Stella Capes: The Recital – Voices from Five Films
2009 / UK / Multi-Channel Video Installation
Viewed at: Theatre @ ICA

Stella Capes: The Recital

Produced as part of her residency during the ICA’s Talk Show season in May 2009, Stella Capes’ excellent multi-channel work, The Recital – Voices from Five Films, playfully merges the world of high-brow opera with that of the lowest-of-low-brow film genres, horror.

Cleverly re-situating five key cinematic horror texts – Dracula (1931), Godzilla (1954), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and Ring (1998) – Capes’ isolates the individual screams, gasps and howls from each film, tasking a troupe of professional opera singers with re-interpreting their intonations and fluctuating pitches.

Standing in the centre of the installation, the viewer is surrounded by five screens, one for each film. There, Capes’ opera singers sit in simple rows on unadorned sets, each playing a specific character (or a group of characters, in the case of ‘The People’ in Godzilla and ‘The Dead’ in Night of the Living Dead). Having spent long periods simply sitting in silence, endlessly thumbing their scripts, a singer will occasionally rise, approach the camera and perform their ‘scream’ with pitch perfect clarity.

Each screen runs for the entire length of the original film, with Capes’ singers performing their screams at the precise moment they appear in the source material. Wait long enough, and a serendipitous moment will arrive, with the otherwise isolated screams from two or more films unwittingly united in some kind of unholy chorus of fear.

The Recital is a truly exceptional work. The understated nature of the videos themselves, and Capes’ decision to programme the screams at the precise, irregular points at which they appear during the films, adds to the eerie atmosphere of a kind of lunatic cathedral in which the disembodied choir utter their cries and moans at seemingly random intervals. Perpetually unpredictable, it more than adequately conveys – to quote the exhibition notes – ‘a social history of the horror movie and the human expression of fear’.

Previously, Stella Capes has made a habit of producing work that challenges similar ideas of human and mechanical synchronicity by focusing on examples of physical and natural failure: flightless balloons with unlimited string, two self-playing organs unable to perform in unison, wannabe clowns lacking the appropriate clothes and props.

Concerned less with the fear of failure than with fear itself, The Recital somehow seems more hopeful. It may explore ‘the human expression of fear’, yet it seems to highlight – or offer – a designated platform for these fears, a dedicated space in which to exorcise the demons inside us all, if only via the inhabitants of our collective cultural conscience.

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