I first met Alexandre Singh while working as The Unreliable Tour Guide at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Friends suggested I stay in the converted factory in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he lives and works. A vast single-story unit on an industrial estate, the place was full of Italian artists, gutted ice cream vans, and autonomous half-timbered living spaces—like an Elizabethan village rebuilt inside Cinecittà. At its calm centre, in front of a crackling log fire, sat Alex himself, a quiet, self-possessed young Englishman of Indian extraction. His art, I later discovered, involved slideshows, lectures, and talks, all delivered in a quiet, aristocratic burr. The mixture of restraint, precision, exuberance and playfulness reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, or the quietly delirious filmed tours of Patrick Keiller, in which curious historical details are read over images of traffic systems and warehouses.
When I returned to New York a couple of years later, Singh was giving lectures about Ikea (one describes a dream that the store’s floorplan lays out an index of all human knowledge) and had written a thousand-page book about (and not about) Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, entitled The Marque of the Third Stripe. At his White Columns performance during this year’s Performa Biennial, Singh memorized and performed four pieces. In the first, The Alkahest, he related to the audience for three-and-a-half hours a series of interwoven tales featuring golems, parrots, and abstract painters, garlanded by picaresque jaunts through the countryside of Spain, faustian alchemists seeking forbidden knowledge, and some bawdy stage humour featuring a character named Molière. The audience sat in a circle around an overhead-projector that acted like a fireside; as Singh told the tales, he would place monochromatic transparencies onto the glass, bathing the room in a series of colours appropriate to that particular passage in the story.
On the three following nights, Singh presented three of his Assembly Instructions lectures. These hour-long performances involve discourses on such topics as memory palaces, dreams, and romantic TV shows, all illustrated by black and white collages thrown onto the wall with a pair of overhead projectors.
MOMUS: Was it a bit like being an academic, giving those lectures, or more of a Pied Piper thing?
ALEXANDRE SINGH: Each one of the lectures starts off quite academically with the relation of various facts and dates and somewhere along the line somehow dissolves into a web of slippery connections and associations seemingly far removed from the original premise, but always coming back again and again to explore in a surprisingly fantastical manner the very dry facts and figures that I’d casually dropped in at the beginning.
MOMUS: I feel a great sense of common purpose with you, I must say, because we’re both telling tales in public places. I particularly appreciate the understated, quiet and calm—yet fantastical and suggestive-tone you achieve. I think a combination of mesmerism (the colored lights, spellbinding storytelling, and so on) and unreliability is a potent one. Do you have an interest, I wonder, in hypnotism? And what is your feeling about the “right” degree of power a performed narrative ought to have over its listeners?
SINGH: Not in hypnotism, per se. I’m interested in how one leads an audience down the paths you wish for it to follow. I’ve studied the anecdotal strategies of the great raconteurs that one comes across in New York. Art critic Jerry Saltz is a good example of such a master storyteller. You and I share a natural ace-in-the-hole, which is the reassuring rhythm of a British accent. It’s part and parcel of this notion of “unreliability.”
MOMUS: What are the seductive qualities of such an accent, do you think?
SINGH: You need to assure the members of an audience that they are in the hands of a trustworthy and amiable guide, and it is only little by little that you start to distort, exaggerate and undermine the very basis of what they previously took to be solid ground. Perhaps the “softer” the power wielded over the listeners, the more insidious the final result? But following from your earlier question, I’d say that there is no limit to the tools that I would use to enchant the listeners. They may feel that colored gels and dim lights are puny weapons compared to the slick acting and climactic musical montages of standard Hollywood fare, but the lilting voice of the old man, his scarred face illuminated by the flickering flames of the fireside, is a meme already etched deep into their collective unconscious.
MOMUS: Was there a “Eureka” moment for you, when you knew what kind of art it was you wanted to make?
SINGH: Sadly, not yet. But I will say that I’ve spotted the mountain range that I’d like to get to. What lies in between here and there is a mystery. I look forward to encounters with metaphorical ravines, rope bridges and eldritch overgrown temples on my way. I think we’d all like to leave a substantial and meaningful work behind when we’re gone, a Don Giovanni or a Canterbury Tales. But the reality is that you can’t plan to make something like that. It may or may not happen. It may not even be that important. After all, sometimes we’re more interested in the journey an artist took than the little presents they happen to deposit by the roadside on the way.