ART / Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Maybe. Tom Lubbock watches eight Bulgarian women - the Grandmothers - sing to the North Sea off the Northumberland coastline

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People sometimes ask art critics what exactly it is that qualifies them to pronounce about art. It's a good question, to which there isn't a straight answer. There's only the traditional proof of the pudding. And if you put the same question to artists, I suppose that's the only reply they could give, too. True, there are fine art degrees, but it would be odd if they started opening drawers and producing certificates. Competence is as competence does.

But for critics at least, there must come a limit. For instance, there is what that highly qualified art critic, Harold Rosenberg, once called 'the de-definition of art'. He meant, the situation in which the category of visual art has expanded so much that almost any kind of phenomenon can be found within it. Now you can dispute the rights of this; you can ask why it happened in the visual arts and not in the others; you can say that all categories are irrelevant labels. But it is a fact, and a familiar one. And so it happens that almost any phenomenon may, in theory, fall within the competence of the art critic (that label still sticks, anyway). The point is not to complain, but only to admit that sometimes defeat seems likely. There are limits. Perhaps they were to be met last week on the Northumbrian coast.

The advance publicity put it like this: 'Where the end of the land meets the edge of the water, eight Bulgarian women sing to the North Sea. The women are the Bistritsa Babi (the Bistritsa Grandmothers), one of Bulgaria's finest groups of traditional singers . . . the Work for the North Sea brings a tradition from the cradle of European civilisation to its northern edge . . .' You might think, now surely, by no stretch of a definition, is this a work of visual art. To put it bluntly, it sounds like music. A few years ago a choir, all miked up, jumped out of an aeroplane so that they could angelically harmonise while free-falling through the sky - and that was music (or it would have been if they hadn't discovered, on the way down, that no notes could be produced in those conditions). But here there is a crucial difference.

It wasn't the Grandmothers' idea. The Work for the North Sea was conceived by Bethan Huws. She picked the spot on the coast and, having heard a snatch of them on the radio, invited them to sing there. But Huws is not herself a musician. She had work in the British Art Show 1990, and an exhibition at the ICA last year. She is in other words a fully qualified artist. And it was as such that Huws was invited by Artangel - an outfit that organises out-of-the-way art events - to think something up, so that they could organise it. (The Arts Council and Bulgarian Airlines funded it.) So, naturally, when it finally happened, the art press was asked along.

Perhaps an expert in Bulgarian folk music would have been better placed to comment? Perhaps not. One hardly knew what to expect. Huws's earlier work included such things as minutely scrolled-up reeds, and pieces of A4 paper bearing a hand-written moment-to-moment description of a pond. A continuing aquatic theme then? The pre-publicity spoke of 'a poignant meeting of movement and stability, language and sound, the human voice and the North Sea'. But that was pure speculation. The Grandmothers presumably knew their business but who could foresee how the wind and the sea would react?

Early on Saturday evening a convoy of three double-decker buses and a flotilla of smaller vehicles set out from Alnwick - the seat of the Duke of Northumberland - and drove the few miles to the coast for the last of the Work's three performances. There was recognisably an art-crowd on board, but also some properly qualified members of the general public. An outing mood inevitably prevailed. We disembarked at a lay-by above the dunes, descended, and made our way along the beach to a wide cove. The Grandmothers were already there, and into their first song.

The weather was almost too cooperative: a very fine evening, the wind silent, the waves nearly motionless, no tide apparent. Dressed in the image of postcard folkloric costume, the Grandmothers stood lined up on the edge of the shore, facing out to sea. The audience gathered around in a three-quarter circle. The number finished. They turned to face inland, and sang again. Acoustically, the spot was well-judged. But here, pretence of competent comment must be suspended.

The women sang antiphonally, first one group of four, then the other, back and forth. The prevailing tone was the kind of harsh harmony, once so strange to the modern European ear, which turn-of-the-century folk-music enthusiasts used to collect and then doll up for concert consumption - but which now gets performed and broadcast in authentic form. To my own ear it was a lugubrious drone, varied with small whoops and yahoos, not at first sounding very different from one song to the next and faintly resembling the noise of a pre-match crowd warming up a few streets away.

In the livelier numbers the Grandmothers linked up. Each holding her neighbour's belt, they moved into a staccato short-stepping dance, the woman at the end punctuating the verses with a perfunctory twirl of a hanky - that perfunctoriness that Thomas Hardy said was the infallible sign of a genuine folk survival, as distinct from a revival, which is always an eager and hearty affair. This was the real thing then, I can believe that: but a thing which, broadcast on radio, I would soon switch off. The performance lasted around 50 minutes.

Yet it would be wrong to treat it as simply an open-air concert. The Grandmothers' part was only an ingredient. I don't feel that anyone was being exploited by the occasion, but the project was not quite free of exoticism. Musical standards hardly applied, nor any thought of what their songs and dances specifically meant. What the Grandmothers brought was a sound and a ritual, a sense of the ancient and the womanly. The main contribution of their work was its plain strangeness.

Our old friend Juxtaposition, a resonant combination of two powerful ingredients, was in play: Great Auntie Bulgaria, set against the infinities of a northern sky and ocean. Some effect was guaranteed. This, after all, is a backdrop which would lend aura to a dog-show. And you might have felt almost anything before the Work - and scarcely have been able to distinguish which feelings were accidental and which not. (Personally, as spiritual hits go, I prefer the ocean neat.) And then, while it was a kind of performance - people clapped, and the Grandmothers bowed at the end - in a peculiar way the audience's presence was irrelevant. What you had was someone's idea, realised - which you happened to witness.

A good idea? Worth realising? Here again there is no competence, and perhaps no criteria of success and failure, not even on the part of the makers. The Grandmothers arrived earlier in the week and had rehearsed. But it is unimaginable that, after a trial run, any party in this collaboration - the organisers or the artist or the Grandmothers themselves - would have decided that no, it really wasn't working and should be called off. And not just because it would be embarrassing. That kind of judgement would go quite against the whole nature of this activity. Here, conception and organisation are all. The idea already 'worked' prior to realisation. The event was already 'poignant' (a safe bet, admittedly) weeks earlier. As Wilde remarked before one of his first nights: 'The play is already a success. Only the audience is in doubt.' But here, not even that. Audience response, however favourable (it was hard to tell) can hardly be a factor in a free, three-nights-only, and probably unrepeatable show. Too late for the backers to pull out, either. Simply that it happened is the event: the event to be recorded in the art journals and annals. It is remarkable how, in this wing of contemporary art, the spirit of pure administration rules.

But a rare event at least? Only statistically. It is no more rare than any of the infinite range of mildly strange experiences one might think up, and which might sound good on paper, and which, with infinitely indulgent funding and organisation, might then be made to happen. The actual rarity of such things is deceptive. It conceals and perhaps even encourages their standard-issue flights of imagination. And sure, if you'd come across this happening uninformed, you'd have indeed thought: What on earth is this? But if some helpful soul had told you, then a sense of perfect and unruffled normality would return: Oh, art] Oh right.

(Photograph omitted)