Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 10 November 2014

Tempting Failure

The live art festival Tempting Failure was conceived by Thomas John Bacon back in 2011, as the practical element of his PhD at University of Bristol. It is a festival of body art and explores questions of transgression and - as the name suggests - failure.
Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin: Let’s start with failure: what is it? What is it in the context of performance? 

Thomas John Bacon: Failure is an intrinsic part of life.  Yet for the most part it is not something we care to celebrate or embrace.  To use it as a sole mode of delivery is problematic as you can’t force failure, and if you do it becomes contrived.

Contrivance in performance is everything that Tempting Failure is asking artists to work against. Failure however is not vital, but the dance with it should be; the risk of it manifesting therefore is to be embraced.  So when & if it happens, artists should not feel ashamed but celebrate that they were given the chance to go there.  Beyond there, wherever ‘there’ may be for them personally, and perhaps in so doing, they may create something wonderful, or perhaps challenge a convention, socially or artistically.

DDM: Is risk a fundamental aspect of failure? 

TJB: Risk, in the context that I speak of failure, is fundamental. But as I touched upon, risk can not be universal: it is personal.  Herein we curate a rich and ever growing distinct pallet of responses from artists.  For some risk comes from personal history, others in the broader context of social challenge.  But it is those who take a career key change or directional shift that I am most proud of supporting through our events.  Artists who have felt at the end of the road or wanting to break away from preconceived notions of themselves or what they do.  We even allow the re-contextualisation of work through changes in the curation of presentation, where by perhaps a piece, once failed or was misunderstood is allowed to be born again.  We give artists a chance to own the itch that they couldn’t scratch until Tempting Failure.

DDM: Has there been any resistance to the development of the festival?

TJB: I think any new platform or festival will encounter resistance of one form or another.  As the landscape shifts around us, so we find our place.  We are in our third active year; having evolved and changed in every reiteration of the platform.  Most sensible critics would recognise this evolution.  We certainly find strength in our ability to professionally programme work that others may not due to its nature.  While we also endeavour to resist cycles of reprogramming by throwing the net of engagement as wide as we can, not only across the career spectrum but geographically as well.

DDM: What does it imply, curating failure? What are some of the strategies deployed?

TJB: As I commented upon in a recent interview with Theatre Bristol, attempting to programme an event that would seemingly imply ‘anything goes’ isn’t what Tempting Failure is.  Our intent is to open dialogues around specific concerns that, highlighted above, are specific to the individual artists.  We employed an application process to ascertain how specific enquiries not only responded to our values but expressed an artistic strategy to engage with ideas of risk, failure or perhaps transgression.  Where a large portion of artists may simply have felt that to be present in front of an audience is enough of a potential risk in itself, we were looking for lateral approaches to the inherent problems in these key words or enquiries. And where some artists may look at failure as simply something more haphazard, we in turn are looking for artists who understand that a sense of artistic practice is vital.  We are not looking for answers or successes as such, but rather use this process to share new perspectives.

Tempting Failure.

Tempting Failure.

DDM: Tell us more about the title of the festival  – what is the temptation and how has this desire to engage with notions of failure developed across the different iterations of the festival?

TJB: In the first year the festival, born out of my PhD, it gave a home to body artists that I felt resonated with my phenomenological research interests, directly on indirectly.  The idea then was to bring together young practitioners who found it hard to have their work shown or supported.  In the second year we expanded to include a slightly wider field of artists further into their career.  We asked works to respond to a manifesto and I was interested in curating from the fields of both live art & noise art.

The festival in this edition also sought to curate works that had failed before they’d even begun, by asking artists to share their rejected applications with us from other major festivals.  The event that year was a 10 hour immersion where by audiences were given a map and invited to tempt failure by curating their own experience.  This was also supported by a second day of talks.  In our current third year, we have expanded and simplified our brief.  Giving a clear ethos around three key words of transgression, risk and failure and seeking responses from artists across the career spectrum from the fields of live art, noise art and performance art.  We are also offering a mentoring programme for five young artists, free talks, free master classes and free performances alongside a paid two night event.  Where, bar some one-on-one experiences, audiences should be able to see all 50 artists.

DDM: What is the relationship Tempting Failure has with Bristol, and the regional live arts community?

TJB: Wider community engagement is an intrinsic part of Tempting Failure.  We support local business directly in our relationships with them; our event, that brings an audience to us, brings customers to our local partners.  We also this year have a free programme of talks, performances and workshops, set up to directly engage with an audience that may not typically look to encounter the live art landscape.  Indeed this year we bring the festival to six venues across the city, from as distinct communities as working with the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and the Bear Pit Regeneration Commity through to our LADA Study Cafe in the The Birdcage Cafe.

DDM: This year the festival features artists like William Slater and Tom Marshman, workshops on intimacy and the return of the Live Art Study Café, but also a range of panel talks on risk, the body and duration, among other subjects. What are some of the curatorial themes running through the festival this year?  

TJB: As highlighted we have the three key themes/provocations of risk, transgression and failure.  But because we seek to unpack them from the personal perspective of the individual artists, it would be ignorant to label their work simply in this way and not consider the wider context and history around them.  Indeed if one were to just look at these words as the equivalent of turning the volume up to 11, then you would miss the point entirely and the subtlety of the lateral approach would be lost.  This is where the Study Cafe also comes alive again as the archival categories here resonant with the wider content of the artworks in the festival and were curated specifically to reflect the diversity of the 50 artists we host this year.

DDM: You speak about the Tempting Failure family as a growing community- in what ways is this an important aspect of the festival and its work?

TJB: We are an artist led initiative.  We are all practitioners in our own right and so we understand the importance of differentiation to the needs of every artist we work with but equally we value them all no matter where they are in their career.  There is no filler and we never want any one artist to feel that way; we celebrate them all and where possible, through network and legacy, hope to connect them with each other, while also taking an interest in what they continue to do after the event.  We work over an eight month period to bring a six day event to life.  During this time, through high professional standards, we help artists from all backgrounds to bring the work to TF.  From the obvious facilitation of productions, right though our to extensive protocols that mean even the ‘riskiest’ idea (with enough time) can come to fruition where possibly others wouldn’t allow that to happen.  I personally am very proud of our team; we are tiny, we do the majority of this for free and it is this consistency that has allowed us to get to this level in effectively three events.

Tempting Failure takes place in Bristol between 3rd and 8th November. For more information visit the TF website. 

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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