MANY A BRITPOP BAND was incubated at art school, as befitted the cultural mood of Cool Britannia, the ’90s zeitgeist that propelled Tony Blair into office, the likes of Blur and Oasis onto the music charts, and the Young British Artists into galleries and Momart storage units. The scene’s pop/art connection is perhaps best crystallized by the beloved Sheffield band Pulp, whose best-known song is the class anthem and sociological snapshot “Common People,” inspired by a girl who “studied sculpture at Saint Martins College,” which Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker attended in the ’80s and ’90s. So it was not entirely a surprise earlier this month to find Cocker, now forty-five and a Paris resident, taking over the Galerie Chappe, a small space on a quiet street in touristy Montmartre, for a weeklong residency that split the difference between conceptual-art experiment and neighborhood cultural salon.
The Sunday before last, performing on the gallery steps, his band squeezed into the exhibition space behind him, Cocker was as rubber-limbed as in his Pulp heyday, contorting his lanky frame into angular shapes and throwing in some signature jerks and wiggles. The songs were mostly from his surprisingly hard-rocking new album, the Steve Albini–produced Further Complications (out today), and the crowd was a mix of fans, curious locals (including the filmmaker Philippe Garrel), and bemused tourists.
“When I perform, I try every trick in the book to engage with the audience,” Cocker said shortly after wrapping up the forty-five-minute show, the week’s final event. But everything that preceded it, he acknowledged, was meant as the precise antithesis. “The idea is that people would be intrigued, come in, stay as long as they want, and watch us work.”
A couple hours a day were set aside for band rehearsals. Visitors were encouraged to bring instruments and join in. (The week saw plenty of guitars, a sitar, and a Vietnamese string instrument.) For the benefit of nonmusicians and also because, as Cocker put it, “people with instruments can be show-offs,” there were also yoga and Pilates classes with live musical accompaniment. Semi-impromptu guests showed up through the week, including musicians Gonzales and Au Revoir Simone, writer Anthony Haden-Guest (who read Beat poetry), and a belly dancer (who performed and offered lessons). (The events were webcast and are archived on Cocker’s website.)
Explicitly at the heart of Cocker’s gallery residency was a question that could be considered in both existential and economic terms: “What is music?” “There’s this idea that music doesn’t really exist as a business anymore,” Cocker said. “The whole pop-music phenomenon is based on the fact that teenagers liked it and bought it. And if they’re not doing that anymore, or if they’re not paying for it, it turns into something else. Does that mean then you could put it in a gallery? Does it mean bands are going to need patrons who can finance their work?”
Cocker posted a schedule ahead of time, but the week evolved in organic, somewhat free-form fashion. Only a minimal effort was made to publicize the event: no posters, no aggressive tweeting, just a perfunctory press release sent out a few days ahead of time. The idea came to Cocker when he visited the gallery last year for a group show of Amy Winehouse portraits. A cozy L-shaped nook just around the corner from the steps leading to the Sacré-Coeur basilica, the Chappe is basically a long, narrow space with a tiny elevated alcove, which Cocker turned into a makeshift stage. It was also a logical fit, since owner-curator Alex Gilbert has been sympathetic to rock-themed exhibits: The gallery is perhaps best known for its “controversial” Pete Doherty show, which featured works made with drug needles and the singer’s own blood.
Cocker’s postmortem on the week: “It felt comfortable to be doing it. I didn’t feel stupid.” After the final performance, he was briefly beset by a gaggle of Portuguese fans, but the rest of the time was mostly free of such interruptions. “My days of pop stardom are behind me,” he said. “And I was trying to avoid all that. You’re not breaking down a barrier when you have to sign autographs.”