Two years ago, across a few days in Birmingham, I saw people in bondage gear fucking pine branches in a warehouse, a man in a glass coffin filled with live flies, meditative dancing in the shadows and a witch suspended in the air urinating onto a pile of popping candy. Such are the joys and surprises of Fierce Festival, Birmingham’s biennial festival of international performance and live art.
I’m back this year, and the plan is to regularly update this live(-ish) blog throughout the next three days. One of the great things about immersing yourself in a festival like this is the way that the performances inevitably begin to reveal affinities and resonances, entering into accidental dialogues with each other. My hope for this blog is that I might use it to trace these lines of association and conversation as they gather along my journey through the festival.
‘It’s in your hands,’ we’re told at the start of Kate McIntosh’s participatory performance, In Many Hands. Aaron Wright, artistic director of the festival, described this show as the jewel in the crown of this year’s programme, which, quite besides being an assessment of its quality, is an apt description. This piece is very much jewel-like: concerned with preciousness, value and delicacy, and sort of exquisite.
What’s in our hands:
- the pace of the performance – we have to listen to each other, learn a sense of flow. There will be no talking, so we’ll just have to feel it out, together.
- the objects we will shortly be passing each other, down long white-clothed tables. Like a tasting menu where none of the courses get eaten.
- the wellbeing of our planet and its ecosystems. That which we have for too long taken for granted.
The objects we handle range from the mundane to the gross to the beautiful – from a sliver of gold leaf to a bird skull to slimy briny seaweed. We travel through time (or the objects do, passed down from hand to hand as if down generations), from deep-time geological artefacts to stony tools of human invention, through the animal kingdom and into man-made jellies and medical pots of piss. Under these heightened conditions you become so sensitive to texture, smell, weight; even more so when we’re eventually plunged into darkness. Some things are lighter than you expect, some things heavier. Some are ticklish, some mysterious, some outright hilarious (if it starts off solemn and meditative, it doesn’t take long for people to get the giggles).
This is the kind of performance which encourages care, not least because of the amount of care that has obviously gone into its creation; the very sourcing of these objects, not to mention their looking after and transportation, must necessarily have been a huge part of the overall creative endeavour of making this show. The objects and materials have been chosen and curated with the utmost attention to detail, and that kind of generosity begets a generous response from an audience. Here, all of a sudden, it’s very easy to take the time and give the focus that travelling on the tube and answering emails and worrying about money often makes difficult to do. And we’re reminded that at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to each other and to the planet to extend our hands and to take care, give care, care for and about things. And that responsibility is shared – in many hands, interlocked, sensitive and ticklish, ready to get dirty.
If Kate McIntosh was reaching for the meditative, so do Malik Nashad Sharpe and Ellen Furey, albeit with very different means. In SOFTLAMP.autonomies, they’re dressed in identical white hoodies and joggers, with the same rouged cheeks. When they begin dancing (it takes….. a while), it’s in total synchronisation, to the endlessly looped CHILL.vibes of Yung Hurn.
The dance has units which repeat, fold back on themselves, get stuck in loops before being released without warning or ceremony into the next chunk or a recapitulation of a previous one – a series of almost algorithmic iterations. Like In Many Hands, it makes me think about the process of making and learning this dance – it must be drilled deep down to muscle memory, like the movements of a worker in a fulfilment centre, or the automatic finger gymnastics of an iPhone game you’ve played too much. I think about how absolutely sick of that Yung Hurn track they must be by now.
It feels like they’re reaching for a repurposing of this kind of HYPER.capitalist / INTERNET.boredom realm of anaesthetised bliss. Cloaking bodies often defined by and oppressed for their difference (to a perceived neutral norm – white cis maleness) in a structural field of sameness – SAME.clothes SAME.movements SAME.song. But really to me it feels a little more like reproducing than repurposing. Ultimately there’s no sense of escaping these restrictions, and during the hour I often resent it for keeping me in its flat, washed-out world. It feels cold, frustrating, humourless, numbing and, tbh, kind of annoying…
Just a few moments before I head in for today’s Professionals’ Day (I do like me a good panel talk) to scrawl some thoughts about the third show I saw last night, Oozing Gloop’s The Gloop Show. Oozing is the country’s ‘leading green autistic drag queen,’ and in this cabaret show they deliver what’s might be best described as a turbo-speed, semi-sensical academic lecture/kindergarten storybook session on magic mushrooms.
Taking us through the vowels of the alphabet, the multi-purpose bread and butter of the English language, they demonstrate the philosophical and ontological implications of the letters through the sheer force of punning and dubious diagrams. The letter A is used to triangulate time (present, past and memory), birth/sex/death (something to do with the tit being the shadow of the vagina), knowledge and truth (Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns). E is everything, I is me, U is you, I O U an Explanation, O Y must Everything B so complicated? There’s circles and triangles, coins and crowns, an extravagant number confetti canons, pickles and vacuums, the big bang, Chelsea Manning and Bergson and Lacan, penis and eyeballs. It might all fall apart if you stopped to examine its logic, but by virtue of its dizzying speed, no-one’s got time to care.
Oozing Gloop’s real point here might be the power of language to obscure, discombobulate and deflect, often to dangerous political consequences. But at the same time they find a comfortable home in the nonsensical and the slippery (on this makeshift stage, in this packed (probs oversold) front room of Centrala gallery, they’re so gloriously in their element), for it’s in the fluidity of identity that language proves itself inadequate. Having revelled in jumping through linguistic hoops and loopholes, Oozing Gloop finishes with a single moment of directness and clarity – a call for solidarity with our trans siblings.
[or: the post I thought I’d put up here last week while I was at the actual festival, but which I obviously neglected to hit the ‘publish’ button on like an absolute eejit]
Festivals are faced paced. I’m already lagging behind with this blog and playing catch up with the shows I’ve seen. But I was grateful for the space for pausing and thinking about the role of festivals and other performance institutions provided by yesterday’s ‘Professional’s Day’ (tongue in cheek quotation marks intended by Fierce, though apparently this didn’t get through to the brochure designers). Before I write any more on the work it feels important to note down just a few of those provocations for posterity, so here are the thoughts that struck me most from the two talks – one between Aaron Wright (current Fierce artistic director) and Mark Ball (founder of Fierce) reflecting on 21 years of the festival, and one with a panel comprising Benjamin Akio Kimitch (Performance Space New York), Roya Amirsoleimani (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art), Eckhard Thiemann (Shubbak Festival) and Kate Craddock (Gateshead International Festival of Theatre).
Aaron Wright: Festivals are like water – they fill gaps wherever they can find them. About provision of something which is lacking in the wider culture. If a festival is successful it will permeate into year-round ecology is will not be needed, or must adapt. E.g. for a long time Fierce presented a lot of outdoor relational work, the most famous example being Luke Jerram installing pianos around the city, the result of which is that now there is ‘some twat’ playing a piano in every train station across Britain. This year they felt it wasn’t necessary anymore to present that kind of work.
[a side note from me]: The week before Fierce I was lucky to spent some time at In Between Time’s The Summit, which gave me cause to think about the values of an international festival. In Between Time’s idea this year was to abandon what they had come to recognise as a model based on prestige, spectacle, ephemerality and flying artists in at a large carbon cost, and instead to create an involved three-day programme of workshops, discussions, meals, installations (and a few performances!) to respond directly to the fucked up world we live in, and think about how art and activism interact, how the arts might best respond to the climate emergency and instigate radical change. This, to me, seemed like a very bold example of an institution filling a gap in provision.
Aaron Wright: Professionalism is an ugly word. To be professional simply means to be open, transparent and kind. Fierce has always been transgressive in nature, and always been run by young people (Wright was 29 when he was appointed, Ball was 27 when he founded the festival), and that’s reflected in its character – rigorous, but not taking itself or the work too seriously.
On institutions and radicalism:
Benjamin Akio Kimitch: Performance Space New York (formally Performance Space 122) has recently reentered its original East Village neighbourhood after a period of redevelopment on its original site – the neighbourhood has been greatly gentrified, and with a new artistic director, Jenny Shlenska, they’re thinking hard about what it means to be an institution which serves its community.
There’s a problem with real estate developers using contemporary culture as capital, instrumentalising supposedly ‘radical’ culture for purposes against its own values. So what does it mean for an institution to be truly radical?
Performance Space are focusing on working with indigenous artists, and have acknowledged Lenapehoking land. They are taking cues from UK institutions on improving access and disability-led work. It is important that institutions take on the labour of structural rebuilding, and not put that work on the artists.
Roya Amirsoleimani: Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) face a similar issue of being in a gentrified neighbourhood whose black population has been near eradicated with a decrease from ~80% to ~20% (notes are patchy, am going off memory). Part of that structural rebuilding for them has meant handing over keys and decision making power to black artists – so that the black artists in the institution are not just the ones that a white-led institution deems suitable for the contemporary performance world.
Decolonisation is a practice – ongoing work which requires deep listening, thought and slowing down. Radicality has to lie not just in the artwork, but in the audiences, structural organisation and ethics, architecture, succession plan etc. Institutions always ask (‘uninitiated’) audiences to try something new, meet challenging work, try work that makes them uncomfortable. What if institutions learnt to sit with discomfort?
the following Friday, 01.47am
Well, I guess the live blog is now decidedly… not-live. (undead?)
It struck me, as I huddled into a group taxi to get from Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter to Dance eXchange in a particularly tight turnaround between shows, that squashing 5 or 6 shows into a day probably doesn’t produce the ideal conditions for encountering a lot of these works. I learnt this first at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, of course, but somehow forgot it when I signed up to all these shows. It’s kind of exciting – a blur of colour, feelings and sensations – and I do enjoy the element of stamina, this 3-day-coffee-buzzy-hyper-alertness that makes me aware of the work I’m doing as a spectator. But it also means I have to hit factory reset between shows, and that they’re prevented from lingering and subsiding at their own natural pace. Which means that certain works – those with lighter textures, those less instantaneous affective, those with intentionally incomplete dramaturgies – tend to shuffle into the background of the bigger picture.
Begüm Erciyas’ Voicing Pieces is one of these – an installation in which you wriggle into these cloud-like structures which house scripts that you read from. You hear your own voice through headphones, and it is sometimes manipulated. At times it’s like a musical study (you have to read lines in time with a loop of your own voice counting to 8), at times a physiological challenge (reading a text about a drunk writer, your voice is delayed which has the effect of causing you to slur your words). It’s really intimate – just you and the strangeness of your own voice – but you’re also aware of the technician listening in, adding the effects on cue. There are glimpses of narrative, but nothing concrete, and the focus is on the simple experience of performing for oneself. It’s just half an hour long and quite lovely, but the festival format works against its introspectiveness. The beauty of wandering through a gallery installation, say, is the that the viewer is allowed to guide themselves, and so luxuriate in recognising and reflecting on their experience whilst simultaneously being within the experience (which is just what Voicing Pieces asks us to do with our voices). But to be ushered back into the greater velocity of social settings – big audiences, big ‘networking’ events (awful word, but you know what I mean), big club nights – all good, enjoyable things – ultimately overpowers that space of introspection.
On the other end of the spectrum is Miet Warlop’s Ghost Writer and the Broken Hand Break, custom built for punchiness. As we enter the space, through performers in spotlights are spinning in circles – an action drawn from Sufi rituals intended to induce religious ecstasy. We sit and stand around the edges of the space, and watch them spin for 45 MINUTES. It shares with SOFTLAMP.autonomies an interest in rhythm, movement in stasis, release of control to/through a tightly controlled structure. Ghost Writer, however, is more interested in producing a feeling of satisfaction. After some minutes, a stage manager hands the performers a guitar, a cymbal and a drum, and we pray that the performers don’t lose their grip, else someone’s gonna get a hunk of metal to the forehead. It’s loud. Feel it in your thighs-loud. At one point, the truss that the lights are rigged on begins to rotate, and the performers travel to remain in their spotlights. Its gestures are simple, but stunningly executed. It’s a gig, essentially, and in the manner of a gig it works on a level of pure affect, leaving you tingly-skinned, with a changed inner rhythm.
There are other performances that I won’t write about in depth, but each leave their mark. There’s the fragments of autobiography and memory in Mariana Valencia’s Album, non-sequiturs bobbing up to the surface – some you don’t see coming, and they hit you in the heart with deadly precision (for me, it was: ‘sometimes, when you see someone for the second time, you know you’re going to try to see them again’). There’s the chaotic unravelling of the catwalk models in Andrew Tay and Stephen Thompson’s Make Banana Cry, who relentlessly re-perform Asian stereotypes – bent-backed begging, polite shuffles of subservience, shirtless B-boying – against a jaggedly mixed jukebox soundtrack of Asian classical/pop music and musicals (Miss Saigon, The King and I, et al.) before deconstructing them as a series of improvised choreographies with an onslaught of randomly selected props in some increasingly desperate attempt to shake off the weight of violent representation. There’s the naughty repetitions and dream-like fantasias of Greg Wohead and Gillie Kleiman’s twinned solos in Familiar, a performance which meditates on the ways we form attachments, our lives twisting around and into one another’s. There’s the delicacy with which we handle the archival documents in Tania El Khoury’s The Search for Power, wearing white gloves, smelling paper, taking careful sips of wine.
Come Saturday night I’m feeling like I’ve nearly had too much ART to digest, and Nicola Gunn’s Working with Children deals a final, gorgeous blow. This is the dessert of performance – layered, rich and silly like a trifle. To commit to the metaphor:
The biscuit: Gunn’s choreography, a series of purposeless and meaningless movements which are slowly built up and pieced together
The jelly: the 5 children, aged 11-14, who try to copy and keep up with her movements
The custard: Gunn’s monologue, a rambling stream-of-consciousness, occasionally broken to give the children direction
The cream: the video projection (usually showing footage of children) which, at infrequent intervals, appears along the back curtain in a slow travelator-paced sweep, as if marking a page turn.
There are too many non-sequiturs, diversions, tangents and out-of-place anecdotes to say with any degree of concrete certainty what the show is *about* (and maybe the impulse to look for *about-ness* is misplaced), but it’s vaguely orbiting ideas about appropriateness, what we look to protect children from, ethics, empathy and imagination, language and power.
Gunn’s strategy is one of misdirection. The moment she stops dancing and the sound design gives way to silence would normally be reserved for a concluding, tying-together of thematic strands, but instead she uses it to make a stray observation about Tilda Swinton popping up in places you wouldn’t expect. She directs the children’s attention to her choreography, so that they’re too distracted to fully register the things she says about sex, about a co-worker’s smelly vagina, or the video that plays behind them showing Gunn preparing to do a DIY naked slip ’n’ slide. She asks the audience to focus on her (these anecdotes often paint her as selfish, narcissistic, a bit of a dick), so that we don’t initially notice the signs that the children are actually more prepared than their live-copying suggests.
It means that things emerge out of this quite simple, formal structure to produce joy and surprise – a swelling sequence in which they run up to the audience and enact their best tragic deaths, or Gunn’s initially curt attitude towards the children morphing imperceptibly into the warm approachability of a favourite coach. It’s masterfully assembled, carried along by the jogging-pace current of Duane Morrison’s sound design, and just thrilling to watch.
In 2017, I found that the festival made me reflect on the small-p political implications of the spectator’s spatial relationship to the artwork – how does roaming about in a warehouse, processing en masse down the street, passing by in a town centre or watching a carefully constructed image in an end-on black box position us as spectators and/or doers? That was there in this year’s edition, too, but this time those spectatorial relationships felt less to do with outward action, and more to do with interior speed.
The world feels like a more difficult place to be in each day, and each day seems to fizzle out a little quicker. Too much to do in too little time. A quote keeps coming back to me recently, though I forget where from, about not letting the urgent crowd out the important. This feels relevant here, and to Amirsoleimani’s provocation of a slow practice of institutional decolonisation. Amidst chaos, we need to collect ourselves. Speed is how we got into this mess.
Now that I’m out of it, I can see the ways in which Fierce (or the way I went through it) was too fast, too much, but within that there were many spaces for slowness, especially in the participatory work – In Many Hands asking us to feel, smell and take care, Voicing Pieces to listen and concentrate, BINGE (a piece I haven’t mentioned partly because it feels hardly like an artwork at all, on so personal and direct a level does it engage you; and partly because I’ve only just begun the work it’s challenged me to do) asking us to take stock of our choices, habits, needs and desires – each in their own ways awkward, strange, revealing interactions which ask you to sit with, and even better, commit to, discomfort.
Fierce Festival runs in Birmingham from 15th-20th October. More information and tickets here.