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Issue 215

Shenece Oretha, Mohammad Tayyeb and the Radical Potential of Listening

At London's Cell Project Space, the artists' timely new commissions explore the potency of intimate gestures and simple actions 

BY Kareem Reid in Reviews , UK Reviews | 16 OCT 20

Launched in June, Cellular is Cell Project Space’s new live art and media commissioning programme and online exhibition platform. Following on from inaugural performance piece Parallels (2020), a two-part video work and text of improvised and choreographed movement by Sanna Helena Berger and Shade Théret, the second project in this experimental series was Called to Respond (2020) by London-based artist Shenece Oretha. Installed in the main event space at Cell Projects, and flooded with amber light, this multi-channel work built on Black oral traditions through written and performed poetry. The piece comprises two active speakers transformed into percussive instruments. One functions as an automated tambourine, with three rows of cymbals suspended on wire and affixed to an exposed subwoofer. The choreographed, intermittent shaking of this speaker adds to the cacophonous, discordant rumblings from the other. Encircled by a black charcoal line and placed horizontally, the recess in this second speaker is filled with chicken bones that jump and rattle on the unstable, reverberating surface.

Shenece Oretha, Called To Respond, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Cell Project Space, London

Whether sung at public gatherings or in churches, on the streets or at home in private, the call-and-response structure in music of the Black diaspora is an expression of democratic audience participation. Here, Oretha draws on the Black feminist tradition of centring oral testimonials as evidence of being. Multi-layered whispers and hushed tones are amplified, punctuated and underpinned by the sound of forceful exhalations of air. In an excerpt of poetry printed in the exhibition’s accompanying pamphlet, the artist writes: ‘In the open ear / Conspiring / Through bones / Moving us / To respond / Together.Called to Respond asks for the audience’s reactions, interpretations and imagination.

Mohammad Tayyeb, Category Is..., 2020, HD video, incense. Courtesy: the artist and Cell Project Space; photograph: Rob Harris

Cellular’s third and current commission, Leaving Is Forever (2020), comprises a written manifesto and two video works by Jordanian-Palestinian performance artist Mohammad Tayyeb, in which walking is framed as a catalyst for resistance and collective action. The films – On Going (2019) and Category Is … (2020)are screened on facing walls of the gallery’s main event space, where visitors are greeted by the scent of incense burning from a solitary stick. Both videos are informed by the Tayyeb family’s multi-generational experiences of forced displacement and subsequent migration from Hebron to Amman to Los Angeles. On Going is a frantically paced montage capturing blurred experiences in constant motion, recorded on a camera phone. The imagery is edited in dizzying bursts that show looped moments from daily life occurring simultaneously in two cities. Category Is … documents Tayyeb’s performances in the style of a fashion editorial. Catwalking across busy intersections in Los Angeles, the artist wears a collection of self-made genderfluid clothing inspired by traditional Arabic dress to an a cappella soundscape of beatboxing and Sufi chanting. At one point, he visits a mobile clinic offering free HIV tests near MacArthur Park; in the closing scene, he poses with an incense holder, leaving trails of perfumed smoke in his wake. He is often captured by cinematographer Wesam Nassar upside down, walking in reverse or walking into the distance, where, in the bustling crowd, he becomes an indiscernible, anonymous figure.

Mohammad Tayyeb, Walking Manifesto, 2020, HD video, brainwave sound frequency. Courtesy: the artist and Cell Project Space; photograph: Rob Harris

Both Oretha’s and Tayyeb’s contributions to the Cellular programme attest to a widespread sense of disorientation in a new reality where the need for alternative, accessible spaces to experience potent live and time-based art feels urgent. In examining intimate gestures and simple actions – walking, breathing – Oretha and Tayyeb suggest that we begin with the body, the breath and the mobilizing effect and radical potential of active listening.

Main image: Shenece Oretha, Called To Respond, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Cell Project Space, London

Kareem Reid is a writer and artist. He lives in London, UK.