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Features Performance Published 20 October 2015

Fierce Festival 2015: Hyperlocal and Supernow

Birmingham's Fierce Festival, led by artistic directors Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison, presents a range of international work, including live art to public interventions, digital and interactive performance, theatre and dance, in spaces across the city, from an old metal factory to clubs, parks and libraries. Exeunt's Amelia Forsbrook and Stewart Pringle immersed themselves in it all.
Stewart Pringle
Happiness Forgets by Season Butler. Photo: Christa Holka

Happiness Forgets by Season Butler. Photo: Christa Holka

Stewart Pringle: Fierce Fragments

Race Cards, created by Selina Thompson, Spit Kit by Ria Jade Hartley and Orange Bikini by Emily Mulenga 

Where elsewhere at Fierce, ecology is considered on the largest scales, at Birmingham Open Media hackspace (BOM), there are a collection of works which zero in specifically on questions of race and racial presentation.  Selina Thompson presents the fifth iteration of her Race Cards project, which has been developing for some time. Thompson has devised 1000 questions about race, from the widest considerations of identifiers such as ‘black’, to specific interrogations of cultural appropriations in the media. For this ‘game’, Thompson has absented herself altogether, and instead invited audience members to enter a room, alone, choose one of these 1000 questions that they find difficult, and append an answer to it, then one of the 1000 they find impossible, and to take a copy of that question with them. We give to the project and we take away, giving our opinion and taking a grain of something we’re unable to process or mill away, to prickle and remind.

There’s a give and take to Ria Jade Hartley’s Spit Kit too, where we visit an ersatz DNA testing laboratory to talk through out own personal racial and cultural identities. Hartley asks us to self-identify in as much detail as possible, in the manner of an equal opportunities monitoring form, and then guides us through our knowledge of our recent heritage, from parents to grandparents and great-grandparents. Then she takes a sample of our saliva, which has the potential to lay out our DNA in considerable depth and detail, confirming or refuting our presumptions and family histories. There’s a play on the oral transmission of heritage here, and on the significance of empirical proof (our samples are retained but will not be analysed, the laboratory is just for show). When we leave the lab we’re asked if we’d re-assess our own racial and cultural tagging based on what we’ve experienced, which is nothing, really, other than an opportunity to think a little more closely and carefully about it. Which is everything, of course.

Both pieces are complimented by a far more personal and confrontational video installation by Emily Mulenga. Orange Bikini feature’s Mulenga’s digital avatar, rendered in Playstation One-esque jagged polygons. She moves through dream-worlds of love-hearts and staccato-swaying cornfields, apparently searching for a kind of happiness, but surrounded by a never-ending over-saturated rotation of candy-kiddy and sexualised images. She twerks her impossible proportions and leaps across city motorways in a car she borrows from Colin McRae Rally. It’s at once concerning and comforting, it is a fantasy world which Mulenga can absolutely control, but it cannot escape the shadow of its connotations. Mulenga may be able to operate her avatar, and lavish her with any paradise or product that she wishes, but she is a video-game creation, a Machinima star, a representative of an industry where the voices and jurisdictions of women are policed by oppressive, male (gamer)gate-keepers.

DJ Anklepants. Photo: Meg Lavender

DJ Anklepants. Photo: Meg Lavender

Code and Carpentry, by One Five West, Club Fierce- Anklepants 

Together with fraught questions of race and identity, BOM provides a venue for several of Fierce’s more intimate events and experiences. Opened in 2014, it’s a communal work and exhibition space, which hosts its own fellowship programme and artists’ residencies. In its basement One Five West present their Code and Carpentry installation, a bank of platforms, benches and screens loaded with motion and proximity sensors, whirring and bleeping as they’re approached or touched. It’s a better work as code than carpentry, with most of the pieces looking like the ‘spaceship controls’ I spent most of my childhood making out of scraps of spare MDF and the inside of broken car stereos, bit it passes the time.

There are Club Fierce events throughout the festival, but the only one I managed to catch was Anklepants. Now, I’d never encountered Anklepants before, so the sight of a gigantic elephant monster with a constantly roving, animatronic penis for a nose wasn’t something I was necessarily prepared for. He roared and jittered through a set of screeching electronics and mashed vocals with his questing cock-schnozz and glowing crown. He’s such a gruesome and self-possessed motherfucker that it takes a while to come to terms with the fact that the music is actually pretty good, and the sight of this slimy, Lovecraftian Gonzo detonating a room of the frazzled, confused and elated is hard to shake off. The creation of special effects artist and musician Dr Reecard Farché, Anklepants doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can analyse. But it’s good to know that such a singular, monstrous thing is out there, roaming somewhere in the wilderness.

All Ears by Kate McIntosh. Photo: Meg Lavender

All Ears by Kate McIntosh. Photo: Meg Lavender

All Ears, by Kate McIntosh

Kate McIntosh has some questions to ask. She wants to know how many of us are thirsty, how many of us are a little too hot, how many of us can tell a lie or keep a secret, how many lives we have tangled around are own. All Ears is an experiment in two movements, divided by a catastrophe, which asks us to listen to one another, breathe one another, and consider our togetherness, or our separateness, from those around us.

The Belgium-based New Zealand artist takes time to ground her audience in the space, and in relation to one another. A list of questions and activities has us simulating the sound of a rain-storm in the night, filling paper bags with a single breath for each of our dependents, contemplating cannibalising the audience member in front. Only, y’know, if we had to.

It all builds to some joyous participatory destruction, as we’re handed ropes that, via a system of pulleys in the rig and unseen complications beneath the seating stand, they tear the set apart in a cacophony of amplified scraping and clattering. Pots fall from the ceiling and smash against the wall, a shovel scrudges across the floor, microphone attached, a table is tipped and smashes down to cheers from the crowd. It’s as if the entire room has titled sideways, the set crashing against the wall like deck furniture on the Titanic.

The final section sees McIntosh re-emerge, complete with microphone boom, a sound technician seeking field recordings. She listens to us, and then, in the dark, our own simulated rainstorm and stage-managed calamity is replayed to us. McIntosh’s work is playful but precise, it speaks of community and ecology, of personal responsibility within a space, and also of something beyond the material and the present. One of her first questions is ‘How many of you believe in ghosts?’ And there’s a hint of the Davenport brothers and their spirit cabinet séances and impossible spirit music in the clattering of objects on strings, or the poltergeist-like upending of the furniture. The bags we fill with breath and throw onto the stage could even be miniature ghosts, clustered like mini-Boo’s in Super Mario World. McIntosh asks us to take some time and listen, feel and think about those who share our lives, space and planet then as well as now. To open up our ears to the dead, as well as the living.

Supernatural. Photo: Meg Lavender

Supernatural. Photo: Meg Lavender

Supernatural, created by Simone Aughterlony, Antonija Livingstone & Hahn Rowe 

A night in the woods, spent chopping logs and whittling branches and fucking. This weighty, intensely physical and material collaboration between performers Simone Aughterlony and Antonija Livingstone, as well as composer and musician Hahn Rowe is at once earthy and grounded, and mystical and numinous. Against a toxic pink matt two women prepare to camp in the woods. They take on the role of woodcutter and hunter-gatherer, playing with gender as they craft jutting phalluses for themselves with rough-hewn chunks of wood. Their environment feels haunted, not least by the strange crackling score which Rowe generates, but it never escapes its material basis. It is always the clacking of wood on wood, the slap of hands on skin. Its slow movements are repetitive, but burst into sudden violent passions. There is a cycle of desperation and retreat, of excitement and exhaustion, as binaries and hierarchies constantly suggest themselves and then dissolve or flit away between the imaginary trees.

That theme of ecology, which seems to be threaded all through this year’s Fierce, is at its most haunting here. These performers are opening up questions about existing in one space, one clearing, one planet. The third part of a trilogy of pieces which this international team has created, Supernatural offers no answers, but creates an atmosphere of intense questioning about the nature and relation of the bodily and the spiritual. A few hours later, at the Sleep with a Curator Event in the Eastside Projects gallery, the curator in question will lull his audience to sleep with readings from Dr Seuss’ The Lorax and R Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. They’re texts which feel all of a piece with Aughterlony, Livingstone and Rowe’s work here. They’re texts which ask us to see the human in a new and greater context. To rethink priorities and positions. If the New Materialism insists on a re-centring of ethical and political thought, Supernatural offers a crunchy and complex think-space to hack out new ideas and relationships.

Fierce culture administration and trembling

Culture, Administration & Trembling, created by Antonija Livingstone, Jennifer Lacey, Dominique Petrin & Stephen Thompson

Antonija Livingstone gives her second performance of Fierce, but where Supernatural felt dense and purposeful, the intriguing but ultimately pallid Culture, Administration & Trembling all but disintegrates under its own bagginess and lack of purpose. It may be that the cold and cacophonous gallery space it’s presented in, vibrating with the sound-check of a reggae festival in the adjoining room, was simply the death of it, but something or other has killed any sense of tension or interest in what quickly becomes an obscure bore.

Blankets are handed out, together with instructions to explore and enjoy the space, but the audience are soon huddled against the walls, languidly peering about for something to create interest or hold attention. The performers dance, slide-snake-like across the floor, create paper mosaics and roll and unroll matting, but it’s very hard to draw anything out of their actions. Even the release of three gigantic albino pythons and two skittering Chihuahuas (not at the same time, thankfully) fails to generate any excitement, and I wasn’t the only audience member who took the intermission in its two hour running time, which apparently is the point that the work cycles back around, to escape somewhere warmer and less frustrating.

Amelia Forsbrook: Fierce Impressions

If Birmingham is our second city, it is only right that it also is home to the nation’s second performance festival. Over five days each year, Fierce spreads its four-legged philosophy across the city, bringing “Live Art”, “Collision”, “Hyperlocal” and “Supernow” to in-the-know Brummies and performance tourists alike. While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that all means, it’s true that Fierce dishes up adventurous performance and, at the very least, polite contraction, and things are certainly happening in the present tense. And hyperlocality? It was so local the locals hadn’t heard of it, and my friendly Uber driver was going round The Wrekin trying to find the tiny BOM gallery. Our only salvation was the abundant neons of the neighbouring AdultWorld.

And so, with a performance virgin in tow, I headed into a risqué and titillating realm.

Happiness Forgets, created and performed by Season Butler, with choreography by Jamila Johnson-Small

It’s easy to dismiss my friend Jamie as he asks the un-askable. “Is this live art?”, he whispers conspiratorially, as we stand outside Birmingham’s The Drum on a Sunday afternoon. We’re surrounded by the usual asymmetrically-cut crowd, waiting for a programme that is nonchalantly running ten minutes late. Jamie is one of my best mates, one of the greatest wits I know, and the example human I pulled up in our dreary office Communications seminar. He’s a champion at making himself clear and finding humour in the most bizarre places. Jamie hasn’t been to any performance before, but he really shouldn’t be making such obvious jokes.

Around half an hour later, I find myself guilty of asking the same dreaded question. In Happiness Forgets, an anecdotal lecture centred around the cultural and sexual advances of Bill Cosby, affable performance-maker Season Butler is recalling the night her friend twice fell victim: first to date-rape drugs, and then to the dismissive judgements of the figure of medical authority who should’ve been able to help her. As the friend of the story tries to explain a four hour gap in her memory, our performer makes an effort to shift what is obscured, adding her own wave of cloudiness into the retelling. Our performer remembers what her friend was wearing on this significant night, and the conversations that she had with her boyfriend – we can tell because Butler continues dutifully reading from her notes, uninterrupted and unflustered as her lighting and microphone cuts. Butler knows the details that the defence would’ve asked for, had the events been brought to trial, and the facts to accompany the focus taken by the unscrupulous gynaecologist – but she also knows that these details should be irrelevant when a body has been violated.

While not entirely accomplished, the jarring technical outages reinforce this need for a new narrative by editing out the parts of the existing story that really shouldn’t matter, and this reinvented focus becomes even more powerful when accompanied by staggering looped clips of Cosby in his The Cosby Show role of inappropriate gynaecologist – pawing, holding and flirting. Perhaps the technical glitches at the start of the show have bred a mode of digital distrust, or perhaps the homespun vibe has left us prepared for, and sympathetic towards, the odd glitch, but these broken cues initially come across more error than statement. Despite this, on reflection the scene packs a certain clout and, two days on, it’s by far the most emotionally powerful moment of the piece, the undoubtable takeaway moment.

With its meandering storyline, crudely-inserted dance numbers and fragmented anecdotes, Happiness Forgets feels a lot like an observational comedy without the comedian. The piece lacks the strong argument that could carry some of the meatier ideas it brushes upon, and so some of the most striking comments made seem to exist as diversions to the pace of the show. That said, Butler carves a bold and likeable stage presence, and Happiness Forgets makes for an alluring collage of the comforts that can be found in questionable sources. Butler foregrounds her work with a litany of contradiction, light-heartedly testing the value we hold to a person and gently launching the idea that, by choosing villains, we say more about ourselves than our adversaries. There’s opposition in everyone: Margaret Thatcher might’ve been single-handled responsible for shattering the north of England, but Butler assures us that she generously saved her Jewish pen pal from the horrors of war; Mother Theresa is drifting ever-closer to canonisation in recognition of her work against poverty, but she is guilty of claiming that “the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor”. Butler elaborates on how MLK had a secret smoking habit, and Saddam Hussein made contraception more readily available and affordable than it ever was in Bush’s administration. Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, despite all her faults, excels as a concert pianist. The delivery is novel – and works as a reminder that the heroes and villains of this world aren’t produced by Disney – but we’re unlikely to go away with our opinions too greatly altered.

The DJ who gave too much information

The DJ who gave too much information

The DJ who gave too much information, created by Caroline Dubois, Claudia Fancello and Jacob Wren,  performed by Caroline Dubois, Marie Claire Forté, and Jacob Wren

As Season Butler reminds us of the danger lurking within the values we swallow, the rule breaking inter-disciplinarians at Montréal-based PME-ART are busy defining new laws, in durational piece The DJ who gave too much information. While my Ladybird Guide to Not Being a Twit While Playing Records at a Social Gathering* tells me to coordinate my tracks, check my LPs for scratches beforehand, respond to the audience, keep anecdotes interesting, hide my jetlag and reveal my smile, these three sullen performers have decided to rip up the playlist and do it their own way.

Despite the anarchist spirit, it’s all very awkward. With some of Birmingham’s finest community caterers based at the other side of the hall, curating a rival experience made up of spicy hot meals, beer and coconut and ginger cake, The DJ who gave too much information has a hard time drawing in its audience – and those of us that have committed to the show have to watch Jacob Wren plead other folks to come down. After more technical hiccups and plenty of disgruntled wincing as the performers’ words are met with shrill cries of electrical feedback, the three off-centre DJs take it in turns to chose a record, accompanying each decision with a short fact about the track. When each speech is done, the speaker solemnly joins his or her co-performers on the front row. Little interaction is made between the group or with the audience, and it feels like that awkward part of a house party where everyone has passed out except the guy with the premium Spotify membership.

A far cry from the promise of the title, the musical insights are short, frugally delivered and – hammering yet another nail in the coffin of spontaneous interaction – often drawn from PostIt notes. There are hints at personality here – PJ Harvey’s 2011 record Let England Shake is vaguely associated with a UK Visa application, and Jacob Wren uncovers a gem of gentle irony in track one of Cate le Bon’s 2013 album Mug Museum, recalling a moment when he turned to the record for a sign of hope, only to hear the Welsh singer-songwriter taunt the repeated mantra, “I can’t help you”.

Occasionally, The DJ who gave too much information dances on the borderline between the profound and the bland, before sadly teetering firmly into the latter camp. Marie Claire Forté illuminates a promising yet poorly excavated glimmer of philosophy as she contemplates a Diane Dufresne album, relating how her parents met at the Quebecois artist’s gig in a tiny town that was alien to them both. Ideas of chance and fate float loosely through this moment, but you’ll have to work hard to catch them. At other points, it seems that no justification or recollection is available: “I love this song because it’s my favourite Quebecois song ever”, one of the performers chimes. Next weekend, I’m sticking to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service.

* Publication not yet recognised by British Library

So, after a day spent in the city of my misspent youth, I leave with a few album recommendations, a handful of facts about a TV personality whose fame rots into notoriety on the other side of the pond, and half a Coconut and Ginger Burst. Despite all of its hyper-locality, Fierce gives me an experience that leaves me feeling more at a distance to my old city and, for all its promise of collision, dished up an experience about as mild as a Cow & Gate balti.

Fierce Festival took place in Birmingham between 7th – 11th October 2015. For more information visit the Fierce website.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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