As I take a fake gilt chair in the all-white 19th Century salon that now fills the Barbican’s Pit, Stewart Laing apologises for ruining the surprise of discovering the space when I come to the Salon Project that evening. At the edge of the set, there’s a hive of activity with all the costumes required for each night. Two weeks before the event, audience members are asked for their measurements so that a period costume can be found for them. The result is that your immersion with the world of the project begins well before you turn up on the night as you begin to imagine what you’ll be given to wear.
This process of being dressed for the occasion isn’t something that’s been added on to the show as a little extra twist. In fact, Laing explains to me that the idea for the show originated when his godson wanted to be an extra in a film that the boy’s mother had been set designer on. He was told that he could only be an extra if he had an adult chaperone and this was how dutiful godfather Laing, originally trained as a costume designer himself, ended up as an extra in Joe Wright’s film of Pride and Prejudice.
Laing was fascinated with being on the other side of the fence for once: being dressed and watching his fellow extras being similarly transformed. Talking to them, he discovered that many did the work in addition to their regular jobs for the pleasure of dressing up and entering another world. It was then that the original concept for the Salon Project started to form in his mind: the idea of dressing the audience up in costumes from a specific historical period. I ask him if he thinks that being dressed up affects the way people behave. “It gives them a certain lift, I think, but it’s quite subtle, not transformative. We’re clear from the beginning that we don’t want people to pretend to be somewhere else or someone else and we use contemporary language and discuss contemporary issues. It can make people a little braver sometimes though.”
It’s very difficult to generalise about the experience of The Salon Project. The evening is punctuated with provocations, like a DJ set using gramophones or a naked tableau vivant; there are two guest speakers each night and specific musical recitals in addition to more low key accompaniment from John Shea on piano. For a substantial proportion of the time though, the “audience” are not an audience in the traditional sense at all but a gathering of people at a social event. Inspired by the French salon culture of what was known as the “Golden Age” between 1885 and 1915, the evening follows the same pattern as these in that we move courteously and seamlessly from a social situation where we are talking amongst one another to something more formal where we listen politely to a speaker or a musician. Though these more formal situations will be the same for everyone, the rest of the evening will be greatly affected by who you come with, who you know there and who you speak to throughout the evening. Laing tells me that a woman who came in Glasgow brought her Kindle along and spent the whole time in the corner reading. He explains that nobody’s being forced to do anything so if someone wants to spend the whole time reading in the corner, that’s fine.
The night I went, the two guest speakers were the performance artist James Leadbetter (a.k.a. The Vacuum Cleaner) and Professor Irene Tracey, the Director of the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB). As part of the Barbican’s Wonder season, the Salon’s London run is featuring a different neuroscientist every night. Leadbetter provides a counterpoint to the academic speeches though in his intentionally erratic performance poetry which is also an almost unbearably honest account of his own struggles with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Leadbetter describes himself as an “art and activism collective of one […] employing various legal and illegal tactics and forms”.
His work exists within a tradition of Situationism, disrupting the spectacle of every day urban life, that, in turn, drew inspiration from the legacy of the French anarchist movement of the late 19th Century. It was during this same time period, that the first discoveries were being made that laid the foundations for what has become modern neuroscience: in 1906, Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal won the Nobel Prize for the pioneering work they had carried out in categorising neurons in the brain for the first time. This is just a happy coincidence, Laing explains. He didn’t specifically choose speakers who would connect to the time period but, for whatever reason, a number of speakers have ended up referencing the period. He gives the example of one of the neuroscientists they had speaking on another night who gave an account of mass hallucinations that occurred throughout Europe in 1909 when news spread of the development of the Zeppelin by the German Army. There were sightings all over the continent, far, far beyond the distances the Zeppelins were actually able to travel at the time.
The idea for the specific time period was inspired by the work of Marcel Proust and the world described in his masterpiece A la recherche du temps perdu. Laing describes the aesthetics of that world: “the clothes and fashions were so absurd; women were so encumbered, whereas the men had quite an easy time”. Music is an important feature of the Salon Project experience, as it is in Proust’s world. Laing explains that music is connected with memory in Proust’s work and some of these nudges to the collective and individual memories catch you unaware as you mill around the room. At one point, I realised that the pianist was playing the theme from Tetris, something that I found personally very evocative of specific childhood moments. Tetris is my madeleine, it would seem. Perhaps I had been primed for this already in thinking about Proust or perhaps by Irene Tracey’s response to a question about the possibility of downloadable memories, where she explained that memories don’t exist in discrete isolation like computer files but often lie dormant and are triggered by the senses: smell, sound, sight, etc.
The exclusivity of Proust’s world can’t be ignored though, nor is that something that Laing wants to do. While the Salons of Golden Age Paris were very much invitation only, “anyone can buy a ticket to this”. It democratises aesthetics that are about bourgeois exclusivity. Dressing up in clothing that is other to us, also strips away many of the signifiers we use in our every day lives to judge or categorise others, Laing explains. Though there would have been a hierarchy implied in the period outfits, we no longer understand the social context behind them so, despite their formality and relative discomfort, there’s the potential for our new garments to be freeing.
Having said this, the Salon isn’t a utopian space. We are given a chance to glory in the glamour of the time, of course, and that is a large part of the pleasure of the evening. However, there’s no getting away from the context in which those fashions existed. The salons were sights of privilege, exclusivity and power. The “golden age” in France was drawn to a short sharp close by the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the decades of economic instability, political extremism and war that followed. The Salon world is ruptured by the provocations and feels at the point of implosion by the end, after we have posed for a group photograph. Sounds of an outside world start to be heard, strange and threatening. Largely these go unmentioned though and everything proceeds as normal, just as it would have done at the time, we the privileged few continue as if everything’s fine and try to block out the sounds of the dogs barking with our chatter.
Laing sees the project very much as allowing space for many different experiences. He is wary, both in the work and in what he tells me, to draw reductive direct comparisons between our world and fin de siecle Paris. He does point out however that that it was a society that featured a great disparity in the distribution of wealth. “Today we’re in a recession but there are some who are feeling that a lot less than others. It doesn’t affect everyone to the same extent.” To be talking about inequality in society – then and now – on Monday, it was difficult to avoid the subject of Margaret Thatcher’s death a few hours before. Laing insists that the evening won’t have a Thatcher theme. In the end though, it proves impossible to avoid the Lady’s ghost. The performance artist Marcia Farquhar, who plays the Salonniere (essentially Laing’s co-host), mentions that “extraordinary decade of the 1980s” with a sense of nostalgia for the strength and vibrancy of the counter-culture she was a part of. Leadbetter, of a younger generation, simply says that he was feeling bad that morning until “he got the news”, then he felt “better”.