Welsh chorus: Janette Parris tells us how she will bring music to Museums at Night

By Mark Sheerin | 02 May 2014 | Updated: 02 April 2014

We speak to the English artist about her plans to use song to activate displays at Cardiff Story Museum. Visitors should expect the unexpected

Graphic illustration of an artist
© Janette Parris
Not many musicians would book a gig before learning to play, but that's just what Janette Parris in time for a performance slot at The Art Party Conference back in November.

It might seem like a very punk gesture, but the English artist appears more interested in opera, musicals, narrative and animations than in three-chord incitements to smash the state.

But this May, her musical talents are back. Parris is heading to the Cardiff Story Museum, where she plans an impromptu site-specific musical based on displays from the offbeat museum’s collection.

“Basically, I've selected four objects and I've created four songs around those objects and the songs will be sung by a mix of three female and three male actors. The public can come in and just witness people spontaneously breaking into song,” she tells me via phone.

While this is not the first musical Parris has made, her previous efforts have been “Dennis Potter style”, using well-known songs. “But this is the first time I've tried to write an original song for a musical,” says the brave artist and self-taught musician and tunesmith.

She does, however, say that for Museums at Night she’s enlisted the help of a professional: “Obviously I need more than a basic melody and lyrics and so I’ve got a composer on board”.

In the meantime, the artist’s approach sounds as idiosyncratic as the museum itself, with songs about a tambourine, a pink hat and a Persian dagger.

“There’s a selection on the ground floor, which tells the stories of villages near Cardiff and why they commute to Cardiff, so I based a song on that,” she tells me.

So if Andrew Lloyd Webber is your idea of a good night out, you are likely to find this musical bemusing.

But rest assured that in art terms, at least, Parris is no amateur. Her work has been exhibited at Tate Britain and commissioned by Art on the Underground. She has an MFA from Goldsmiths and a strong track record of working with the public.

If they shelve their preconceptions about musicals or indeed museums, visitors to Cardiff Story Museum will find themselves in safe hands. And besides, not even Parris herself knew what to expect from the Welsh museum.

“I found it quite quirky if I'm honest,” she tells me. “Objects have been donated by people from Wales or from Cardiff and some of them are really interesting and some of them have really good personal stories of why they’re there.”

In some cases, Parris adds, those stories have been pieced together by educated guesswork. And in other cases, she is not afraid to admit, “I have fictionalised some of it.”

Well, they do say never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Parris will certainly enjoy the element of surprise. “The general public will be milling around looking at objects within the museum and suddenly people will burst into song,” she says.

Indeed, Parris is very happy to confront people and talks about this aspect of her work with evident humour. “Normally, when I work with the general public, they very rarely have worked with an artist before. So the challenge is to change preconceptions of what an artist is and what they do,” she tells me.

In this respect, working with the public is “quite rewarding”, although the artist caveats this by saying: “You don’t really know what the end result is likely to be”.

But like most of her profession, she reports being excited by Museums at Night (“Anything to get the general public noticing museums...”). And she is not unduly bothered by distinctions between music and art: “I think it’s the context it’s usually viewed in”.

Note that her own musical work has almost always been in a gallery. “So I’ve never gone out and gigged. I’ve always had to write the songs in relation to an exhibition,” she says.

The set at the Art Party Conference must have been the exception to prove the rule. I ask her about the organiser, Bob and Roberta Smith, who also plays music with a full band.

“I think there’s a world of difference between general pop music and specific art focus bands,” Parris tells me. But when pressed about her host in Scarborough, she says Bob and Roberta are “pretty good”, if not to her musical tastes. And for the record, her verdict on Martin Creed is “likewise”.

Our discussion takes such a musical turn that Parris is keen to remind me that her work also includes animation, jokes, and performance, even if it is the music which captures the imagination. “It isn’t just musicals,” she concludes, “but saying you’re going to do musicals in a gallery does get you noticed in that way. It’s a slightly bonkers idea I suppose.”

Bonkers maybe, but quite acceptable for Museums at Night.

  • Janette Parris is at The Cardiff Story, Cardiff on May 16 2014. Starts 7pm.

Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.

More on Museums at Night:

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

Volunteers share all: Spencer Tunick talks about his daring project for Museums at Night

Museums at Night 2014: Our guide to Newcastle and Gateshead's Late Shows

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