24 Hour Museum MAY 26, 2006 - by Richard Moss


It is one of the greatest and most compelling stories ever told and now the people of Margate are going to tell it again - with the help of arts organisation Artangel.

The Margate Exodus, based on the Old Testament Book of Exodus, is a massive public art project and film due to take place in the seaside town on the weekend of Saturday, September 30, 2006 - featuring a cast of thousands.

With the local population at its core the project will take in processions, performances, plagues, speeches, sculpture and song - not to mention the odd parting of the sea. It promises to be one of the most memorable, if not bizarre, events in the seaside town's history.

To help the massive project come to fruition Artangel have enlisted the help of some top artists and musicians including Antony Gormley and Scott Walker. The result, they say, will be a fiesta of colour that sprawls across the beaches and streets of Margate transforming it into a contemporary setting for a very modern take on a biblical epic.

It's like an octopus with lots of tentacles, says Artangel Co-Director Michael Morris, but there has been a lot of work already done behind the scenes - we've been working on this project for three or four years now.

Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Penny Woolcock, the first two day Live Event will be shot in a single take after which an eight-week filming period will produce a feature film for the cinema and for broadcast on Channel 4.

The key is the union of some big names with the different communities in Margate, says Michael. Success hinges on this collaboration between artists of international standing and the local population.

One of the projects that locals may choose to get involved with is Antony Gormley's giant sculpture in the town's old Dreamland Funfair. His Waste Man will be twenty-five-metres high and made out of household waste utilising everything from old washing machines to sofas. It's essentially a thrift store sculpture, says Michael.

Those with a musical bent are also invited on board and an impressive roster of leading musicians and songwriters are in the process of writing a cycle of songs based on the ten biblical plagues in the Book of Exodus.

Rufus Wainwright will be tackling the Death of the First Born whilst Brian Eno is working with Robert Wyatt on a collaborative piece about the Plague of the Flies.

There are some big names working on this project, says Michael. To take the case of Scott Walker, he has followed the work of Artangel for about fifteen years, so he is very familiar with what we do.

I have had in the back of my mind the idea of asking him to do something with us for some time. Darkness is one of the plagues so he didn't take much persuasion to cover it.

Most of the artists are familiar with our work I would hope we have a project here of sufficient standing that would attract some of the best artists in the world, he adds. But in the case of , we basically said 'please write a song and someone else will sing it live', which for someone like is the perfect arrangement.

All the musical pieces will be written in advance, introduced to the performers at the eleventh hour and then performed live on the opening weekend. To ensure this risky process actually works, two collaborators have been brought in to work with local people on their live performances.

Mary King from Channel 4's Operatunity will be teasing out the natural talent of local singers, whilst multi-instrumentalist and veteran sound artist David Coulter (currently in LA working on the live version of the Tom Waits concept album The Black Rider) is putting together the band.

Music label 4AD will be releasing the CD, but live, says Michael, it will be a different proposition.

There are of course local operatic and choral societies involved but we have also been trawling the karaoke bars because that's where you find many of the real singers, he adds.

Even for an organisation like Artangel, with its track record for pulling off extraordinary public art projects, this is a massive logistical undertaking. With big themes of identity, migration and great movements of people across the world in search of a promised land The Margate Exodus also promises to be an unforgettable experience for the people of Margate.

As well as being a place of natural beauty, Margate is also a struggling seaside town with a diverse population. Nearby Dover is one of the main entry points for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants - making the area an emotive place to explore issues of identity, tolerance and social equality.

But Michael is confident of a good response from locals and an Exodus HQ has already opened in the middle of town as an information point and recruitment centre.

We've opened on the High Street in Margate so we're right in the middle of things and already there has been a lot of interest, he says. There are a lot of opportunities for everyone - people can come along and say: 'I'd like to work with Antony Gormley or I'd like to be in the band or I'm interested in learning about set design.' There are many different opportunities for local people. We will not turn anybody away.

Now the die is cast, it seems it will all happen, but how many people will be involved? We're talking thousands, says Michael, not everybody in Margate will necessarily want to get involved - some may just want to watch and the audience is just as much a part of this - but we do need a few a few thousand for the parting of the Red Sea.

The Margate Exodus is commissioned and produced by Artangel in association with Creative Partnerships, Arts Council England, Kent and Channel 4 Television.