My final encounter with Forest Fringe feels less like a memory, more like a half-remembered, but still lingering dream. As darkness fell, we set off from Edinburgh’s Drill Hall in an uneven procession that straggled through Leith’s street. At first, it seemed like we were only going round the corner – to a bar with a late license, maybe. The procession straggled on. Oh, and did I mention it was led by a brass band? Through a park lit mainly by huddled smoking circles on the grass, through quiet streets, past deserted warehouses, in an implausibly long journey that ended in a blues bar (those still exist?) where a bunch of live artists and fans and friends congregated to dance – or in my case, to have my ear bent double by the smoky-breathed reminisces of a die-hard Patsy Cline fan from Leith.
It was the proper, end farewell, but Forest Fringe’s 10th and final run at Edinburgh was full of smaller goodbyes. It marked its anniversary with a beautifully-produced book, and a programme that brought back some of its best-loved performances. Looking back, after Forest Fringe’s recent announcement that they won’t be running an Edinburgh venue in future years, they have new resonance.
30 Cecil Street by Dan Canham stuck with me: it’s a piece on the borders between live art and dance that explores the impossibility of recreating lost spaces – in this case, an abandoned theatre in Limerick – as well as expressing, with incredible poignancy, why they’re so important. He chalks out its outlines on stage, and dances to interviews people about their experiences of their venue, as their words glitch and repeat. The reel-to-reel player he uses is simultaneously an evocation of an era, and a structure, which divides the performance into so many lengths of tape, and clashes contradictions together. A woman doesn’t remember any fights. A man delights, stolidly, in the memory of dance floor punch-ups.
Trying to resurrect my earliest Forest Fringe memories feels equally tough, and just as contradictory. I first went along aged nineteen, on a chance visit, and all I can summon up are images of densely mural-covered walls, a feeling of damp, dizzyingly cheap vegan food in the Forest Cafe downstairs, and a room upstairs where performances happened, announced by a chalkboard. Also back for the 10th anniversary festival, Paper Cinema’s 2008 work Nightflyer is a survivor from those days. Bringing a bicycle journey back to a projector screen, it felt like a symbol of DIY, memory and endurance. It’s a live animation that feels like a dream: illustrated cardboard figures flit across the screen, their thick edges visible but their vulnerability showing, too, in creases and slight dog ears. Where have they been kept for the past eight years: in a shoe box under the bed? A precariously creased brown envelope?
Unfolding in Leith’s airy Drill Hall, it reminded me how amazing Forest Fringe’s survival and progression is, from tiny room above a co-operatively run punk cafe, to a hugely influential space that set the pace for the whole festival. Founded by Deborah Pearson, and co-directed with Andy Field and Ira Brand, Forest Fringe launched and nurtured the careers of a whole school of artists who are doing things differently, bringing a DIY, self-aware, intimate and challenging style of work to new audiences: Rosana Cade, Action Hero, Kieran Hurley, and so many more.
Beautiful as it was, the 10th anniversary line-up had a celebratory feel slightly at odds with Forest Fringe’s diffuse, changeable nature. You could feel it calcifying a little, round the edges: when a company stays in one place, habits solidify into traditions into rules. But a brief conversation with Andy Fields last summer suggested that he was already planning to break out of the loop. “We don’t want to become just another venue”, he said.
Last week, Forest Fringe officially announced that last year’s Drill Hall festival will be the last time they run an Edinburgh venue. They’re going on to other projects (perhaps a film, perhaps something else), work internationally, and, excitingly, they’ll join Somerset House as associate artists, running an art club. But the loss of their Edinburgh venue is a real one. Where else can you see a lovingly-curated programme of experimental work, for free? Where else expands out from performances into installations, and complex durational work, and one-to-one pieces, and parties? Where else has tiny mouse-shaped salt shakers?
Some experimental work can fit into the mainstream: like Lucy McCormick’s Triple Threat, which fearlessly confronts mass culture tropes. Other work, less so. Some of my best Forest Fringe memories come from the alchemy you get when you have lots of artists, working together, in one hospitable and fertile space. Like last year’s night of Brexit performances, or Brian Lobel’s bed-based Sex and the City-watching sessions, or the shock cabaret of Lucy McCormick turning up, context-free, in the bar dressed as an old lady and rooting around in her bloomers for a lost big reveal.
At last year’s fringe, Summerhall affirmed, yet again, its dominance as a hub for experimental work, while live art at other venues landed huge mainstream audiences. But Summerhall’s success is something of a mixed blessing.
It’s multi-millionaire-run, instead of artist-run. And if we’re going to play the politics game, Forest Fringe’s nurturing model (for both performers and audiences) is as close as the Edinburgh Fringe can ever get to socialism. Conversely, Summerhall’s model is more like increasingly unfashionable neo-liberalism, intended, as a revealing early profile suggests, as “an example of what the private sector can do in the arts”. I was pretty deeply rattled by participating in its panel on theatre criticism last year. Its artistic director, Robert McDowell, made it clear that he saw little, if any value in online blogging. He trashed outlets (Exeunt included) that have championed Summerhall’s artists, and festooned his courtyard with five-star reviews – while suggesting he’d like to pay newspapers for coverage. It’s an elitist approach that’s the opposite of the DIY aesthetic so many Summerhall performances subscribe to, and points to the kind of top-down value system which still dogs the Fringe. But in another sense, Summerhall is carrying Forest Fringe’s banner forward by offering artists a host of new and unusual spaces to work in (basements, tunnels, operating theatres, tents), and providing an experimental line-up that feels curated, carefully nudging audiences towards a forward-looking array of new work.
Like Summerhall, Forest Fringe attracted the odd critical voice – in particular, owing to its use of volunteers. But that feels increasingly shortsighted. Some of the best things come into being with no money, for no money. And talking about exploitation at the Edinburgh Fringe is a tangled, complicated game. Are people who spend a fortnight unpaid volunteering at Forest Fringe, a profit-free enterprise, really being exploited? C venues staff are expected to work for punishingly long hours for five weeks, on a “semi-voluntary” basis – for a fixed fee which in previous years has been between £300 and £600. Other venues require similarly long stints, and come up with similarly elaborate ruses to avoid minimum wage legislation. Meanwhile, thousands of actors, artists, comedians, and directors have to stump up corresponding thousands of pounds – each – for the tenuous privilege of putting their work in front of fringe festival audiences.
Fringe venues are all selling a dream, asking people to invest their time and money in exchange for the small promise of worldly success. Forest Fringe asked people to invest time and money (but much less of both) in exchange for something a bit different – the chance to be part of a fleeting community, to make connections, to be part of something magical, to have your work heard. It felt like a dreamy ideal for subsided art – alas, without the subsidy.
Really, this piece is just me saying: “don’t go, we’ll miss you”. Because we will. It’s time that other artists and organisers took up the quixotic, endlessly defeating, but vital task of challenging the values of the Edinburgh fringe mainstream. We need space for other models, and space for other metrics for success than financial sustainability and sell-out shows. But Forest Fringe is slipping away, into the woods. Maybe, like its dew-strewn odyssey to an obscure Leith club, it’ll transport us to another new place, and another new world. On the fringes, again.