Birmingham Central Mosque

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Salat (2017)

Salat is a pilot project made and performed in collaboration with Birmingham Central Mosque congregation. Salat comprised of a 1:1 ratio moving floor projection in the main prayer hall.

Birmingham Central Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Western Europe, was built in 1969 and opened to the public in 1975. The most inspiring value of this mosque is its multi-denomination position which means it does not belong to any one particular sect or school of thought but it represents all Muslims from any background.  

As an artist, I was granted permission to make the work, but at the same time, as a woman I was denied access to the main prayer hall during prayer. I worked in collaboration with members of the congregation to install and test the work. This demonstrates the complexity of negotiation in terms of engagement with the materiality of a space, when that space is determined primarily by strict codes that are based on ideological restrictions.

Salat brings forth a very precise relationship between subject and site, helped by the fact that the people it addresses are all people coming to worship and therefore invested in the place.

There were strict rules to follow when filming; the camera was not permitted to film in front of the people praying, nor could it show their faces. These restrictions gave the research a new direction. Rather than allowing the physical geography of the site to determine how the mechanical rig was constructed, this time, social and religious restrictions dictated the way the film should be made and received. Subsequently, the rig was constructed to film from above, at a constant speed from the entrance to the Mihrab. The vertical relationship between the camera and the observed worshippers calls to mind the vertical axis of sacred relationships in which the spiritual higher domain is “above” the worshipper, elevating the rig to the domain of the godly.

The research proposes a new approach to site-specificity; a collaboration between community, artist, machine and site. A key concern is how the collaboration between artist and congregation can inform much of the decision-making around production.

This film then projected back into the physical site uses the same motorized rig, allowing the film to play back at the same speed as the recorded footage. Therefore, as the projected image physically moves across the ground, it appears to reveal the individual prayer mats of the mosque carpet and worshippers underneath. 

The 1:1 ratio projected images maps with the real carpet below as the projector moves so does the image in sync with the prayer carpet. The way that the projected image of the prayer mat matches the scale/proportions of the architecture makes for a visceral and direct corporeal relationship between the spectator and the site. This one to one relation means that there is a direct dialogue between the represented film-time and the time of the viewer in the viewing context. 

Ontologically there can be no split between representation and the real, however we experience the ‘realness of the real’ and the ‘image-ness of the image’ and Salat pays attention to this. This sense of illusion is strengthened as the projected image physically moves through the architectural space; the experience becomes spectacular in nature. It can be argued that this engagement with the spectacular is exactly what helps draw the spectator’s attention to their relationship with the architectural site and, specifically, perception of place.

The experience of the work can be informed by what we habitually and haptically know about the architecture of the site, but it is also unrestrained by the physical body and physical world. We can imagine touching the carpet, informed by what we know about the physical texture, colour and material of the real carpet – simultaneously heightened and challenged through the projected image.

 “Watching the boys playing with the projection is fascinating. The dipping in and out does not actually disturb the thing as material or the thing as image: it actually performs both at the same time and shows how we come to be ourselves as ethical beings through figuring out how things feel on our bodies, not by adhering to strict code.“ (Congregation feedback)

The projected image makes prayer appear even more tangible and real than reality itself. There is a heighted sense of the theatrical within this and seeing my own body in the film is fascinating, i’ve never seen myself in this light before.” (Congregation feedback)

Documentation of the site performance. As a female I was unable to experience the work first hand, so my experience is secondary through documentation and the audience feedback. However, it could be argued that while I was not permitted to be in the space at the same time as the site performance, I was allowed to exert agency in the space, via the making of the work. 

“Experiencing the image of my own body over me and feeling it physically move over me was a strange feeling, I was made more aware of the space around me.” (Congregation feedback)

The presence of people in the footage involves a shift in representation, from a focus on the viewer’s relationship to the architectural site, to watching someone else’s relationship to place. Salat brings forth a precise relationship between body and space, helped by the fact that the people it addresses are coming to worship and therefore invested in the place. The congregation question how the projected image relates to the real space and how the experience of the real space is mediated by the image. 

Interviews with the congregation during the site-performance were transmitted live, alongside a screening of the empty prayer space as part of Contact Festival at Apiary studios in London, a festival of experimental film and video showing the work of artists and filmmakers. Accompanied by a publication commissioned by the arts council England.