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Performance artist Sarah Duffy in Greenwich foot tunnel

We went to see performance art in London’s tunnels at 3am

Hans-Ulrich Obrist is holding gatherings at a time when people are usually ‘asleep, drunk, waiting, jet lagged, desperate, or at work’

“This is exactly what it looked like in the cinema, right?” one of the attendees at Om3am giggled breathlessly. Night engulfed an empty London park while a group of people stood around under the London streetlights. Of course, the scene looked perfectly curated but you’d expect nothing less from Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the director of the Serpentine gallery. 

However, there were no clear white walls or gallery attendees at this gathering. Instead, there was a union between a collection of people curious enough to come together at the hour of 3am. Rather mysteriously, each was issued with the instructions to make their way to the midpoint of Greenwich foot tunnel where an impromptu performance began.

Framed by the tunnel, a woman (Sarah Duffy) stood apart from a small crowd on a box. As if her elevation was not enough to separate her, she was also wearing a delicate dark ball gown. Two women shrieked, their voices echoing around the tunnels. Apparently, they were not part of the performance – their belief that a ‘cultish ritual’ was being performed turned out to be sincere.

From speaking to the organisers – Obrist, Felix Melia and Josh Bitelli, it quickly became clear that Om3am isn’t just a very longwinded way of freaking out passers by. They hope to use the slightly ungodly hour of 3am to bring to life public space.

In the words of the invitation, written by Melia, “At 3am people are tired – or asleep – or drunk, waiting, jet lagged, desperate, or at work. At 3am space can be adjusted and certain permissions can be reordered. People rarely sit on the benches outside the Greenwich foot tunnel, but they make for the perfect forum.  Where we can find it, public space is gestural and it’s conditioned, but at 3am it can be brought to life, it can serve many purposes’.

Later, Bitelli added that “Om3am is a place and time where nothing and everything happens and then moves on'. From chatting to Obrist, it was clear that they selected 3am as people didn't have plans then and could meet sometimes without much prior notice. He went on to say, 'At 3am, people do not only have the shared experience of the artwork but also the rather funny, strange and bizarreness of the situation. It often also develops conversations between people which is one of the aims of it all – to create new conversations and appreciate the silence of the space.”

And, he was right. After the performance, the curators led the group of 17 outside of the tunnel where people chatted in the local park. Despite the purple haze of the sky and London’s light pollution, the view from Greenwich into the city was untarnished.

According to the trio, this was the first Om3am that they had publicised at all. In fact, Obrist recounted how once they ran at event so close to April Fools’ day that everyone thought the suggestion was a joke but, after being there, one can see how they might be onto something. Free from the constraints of a conventional gallery setting, one is able to sidestep the cost for a venue and charging attendees. People feel more comfortable to speak to one another and the time of night invites the openminded.
Rumours are that the next one is going to be held at J.G Ballard’s favourite hotel, although you might have to get in touch with curators themselves to find out when.