Singing to the Sea
Michael Archer, Autumn 2003
Northumberland, July 1993
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It happened ten years ago, but I can still remember it clearly. The danger, in fact, is that I shall merely repeat what I wrote at the time. Although it had rained heavily during the day on which I saw Singing to the Sea, the weather had cleared to leave a fine, still evening, interrupted by a few brief showers. We had all been told to gather in a car park in the town of Alnwick. From there, a bus would take us to the place on the nearby coast at which a performance by the Bistritsa Babi was to occur. On the way to the sea I looked down from my seat on the top deck of the bus and saw some people swimming in a river. Such scenes are very rare in Britain. After a short journey, the bus stopped at the end of a lane and we were told that we would have to walk the rest of the way.
The sea was so calm that there were really no waves at all. It simply folded itself gently onto the shore behind the Bistritsa Babi, who were already down on the beach when we were led along the coast path into the bay. The absence of wind meant that the voices of the singers could be clearly heard, both when they faced towards us listeners higher up the beach, and when they turned to sing towards the receding sea. (The performance had begun at high tide.) To begin with, we watched from a respectful distance, many of us remaining on or near to the path that skirted the bay. Gradually, though, curiosity got the better of us, and people began to edge slowly further down onto the sand, closer to the singers.
Because of the earlier rain, the ground underfoot was damp. Water droplets clinging to leaves and blades of grass glistened in the sunlight, and the smell was of freshness tinged with the inevitable saltiness of the sea. There was a lot of sea convolvulus growing in the area, and everywhere one could see the ground dotted with its small, pink flowers. All of this, it seemed to me at the time, was part of the performance, because it was integral to the experience of being there, in that place at that moment. Singing to the Sea was, after all, a set of conjunctions. It was a coming together of a group of singers from one place, Bulgaria, with a location in another part of the world, north-east England. The songs of the Bistritsa Babi, at home in the mountains of eastern Europe, were being sung beside the sea. Part of the audience for this event was an invited one – we knew to be there – but there were others who had simply chanced upon it while out on an evening stroll, or while taking the dog for a walk. Even the fortuitous appearance of the rainbow which, following a brief mid-performance shower, provided a framing arch around the singers, could be understood as an integral part of the work rather than an extraneous accident.
The idea that a work of art might not simply arise out of, but might actually be such a set of conjunctions, is familiar to us from Marcel Duchamp's thoughts on the ready-made. The ready-made, he said, could be thought of as a kind of rendezvous. What was important about it was "just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour." And Huws has explicitly referred to this event - Singing to the Sea - as a "ready-made equivalent of the Floor." While a student at the RCA in 1987 she had painstakingly cleaned the floor of her space of all its accreted layers, taking it back to its original state. A year later she had laid a luxurious wool carpet in the former machine shop basement that was the then home of the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. The 'floor' to which Huws is referring here, however, is the low platform of oak parquet installed over parts of the grey lino-painted concrete of the Riverside Studios in 1989, a work subsequently made in other versions in the Kunsthalle, Bern, and at Galerie Luis Campaña in Frankfurt. The idea of the conjunction was significant in all these cases - between the revealed or displayed material, the possible place of origin of that material, and the situation in which it was encountered. In each instance, too, one viewed the work in natural light, and so what was perceived at any moment depended to a great extent on the time of day and the weather conditions outside. It is no surprise that Duchamp has remained an important reference point for Huws in her thinking about art, place and language.
 Bethan Huws, Selected Textual Works 1991 – 2003, published by Dieter Association and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2003, p. 6.↩
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This essay is taken from the publication Singing to the Sea available from Cornerhouse.