Features Published 1 November 2018

Tempting Failure

Earlier this year, Croydon's biannual performance art festival became the centre of a firestorm of right-wing media hostility. Here, its artistic director Thomas John Bacon writes on what sparked the flames.
Thomas John Bacon

Pablo Pakula, who performed as part of Tempting Failure 2018. Photo: Julia Bauer

When I started writing this article, I became fascinated with the metaphor of the fire as a way to understand how controversies over the arts spark into life. What are the elements that cause them to ignite, and are such reactions an indication of something far more concerning; the growing tendency for fascist views to exist in the zeitgeist of our society? The media do not provide the oxygen for a fire, but they do provide fuel to an agenda that flames against difference. Earlier this year, the performance artists featured in the line-up of the seventh year of the Tempting Failure festival became the focal point of two obscure right-wing blogs. So it was no surprise when the outrage both of mainstream outlets including the Evening Standard, Metro and Private Eye, and that of local Conservative Counsellors quickly followed, using misinformation and sensationalist language to criticise the legitimacy of Queer and Gay artistry.

This is nothing new. Performance art has always held the potential to offend; it shakes, breaks, and challenges normative societal rules, cultures and containments. From DADA, to the Viennese Aktionists, to the happenings of the 60’s and 70’s, this conversation rises to the forefront, particularly during times of political tension or unease. In the 1990’s Ron Athey, Karen Finley and Holly Hughes found themselves at the forefront of the “culture wars” over the funding allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in America. Though Athey had never applied for NEA funds, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Senator Jesse Helms used hysteria to misreport the actions of Athey as means to reduce the NEA, with Helms as going as far as describing Athey as a “cockroach” on the Senate floor. This was fuelled at the time by front page coverage in the Star Tribune (among others), a fact that ironically goes without questioning in a historically reflective article from the same publication’s website in 2015. However, what is interesting is that in 2018 the “controversy” my festival created was in programming work that sought to question the liminal boundaries of queer and gay bodies.

I started Tempting Failure in 2012, born out of a desire to support my fellow artists with an opportunity to show their practice. It quickly grew beyond that, finding audiences and artists who celebrated a space that gave them the opportunity to take risks with their practice that other outlets could not: where failure was acceptable. After becoming a feature in Bristol and London calendars over the years, for 2018, we decided to take the majority of the project to South London’s largest borough, Croydon – my home town. I wanted to support its burgeoning grassroots art scene, which had been devastated by cuts when David Cameron’s government came to power. I felt by bringing a festival with an international following into a borough that is attempting to reinvent itself, Tempting Failure would shine a light on a variety of new venues, while breathing life into some of the older forgotten spaces in the town centre, and enriching the arts community with new voices from the world of live art. Enthused by a test run of sellout events we produced in the borough during the 2016 festival, it seemed like the logical next step. For 2018, we hosted 80 artists from 20 different countries, over a two week festival. This festival was just a small part of a wider 8 month programme that featured outreach, education, access and professional development initiatives through performance art and experimental sound art across London. For the first time in our seven years, we were truly taking on the mantle our  London’s Biennial of International Performance Art.

So what went wrong? Well, firstly we need to turn our attention away from the arts world and consider the political one we are currently existing in. Far-right parties are growing in strength in Europe, Trump’s America has confirmed Brett Kavanaugh into their Supreme Court, and in the UK, we are restricting our borders through BREXIT, have become one of the most heavily-under-surveillance countries in the West, and will soon be employing a national firewall to restrict legally made pornography. Elsewhere in the world, dictatorships continue to rise, most recently with the election of fascist leader, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. These political voices provide the oxygen in our metaphorical fire, and in reciprocity with the fuel provided by mass-media, they feed one another’s agendas to sell themselves to the people. They drive mass resentment in the public conscious and that is where we find the inevitable Othering of free thinkers, artists, the disabled, the foreign, academics, the non-binary, the fluidly-gendered, the ill, and the homeless: anyone on the edge of acceptable normativity.

Dave Phillips’ performance at Tempting Failure 2018. Photo: Julia Bauer

Tempting Failure in 2018 drew in £48,000 of public funding, £38,000 from the Arts Council England (ACE) and £10,000 from Croydon Council’s Cultural Partnership initiative. All of the work we produce should be scrutinised and open to artistic debate or critique. But the arrogant contention that become the crusade for our attackers was that the artwork of our artists wasn’t suitable to be supported by public funds in the first place. A local counsellor even went so far as to say it failed his personal ‘decency test.’ As the coverage grew, the loci became the performances of Joseph Ravens – a gay artist from Chicago – and Arianna Ferrari – a queer artist from Italy. The discussion of them both was sensationalist, often relying on misreported information and the cheap gratifying thrill of objectifying headlines. However, the final element of our fire metaphor wasn’t to be found in these articles but below them in the comments sections. Here, often shockingly abusive and degrading comments were to be found from readers of these newspapers and blogs as homosexuality, queerness, the assumed politics of the festival, our mental health and even liberality were Othered.

The fire had been lit.

In 2015, Lois Keidan – director of the UK’s Live Art Development Agency (LADA) – wrote an article for The Guardian about how the underground arts scene was now just a click away from the easily offended. As well as highlighting some of the more ridiculous outrages LADA had experienced, Keidan makes reference to ACE’s 10 year strategy to bring ‘Great art and culture for everyone.’

“The promise of great art for everyone doesn’t mean that everyone has to see everything. It means that if you do want to see something funded by the public purse, you are entitled to do so. But increasingly it seems that we all have different understandings of what entitlement means. There are those who expect that whatever alternative cultures they encounter through social media must comply with their own aesthetic or moral framework. They feel entitled, not just to enter spaces and places where they do not necessarily belong, but also to demand censure and closure if they don’t like what they find there. We’ve all made mistakes and gone to see things we didn’t like, but I can’t remember ever writing to the London International Mime Festival to demand “no more mime”.”

Yet herein lies the problem. I honestly feel that anyone should come to Tempting Failure to experience performance art, whether it’s for the first time or the 1000th time. Especially under a moniker of a London Biennial, I wanted to encourage this; I do not want to be as guilty of Othering potential audience members, as the right wing media Others us. We do a lot, as a small artist-run non-profit, to work on outreach initiatives and strategies for growing our accessibility and we welcome our public funding requirements to do so. But Keidan was right, in that you’re an audience member who comes simply looking to be offended, then you will find offence anywhere. Decency and the indecent are subjective. I have taught in institutions where musical theatre courses sexualise teenagers through costumed chorus lines, and have found that far more offensive than the carefully constructed artworks of body artists.

So when the press including The Sun, The Metro, Evening Standard and even Private Eye have all managed to misreport and fuel the heated outrage of their readerships over what can be classified as art, and whether public funds should allow Tempting Failure to host it, one is left questioning to what extent the zeitgeist is being co-opted. The Conservative Woman was the first of the right-wing blogs to strike out against Tempting Failure, while yet finding time to describe ACE as “smarmed-down socialism.” Their article conflates what the festival produces and the entirety of what ACE supports as “…pushing the new religion of the Leftish middle classes, an admixture of political correctness, diversity, eco-activism, pluralism and multiculturalism.”

When we start to destroy the freedom of artists and to deny the representation of sub-cultural groups in the arts, we should consider this the first signs of something far worse ahead.

In 2018, we are encountering a decline in the support of arts education, while Michael Gove’s legacy brings an increase in rote learning. The arts are the philosophy of a creative mind. They speak of unknowns, of discoveries, and question the hegemonies of cultural assumption and construction. Hopefully it isn’t too late to change from the path we appear to be heading down. If it isn’t, Tempting Failure will return to the underground and resist, but hopefully will always remain a home for survivors.

When I curated the festival this year, I wrote an article that was meant to represent the mix of artists who had responded to the provocation of fractured bodies. I spoke of how I had hoped the festival would become a place of conservation, somewhere for all views and voices to feel represented. To some extent, this has happened. My only hope was that this would be about the artists’ lines of enquiries, yet the response that has emerged perhaps needed to happen. The festival needed to reflect the broken times we are living in. When I said of TF18 that I wanted to, ‘Find hope in the desperate and fractured,’ I couldn’t have known just how important this would become.

For more on Tempting Failure, visit http://www.temptingfailure.com

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Thomas John Bacon

Dr Thomas John Bacon is artistic director of Tempting Failure.

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