Reviews GlasgowNational Published 12 June 2021

Review: BUZZCUT Festival (online)

3-5 June

Digital ritual: Naomi Obeng writes on a cornucopia of offerings from Glasgow’s DIY live art festival.

Naomi Obeng
Symoné in Utopian as part of BUZZCUT. Photo: Gerald Jenkins

Symoné in Utopian as part of BUZZCUT. Photo: Gerald Jenkins

Hello Glasgow

The festival creeps up on me. There’s something about the endlessness of time these days. Slow when you experience it, yet surprising when you realise how fast it’s gone. I’m excited to enter a new world of live art and performance beamed and streamed from Glasgow. BUZZCUT feels like a different planet. Coming at the end of Take Me Somewhere festival, it provides a three-day offering of experiments in live performance.

I attend the festival alone, on my laptop, as you do. The website, with its sharp black and yellow colour-scheme, is the festival hub. Consider this a digital walkthrough of a (largely) digital festival then. Have you drunk enough water? Have you set aside some time to read this through uninterrupted? Nah don’t worry you can be scrolling Twitter at the same time. Do whatever. Read it backwards. No rules. Ready? Cool. Let’s begin.

DAY 1

My first port of call is Utopian (online), a click-through game by queer movement and performance artist Symoné. Having recently got back into games I’m excited to log into the itch.io page. I click play and: Error! Oh no! Nothing more authentic than googling error messages and searching forums before I can get playing. I’m soon back aboard.

Coloured beads shaped like hearts and stars snake and float round the outside of the home screen, like the plastic bracelet I had in primary school. I can almost feel its glossy contours as the digital facsimile wobbles. “This game may or may not contain autobiographical references”, the text reads. The narrative game, exploring how one might come to lead or join a cult, is intercut with visuals of Symoné — in stiletto roller-skates with lit-up wheels, for example.

The game asks me if I am a leader. Yes. Am I really? Maybe not…? For a moment I hope that being honest, even in an anonymous game, is something you can form a cult around. The world would be a lot less deranged. Or maybe I’m already thinking like a cult leader, which is worrying… While Symoné moves in the video, I decide what to start my cult about. Then the words “I was so tired of being human and I was so desperate to let myself be manipulated” appear and somehow my thoughtful self has got me joining a cult and dissolving into a sea of flowers instead.

I play again, this time as the opposite of myself. I have unwavering self-confidence and suddenly I’ve unlocked the rest of the central ceremony, which, after the rollerskating, involves psychedelics, and now I’m sitting in my private quarters writing dad jokes for my new congregation. Sick. So, it is more fun on this side of things. The glitchy music adds to the enjoyable experience of snaking through the game. We all want to be loved, but we go about it in different ways. And some go about it in no ways at all. I wonder which we might be most worried about.

Next, two dance pieces take me by surprise. Space: Liminal Being by Paix is a video performance experiment, lush visual overlays create a cryptic, spiritual mood as the three performers move among white drapes. It’s a mash up with shades of greek mythology – weird sisters in Hellenistic garb. The music (PAIX & Zazim) is entrancing, soft and mellifluous with an edge of the strange. It’s ritualistic – a mode of performance that’s well- represented throughout the festival. One performer puts on a mesh bull’s head and the ritual is complete. My trying-to-work-out-what-it-means brain is happily bypassed.

Grief Dances by Claudia Edwards.

Grief Dances by Claudia Edwards. Videographers: Tram Nghiem and Tiu Makkonen.

All the pieces that form Buzzcut are relatively short and Grief Dances by Claudia Edwards is one of the longest videos, at 20 minutes through. It’s also one I connect to the most. It’s part of an artistic exchange with The Rhubarb Festival in Toronto. The screen is split down the middle. Edwards is on the right, on a beach, and co-performer Jess Paris is on the left, on a city waterfront. The bodies of water behind them are perfectly aligned, a city river’s green-grey spliced next to a coastal blue. The organic sound — right ear is the windy beach, left ear is the sprawling city — soothes me. A trail of geese fly by. A train trails across, disappearing behind a building. I sink into the movement. Paris strikes poses, sweeping gestures and the ground. Edwards’ energy is precisely focused on joints; their repetitions stop at contortions. They weave their body into the air. With two performers in two spaces to watch at once, my attention-span, woefully depleted by (*gestures*) the entirety of everything, is satisfied. I cycle through emotions as their bodies repeat and break.

I’ll wonder throughout the festival whether watching people have an experience is less fun than watching people pretend to have an experience — whether watching people have an experience is more for them than it is for an audience. If reporting my experience is of value. But I am content watching Edwards hinge their body to a track I cannot hear.

Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir never tells us what her titular Hypothesis is. One of the smattering of live performances of the festival, we congregate on zoom. I didn’t realise I’d have to show my face for this one, I would have liked to know in advance. Still, the festival has, to my untrained eye, made itself very accessible – a simple system of initials marks how visual, auditory or text-heavy each piece of work is, there are subtitles on every video, and BSL and live captioning for the live bits. It’s an easily navigable and hugely accessible online festival experience. I spend the first 20 minutes of Hypothesis reasonably confused. Sigurdardottir asks us if we’re having a good time when so far all that has happened is her asking us if we’re having a good time. We’re asked to type into the chat box if we’re having a good time. I acquiesce. I wouldn’t normally, but I’ve had a relatively good day and it feels churlish not to. Then Gudrun hypothesises that we might be only saying we’re having a good time because we’ve been asked to. Well, yes. No one wants to be that awkward ungenerous person who doesn’t engage in the sprit of the show. It’s art and we’re here for an experience. I assume this will be some kind of meta-analysis of experience, a show in the shape of the show that doesn’t contain a show.

But it’s not quite that either. We turn our cameras on to show ourselves, or an object that represents ourselves, for as brief a moment as we’d like. As music plays, the zoom gallery screen flashes with faces, eyes, mugs, plates of dinner, animals. It’s quite beautiful. Something is shifting. We’re making zoom sing. When the call ends abruptly 45 mins in, it feels a little rude. Sigurdardottir cut off just as she was about to explain her hypothesis, fitting for a show that is about not being itself. I feel I might have been more invested in knowing what the hypothesis was if I understood what it was trying to be, though. Nevertheless, it was a warm space, generous, and I gained something from the experience even if I can’t quite stitch it together in my mind.

I don’t get on well with Celebration real life <3, a 360 degree video experience from performance artist Shrek 666, and the final evening show. We’re placed as an observer in a wild rural landscape. A rocky stream trickles in the foreground, the sound of the water fades in as Shrek 666, in white body paint and grotesque prosthetics with Shrek ears, is held in a white cross structure, his skin gradually pierced by a gimp (performed by N). The cultish and ritualistic feeling is strong. It feels ancient and primal. The lens warping makes things look bigger out of the corner of my digital eye. I use this to get a closer look at the ceremony. The phrase ‘This is some Dionysian shit’ rattles round my head as blood drips down Shrek 666’s legs and cheeks. I feel very frustrated. Held at arms’ length. Only able to see closely when the camera angle changes and only able to watch someone being pierced for reasons, despite the programme’s description, I don’t understand. I feel queasy. I imagine that’s the intention. But the performance’s thematic explorations (healing, the trans-masculine body, grief) hasn’t eked its way out toward me as a viewer. Still, I appreciate feeling compelled to read about monster theory to try to understand better what I was seeing.

Celebration real life <3 by Shrek 666. Photo: Tiu Makkonen.

Celebration real life <3 by Shrek 666. Photo: Tiu Makkonen.

DAY 2

This Scottish art offering is very international in a way that few English ones are. It makes me a bit sad for England, but happy to be experiencing a slice of it from home. Day 2 has a bit less going on. I probably should have paced myself instead of gobbling up most of the digital nuggets on Day 1.

There’s a lengthy list of Health Warnings before I dive into Ghost & John’s interactive website Meniscus Going Online 2.0. Which is great though it makes me seriously think about whether I am at risk of epilepsy (I’m not). There’s an undercurrent of care throughout this festival. Meniscus Going Online 2.0 is another click-through experience with several pathways, this time non-narrative. You move through picking images rather than words. My subconscious builds its own through-line and I find myself clicking on the options that have some sense of the outdoors. (Hmm. Wonder why that might be. I just want to inhale some new fresh air even if it’s imagined and through a screen, alright?)

I click on a thumbnail and am brought to a video of a person aggressively chopping fruit, reconfiguring the words “and I somehow knew that suddenly, that was it”, shaking them in a cupped palm like dice before a throw. Paired with the aggressive and uneven fruit- chopping, I think of a breakup or a betrayal. But the context could be anything. I like not having to know. It feels more comfortable than the alternatives. A highlight of the many short clips are several mirror dances. Performers in different spaces and countries hold manipulate and mirrors, moving with and against them.

I don’t necessarily understand the work as one about screen trauma, as the programme description says. I’m not even sure what screen trauma means. But the click-through experience holds me in its variety.

I reflect on how digital space and ritual populate this festival. Rituals used to be ways to make an unpredictable world fit comfortably inside our minds, so we could stroke the edges of meaning without fearing the unfathomable beyond. I understand live performance as an attempt to fathom it.

DAY 3

On Saturday I over-sleep. Accidentally on purpose. It’s the first week in a long time where I’ve felt like a person and got things done. So, equal and opposite reactions and all that. Jade Blackstock’s Mas begins outside the Glasgow Tramway. She walks down Glasgow streets while I peel mushrooms for lunch. Dressing all in white seems to be another theme of the festival. Though here she stops to paint her feet and calves in white too. The pedestrian crossing beeps but she doesn’t cross. I start composing this review in my head. In fact what you’re reading is what I am writing between peeling mushrooms and watching the livestream.

I read once that some people don’t trust reviewers who start writing before the show is over. But the truth is that a piece’s DNA is written all through it, and your early suspicions are often confirmed. If they’re not, that’s interesting in itself. The internet phrase ‘is this anything?’ springs to mind. Blackstock balances the tree branch she’s been carrying, now covered in dripping black paint, on her head. I think this is something. I think art is the thoughts you have. The black paint drips on her white clothes.

This is the first piece of Saturday’s epic livestream, hosted by duo Charles and Bry and BSL interpreted by Yvonne Strain and Anna Kitson. It’s mostly pre-filmed pieces with a couple of live ones, with DJ plantainchipps providing the interval music. Drag King Whiskey Chow’s short film A View From The Bottom is maybe one of the more humorous things at the festival, without that taking away from the clarity of its intention. The imagery of saturated blue sand shaped into a platonically ideal male torso, as Whiskey lies with indistinct piles of blue sand over her body. Whispers of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘boys don’t cry’, and a visually satisfying picture within a picture, involving blue pants and a small male figure tied up into a knot. It’s short and crystal clear.

I sink softly into some shows. For others, I can’t find a good position. I am drawn to those that have a clear question at their heart, despite my efforts to dig into the ones that feel disparate and ungraspable. Those I like best seem to have considered where the audience sits in all of this; what they are being offered.

Sabira Joy’s Kill the Cop Inside Your Head is sinuous and dark. Probably the most clearly political show, it grips me tight. Turning the questions Are You Sure? Do you Remember? Do you Trust your own mind? back against the police who use it to gaslight. It’s tense and it’s powerful. I probably find it such because it uses a vocabulary that feels familiar.

Like Charles and Bry, who’ve been energetic and entertaining hosts, I’m quite exhausted by the end of the livestream. I don’t drag myself across the floor like them though. I just close my laptop and open my eyes to the daylight.

Mouthful of Salt and Soil by Jo Tyabji.

Mouthful of Salt and Soil by Jo Tyabji.

Because I kept forgetting to go outside, my final act of Buzzcut 2021 is to take Jo Tyabji’s Mouthful of Salt and Soil audio piece on a walk with me, as the instructions request. I think I’m expecting some easy-listening not-too-affecting audio experience, but this is not that. A personal story that takes us into politics and beyond. I’m asked to stop walking and look around me. I feel self conscious. Fifteen minutes later I’m running down a residential street as fast as I can go. Because Jo told me to. I probably look a right sight. In fact I know I do because my hair is high-summer season dry and I’m wearing a bright pink jumpsuit. I stop to look at some daisies by a fence. They look like constellations. I feel anger and I feel sadness. I’m disarmed by being in the outdoors, having a private experience in public. My usual walking route is disrupted by instructions to find a horizon or to face a dead-end. I walk in parallel with Jo, who is walking, bit by bit, toward the sea. It does get me thinking about how I exist outside. I am happiest when not being observed. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this digital festival so much. I do not need to consider myself in relation to other people. I imagine Jo walking away from the sea as I walk home in my familiar surroundings. I miss having another world in my ears, which phases in and out with mine. I walk home and feel my sweat. Think of the salt. I’m glad I saved this eye-opening ear vision til last. I’ve been gifted a lot of thoughts through this festival. I really do think that art is experience, access to new thoughts that you would otherwise never think to have.

BUZZCUT ran from 3-5 June, as part of Take Me Somewhere. More info here.

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

Review: BUZZCUT Festival (online) Show Info


Produced by Karl Taylor (Festival Producer), Bejal Desai (Assistant Producer)

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