(Author's note: the following article may differ slightly from the published version.)
My memories of Adam Pendleton’s The Revival amount to fragmentary mental footage made lo-fi with time. I remember the gospel choir with vivid blue (or was it purple?) robes and its authoritative entrance. I remember Liam Gillick telling stories of factories few in the audience will ever visit. Then the vague outline of the singer Renee Neufville, her vocal accompaniment moving the stranger on my right to tears. And, of course, there’s the artist himself, Pendleton, twentysomething, African American, in a white blazer and black pants, with bright green sneakers. I might be wrong on the sneakers. But what I can’t fail to remember is Pendleton’s oration: a one-hour-plus secular sermon that pitched continuously, at times deliriously, between solemn evocation, parody, and blissful reinvention.
Painter-writer-performer Adam Pendleton staged a very complex performance commissioned by Performa 07 that took place at the Stephan Weiss Studio in Greenwich Village. The template for The Revival was the Christian revival, i.e. a Protestant form of mass expression that once enjoyed Great Awakenings and pillars of flame, but today is a theater of plasticized televangelists whose miracles are monetary. There is also a black American variant of the revival, which is the exact model for Pendleton’s work, and which overlaps with, but is not identical to, the televangelist kind. Weiss Studio was arranged with two bandstands flanking a three-tiered podium and a piano. The choir with the blue or purple robes sang from the bandstands. Pendleton, Neufville, and Vanesse Thomas stood on the podium. Pendleton sermonized. Neufville sang. Thomas conducted. There was also a jazz band, a reading by the poet Jena Osman, and Gillick. It lasted more than an hour and people were moved. Not simply moved -- very moved, to tears. Like that man sitting next to me. I saw it with my own eyes. I was a witness. Which sounds religious. Which sounds like the point.
Pendleton is engaged in a intricate reengineering of the revival, and through his sermonizing he is enacting a form of community-building both aware of its own impossibility and defiantly engaged in that project. He does all of this through a collage of texts stitched into a mock-serious sermon, the unidentified sources of which are discontinuous: Jesse Jackson, John Ashbery, Paolo Javier, Leslie Scalapino, et al. Candidly and vertiginously, Pendleton quotes the playwright, activist, and ACT UP founder Larry Kramer, whose 2004 Cooper Union speech he repeats at length: “I love gay people,” both men say. “I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do.” True to the revivalist form, words are not so much appropriated, but spoken through. Pendleton speaks through Kramer and Kramer through Pendleton. Pendleton’s voice is pluralized. This is possession -- possession of words and possession by the Word. We are possessed too, which may trouble those in the audience used to watered-down Brecht and Artaud. Pendleton isn’t giving any protective distance. He’s firing both our sympathies and antipathies. He wants something that will move us, in the best senses of that somewhat discredited word. And it moves. It totally does.