, becomes the background to a live broadcast for BBC News at Ten.
As the cameras pack up and BBC arts editor Will Gompertz shakes Gates’ hands on the bridge, the night takes a significant shift as the pianist takes his seat, restoring the calm. His set is brought neatly to a close as Marie France strikes the first note on her harp at 11.20pm at the opposite end of the hall, leading to chairs being slowly turned around to face her.
Now, around midnight sees a big moment: Big Jeff arrives for the first time. He looks happy with what he hears, although it’s pretty low tempo to nod your head to. He whips his drawing pad out instead.
The next act, it’s sad to say, slightly kills the night. Sara Zaltash opens her set standing on a bench next to the main stage with her back against the small crowd at 12.05am, as the harp chords are still echoing. Her voice is beautiful and full of passion and her face contorts as she booms out the first lines, parts of a call to prayer, I believe. She then repeats those lines. Again and again. And again. Until 1pm. That’s pretty much and hour. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be art, but it’s quite frustrating after 15 minutes.
Spoken word poet/storyteller Holly Corfield has to pretty much force her way onto stage to make her stop. Unfortunately Sara almost cleared the room though. By the time DJ Becoming Sun comes on at 1.30am it’s only stragglers and pub kick-outs left. By the time his set ends – to a rather brilliant mash-up of Wicked Game and King Fu Fighting – it’s just a small group of his friends left over. Still, they make the most of it; rolling about on the floor and gazing at that ceiling. I don’t blame them.
Some sounds follow from 3.20am in the form of an MP3 mix of noises which range from birdsong to toilets flushing. It’s just me here at this point. And this is not what I need. Thankfully it’s a short hour (yawn) until the next live act, Soulroots Acapella.
I kind of feel sorry for them, arriving into a venue in the hammering rain at 4.25am to find it is empty and also raining inside. Yes, that’s right, when it pours on the outside, there are some leaks in this reclaimed shed, erected in just nine days. My sympathy doesn’t last long, as I focus on dodging the wet. As they play with spectacular harmonies with dawn creeping up, I am left dodging drips from the ceiling on my own. It’s like a really rubbish Crystal Maze. With no way out.
At 7am the sun has risen and the dark grey outside has turned to a slightly lighter grey. And with the return of the light, comes the return of Marie French, the harpist. Harp music is excruciatingly relaxing and my eyelids are turned to weights. But I am awoken by the arrival of the first punter here for some four hours. Exciting.
Not that exciting though, as I lose my battle with my eyelids and sleep about 20 minutes later at about 7.50am to Joshua Ward who is making soothing noises on his laptop. Damn those soothing noises.
There is some poetry and then there is some more poetry as the crowd grows to around a dozen before Jessica McDonald appears for the first of three occasions with her cello at 9.10am. She’s just practicing, she says, and apologises for mistakes – and the swearing. She is followed by Soundscape, a lady banging what look like gongs. It’s underwhelming, until, that is, it culminates in some circular rushing sound which fills the chapel with a thick wall of sound. It’s the alarm clock I need.
Our cellist returns before making way for our first storyteller at 11.20am. I am very pleased Kevlin Henney popped in and introduced me to the genre of flash fiction. His stories, told in just 250 words, are short and sweet and very well delivered. By the time our cellist returns for the third time Sanctum is nearly full again.
There’s more storytelling and poetry from a man from Stroud and then an odd appearance at 1.05pm from some potters who have bent a microphone over their wheel. Slapping clay between their hands Potstop produce a song with the help of a guitarist and singer offering a story of pottery in Bristol.
Our 23rd performer has gone AWOL, we learn at 2.30pm. But there is a plan if artists are ill or caught in traffic; the reading of a book. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor is begun by a spare staff Sanctum member. Emergency over.
3.15pm sees a welcome return for Simon Capet, before sleep finally defeats me, just two hours short of 24 hours in Sanctum. It was certainly ambitious (Sanctum, that is). And this is just the start. I walk out of the chapel at 4pm with the piano still ringing full and head home, finally.
Here’s to the next 23 days at Temple Church.