Practice based MPhil/ PhD proposal for CHASE/ AHRC funding
Fine Art Research Department, Goldsmiths
Megachurch Materiality in a Post-Truth Era: Bodily Dis/Orientation and Belief
Examining the role of materiality in belief formation, this interdisciplinary, practice-based project seeks to understand the orienting appeal of Evangelicalism within a ‘post-truth’ political climate. Taking bodily orientation as key to belief formation, I examine how a body is oriented within the Evangelical megachurch (2,000+ congregants) by the materialities of: site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth). This analysis informs and is extended by my situated and performative art writing practice. Written and staged for the secular sites and audiences of contemporary art, this writing performs the entanglements of materiality, embodiment and belief. Three new art writing works in the form of participatory scripts address the audience as a diverse ‘crowd’ to foreground belief formation as contingent on material context and bodily orientation. In this way, the complexity of belief is materialized and a dialogic space opened to produce new, situated knowledge (Haraway, 1988) contributing to contemporary art as well as visual and material cultures.
The rising socio-political influence of faith-based groups - radical Islam in the Middle East and Evangelical conservatism in the US - is evidence of the global significance of religious belief. Yet the material culture surrounding religious belief lacks ‘serious empirical, let alone theoretical interest’ (Meyer & Houtman, 2012:1). Despite a range of sociological and anthropological research into Evangelicalism, there has been no in-depth, interdisciplinary study of the visual and material culture of the Evangelical megachurch, a world-wide and rapidly spreading movement; meanwhile, religious culture and belief remains underrepresented within Western contemporary art. This project seeks to redress this lack, utilising a situated and performative art writing practice to explore how megachurch culture produces a sense of bodily dis/orientation that is central to belief formation.
Within the immersive space of the megachurch, bodily experiences range along a spectrum from fixity to vertiginous freedom. This occurs through the repetition and reinforcement of a narrative that, intensified through scale, spectacle, emotive music and compelling preaching, creates embodied affect in the crowd. Bodily and cognitive processes comingle to create a feeling of certainty. This research will aim to explore this sense of dis/orientation in relation to a global political context of post-truth: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ (Oxford Dictionaries [Online], 2016).
Materialism, the belief that we are nothing more than matter, is typically viewed as antithetical to religious belief; yet an engagement with spirituality has emerged within new materialism. These emerging theories refuse reductive dualisms and emphasise the embodied self in relation to networks of materiality. Matter is viewed not as inert but as agentic (self-determining) (Barad, 2007) and lively (Bennett, 2010), in a dynamic interplay with human actants. This revived transdisciplinary interest in materialism has had a wide impact on contemporary art. The focus on agentic materiality has led to an upsurge of interest in animism, the occult and shamanism. Yet within Western contemporary art, organized religion remains virtually absent, deemed too traditional and conservative in comparison with the progressive and liberal values of art. Curator Anselm Franke states: ‘An invisible background condition of contemporary art still valid today is that it stands outside of faith-based practices, only citing them at most. The historical break with religion continues’ (2013:1).
Sociological research suggests Evangelical self-identification as one of boundaried distinctness (Strhan, 2015). The ‘total institution’ of the conservative megachurch (Wade, 2016) appears at odds with art world pluralism and secularism. Mirroring this polarity, recent events in the US and Europe (Brexit, the election of Trump, a rise in nationalism) point to an increasing entrenchment of opinion between conservative and progressive ideologies. Situated amidst these cultural and political divides, I draw on my own bodily experiences in 7 years of attending a megachurch and 20 years involvement in Evangelicalism, as well as my knowledge of contemporary art culture, to expose the complexity and orienting appeal of belief within the largely secular arenas of art and theory.
Beginning with the supposition that belief is produced by cognitive processes, I draw on new materialist theory and mobilise a situated and performative art writing practice to explore how belief is also created through the orientation of the body, focusing on the phenomenon of the megachurch in the UK and the US. Stadium worship services are visually spectacular. Charismatic preachers on vast projection screens enthral thousands of worshippers with a message of certainty. Conviction is experienced as a bodily dis/orientation through the perception of being grounded through an authorised narrative, being enchanted into a collective fabulation. This will be examined within a contemporary art context and in relation to the divisions of a post-truth political context, adding knowledge of the role of materiality in belief formation while contributing to post-truth discourse and fostering dialogue between seemingly opposed positions.
I will ask:
How is a body dis/oriented by the materialities of site (architecture, staging), spectacle (crowd, performance, screen) and narrative (voice, fabulation, myth) in the megachurch? What role does this dis/orientation play in belief formation?
How can understanding the ways in which this dis/orientation reinforces worldviews and creates certainty shed light on the polarities of the post-truth political context?
Exposing the entangled complexities of materiality, embodiment and belief, how can a situated and performative art writing practice complicate binaries: religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material, truth/ fiction and enable empathy across secular-religious divides?
Goldsmiths will support this project through:
- The art department’s expertise in art writing.
- Prof. Kristen Kreider’s research into ‘material poetics’ (the meaning within materiality) and her performative site writing practice will prove crucial in guiding how I develop a theory and practice of material belief formation.
- Dr. Bridget Crone’s research into new materialism, embodiment and staging in art practice.
- Prof. Adam Dinham (Faith and Public Policy) and Prof. Chris Baker (Religion and Public Life) will support my research within the Faiths & Civil Society Unit (theology; sociology; anthropology).
- The Pinter Centre for Performance and Creative Writing.
My previous art writing (internationally exhibited, performed and published) has explored the materiality of religious belief and site. My site based works 'Empathy Structure' (2017) and 'Cell' (2017) replicated megachurch conditions, foregrounding embodied belief within narrative and material structures. I have presented papers on the socio-political implications of Evangelical culture at symposia for art researchers (Goldsmiths 2016/7) and a CHASE conference (Post-Truth & American Myths, Essex 2017). My 8 years of experience in running participatory art projects will be applied to the project.
In visits to UK and US megachurches I will consider how orientations within the culture make thinking bodies and bodies of thought (Ahmed, 2006). Combining qualitative and ethnographic research methods (interviews, participation, visual and material analysis, reflective writing) with a new materialist approach, a three-part thesis will explore belief formation through the impact of bodily orientation/ disorientation/ reorientation. I will draw on sociological research into Evangelicalism (Strhan, 2015; Wade, 2016) to link research to the current socio-political context, forming a significant contribution both to art and visual and material cultures.
Research will be extended and disseminated through my situated and performative art writing practice, enabling an embodied and tacit experience of the role of materiality in belief formation by a broad range of participants. Taking my position reflexively into account and abiding by research ethics standards, I will combine my experiences of the megachurch with my knowledge of contemporary art audiences to create three new performative and participatory works to enable a dialogic reorientation toward different beliefs. Writing will be informed by narratology and dramaturgy.
I will strengthen the shared research links of performance and writing between Goldsmiths and the Universities of Sussex (Prof. Gavin Butt) and Essex (Dr. Holly Pester) in organizing interdisciplinary workshops on new materialism and art writing to be developed into a CHASE symposium.
Year 1: Orientation
COMPLETED Included visits to a range of UK megachurches (Hillsongs, HTB, Kingsgate); congregant interviews; auto-ethnographic writing analysising narrative (reinforcement through preaching, bible study, public testimony, church manifestos/ statements of common purpose) and site (the believer’s vantage points within the verticality/ horizontality of the vast megachurch; spectacle and embodied impact) as orienting structures; new site based works; symposia/ conference presentations.
Year 2: Disorientation
- Inquiry into embodied disorientation starting with my proposition that to be enchanted is to be particularly fixed within an orientation, with disenchantment/ loss of belief as a form of disorientation.
- Consider in relation to belief formation/ loss in the megachurch; link enchantment/ belief to post-truth; focus on spectacle, performance and voice in megachurch visits, interviews, reflective writing.
- Finish intro & chapter 1.
- Create site based work on spectacle.
- Upgrade December 2018.
- Form interdisciplinary workshops on new materialism and art writing.
- Organise symposium for CHASE institutions on new materialism and art writing.
Year 3: Reorientation
- Consider the socio-political potential of situated writing in speculative alter worlding: how it creates new knowledge in highlighting the link between material reality and embedded/ embodied thought. Evaluate how practice creates an embodied experience of belief for diverse audiences.
- Write chapters 2, 3 and conclusion: the historical confluence of Evangelicalism and conservatism in megachurch materiality for illuminating the post-truth context.
- Refine final site based work on myth for exam with feedback from workshops.
- Finish thesis.
How narrative creates orienting and authoritative structures for the addressee; the real: how narrative and matter enfold; overview of theories relating to the current moment of disorientation and post-truth context.
Chapter 1 Spatial & Narrative Orientation
Embodied experience within the vast crowd; church as participatory theatre (Kilde, 2002); dramaturgical structuring, affect and belief formation. Combine Bal’s (1985) theory of narrative, story and fabula with Nancy’s (1991) theory of myth to unpick the Evangelical narrative and its materialization in the megachurch; how the megachurch narrative appears naturalized rather than constructed; literalism and its embodied affects.
Narrative structure combines with the spatial conditions (movements between verticality and horizontality) of an open stairwell in a performative reading over seven floors. Multiple voices guide the ascent of the audience/ crowd.
Chapter 2 Dis/Orientation
Dis/orientating qualities of spectacle, performance and the voice; loss of belief in communicative failure/rupture.
A scripted participatory narrative conjures a sense of spectacle within an auditorium, moving between orientations: the vocalization of the individual and the crowd.
Chapter 3 Reorientations
Enchantment and (religious) belief in relation to post-truth; Evangelical belief in global domination and individualism within a socio-politically conservative culture (Hey, 2013; FitzGerald, 2017); the potential of situated art writing in the current moment of polarization to blur religious/ secular, conservative/ progressive, immaterial/ material binaries.
In a scripted reading myth is performed as a foundation upon which a community/ site is built. Antiphony (call and response) from differing perspectives creates a dialogic chorus.
The potential of a participatory chorus in creating embodied reorientations towards different beliefs.
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