In the late 1990s, as South Africa grappled with the shadow of apartheid, Cape Town experimental artist James Webb, then working in advertising, sought to create a project that could allow people to tune into the voices of a divided city. Webb, who had studied drama and comparative religion at the University of Cape Town, remembered the words of the philosopher Paul Tillich, who said that religion is the “state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.” What would it be like to have supersonic hearing, Webb wondered, so that you could hear all the prayers of one city occurring in a single moment? “What would you hear people saying, and how would that affect your thoughts about yourself and your situation in life?”

Guided by experimental music projects—Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, for example—and the precept that art should foster community, Webb spent his lunch breaks phoning various religious organizations to ask if he could record them during a moment of vocal worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques that he had never visited before invited him in, and he was captivated as much by their hospitality as by their sounds. We may be able to close our eyes, he thought, but it’s much harder for us to close our ears. It took him almost a year to make around 40 recordings.

james webb prayer
Multimedia artist Webb, based in Cape Town, South Africa, uses audio, installation, and text to explore such themes as the nature of belief and communication in the modern world, in pieces that have been featured in galleries, museums, and parks across the globe. Portrait Illustration by Yann Legendre.

Although Webb initially considered installing the recordings around a Cape Town train station so that travelers would be welcomed by a diversity of voices, the first version of the project debuted in the city during a 2000 cultural festival at an old customs house using four standing speakers set against a wall. Since then, larger versions of the project, collectively known as Prayer, have been shown in nine cities worldwide, most recently at the Art Institute of Chicago in an exhibition open to the public through the end of December 2018. Each version of the project includes recordings from the host city, collected by Webb with the support of local residents.

The latest installation is the first North American version of Prayer and features 241 recordings of vocal worship from followers of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism as well as less widely-known religious movements. Twelve circular speakers placed on a single red carpet emit a cacophony of spoken word, song, and chanting that surrounds the room. Even if you kneel next to a specific speaker to hear it more closely, the surrounding noises are never muted. The recordings do not always start and stop at the same time, so different combinations of sounds can be heard each time you walk the carpet. Webb describes this technique as central to the concept of the piece, “welcoming the unknown or unfamiliar.”

The Chicago version of Prayer—the largest to date, with roughly nine hours of audio—includes recordings from local Tibetan, Shin, Won, Vietnamese, and Nichiren Buddhist organizations. For some, the exhibit may mean encountering harmonic Buddhist chants or mantras for the first time. Others more familiar with Buddhist traditions may be able to pinpoint each community’s unique contribution.

Webb remembers that while recording for a version of Prayer in the coastal Swedish city of Malmö, members of the Malmö Chán Buddhist Temple used the traditional melodies and rhythms of Pali chants but translated the words into Swedish. “There was something very special in the texts’ keeping the meaning and tradition of the original but being updated to be more accessible to a local audience,” he said.

Similarly, the Chicago version has its own distinct footprint. Chants from a Won Buddhist organization in Korean mix with the rhythmic interpretation of a prayer from an Ethiopian Hebrew congregation, the uplifting vocals of an Episcopal cathedral choir, or a solemn spoken word prayer in English addressing the city’s high rates of gun violence and segregation. However, the speakers are not labeled and there is no listed playlist, so most visitors will not know exactly whose voice they are hearing. The anonymity evokes a sense of unity, as no singular group or religious tradition is promoted or emphasized.

On opening night in September at the Art Institute, visitors, including some who had been recorded for the project, gathered to hear the orchestra of broadcasted sounds. In keeping with some past versions of Prayer, the room was minimally decorated—there was just the red carpet, the speakers, and the white walls, with an artist’s brief written statement and a list of those who had participated in and supported the project.

After taking off their shoes, guests meandered over the carpet slowly. Some sat in silence with their hands clasped and head bowed toward a speaker, while others began conversing with strangers about religion, life, and art. It was, in fact, a scene that realized Webb’s original intention to unite his city’s residents. “One of the main spiritual reactions I find myself having during this project is a belief in people,” he said. In this, Prayer excels.

Prayer runs through December 31 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Not near the Windy City? You can listen to sounds from versions of Prayer (including Chicago) at soundcloud.com/theotherjameswebb.

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