Unfix Festival is artist, performer and curator Paul Michael Henry’s antidote to the usual Christmas shows in Glasgow. This year in particular it deals with our current concerns – how to rebuild and create post-Brexit and in the nascent Trump era. It is overtly political, occasionally playful, full of provocation, and audacious in its scope and ambition. Performance art, film and immersive sound and design are all drawn together through the common shared aesthetic of rebirth and identity.
Richard Ashrowan’s Five Angels and Adam Chodzko’s Deep Above (the latter commissioned by Invisible Dust in 2015) are experimental short films. The first is a brutal political satire on Tory (mis)rule which hammers home the disgust many feel at Britain’s choice to leave the European Union. The second fuses relaxation/hypnosis techniques with jarring imagery of mass destruction (melting polar ice caps, gentrification of cities) and pollution. The voiceover is deadpan and wry when asking wider questions of why we have a need for such a large carbon footprint, and why we are all complicit in global warming. “Who do you trust?” the voice asks, “Artists or scientists?”
This thread of human vulnerability is turned almost literally into flesh with London-based artist Hellen Burrough’s performance piece, Fragment, which sees Burrough discard a glamorous red evening dress and first delicately walk and then lie on top of a pile of broken glass. She gingerly scoops the shards into her hands whilst naked in the middle of the floor, drawing blood and bringing (literally) sharp focus to frailty. If it is uncomfortable to watch, then the smell of blood and disinfectant further compounds the squeamish nature of the work.
Another piece which turns the audience into voyeurs is the almost unbearably intimate Perpetual Prism performed by James Shearman and Rosie King. Packaged like butcher’s meat in plastic, yet naked underneath, the duo sit nose-to-nose in a confined space on the floor, never once losing focus of each other’s gaze. Methodically and tentatively, like mating animals or new lovers, they caress various parts of the other’s body, and dip both their hands into a small bowl of water. This act is performed as a repeated hypnotic gesture, until the plastic has all but disintegrated, leaving both completely exposed. With each movement small popping noises can be heard, as the space is mic’d up. It is both soporific and disturbing, evoking ritualistic anointing and sexual pleasure.
Glasgow artist Jamie Wardrop’s beautiful Rebirth Pool is an immersive soundscape and shifting graphic artwork, full of psychedelic shapes and ambient music. Participants can lie underneath and become wrapped around the work, or just walk around it and enjoy it purely as an art installation. It invites comparisons with MRI scanners, or chill-out spaces in nightclubs from the early days of rave culture. It is soothing and trippy, all infused with the bubbling, fragmented organic imagery akin to Future Sound of London and Orbital.
Meanwhile Craig Manson’s SELKIE is more influenced by the performance art of Ann Liv Young and the drag culture of Divine, both of whom provocatively performed in paddling pools with real fish, and the folk tales of Scottish Selkies, human on land and seal when slipping into the sea. Here, his glam assistants, clad in deep sea diving outfits, feed him fish as the naked, glittering prone form of Manson, with both feet tied up, draws a link between artist as performing seal, and the cruelty of animals trained to entertain audiences at Sea World.
There are also kitsch ‘clap your hands, sway to the side and wiggle’ routines to Whigfield’s Saturday Night and Katy Perry’s Firework. Manson is chubby, cute and childlike, giggling and performing tricks with a cheeky smile and a lot of charisma, but this belies the cruelty at the heart of the act. The piece is at its strongest when it becomes absolutely vicious. “Speak, Selkie! Roll over! Faster!” scream the increasingly frenzied women, as he struggles to roll over and splash in the pool as and when required, having battered his body flailing on the floor and violently getting in and out of the pool. He almost gags when force-fed biscuits; is almost broken by catching a red ball on his nose. Well, after all, the audience demanded it. Didn’t they?
For more information on Unfix: Rebirth, click here.