Earlier in the Fringe I was contacted by Lousie Ahl, a Swedish born, Glasgow-based performance artist to participate as the ‘voice of the critic’ in her show Intercourse at the pop up Hunt and Darton Cafe. Starting life as a research project with critic Gareth Vile, Intercourse, performed by Ahl’s ego Ultimate Dancer, is collection of artfully performed provocations, looking at the relationship between critic, artist and audience and the fluidity between the perceived barriers between these. By focusing on the voice of each we explore how they speak, what they can say and how freely the conversation flows.
As a participant in two shows, I heard Ahl’s performance before I saw it. Sitting backstage beside the disabled loo I was able to only catch glimpses of the audience’s expressions through the gaps in the black curtains. I made a story in my head to accompany the noises I heard: the echoes and stamping feet, the ticking metronome and vocal gymnastics flipping from pleasure to pain to trauma and back again.
And then, all of a sudden, it was my turn. My role was to discuss for a full five minutes my interpretation of the voice of the critic. I was given a platform to express this as I wished. I was timed. The conscious lining up of art and criticism felt bold and raw, making me self conscious, and prompting a list of questions: how can one convincingly analyse an experience? How can we vocalise even basically, even internally how something effects us, what it really means, let alone put it into print, make it permanent? The art of criticism can seem like a wrestling match where a shifting, engaging dramatic moment is shoe-horned too comfortably into an article, and then closed off from further discussion. Sometimes the desire to write something neat and contained overshadows the reality of a piece which is far less tangible. Does the writing of criticism signify the performance is over? Or does the nature of performance art render such responses in some way impotent.
In my five minutes, battling nerves, I moved onto my individual problems with the voice of the critic in Edinburgh: the star ratings, lanyard envy and the co-dependency and sense of desperation on both sides. I gabbled and turned red and empathised with performers, and ultimately gained an insight into how art is absorbed, repackaged and then shuttled back to the performer studded with stars but often not fully engaged with.
I was able to watch the second performance squeezed in as lines of audience members sat on the floor. This was Intercourse writ large, sprawling across one –sided dialogues and shoving the artists’ words in the mouths of audience members. Reliant on subtext I felt encouraged once more to weave my own stories around the event. At points I noticed people on the street, watching the performance through the window: the audience as voyeur.
Intercourse is a challenging show, and due to my ignorance of performance-art, my main concern was a fear of ‘not getting it’. While often funny and extremely watchable there remained a worry for me that the piece would leave me behind in a flurry of in-jokes or references. This seemed an appropriate topic for my five minute talk – drawing upon Ahl’s artful ability to flit between affection and alienation with the audience.
My experience of Intercourse threw up possibilities in regard to the voice of the critic, reminding me that sometimes for the fear of ‘not getting it’ the critic, in wishing to display what she knows can forget what she sees. Too often the result reads like a blunt and ultimately blind airing of ego rather than an engaged response to a performance in the here and now. Too often the voice of the critic becomes bogged down in the idea of what criticism should looks like or how it is negotiated within the web of PR and marketing, something which is especially true during the art-meat-market-madness of the Fringe. The fringe reviewer consumes shows like chicken nuggets and processes everything too quickly, too hungrily. If this is to change the voice of the critic should be allowed the same freedoms as the artist: the power and honesty to go with intuition as the primary resource for responding to art. They should forget about ‘not getting it’ with and reframe the conversation to focus on ‘this is what I got’.