Students ‘play’ Kirkpatrick Chapel like an instrument

The staging and props are decidedly low-tech: roving flashlight beams sliding across walls and trailing over terra cotta columns, piercing the darkness of a 19th-century chapel; strands of bright fabric raining down from the choir loft, pooling on the floor; sheets of cardboard fanned like palm fronds (at left), striking the pews.

A revving car engine in the parking lot supplies a whiff of aggression, judiciously struck notes drift from the organ, and an echoing fusion of live and prerecorded ambient sound saturates the space with what might be a cavalcade of stomping feet, slamming doors, whining horns, and a mournful bleat of train whistles.

In this atmosphere—and that is what’s being whipped up here, big time—one half-expects to catch Quasimodo dragging his chains up Kirkpatrick Chapel’s center aisle, plunking himself down with a sigh beside the 60 or so barefoot audience members assembled on the altar steps.

This interplay of light, dark, and sound, called Spreading Rumors Inside the Chapel, is a site-specific performance mimicking the ways in which rumors spark and spread. The piece was designed and executed by nine visual arts graduate students along with faculty member Aki Sasamoto and a graduate organ student. The event took place on December 1 at Kirkpatrick Chapel and represented the fruition of a semester-long collaboration with the Department of Art History, in which student-artists examined the tradition of performance-centered art movements.

Of course, the Rutgers University Visual Arts Department enjoys a long history of chapel performances, particularly in the late 1960s and into 1970, when the controversial “Flux-Mass” took place at Voorhees Chapel, complete with “clergy” in gorilla suits.

Sasamoto says she was pleased to see her students collaborating on an event in a nontraditional space, echoing a Moscow-based conceptual art performance group they studied, known as Collective Actions.

“Rutgers is a place with many interesting sites,” says Sasamoto. “As visual artists, we tend to lock ourselves inside our studios. It’s important to sometimes go out and think in alternative spaces.”

Visual arts grad student Ali Osborn says when he visited the chapel to begin mapping out the movement sequence, “I got excited about playing the building” like an instrument, recording the 143-year-old chapel’s various utterances––groaning floorboards, the roof reacting to a windy day, the clack of door latches, the roar of the boiler.

The visual artists worked with organist Roshan Chakane to facilitate what Osborn calls “a dialogue” between a composition of these prerecorded chapel sounds, white noise generated by the performers as they made contact with the pews and floors, and the improvised music of the live organ, scoring—and underscoring—it all.

Chakane says he relished the experiment’s audacious and communal spirit.

“Since the people I was performing with were not trained musicians, I was expecting the performance to be somewhat lacking in musical insight,” he admits. “I could not have been more incorrect. The visual artists were so responsive to what I was doing on the organ.”

The sense of adventure as he plunged into darkness, Chakane says, was stoked “by the balance of ‘not knowing what is coming next’ and the comfort of knowing you are working with highly trained artists.”

Spreading Rumors Inside the Chapel was conceived and performed by Colleen Billing, Roshan Chakane, Sedrick ChisomChristhian Diaz, Julian Gilbert-Davis, Ali Osborn, Aki Sasamoto, David Torres, Catalina Tuca, Jack Warner, and Stephen Williams.

Watch the performance:

Spreading Rumors Inside The Chapel from Aki Sasamoto on Vimeo.

Posted January 2017.