We’re squeezed into a canal boat somewhere near Queen Elizabeth Park, talking about why art should be free. As I manfully struggle on with the business of asking questions, an increasingly flamboyant succession of sights flit through my peripheral vision: a man carrying what looks like a portrait of Amy Winehouse, two warring moorhens, three people balancing on a tandem in bright sportswear.
Even if he can’t take the credit for these sights, Andy Field has a talent for attracting magical, colourful experiences into his midst: in role as co-director of the Forest Fringe with Ira Brand and Deborah Pearson, he can be seen running round the Drill Hall marshalling them into the programme’s two week programme of live art.
A day at the Forest Fringe is a lucky dip into an unpredictable mix of work that ranges from Vincent Gambini’s deconstructed This Is Not A Magic Show, to Little Bulb’s whale-watching musical Wail, to a promenade show about mining Black Stuff, and Verity Standen’s “immersive choral sound bath” Hug. But it’s not a financial risk, thanks to the venue’s policy of free tickets, with a bucket shaken afterwards.
Andrew Haydon brilliantly put it recently, the Edinburgh Fringe is the single largest expression of faith in the free market that theatre has (possibly in the world). A ferment of discussion about the economic conditions which artists are making work in culminated in Lyn Gardner’s thorough investigation into the costs of taking a show to Edinburgh. Even the briefest of glances into the finances of the Fringe results in the same sense of chilling vertigo that comes from checking your recent bank transactions after too many drinks. But Forest Fringe has crowdfunded its way into a free programme that contains art it’s hard to imagine experiencing any other way: one-on-one performances like Sharron Devine’s would become pressured and strange is you paid in advance for her and the venue’s time.
Field tells me that “I’m less interested in a ‘pay what you can’ model than in the idea of performance being free, and finding alternative modes of supporting artists and events.” He’s been touring Forest Fringe internationally, including to the Fusebox Festival in Austin, Texas: “we took Bryony Kimmings, Kieran Hurley and Action Hero there and it was great. A couple of years ago the artistic director Ron Berry decided to turn it into a completely free festival: he called it a free range festival. He was able to do that because he already had a lot of funding in place from various sources, and he made up the shortfall through crowdfunding which he got as a consequence of doing this revolutionary thing. And it’s been a huge success: they increased first time attendance by 90%.”
It’s hard to work out if this model is sustainable enough to become a global movement. Field freely admits that “towards the beginning of the festival you’d have smaller donations because it was students and art hipsters and young professional artists, then as word of mouth grew and we got more mainstream coverage the audiences would grow in size with people chucking fives and tens into the pot.” But the he adds that “we’ve learnt to say that the shows are free and we’re asking for donations to support the artists. It may feel like splitting hairs but the nuance of that is important, as it makes that act of generosity far more meaningful and also draws attention to the fact that artists need to make a living to survive. We’re not asking you how much this show is worth because most of the time people’s guesses are way off, we’d be talking fifty quid, but we need to recognise that you have to support artists to make good work.”
This artist-focused approach also governs the length of the Forest Fringe, and its structure. It’s no secret that a month of sleeping on sofas or under kitchen tables, pressing flyers into the hands of strangers and working your way through every flavour of Piemaker pasty isn’t the most creatively edifying way to work for all but the most embittered stand-ups in need of a new gripe a night. Field explains that “Clearly money is not the major factor in why artists come to the Fringe. If people break even they’re happy. They want exposure, to get future better paying gigs, to meet other artists, to have fun: less tangible benefits. So we’re constantly engaged in questioning how much time can you spend in Edinburgh and achieve all that before you’ve bankrupted yourself.” This year’s answer is: a week.
Forest Fringe’s fortnight is split into two seven day long programmes, and Field is hoping that both audiences and critics will be persuaded to double-dip into Leith’s Drill Hall of delights. Each has the gentlest whisper of a theme. The first, “quieter”, week is populated by artists who are “in some way taking as their subject as some other medium. Vincent Gambini is a live art show that takes magic as its medium. Eggs Collective’s Late Night Love is basically a radio show. And Nick Field’s piece is about the ball scene, so in the piece he’s going to attempt to remember how to vogue.”
And the second week includes work, like Action Hero, that is “using the conventions of the end on space to look at the act of looking, and how that act constructs its subject.” It’s theatre, as a site-specific performance. And in the case of Forced Entertainment, one that sprawls out beyond the limited conventions we impose on Fringe work.
Free art should be an easy sell: but time becomes something worse than money at Edinburgh. It becomes potential, with every hour opening up into a gaping window of opportunity that could frame the best performance of your life, the most magical encounter, your only chance to meet up with an acquaintance who you’d never see back home. Field told me that one of the programme’s aims this year is “resisting the matrixification of Edinburgh, or the brutal way in which time is divided up there. There are really stringent limits people place on the amount of time, of focus, that they deign to give to any one artist, and it just feels so limiting, so constraining, to completely ignore the possibility of time as a factor in the experience of a work.”
Where venues and attendees alike divide their days into palatable one hour mouthfuls, Field explains that “Forest is unique because we don’t need to cram shows in: whether we have five shows or one show in that slot we’re not making any money. But it’s very hard to shake people out of that convention of one hour shows. So what we thought is that it needs to be something that will be so big, that the name alone will shake people out of their complacency. So we’ve got two days of Tim Etchells doing Quizoola, and this new durational performance he’s developing with this amazing violinist. Because if people won’t take a day out of their Edinburgh schedule to come and see Forced Entertainment, then they’re not going to take a day out of their schedule to see anything.”
The programme’s expansiveness applies in more ways than one. Its tables aren’t covered in a deep litter of flyers, there aren’t posters figuratively and people literally screaming for your attention, there’s stuff that’s just there — that’s not a decoy to trick you into some kind of cultural/economic exchange. Field finds this peaceful atmosphere “really nice, because it’s slightly further out of town, because there’s not the economic imperative to cram it full of expensive bars and advertising for other shows, and turn that big Drill Hall into seven other performance spaces: the luxury of space does make it feel dramatically different to other venues. And we do try and make the most of that, by having impromptu discussions and talks.”
These include hosting The Sick of The Fringe, which will hold open meetings between artists to talk about medicine and health and science in their work. But just as Londoners escape to the green lung for a bit of fresh air, Forest Fringe in Edinbugh is a health-giving creative lung of its own: room to breathe a slightly less polluted air.
Forest Fringe runs until the 30th August: you can see the full programme of artists here. Although many performances are fully booked, there are day tickets and returns available if you turn up in person.