Working with Jordan McKenzie at the Barbican was one of my 2016 highlights. I am very much like a magpie for the arts, always inspired by others. This was the reason why I joined the Barbican Young Visual Arts Group to learn the ability of ‘letting go’, create a visual showcase and experience new artistic ventures.
I admire Jordan as he interacts and embodies art physically and emotionally. Rather than simply observing, he encourages a performance and invites a playful heart. His artwork enables us to share our identities whether it’s on a wall or floor, or through a speaker or projector. Having no boundaries or rules, I always feel honoured to witness the snapshot into his creative thinking.
Keeping in contact, I interviewed Jordan to talk about his latest project, Shame Chorus.
Collaborating with London Gay Men’s Chorus and tackling the subject of “shame”, why have you focused on the gay community to represent this project?
Many of the narratives and representation of LGBT culture is that of equality, being proud and coming out. While this is wonderful and the advances that we have made in terms of equality are brilliant, there is another side to the story.
Amongst gay men HIV infection is soaring, suicide is more likely if you are gay than straight and also rates of mental health are greater in the gay community. So, while there is this outward facing show of pride, on the other hand, there is an inward story that for some in our community is very different and I wanted to explore this.
The Chorus seem to boom as a collective. Do you believe there’s more power in a group performance than a singular, individual voice?
Shame thrives on isolation as Brene Brown says: “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Taking the private experience of shame through the interviews conducted by Susie Orbach on members of the LGMC and then giving them to the composers to turn into a collective act, an act (singing) that is a group and celebratory activity was an essential element of the project.
Working with varied composers on Shame Chorus, how did you approach them and collaborate together?
Though these were paid commissions, the composers who are all well-known in their fields did the commissions for a fraction of the cost than commercially. The songs raise awareness of the LGMC outreach work in schools, tackling homophobia through singing and mentorship, and the composers really responded to this. They were given one interview each and some have been very biographical in their response while others have taken a phrase or a central image. I wanted them to bring their own creativity to the project.
Using original testimonies from the chorus, are any particular lines which pack a powerful punch?
There were some common threads in the interviews. Many of the men interviewed had experienced mental health issues, some had anxieties around confidence and body issues, and some were very dark involving abuse and thoughts of suicide. However, that wasn’t the only experiences, some of the men had very positive experiences of growing up gay and had very supportive friends and family. Some of the coming out stories are quite humorous, it is important I think not to portray these men as victims and to give them some agency.
We were very careful to select interviewees that were confident with themselves and would not feel overwhelmed by the interview process. We did offer follow up sessions if they were needed, but none of the subjects needed or wanted that. Also, many were actually very excited to be interviewed by Susie and we made it clear that this was an interview and did not constitute therapy in any way.
Have you ever personally experienced shame?
There is not one person on the face of the planet who hasn’t experienced shame. It is a universal emotion and one that affects us all. Some believe that shame is actually a necessary part of our identity that shapes us and also keeps us in check, while others see it as a completely debilitating emotion that needs to be exorcised.
Freud recognised the power of shame and wrote extensively about it in his numerous books. Because it is so universal, though this project focuses on gay men’s lives, it is actually relevant to us all regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc.
Shame Chorus is a very inspiring project and deserves huge respect and recognition to those who have shared their experiences. What do you hope the audience can gain from watching the Shame Chorus?
Apart from listening to great and inspiring music, I want the audience to engage with the complex issue of shame and how it stifles us all. The most important thing is not to suffer in silence, but to share these experiences and stories in order to move on from them.
Big thank you to Jordan!