Features Performance Published 9 December 2014

Theatre of Risk

FK Alexander is a live artist who performed Clean Time 276 at this year's Tempting Failure, the annual festival of performance art in Bristol. Here she reflects on this year's programme and explores the relationship between risk and performance.
FK Alexander

Tempting Failure is perhaps wrongly billed as a ‘festival’. The word festival conjures images of world music and warm beer. While there was indeed music and a bar, rarely have I seen a gathering of people so entirely dedicated to placing themselves at personal and collective risk through art in the hope of some kind of shared transformative experience as I did at Tempting Failure. But the word festival also implies a celebration, an event, an immersion, and so in that sense, it is an apt description. A dark and overwhelming celebration of risk, limits, experiments and tireless devotion to art by artists and supporters.

It can be the case with larger scale festivals that the artistic director and production team are people that are remote, walking hurriedly, and even unmet by some artists. Not so here. Having arrived early in the week to take part in two of three free workshops (free!) I felt a tangible sense of community by the time the festival kicked off on the Friday evening. This sense of familiarity and care came from the team themselves, led by Artistic Director Thomas John Bacon, and that energy snowballed around The Island – the old police station now performance site.

This community feeling was evident in the use of local independent caterers, Live Art Development Agency taking up residency to turn nearby haunt The Birdcage in to a social space as a Study Café, the free performances in the days leading up to the main event and the two mornings of Artist Panel talks. By the time the doors opened on the first evening the festival was already definitely in full swing.

As I was performing on the first night I was unable to see anything – my piece was over 3.5 hours long – apart from the charming and legendary Joke Lanz. Known for his years of service to experimental music and performances with the band Sudden Infant, Berlin based Lanz showed a new work ‘Love Bites Love’ which saw him in a manic repetitive loop of toe sucking, microphone head butting, and whistling – pushing onlookers to have their patience tested by the expectations of a man approaching a mic again and again with dada humor and an tickling childlike mischief, at once endearing and nerve wracking.

I kicked myself for missing Hellen Burrough and Phillip Bedwell in particular – having seen the clean up of blood I knew I had missed something of a moment, and having seen Hellen the previous week at Spill festival I knew she brought an elegance, restraint and poise to an extreme body practice – I saw her lie on a bed of shards of glass like she was sleeping beauty in a broken coffin – and so I have no doubt the work she shared with her husband would have shown a similar tenderness and grace amid chains hooked through faces.

The next night I was able to fall in to the rabbit-hole of the night, exploring the space with its nooks and crannies without the distraction of my own performance.

The full span on the old police station was used – the outside bar and social space, the upstairs gallery room, the stairwell, the individual cells, the main space, even behind walls with cutout sections- every possible space contained someone doing something, without begging for attention. This is a feeling I had throughout much of the night; in part to do with programming, timing and spacing, as much as with the artists themselves – the feeling of vying for attention was not a sensation I noticed. Every artist was granted their time and space; I did not feel rushed through work or that there were frequent time clashes meaning missing performances. Everything was allowed, every artist was permitted to do what they came to do, in some instances perhaps not knowing in advance how long an action might last for (as was the case with my own piece).

The night had a natural flow. It felt easy to turn to someone and ask what they had been seeing, what was happening next. For a night featuring a gang of people smashing up instruments with hammers in a strobe lit room, Gillian Jane Lees, stark and simple in a hand made paper dress engrossed in a captivating, hypnotic discipline of transferring ink by the spoonful over hours to Rachel Parry’s uncomfortable yet bravely vulnerable show featuring her hitting her face with a solid dildo, the night had a relaxed and dare I say fun atmosphere. The one to ones in the cell rooms were perhaps the most tricky to navigate in terms of timing. Katy Baird’s remote one on one via skype was one I caught – the charming, savvy, boisterous Katy offered herself to voyeuristic demands in a layered piece exploring web cam sex work.

Thomas John Bacon with Lee Chaos (UK) - The Lived Body: REDUX Photo by Tilly May.

Thomas John Bacon with Lee Chaos (UK) – The Lived Body: REDUX Photo by Tilly May.

But with over 50 artists, how could one ever see everything? The risk for someone coming to this festival is that there are things to discover and things to miss out on – but the trick might be to engage fully with that flow and let the festival happen to you rather than trying to force a preconceived notion on to it – I believe this is the offer on the table at least.

Any atmosphere of ‘fun’ was suspended during the final two pieces. As the space was set for Thomas John Bacon, the weather of the crowd grew darker and more focused. A rework of a previous piece, the tension rose as the lights went out and his body was led in to place, face covered in ribbon, his body somehow wired to a desk and a sound operator. To see a man cut his face is perhaps a final taboo: ‘’a man who would mutilate himself is well damned isn’t he?’’ asked Rimbaud – but the result in this work is quite the opposite of damnation. There is a kind of liberation; personal catharses in seeing someone drenched in so much blood. It is a rare piece to be at once distressing and shocking, overwhelming and stunning.

Yet so too was the final performance by Kali Rose in An hour long ‘Ritual For Love’ Blinded from the first full body submersion in a large vat of oil she felt and groped her way to another vat of water. Climbing in, sinking, re-emerging from one fluid to repeat with the other to a low yet powerful constant drone, she took the whole room with her with every step – beautiful moments when someone took her hand to guide her back to the direction of the vats when she veered off centre in her blindness. A tender and courageous act, simple, dangerous and heartbreaking. A fitting end to a ‘festival.’

What a thing it is to see that many people – many more I could mention – with so much power, vulnerability – unique and wild. I left galvanised and energised from seeing people doing all kinds of things to try to connect with one another, to attempt to offer empathy, other ways of being, of experiencing the world. Tempting Failure houses the sheer effort – emotional, physical, and spiritual – it takes to offer strange, curious and beautiful displays of love and being to each other.

Main image: Joke Lanz (CH/DE) – LOVE BITE/S LOVE – Photo by Roser Diaz

Diana Damian and Thomas John Bacon in conversation.

Exeunt on Tempting Failure 2013

Exeunt on Tempting Failure 2012

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