Review – The Salon Project – Untitled Projects at The Barbican


What would you think of buying tickets to an event where YOU are the entertainment? I think for a lot of people the very idea of doing this would make them run screaming from the room; for others, adding “in costume” would provide the rest of the motivation for quitting; “while talking to strangers” would be the cherry on top. But for those extroverts out there, spending an evening in fancy dress in an environment that attempted to recreate the French salons of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t sound nearly as bad as all that. I’d actually wished frequently that I could have gone to one of these events: an entire evening spent talking about art, literature and politics – I was born for this!

As it turned out, though, our costumes were not Madame de Pompadour, but Opera House Fire Sale, with the results that, as we trickled into the mirrored white room that was the salon, we looked like time-traveling refugees cast ashore in the promenade room of a luxury cruise ship. I was green and gold twenties matron, “she” was 1905 Klimt vamp, someone else was 1860s mish mash (no petticoats!) and someone looked positively futuristic in a black banded gown with a gold collar and crown. Most of the men were in much less glamorous tuxedos, but still, the feeling was quite, “Ooh, aren’t we all so amazing!” and we spent rather a lot of the first half hour or so just looking at each other and staring, somewhat distractedly, at our highly altered images. We hadn’t just been sent back in time: we’d emerged as somebody elses.

Around the time that we were running out of goggling, a gong rang and we were told to close our eyes: when they reopened, a bevy of naked people sat or stood motionless among us – a stationary “tableux vivant.” What was odd, though, is that with their hair, tattoos, and (dare I say it) unique pubic hair styling, the naked models looked far more modern than we clothed people. And nearly all of them (as I recall) seemed to be fiddling with some kind of personal electronic device. Now, mind, most of us had cell phones or cameras (all the better to Tweet the event with), but somehow our touristing was of a very different sort …. the models almost, I think, made us feel more … obvious … but somehow united in our imaginary being in the past-ness. The naked people were 100% 2013, and they felt like they were working, while we were there to enjoy ourselves. I cast a glance over each of them but found nothing much really to talk about, stare at, or otherwise distract me from the rest of the evening; the rest of my fellow costumed crew seemed likewise to be nonplussed. My thought: now where did I put my glass of prosecco? And was there any chance of hors d’ouvres?

More people showed up, and there was some more structured entertainment (two people talked, one on mental illness as personally experienced, the other on brain research; and there was a piano concert), but mostly we were left on our own to entertain ourselves as we saw fit. Not much, however, was done to actually encourage people to interact with each other, which was a bit of a pain since I’d come there by myself. I randomly talked to about four people over the course of the evening, which seemed like not much, given that I was fully prepared to speak about almost any kind of artistic subject (and re: politics, Margaret Thatcher had just died so you would have expected something to be said!). I had my best conversation of the night with Yolanda, a Spanish actress, whom I only happened to speak to because she had been in a picture I was taking and I wanted to repose it to show her off better. (The ensuing conversation, about training as an actress in England, and about the meaning of accent culturally and use of it at a professional level, was actually really great; we conducted it in Spanish just because we could, and it seemed appropriate for the evening.)
With this great lump of not-happening going on, I reached a point where I was getting bored. Had we really just signed up for playing dress up and not much else? It really seemed so. I resigned myself to making the best of it and got more serious about photo taking, but I was ultimately beaten out by the staff photographer, who herded us all behind some chairs for a group photo. Well, alright, but then we were done, right? Oh no, there was going to be some unattractive, bloody yet artsy video shown on a TV screen. At least the piano player got to let rip with some Phillip Glass piano stuff; I enjoyed that a lot, but mostly had to grit my teeth and wait for my chance to be disenchanted and allowed to slip back into the night.

There is no doubt that being dressed up by other people is fun. But mostly, as an event o encourage interaction, Salon seemed to me to be a failure. Why is it so easy to find 80 outfits to fit 80 hugely different people, but so hard to find a few things to get them all talking to one another? I wish the organizers had focused more on the talking than on the fashion; this, to me, would have led to a much more enjoyable evening and memories I would have treasured much more than a few photographs. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 8th, 2013. It continues through April 14th and is very much sold out.)

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