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Features Published 26 October 2017

Fierce Festival

Ben Kulchivit discovers the grotesque, the perverse, and the transcendental at Birmingham's annual festival of live art.
Ben Kulvichit
The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein. Photo: Tim Fluck

Notorious, by the Famous Lauren Barri Holstein. Photo: Tim Fluck

‘‘Can you see my truth?’ asks The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, as we watch live-streamed footage of her squeezing a fake eyeball out of her vagina. It pops out, she chews it and spits out the remains.

Notorious is a show is about constructed identities. It’s a not-quite-sincere attempt to shed the layers of mediated representation of the female body, to release the ‘true self’ behind The Famous. It’s interesting then that the show comes cloaked in lavish furnishings, from the huge, Gothic, woollen curtain that hangs ominously at the back of the stage, to the three performers’ silvery head-to-toe wigs.

The show revels in the grotesque and perverse. Stories of frog-eating, sheep-fucking, baby-killing, rituals and orgies in the forest pervade the piece. Holstein and her sidekicks cast themselves as fantasy sluts, witches, lesbian porn-stars, female monstrosities. They apologise constantly and with deadpan nonchalantness for their transgressions. Holstein flits between her natural voice and a innocent, girlish squeak, pausing after each increasingly ridiculous section to exclaim how much fun it was. Disgust and delight are held in balance, with the audience casting a gaze both of desire and condemnation.

Notorious is the right title for this show – it explicitly draws on and interrogates the Holstein’s own reputation as a performance artist (of critical acclaim, well-funded, playing on large stages) making outrageously messy, physically demanding, (post-)feminist work. The implication is that self-exposure does not equate to truth – staring into the eye in Holstein’s vagina staring back at us, we wonder who she really is and how our positioning as spectators affects her sense of self.

Having actively assumed projected identities and fantasies, Holstein turns the audience’s gaze back on itself, asking if we feel we’ve done their bit in taking down the patriarchy by watching Holstein ‘do some fuckin’ work’. She wonders what the point of it all – this £102,000 show playing to this live art festival audience – is exactly. But the accusation feels slightly reductive, an explanatory footnote or an attempted rug-pull which would only work if an audience had been watching uncritically up to that point.

Notorious, by the Famous Lauren Barri Holstein

Notorious, by the Famous Lauren Barri Holstein

It’s far more successful when cultivating ambiguity. The show opens with a devastatingly pregnant image – the curtain parts to reveal the three performers, bodies and faces covered by hair, backlit and suspended in mid-air. Their harnesses are not visible, and it looks truly uncanny. They could be levitating, or they could be limply and lifelessly hanging. Powerful, or persecuted. It’s both at the same time. The image is held for what feels like minutes, and the audience drinks it in.

Holstein’s question about the political work of performance reverberates through the festival. An evening at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery co-presented with with art activism group Free Radical features a selection of performances and installations on the topic of political resistance. At the centre of the evening is Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, performing on their Trump Depression Hotline Tour. The Rev is an activist street preacher with a band of secular gospel-singing Earth-loving acolytes, declaiming their anti-consumerist, environmentalist message. Earthellujah! they exclaim. Lifellujah!

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir

It’s beautifully tongue-in-cheek, and, like a church service, requires its audience to choose to accept its fiction and artifice in order to participate and make its fragile idealism real. I think of Pete Seeger’s insistence that ‘we are not afraid’ is the most important lyric to sing along to in We Shall Overcome, because even if you don’t believe it, it’s only by singing it that you make it true.

I leave feeling joyous and galvanised, but I also wonder if there’s not also a touch of irony to the performance. Reverend Billy strenuously states that the most important things are beyond culture (I don’t really know what that means), and that the real purpose of today is to leave with practical solutions. I realise he hasn’t actually given us any, and that here they are performing at a cultural event to an elective audience. They are by their very nature, inside a culture.

Elsewhere in the festival, there’s a view of activism as an interior practice. Preach R Sun’s durational performance Lord of the Flies (Coronation) sees him cover himself in blood and bank notes before entering into a perspex box – a see-through sarcophagus, or a museum cabinet – filled with cotton and live flies. He lies there for 12 hours, surrounded by an arrangement of candles, soil, fruit and shackles, before rising and leading a procession through the city at 6pm. Adopting religious imagery, the degradation and trial of the body here makes material and present the history (and contemporary history) of the suffering black body.

It’s an intensely personal action, you feel, but it’s also a provocative challenge to the spectator – to try to see (though not experience) his truth. I find it difficult to stay and watch for very long, to keep my gaze steady. It invites generosity from others, too – in the brief time I’m in the room, one woman steps forward to read out a poem about conquistadors, and a man kneels to recite Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Preach R Sun. Photo: Edward Smith

Preach R Sun. Photo: Edward Smith

Interestingly perhaps, Sun also sees his work as existing beyond culture. The work starts from an activist impulse – his mission statement says unambiguously that his project is freedom, not art, and that he prefers to call himself a fugitive or a conjurer to an artist. I wonder if this perpetuates a paradigm of art as lacking efficacy, and of equating efficacy with value, that is profoundly unhelpful to artists and audiences. Which is not to say that art doesn’t lack efficacy, but that the valorisation of efficacy is misguided. For all its power to affect, the traces of a performance are most often unquantifiable, non-linear, latent, delayed, deferred, intangible. It agitates, certainly, as Reverend Billy and Preach R Sun’s work does, but might be better characterised as an impractical solution.

Impractical solutions are exactly what Aaron Williamson’s durational outdoor performance, Demonstrating the World, offers. Inspired by YouTube How-To videos and perhaps recalling television shopping channels as well, Williamson performs simple actions in excruciatingly infinitesimal detail, narrating his actions with a stream of disjointed words, phrases and sounds, and referring to a lexicon of hand movements pinned up on flashcards. It takes a good fifteen minutes to demonstrate how to water a plant. It’s mundanity made strange, familiar activities defamiliarised and made hilariously boring.

Demonstrating the World

Demonstrating the World

Performed in city centres or shopping districts, there’s an element of intervention about it in alignment with Reverend Billy’s public provocations, though here more subtly coded and, appearing somewhat like a bizarrely shit street performance, more likely to draw expressions of dismissive bewilderment from passers-by. It’s staunchly uninterested in engaging people or conveying an instantly readable message, and so positions itself in resistance towards the notion of efficacy both in its content and its public positioning.

There’s a similar gesture towards remaking and making strange in Everything Fits in the Room, a choreographic piece by Simone Aughterlony and Jen Rosnblit. Performed in a cavernous warehouse space punctuated by clutters of striplights, a freestanding wall in the centre, various objects and clothing, and a moveable cooking/DJ station, the piece is free-ranging, chaotic, baffling and exhilarating. The audience stands and moves freely as Aughterlony, Rosenblit and guest performer Emily Warner play with the objects in the room – an assortment of the domestic, (furniture, a ladder, clothing, plastic buckets), the organic (bones, pine branches, fruit, cinnamon) and forms of attachment and restraint (bondage gear, hooks, rope).

Everything Fits in the Room. Photo: Nadja Krueger

Everything Fits in the Room. Photo: Nadja Krueger

They move and act with purpose, but perform with tasks with no obvious functional outcome – things are rearranged, fixed to the wall, used or held in unusual ways. There’s a danger and precariousness to it as Aughterlony strides through the audience swinging a ladder above her head, or Warner flings a chair around. It feels like a perversion of domestic order, or at times a kind cleansing sexual ritual – at one point Aughterlony bathes Rosenblit in pine-scented water, rubs an orange over her and the latter post-coitally smokes a burning cinnamon stick.

Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self create a sonic environment for the action with electronic dance beats and ambient sounds of scraping metal and dripping water – dressed in aprons, they cook the atmosphere, they alter the architecture of the space with sound and interact closely with the dancers.

My brain doesn’t know quite what to make of it all but it’s an intoxicating experience – playfully live, sensitively composed, sensory and sensual. There’s a real sense as an audience member here of discovering and inhabiting an unfolding event which is supremely satisfying. It feels like an embracing of disorder in which meaning takes secondary priority, an attempt first to reorder spatial relationships between bodies and objects, and a disruption of conventional ways of watching and participating in performance as the audience forms an integral part of the piece’s constantly shifting architecture of bodies.

One thing about festivals and the density of curated work you’re able to see is that you become intensely aware of yourself as a consumer (and I don’t mean that in a necessarily pejorative sense) of culture, of how you are watching, and how you are watching one piece work in relation to another. The performances I saw at Fierce all engaged with the role of the spectator in more or less explicit ways, presenting radical, provocative material and asking how we might position ourselves in relation to it, as well as inviting an interrogation of its place within an aesthetic and political culture. What work is the work doing, or failing to do? Reverend Billy contradicts himself at one point. Having extolled the need for action beyond culture, he reaffirms the purpose of a festival such as Fierce. This is not avant-garde bullshit, he implores us, but part of a vital process of cultural change, a way of reimagining and refashioning ourselves. Of remaking and making strange.

Fierce Festival 2017 was on in Birmingham from 16-22nd October. For more info, visit the Fierce Festival website.

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Ben Kulvichit is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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