Making The Saints

Paul Pfeiffer in conversation with Jasper Sharp

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(Above) Paul Pfeiffer, The Saints (2007). Photograph: Thierry Bal


Paul Pfeiffer in conversation with Jasper Sharp: part one

Jasper Sharp: I am curious to know how your thinking about the 1966 game developed, in terms of the way that you planned to somehow re-enact it.

Paul Pfeiffer: I had the idea to try to reproduce the crowd and the sounds from the 1966 final. Not the commentator or the explanation of what was going on in the game, but rather the visceral noise of the fans and their singing of what were essentially loaded nationalist and religious anthems like When The Saints Go Marching In within the seemingly mundane context of a sporting event. I was interested to recreate these sounds using a contemporary multitude, specifically in the Philippines. I liked the idea that reproducing the sounds in this way has no logical or historical connection to the site. There is no link.

JS: Except you perhaps?

PP: Well, yes. And I was interested to find a way to translate my own upbringing in the Philippines into some sort of artistic expression, without falling into the trap of nostalgic biography. The way I did it therefore was quite objective. Something that is very specific to the social structure in the Philippines today is the value that is placed on labour as a primary commodity. It is used internationally as a tool of trade by the government, who send an enormous number of people out to work in other countries and at the same time now welcome a lot of new businesses from other countries in. Given the history of the American presence in the Philippines, and the premium placed on providing a decent education to every child notwithstanding the relatively impoverished circumstances in which many of them live, there is a relatively inexpensive, English-speaking workforce readily available. Many of them work at international telephone call centres, on a completely inverted time schedule. It's really fascinating. There are hundreds of young people, very much like a college campus, who live, sleep, eat and work within these special compounds in and around Manila.

JS: Were these the sorts of people that you hired to be the new 'fans' for The Saints?

PP: Not exactly. An old friend of mine is actually the director of the National Theatre in the Philippines. He served as the liaison, managing the production very ably and bringing in the right kind of people. A call was sent out and we put together a cast of 1000 young men suitable for the material that we would be performing, and our need to harness an intense male energy, and testosterone, in order to build the psychology of a crowd and get it excited. We planned to use them in an attempt to invoke the passion of English and German football fans among people who actually had no connection to football, to England, and least of all to a single game from 1966. In the same way that many younger English people don't have such a strong connection with it.

JS: Were you present throughout?

PP: I was.

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(Above) Paul Pfeiffer, The Saints (2007). Photograph: Thierry Bal


Part two

JS: I was interested to learn that you read Elias Canetti's study of group behaviour entitled Crowds in Power, in which he proposes that there is little difference between crowd formations in a stadium and in a war, that the psychological energy that builds between the two tribes is very similar. What was your cast told in terms of how they should behave? Did they have some sort of guidelines?

PP: We went through a series of experiments that lasted about a year. The first time that I went in and put the crowd together, I didn't tell them anything. I liked the idea of it being completely abstract and anti-narrative. I discovered that it was one thing to get a thousand guys in a room, but quite another to get them to be excited about something that is is in every sense far away. So we tried something else. Rather than presenting them with the text of the 1966 final, we presented them with the text of a recent fight by a boxer named Manny Pacquiao, who is a national hero in the Philippines and the flyweight champion of the world right now. We screened a recent match and the group of guys got totally excited, without any attempt to reproduce the songs or chants from the 1966 match. We proceeded for a while to go back and forth between the two events, very awkwardly. After several attempts I realised that it was impractical to try to incite the crowd without some complicity on their part in the whole procedure.

JS: What did you change to make it happen?

PP: I went back one final time. I told James that we were almost there but that we hadn't yet got what we needed. This last time, having learnt from the previous experiments, we developed it more and gave the crowd much more information about what they were being asked to do. Without breaking down the whole game, we explained it as an extremely important moment, the first time that the World Cup had been broadcast live around the world. We described it to them as if we were playing a sort of time warp game and projecting this 1966 event into the future, and they were the crowd that we were projecting the game to - and then we would project their image back to 1966. We ran them through a series of rehearsals, to learn the national anthems of England and Germany and the various chants. And then we essentially filmed it in fragments and did different things to increase the excitement. At one point we gave them all Red Bull, which had a great effect. The crowd actually got so hyped up at a certain point - they had bottles of water because it was an eight hour session in the theatre and people were getting hot - that when we boosted them to the highest levels of energy, it basically turned into a waterfight.

JS: Well, if that's what it needed! So the entire production took place in Manila?

PP: A large part of it. I gathered together cameramen and production specialists there who were leaders in the cultural field on both the artistic and commercial sides. It was shot by some of the leading filmmakers in the Philippines.

JS: In what format?

PP: In mini-HD. We had a total of seven or eight cameras in the room, including one on a large crane to get overhead shots, which was stationary in the theatre. It was a new theatre in Manila built as part of a complex called Mall of Asia, which for a few months was the biggest mall in Asia. We used state-of-the-art cameras, but a lot of the equipment were homemade versions of equipment that you would find back in the US.

JS: How were you able to get hold of the original 1966 footage and sound?

PP: The film footage is available commercially on DVD from the BBC archive, with original commentary by famous sportcasters of the time. What is not widely available is the sound recording without commentary. This was sourced by Artangel, who found that the original sound footage had been sold at auction as part of a group lot of archival materials to some collector in New Zealand of all places. So we wrote to him and were able to obtain a digital copy of the original sound footage.

PP: When did you actually get this?

JS: We got it in late 2006. When I started listening to it it blew me away. It's incredible. I didn't think of it before, but unless you are actually a fan who goes to these games you don't hear something like that without commentary playing over it from the television. It was strange to hear the roar of the crowd without any contextual information.

JS: I know what you mean. It is something that one very rarely experiences. So the work was first shown in London in the autumn of 2007. Were you completely satisfied with the space? I am thinking particularly of its size. How important a factor was this for you, and how important will it be to subsequent presentations of the piece?

PP: The vastness of the space in London was important in trying to reproduce the sonic intensity of a crowd in a stadium. At the same time, I believe that the critical relationship and counter-intuitive association-making between the story of the 1966 game and this contemporary crowd 60 years later in Manila, and the kind of disconnect that it represents, is very present in the video images and sound themselves. So while I think that experientially the enormity of the space and the projecting of sound within it was very important, there is something essential to the experiment on another level which is not so dependent on the space per se. It goes along with the idea that, short of actually showing this work in the stadium, there is no way to approximate the sound of a stadium. Even the huge London warehouse space still sounded like a warehouse. The viewer must imagine. In a smaller space it could still work, the imagination would simply have to work harder to conjure up the image of something immense, a mental space which is not actually physically present.

JS: A "phantom spectacle", as the Artangel press material described it.

PP: Exactly. The installation should be thoroughly un spectacular, precisely for that reason. But it must be loud, very loud, though not so loud as to be annoying. There are some very beautiful passages where it becomes quiet and you begin to hear individual sounds. At other moments you experience the extraordinarily visceral effect of one hundred thousand voices booing. The idea was to create this emotional intensity through sound. I think in the end that the space's size is less important than its emptiness, when you first encounter the sound.

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(Above) Paul Pfeiffer, The Saints (2007). Photograph: Thierry Bal


Part three

JS: I know what you mean. It is something that one very rarely experiences. So the work was first shown in London in the autumn of 2007. Were you completely satisfied with the space? I am thinking particularly of its size. How important a factor was this for you, and how important will it be to subsequent presentations of the piece?

PP: The vastness of the space in London was important in trying to reproduce the sonic intensity of a crowd in a stadium. At the same time, I believe that the critical relationship and counter-intuitive association-making between the story of the 1966 game and this contemporary crowd 60 years later in Manila, and the kind of disconnect that it represents, is very present in the video images and sound themselves. So while I think that experientially the enormity of the space and the projecting of sound within it was very important, there is something essential to the experiment on another level which is not so dependent on the space per se. It goes along with the idea that, short of actually showing this work in the stadium, there is no way to approximate the sound of a stadium. Even the huge London warehouse space still sounded like a warehouse. The viewer must imagine. In a smaller space it could still work, the imagination would simply have to work harder to conjure up the image of something immense, a mental space which is not actually physically present.

JS: A "phantom spectacle", as the Artangel press material described it.

PP: Exactly. The installation should be thoroughly un spectacular, precisely for that reason. But it must be loud, very loud, though not so loud as to be annoying. There are some very beautiful passages where it becomes quiet and you begin to hear individual sounds. At other moments you experience the extraordinarily visceral effect of one hundred thousand voices booing. The idea was to create this emotional intensity through sound. I think in the end that the space's size is less important than its emptiness, when you first encounter the sound.

JS: Many British people grew up with the tradition of ventriloquism, a much-loved part of old comedy programmes that played on television at the weekend. Its basic device, that of replacing one voice with another, seems to be central to the success of The Saints. Can you explain how you managed this?

PP: In some ways the whole piece is to me, production-wise, like an elaborate synching job. The images of the crowd are synched back to the sound of the original crowd from 1966, so you're watching the group in Manila but hearing the voices of the original British and German fans. It's synched so that what the fans are chanting appears to be coming out of the mouths of the cast in Manila, but it is in fact a big illusion. For me there is something important about this. Materially speaking, it is bringing home this connection. The sound installation is actually composed of two layers of sound: one inside the small theater where the videos are playing, and the other outside. The one outside is a 60-track, comprising the 1966 soundtrack which is used as a script, overlaid with sound from Manila. The model soundtrack is expanded into a sort of booming sound composed of some original sound but mostly the sound from Manila. The sound inside the video space is just the original sound, which was used as a script to structure the video and to create this sense of ventriloquism.

JS: I'm afraid we must wrap this up quite soon. To conclude, I'm curious to know how you perceive The Saints within the context of your previous work?

PP: On a personal level, I think that my work - like that of any artist - involves a desire to communicate something essential about personal experience. In my case, I think that my experience has something specific to do with American culture and the particular way that I experienced it growing up both in the United States and places like Hawaii and the Philippines, which are historically American colonies. I feel like there's a particular perspective that comes from a real lived experience of growing up in American culture in places with only a residue of that colonial culture. It is something that I experienced aesthetically in the architecture and language and these kind of forms, but also psychologically, in my relationships with my family and people in general. And later on as an adult, thinking about the particularity of exchanges and how they were different from those of other people that I eventually met as an adult. This question of what might be that particular experience of American culture, if you're living a sort of double experience being both inside and outside at the same time.

I was very influenced, for example, by writings about African-American artists, a very different context to my own but one with certain parallels, to this work and this history, with which I can identify. I've tried to reflect that in my work. In a similar way, at a certain point, looking at the work of Pop artists was very influential for me. Again, there's an aspect of objectifying and distancing American culture which happens in Pop art which reminds me of the experience of growing up and being both inside and outside at the same time. I like this kind of tangential, post-colonial reading of Pop Art. Not to labour the point, but I've been thinking of Warhol as a very peculiar and extreme sort of personality, who initiated the idea of an artist acting as a celebrity but at the same time insisting on being non-existent, like a void. In some strange way this reminds me of my own experience that I am trying to convey.

JS: Many thanks Paul. I appreciate your time.

PP: You're welcome. Thank you.

 


Publication: Jasper Sharp in conversation with Paul Pfeiffer, in The Collection Book. Edited by Eva Ebersberger and Daniela Zyman / Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary. Cologne: Walther König, 2009. p. 314-319