Space opera: Jessica Voorsanger talks sci-fi in Scunthorpe for Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 04 April 2014

Jessica Voorsanger has interplanetary plans for 20-21 Gallery in North Lincolnshire. Expect song, dance and cosplay - perhaps all at once

Jessica Voorsanger is a rare breed. Not only is she one of the most engaging contemporary artists working in the UK, she is also an American with a newfound love of a small industrial town in the East Midlands.

“I absolutely loved Scunthorpe’s proposal,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. It is Museums at Night again and contemporary artists are getting their postings around the UK.

“They proposed to have a sci-fi karaoke evening and that appeals to me on a zillion levels,” says the Transatlantic art star. Voorsanger’s work does indeed involve dressing up and singing; it does mine Star Trek and Star Wars for inspiration; and yet this is the first time she’s mixed it up.

Hosting all these shenanigans will be 20-21, the town’s local authority gallery. It is the second time the space has won in a public vote to bag an artist for their Museums at Night event.

“They went into town in costume,” says Voorsanger. “It was actually getting the community involved which was what swung it for them”.

The result is a remarkable fit of an energetic venue with an energetic artist, whose account of what we might expect in May goes on and on: a parade inspired by Men in Black with either a marching band or steel drums; a karaoke booth based on the teleport area from Star Trek; a bar in the style of the Tatooine drinking hole from Star Wars; and a costume making area to help you get in the swing of it.

Also in the planning mix are an interplanetary selfie-zone and a life drawing class in which, rather than a nude, you are more likely to find one of Darth Vader’s stormtroopers or a crew member from the Starship Enterprise.

And still Voorsanger claims: “It's going to be much wider than that so, you know, whatever people bring to it.” In other words, the force should be strong in Scunthorpe.

The singing, on the other hand, need not be in tune. What the artist likes about karaoke is the fact it gives non singers permission to sing. “I am top of that list,” she says.

“I really can't sing, but I do sing in karaoke, and then you can enjoy all the levels of performances.” Another positive is the potential for audiences to interact with the work.

Karaoke and sci-fi cosplay may be on the lighter side of contemporary art praxis, but Voorsanger is as serious as you would hope her to be.

“I find it really, really fascinating and I would never make fun of it,” she says of the oft-maligned genre. “I really explore both its humorous and its serious sides”. Previous encounters with the artist’s work will inform you that fandom, celebrity, obsession and characterisation are at the heart of everything she does.

But it was her celebrity and reputation which drove a voting frenzy in Lincolnshire. Voorsanger tells me she enjoyed the contest to bring her to Scunthorpe. “I loved it but I was also terrified. I mean, what if nobody voted?” As it happened, almost too many people voted and 20-21 clinched it by a matter of 28 clicks.

Not bad for a cultural outpost in a town of just 50,000. The gallery were quick to show their newly-won artist all the sites (from the top of the local belltower), with Voorsanger deeming what she's seen of the place “fab”.

Plus, she was soon sold on the venue. “I absolutely loved the people at 20-21,” she tells me. “This isn't the first time I've worked outside of a big city and it's really nice to be able to connect to a community.”

So despite her London base, this is one artist refreshingly free from a metropolitan bias. She says of her hosts: “Their being remote from London in no way diminished their energy, their creativity, their connection to contemporary practice, all of the things which make them an exciting institution.”

Indeed, what could be more exciting than watching a Men in Black parade liven up your town, when Voorsanger envisages “everybody is dressed in suits, thin ties and black sunglasses", ready to “break out into dance at some point”. Never mind the Harlem Shuffle, this promises to become the Scunthorpe Shake.

It is an exuberant project for an artist who, in recent years, has been getting over a serious illness. But the only complaint made by upbeat Voorsanger is that in 2012 a hospital admission came between her and a trip to a Star Trek convention. “All five of the different captains were there and gave talks. I was absolutely gutted that I couldn’t go.”

It remains to be seen how many captains turn up to 20-21 in May. But like all Museum at Night venues, the gallery will surely be on Warp Factor 8.

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The Museums at Night Blog

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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