There's a place just off Edinburgh's Royal Mile which the chances of
you or I ever having been invited inside are pretty slim. By all
accounts, the select few who have graced the doors of occasional
functions at this residential address a stone's throw from Holyrood are
shaping future intellectual thought. Inspired by ideas of eighteenth
century salons, in which the latest ideas on philosophy, science and
art were debated in a lively social environment, this twenty-first
century Edinburgh model is the latest example of a new wave of salons.
Here, enlightened thinkers can talk freely in a way in which the
democratically elected members along the road either can't, won't, or
are simply not clever enough to engage in such a discourse.
In his glass-windowed office in Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre peering
over a scaled-down model of the theatre's main stage, theatre director,
designer and current Traverse artist in residence Stewart Laing appears
as far away from such rarefied gatherings as one can imagine. As
instigator of The Salon Project, a very public piece of participatory
spectacle in which the audience are required to dress up in an allotted
costume as some of the great minds of our generation hold court,
perhaps we should think again.
All this is represented in miniature inside Laing's model by a huddle
of plastic figurines tucked into a corner gathered around a
doll's-house size pianola. Peering over this approximation of Traverse
1 with its banks of seating removed, and with a false ceiling masking
the space's vertical expanse, however, Laing is struggling for words.
“It's three hundred and sixty degrees,” he says of the space, “which is
a two-dimensional expression, but I don't know what the word is for
something that's three hundred and sixty degrees in both directions.
I've been asking people, but nobody seems to know.”
Perhaps this is something one of the eminent scholars invited to take
part in a rolling programme will be able shed light on such matters. In
the meantime, Laing's own thinking behind The Salon Project is also
“We're going to be presenting provocations for conversation,” he says.
“That seems to be the historical function of the salon. It's all about
conversation. So in a lot of ways I feel more like a curator than a
director, because in terms of any kind of dramatic arc, it's quite low.
There'll be different people on every evening, and there's nothing
there that I can control in terms of what happens.”
As one might expect from Laing's ongoing fascination with left-field
literary icons from Verlaine and Rimbaud through to Jean Cocteau, The
Salon Project has similarly fan-boy roots.
As Laing explains, “There was a performance piece I'd read about. The
text was by Proust, and the music was by (Venezuelan composer) Reynaldo
Hahn, and just because I have an interest in both those artists, I
thought it was an extraordinary thing that they'd collaborated,
especially at a live event, and especially because I had no knowledge
of Proust ever having done any dramatic writing. It was a piece called
Portraits of Painters, that they performed together at a salon in Paris
in 1895, and while I was trying to track it down, I had this idea that
it might be interesting to present it in the same circumstances, with
the audience dressed in period costume. Everyone I spoke to about it,
all my collaborators, got very excited about this idea, but when I
eventually tracked down the piece, it turned out to be really dull.”
Even so, the idea stuck with Laing, who pulled together a group of
like-minded artists, musicians and performers. As it stands, a company
of roughly twenty will be made up of a mix of speakers and guides to
allow the audience of sixty to navigate the space once split up into
six groups of ten. At the heart of an evening, performance artist Rose
English, who famously appeared onstage at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre
with a performing horse, will hold court.
Laing also approached artists Robbie Thomson and Jack Wrigley. Part of
the 85A artists collective in Glasgow and graduates of Glasgow School
of Art's Environmental Art course, the pair impressed Laing with a
piece about a Polish submarine that utilised live soundtracks to silent
movies in a space that recreated the submarine out of cardboard.
“It was one of the most exciting things I'd seen in Glasgow in years,”
The Salon Project itself sounds part intellectual speed-dating, part
art-cabaret a la the original Cabaret Voltaire nightclub at which early
Dadaists did turns in a Swiss nightclub.
“A lot of people have mentioned cabaret,” Laing concedes, “but I see
the idea of the salon as pre-cabaret. I always think of cabaret as a
sort of alternative or underground form of entertainment, but I think
there's something interesting about these aristocratic salons, because
there was this idea of exclusivity about them. You could only go if you
were invited, and there was no other means of entry. It was a small
group of people, making art, music and poetry for themselves and their
friends. So I think it's about exploding that idea of exclusivity is
what I'm interested in.”
But isn't that sense of exclusivity half the appeal? The idea of your
name not being down on the guest list, after all, is what made the
likes of Studio 54 in the 1970s or The Groucho Club in the 1980s so
legendary. Yet if The Salon Project is a way of opening things up in
terms of discourse, Laing remains in charge.
“It's an aesthetically controlled event,” he says.
Laing's ever-changing exercise in mind-expansion forms something of a
centre-piece in what looks like an odd-shaped autumn season at the
Traverse that puts ideas at its heart. As well as The Salon Project,
Traverse Resident Playwright Peter Arnott is spending his year long
term in association with the Edinburgh University based Economics and
Social Research Council (ESRC)'s Genomics Forum hosting a series of
informal talks on his work. For those who may be unfamiliar with the
term, genomics is a genetics-based discipline based around determining
the DNA structures of living organisms. Arnott's recent events have
included Whose View of Life?...Or Men and Monkeys Revisited, with
conversation-based workshops on Translating The Genome forthcoming.
Additionally, the next full Traverse production will be The Tree of
Knowledge, a new play by Jo Clifford which transports philosopher David
Hume and economist Adam Smith to twenty-first century Edinburgh. So,
what, then, is the big idea? Why are such public and private forums for
discussion becoming so prevalent beyond the hallowed halls of
parliaments and other, more formally inclined institutions?
“I think the idea of sharing ideas is very attractive, and especially
of sharing ideas in a social situation. A lot of the original salons
were very politically motivated, and I think that's the case with a lot
of the ones that exist today as well. There's a balance there between
sharing ideas and partying, and I think people are looking for
something like that again, which is partly why there's so much
participatory theatre going on just now. But I just want to people
think. That's really what I want to do, so the conversation goes beyond
what was on telly last night. I just want people to think ahead.”
The Salon Project, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 10th-22nd.
The Herald, October 4th 2011