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Featured Artist: Christopher Kline: O.K. The Musical at Tate Liverpool

Featured Artist: Christopher Kline: O.K. The Musical at Tate Liverpool
throughout April, with performances on 29th & 30th April

Interview, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Christopher Kline, whose musical has taken over the top floor of Tate Liverpool for almost a month now, presents O.K. The Musical on 29th and 30th of April. If you’re worried that Tate Liverpool has taken a strange new turn into musical theatre, you can stop now. The musical is the medium of choice for the Berlin based artist to bring the story of Kinderhook, New York, to the world – and there are a lot of stories.

The birthplace of sleepy hollow, US President Martin Van Buren and the word O.K. It’s a long and winding history, but the family friendly, publicly engaged piece of community theatre tries it’s very best to fit as much of that history in as possible.

The artist is touring this production around the world before eventually, he hopes, taking it back to Kinderhook (his home town) to present local history through the eyes of communities around the world. The performances at the end of this week are not quite finished, and might well change dramatically next time they are performed, so it’s fair to say that whatever gets performed at Tate Liverpool on the 29th & 30th of April 2017 won’t ever been seen again.

We spoke to the artist, Christopher Kline, about why he chose to write a musical, why he’s touring it, and where exactly the word O.K. actually came from:

What’s the focus of the musical?

The basis of the musical is my hometown of Kinderhook, New York. It’s a small town in upstate New York, that’s not really known. But a lot of small towns have interesting stories, you know? A lot are forgotten, a lot are submerged, so they’re easier to ignore. But then you start digging. The project goes through that history, and the medium I’ve come to use is the musical.

It’s an inclusive democratic way that I’m developing it over the years. So what we do at the end of the month isn’t finished, that’s just part of the process. It’ll look like a finished performance, but as far as the bigger project, it could go on for five more years, and I don’t think I’ll do it in Kinderhook until it’s done. It’s a huge learning curve, every time I visit a different community to see how they think about it.

Why is it moving around during that development process?

Usually local histories are inside jobs. You can say a local historian will take it upon themselves to write a small town’s history, and usually it’s filled with superlatives about how great the town is. It’s usually written for the people in the town. This is a way of saying, what can be learned, what can be dug up, by getting outside perspectives looking into old histories that normally no one would find relevant. And that model could be applied to anywhere if people wanted to.

How does O.K. relate to Merseyside and Lancashire (the regions drawn on for the current residence of O.K. The Musical)?

It’s a format that people can come together through, and there are so many different groups in Liverpool. It’s a way they can come together. It’s a way they can showcase their talent to the public, and also get their perspectives of the project. And through them and the people on the team, here at Tate and Super Slow Way, they’re all adding their take on the different songs and props. There are people getting more involved on a regular basis too, like Choir With No Name, or Blueroom.

All of this activity’s funnelling into one thing. So people can take what they want from it. Some people are just interested in singing. Some people just want to draw on the wall. Some people want to research the history of colonialism. Some people want to know the etymology of O.K.

And a big part of it, is that the etymology of O.K. is Old Kinderhook?

I wouldn’t bet my life on anything at this point. As far as Kinderhook is concerned, history is often nebulous; often incorrect, often paranormal; often hard to pin down or say what’s real. Every story I learned when I was young was somewhat incorrect about Kinderhook.

The etymology thing comes from Ol’ Korrect that was popularised during Martin Van Buren’s presidency and re-election campaign, because his nickname was Old Kinderhook. Whether it’s true or not, or whatever true means, I don’t know whether it matters, because it’s something Kinderhook has associated itself with one way or the other.

In the publication, your friend says ‘O.K. The Musical is community theatre as community theatre’ and Ellsworth Kelly (whose exhibition is on downstairs at Tate Liverpool), lived by the mantra abstract painting as abstract painting. Whether it’s intentional or not it’s a great connection.

I think those things naturally occur, but Ellsworth Kelly actually lived near Kinderhook, since the 1970s. Some of the curators realised this last year, and it’s an accidental connection, but three or four of the paintings in that exhibition were probably made very close to Kinderhook. It’s just a coincidence that they all ended up here in very different ways.

Unfortunately I never got to meet him, but before he died he set up a foundation for all the public schools in our county, saying that if they could raise $30,000 he would give $30,000 to each school’s arts programme every year. And they only had to match that the first year. A few years ago I actually gave a small art work to one of the schools to help them raise that first $30,000, and they actually got it in the end. So the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation is actually helping to fund the public school programme that I went to, but it’s just a coincidence.