[The Festival embodies] the right to be other in this world, the right not to make common cause with any single one of the existing categories that life makes available
– Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
This is being written whilst still in the foggy haze of the immediate Fierce 2015 aftermath. I am still groggy, dehydrated, vitamin deficient, harbouring toxins…etc….
I’m still alive but I’m not afraid to die…
– Miguel Guttierrez, Deep Aerobics
This is a long series of thoughts, a travelogue and a record of feelings to assist me with my main research project. That research project will hold evidenced coherent thoughts with a thorough exploration of context. This is not that.
The tense changes, I speak from first person, second person, third person and from the collective. This reflects the experience of the time (as present or past) and of experience (individual or collective). Sometimes I am participant and sometimes I am observer.
Mind unfold/ Eyes Reveal/ Heart be Still
– Gazelle Twin, Guts
I’m starting the journey on Thursday evening at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) with Fierce’s launch event that included Emily Mulenga’s Orange Bikini, One Five West’s Code and Carpentry, Selina Thompson’s Race Cards and the launch of issue two of Contemporary Other with Demi Nandhra. The important/interesting thing here is that all these artists are from the West Midlands, and have been supported by Fierce FWD– an artist development programme. The combination and culmination of these projects demonstrates a curatorial taste that could characterise Fierce, in being contemporaneous, impassioned, super intelligent, politically engaged, interrogative, and a mixing of physical, digital, imaginary and potential space… all with a real sense of urgency. The large assembled crowd is mostly from Birmingham, with many of the inter/national audience yet to arrive, and the love for the artists and to team Fierce is palpable. There’s a real community spirit with those from all sectors of culture assembled to support the launch. Throughout the whole evening I only hear hugely positive, encouraging things said about the art, the artists, the festival and the city as a whole. I am told several times there is a real buzz currently in the city– this is already perceptible.
A festival is a gathering of that which has been scattered, a moment to pause, a reason to notice what has been moving just below the surface or hovering just overhead, or in any case what has been living just outside the narrow field of vision that has been established by our daily routine.
– Peter Sellars, ‘Welcome’, Los Angeles Festival 1990
Emily’s Orange Bikini creates an imaginary digital world for her digital avatar. Exploring the intersections of femininity, race, sexuality, creativity, and digital presence with a celebration of the self and the self’s multifarious desires. There is a sense of pure pleasure in the avatar’s enjoyment of her universe. She remains alone throughout the video, expressions of preternatural performance as an act of radical self-love.
In 2015, when we have made so much progress with women’s rights and have online communities for strong women to share their stories. I’m still expected to be humble and shave my armpits to appease boring, terribly dressed men on Instagram who don’t have shit to offer but an opinion no one asked them for. Fuck being humble. Put yourself first. You matter the most.
– Sanam Sindhi, Fierce Festival 2015 Brochure [Insert: Orange Bikini].
Race Cards, appears here (following Selina reaching a thousand questions at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh earlier this year) as an installation for a solo audience member. Entering the space you encounter rows of black cards with Selina’s neat white handwriting speaking to you directly, articulately and with exigency. The medium of the handwriting is vital to communicate the presence of the questioner, to feel the embodied experience that the questions refer to, even without Selina’s physical presence in the space. This also extends to studying the replies that build up across the festival. To the question ‘Was bell hooks right to call Beyonce a visual terrorist?’ someone had replied ‘NO’ in huge letters, scrawled over several times to reiterate their feelings. What was striking about this version of the work, in comparison to the two previous iterations in Glasgow and Edinburgh, was the diversity of experiences of race that was evident in the replies– bringing careful consideration and personal anecdotes to the compelling questioning. The small room rings with voices throughout the festival with all the multiplicity, complexity and multifaceted experiences of race.
25. Does feminism have a responsibility to engage men?
(a) I think perhaps men have a responsibility to engage feminism
–Question [Selina Thompson] Answer [Anon] Race Cards, Fierce 2015
Which made me think of…
Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
― Audre Lorde, ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.’ Sister Outsider, 1984
Demi Nandha was present to launch the second edition of Contemporary Other, titled ‘Feminism Is’ A huge curatorial and editorial task bringing together a multiplicity of distinctive voices in an exploration of a more inclusive feminism that embraces and celebrates all possible female experience. Feminisms that challenges the cis and white narratives that dominate the mainstream discussion and instead explores marginalised identity through complex pluralities.
I am still a woman
When my penis
grows as quickly
as my desire does.
Struggling to stand erect
whilst taped restrictively
between legs carpeted with stubble
–I AM STILL Myer Jeffers Womb, 2015
In the basement of BOM the Birmingham duo One Five West have built Code and Carpentry an interactive playground built from digital and physical structures, shapes, sounds, light and image. The collective interplay between the visual and aural elements and between each curious individual sparks a magical communal experience. The space created is simultaneously physical and virtual, personal and cooperative.
Festivals operate as politicized zones of community-building, lifestyle narration and social protest across divisions of identity. Festivals give their participants access to cultural capital, an opportunity to perform identity and a way to negotiate and secure individual and collective meaning and belonging
– The Festivalization of Culture, Andy Bennett, Jodie Taylor & Ian Woodward, 2014
The audience drift into the night and into bars, the conversation is thick with anticipation and promise…
The bus home drives us past the Tim Etchell’s neon on Moseley Road Baths THE FUTURE WILL BE CONFUSING. Temporarily, everyone on the bus turns to stare together, and then returns to their selves.
How can Bodies be used to alter the social scripts inherent in public spaces?
– Stefan Jovanocić, Fierce Festival 2015 Brochure [Insert]
Permutations in the City by Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon challenges the festival audience to seek them, whilst those journeying around Birmingham encounter them by chance. In seeking the performance, knowing they are often heaped in doorways or poised in corners, I begin to notice those bodies that are present but invisible in the city: the still bodies, the hidden bodies, the camouflaged bodies, the bodies that are ignored or that resist being seen. On finding the Permutations bodies, it is striking to observe how the other bodies react to their presence– there’s confusion, bemusement, concern, enchantment, curiosity and also occasionally a wilful looking away, as if they don’t want to get embroiled in something out of the ordinary. There is a subtle but profound shift in the spatial dialogues that dominate the public space, a slowing of pace and increase in perception, an opportunity to share a moment with the other bodies that we are often trying to dodge and swerve in the mayhem of the city.
Because it is a contested space.
Because it is used at the same time by many people, sectors, factions, groups whose interests do not by any means coincide.
Because it layers commerce, manufacture, leisure, the political sphere – because it demands negotiation, compromise, co-operation, conflict, agreement in order to function, in order to move.
Because if you look for even a moment at those things, you see ripples out to the bigger questions of our time – the relationship between the local and global, between cultures nested in and around each other.
Because the city is a model; of dynamic relativism, a space where everything means more than one thing – a nondescript door, invisible for some, is for others the gate to a magical garden, a place of work, worship or otherwise
– Tim Etchells, Theatre & The City ed. Jen Harvie (2008) [with thanks to Cath Lambert]
Supernatural, a collaboration between Simone Aughterlony, Antonija Livingstone and Hahn Rowe created a paranormal, superhuman and mystical universe that made my skin tingle and my insides turn to a fizzy goo. It’s difficult to describe this piece (a problem I will have again in a moment with Culture, Administration & Trembling). Simone and Antonija, full of swagger, chop wood with axes, lounge in wood piles, shove moss down their jeans, merge as a forest, whilst Hahn uses Foley to create a soundscape for this bright pink utopian universe. At one moment Hahn holds a violin, the bow poised to play and then with nonchalance he begins to flick and knock the instrument, a subversion and misappropriation of objects that continues through the piece. With hurried passion Simone and Antonija rush into a rut, using a huge stick as locked antlers whilst tearing off their clothes and touching each other with urgent bestial vigour. These bodies are material skin stretched over squirming muscle, supra-human multiplicities of queer spirits in a knot of flesh, wood, fur, moss, hair and lipstick. They grow appendages of pendulous metal and timber. There’s a desperate attempt to make fire, to create friction, to frantically attempt a connection, to light a spark, to touch each other with fury, to rub skin against skin, to grind wood against flesh, to reach beyond this world by raw fucking alone…
I live in a world where many things I thought impossible are possible.
– Guillaume Dustan, Dans ma chambre (1996)
The Fierce audience flow, aroused and whetted, from DanceXchange to Friday’s Club Fierce at BOM. Anklepants soon takes the stage, wearing a carefully balanced light up LED princess crown on his large prosthetic face as his animatronic penis-nose starts twitching to the increasing drum beat. He leaps into the audience, inciting mayhem as the face-penis begins to ejaculate over the crowd. The dual fascination and repulsion is transfixing, his altered voice soaring and growling over his electronic layered compositions.
Before the end of Anklepants’ set we had to jump in a taxi to make it to Eastside Projects for Sleep with a Curator created by Rosalie Schweiker and Maria Guggenbichler and brought to life by Eastside’s curator Gavin Wade. Everyone begins to find the good sleeping places in the gallery, gathering into small groups and cuddling up alongside the installation pieces. Grabbing some food and swigging out of bottles of wine, we listen to Gavin read us bedtime tales– children’s stories and sci-fi fables. People move close together, leaning against the white gallery walls and wrapping themselves around the sculptural pieces: whispering, gossiping, and giggling. This inhabitation of the exhibition, with sleeping bags, duvets and pyjama’s, fundamentally shifts the relationality of our selves to the art pieces and to the gallery. A democratisation of this space where we exist, without any performance of pretention, alongside the work and grow more comfortable and familiar with it as individuals slowly drift off to sleep. There is an inherent sense of illicitness in being in a gallery during the night, in wearing only socks and holding each other in the semi-darkness. Lying close on the concrete floor, bodies shift gently, illuminated by passing headlamps. Gentle snoring mingles with revving engines and the sounds of distant techno from another Digbeth warehouse. Several times during the night the hat and jacket that is suspended in the centre of the exhibition begins to animate and haunts my dreams.
We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
As the sun rises, there’s a dawn chorus of whispering and the kitchen begins to clang as Gavin cooks each of us a pancake, a labour of love and care.
Perhaps we are only now […] beginning to learn the ambiguous, ludic language of what Bakhtin calls ‘the people’s second world,’ a language of much of nonverbal as of verbal signs and symbols, always pregnant with good sense, always rich in metaphors and other figurative expressions, often scatological to counterbalance the chilling refinement of spiritual and political repression, but always charged with communitas, the lively possibility of immediate human communion.
–Victor Turner, The Spirit of Celebration, 1983.
We are evicted from our temporary home and make our way to mac Birmingham for a talk on Children & Live Art featuring Eva Meyer Keller and two of the young women who had participated in both Meyer Keller’s Sound Like Catastrophes and Dina Rončević’s Car Deconstructions. They are now part of a steering group for Fierce Girls, a commission process that will lead the development of a new project for Birmingham. With hope for the future of Fierce and live art the audience gather for Kate McIntosh’s All Ears.
We disclose to Kate that we (the audience) are thieves, that we are dreamers, when we think about sex, that we’re always late (or punctual), that we’re thirsty and we’re hungry… we notice each other, we smell each other, we cast each other in films of our lives, we guess how many people the person next to us might have had sex with, we imagine what the person in front might taste like… By pure serendipity I have the opportunity to stand with my eyes closed as the audience around me recreates the sound of a rainstorm, those tingles return to my spine. We are recorded, we are replayed and presented back to ourselves, creating chaos, silences and alliances.
To give some assistance in wearing away certain self-evidences and commonplaces…; to bring it about, together with many others, that certain phrases can no longer be spoken so lightly, certain acts no longer, or at least no longer so unhesitatingly, performed.
– Michel Foucault, ‘Questions of Method’, 1981
Next it’s straight to COW vintage to see PME-ART’s The DJ who gave too much information – Listening Party. I am writing about this in more detail elsewhere and will link when published.
In the Lakeside Gallery nearby the space is set for Culture, Administration & Trembling a collaborative piece created by Antonija Livingstone, Jennifer Lacey, Dominique Pétrin, Stephen Thompson alongside several local performers. These performers also include three albino pythons, two Chihuahuas (with only seven legs between them) and (for the second replay) two small children. The extent of the improvisation contained in the choreography is revealed in the repetition. The instinctiveness of the non-human animal and child presences encourages a joyous spontaneity and reaction in the live moment that electrifies the atmosphere. The space is beautiful, with paper mosaics, lines, block colours and plants designed by Dominque plastered over the walls and floor. The pure ecstasy of being alive fills the space, life is the trembling, whether that life is human, animal or plant. There’s a celebration in the basic functions of movement, the ability to communicate through action, the beauty of the form, the power of a vibration, the tension of the glance, the force of the gaze. The assemblage of Male Breast Feeding is unexpectedly gut wrenching. The sculptural performance of real love, reciprocity, vitality, nurturing and co-dependency is a singularly powerful image that speaks to our most fundamental desire to be held by another. There is vulnerability and strength, birth and death, provision and reception. To a gentle rising soundscape, the inherent queerness of the combination of bodies is indescribably profound; there is a deep spirituality in the communion. The bodies move into a tender group cuddle, spectators are invited to join the nourishing community. As the lights set on this image a projection begins to announce in a booming and frantic voice:
THIS PIECE WILL NOT SAVE US
THIS PIECE IS ONLY A GOOD MORNING
THIS PIECE WILL NOT SAVE US
THIS PIECE IS AS A LIFE BOAT FULL OF SINGERS ON A HOSTILE SEA
WITH ENOUGH BISCUITS AND FRESH WATER TO LAST FOREVER
THIS PIECE WILL NOT SAVE US
AS THE BELL RINGS NOON WE WILL BE WORKING
AS THE BELL RINGS MIDNIGHT WE WILL BE WORKING
As AC/DC’s Hells Bells begins to blast from the speakers the dancers begin a heroic pop choreography, an invitation for participation and celebration is extended. As gently as it starts, it ends, with no space for applause or appreciation. The dancers drop to the floor at the termination of the song and begin the entire sequence again. You are not permitted to witness an end, and so the piece continues to loop in perpetuity.
The aversion towards the words culture and administration – an aversion by no means free of barbarism and overshadowed by the urge to release the safety catch on a revolver – must not conceal that a certain truth is involved in it. This makes possible the treatment of culture as something of a unity […] this common factor stands in contrast to everything which serves the reproduction of material life, the literal self-preservation of the human being in general, and the needs of our mere existence. Everyone knows that these boundaries cannot be clearly fixed.
–Theodor W. Adorno ‘Culture and Administration’, The Culture Industry, 1947
Foundationally and radically shaken, my ability to understand Ursula Martinez’s Free Admission immediately afterwards is completely compromised. The images from Culture, Administration & Trembling play on my mind and it is not possible to absorb Ursula’s spoken text. I only become provoked from my hypnotised state by the applause of the audience as Ursula, completely naked, strides out of the theatre and into the busy courtyard of the Custard Factory; a triumphant march into the cold streets of Birmingham that creates an appropriately enthusiastic reaction.
With barely enough time to buy a bag of quavers, it’s a bolt over to Moseley for Club Fierce at the Old Paintworks. The space, decorated with bunting made with the detritus of previous festivals, fills up fast with an expectant club crowd. Gazelle Twin takes to the stage first, moving hypnotically and steadily in the electric blue lights. Joined by a small clone army, they all move in unison to her industrial rumblings and ethereal screams. There is a unity here in being an insecure outsider. Gazelle Twin obscures her face and bares her teeth, part-muttering, part-singing, part-rapping to complex and heavy beats.
Critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjugation of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness and third, a mobilisation of individuals as a result of that awareness.
– Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, 2004
The crowd is told to take on their own alternative identity for Miguel Gutierrez’s DEEP AEROBICS (AKA Death Electric Emo Protest Aerobics) in which Miguel, half-guru, half-Mr Motivator, instructs those present in a series of exercises that embody political resistance. We roll on the floor chaotically kicking our legs chanting ‘the spectacle is predictable, get off the internet and into the streets’, we die (of an overdose in a band and through suffocation of being covered in concrete) and are reborn (growing like a flower), we shake each other as though electrocuted, we tell each other ‘I love you’, we use sexual healing to solve the earth’s problems reaching collective orgasm and we take to the stage to reach out of the British Isles in an act of defiance against borders and to welcome the world into our queer utopia where a total freedom is practiced.
In the end, even after very little sleep on a gallery floor and without a proper meal all day, there is not enough time to dance to Sarah Farina. Her DJ set is completely flawless and the energy that abounds in the crowd feels never ending. There’s a tough time turning people out and in the courtyard they cling to each other, I can’t get the image of us as survivors on a lifeboat out of my mind (though whether we will be able to nurture each other or have to resort to eating each other is not yet certain…)
I am surprised to wake up on Sunday. My body aches and glitches thanks to Deep Aerobics. I head to The Drum for Season Butler’s Happiness Forgets. Providing a series of images, movements and provocations– the connection between which continue to unfold in my mind. In a performance that doesn’t ignore or try to reconcile the contradictory nature of contemporary life, resisting against the media’s constant desire to create consistent narratives and morality tales. We consider how many ‘good people’ have done really ‘bad’ things and how ‘bad’ people are also capable of ‘good’ things (although the audience cheers when Woody Allen is mentioned as both a terrible filmmaker and a terrible person). Season asks where our alliances lie, how do we define ourselves in relation to different systems of power and oppression, and what options we have to challenge authority and history.
Our assembly of bodies together watching Season, early on a Sunday, made me think of how our gathering here transforms many individuals into a community that has a supernatural reality of its own:
There are circumstances where this strengthening and revitalising activity of society is particularly clear. Within a crowd moved by a common passion, we are moved and become capable of actions of which we are incapable if we rely on our individual powers. And if the crowd disperses and we stand alone again, then we sink back onto our usual level and only then can we measure the incredible heights which we had reached […]. That is the reason why all political, economic, or religious parties call regular meetings at which their members can revitalise their shared beliefs by bearing witness together.
– Émile Durkheim The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912
[This thought came to me during a transcendental massage from Eilidh MacAskill– to try and solve the Miguel related injuries– so props to Eilidh for this]
Our next object of Sunday worship is Fernando Belfiore with the un-pronounceable AL13FB<3. Creating after Joseph Beuys, we see the felt blanket of Beuys’ grey and brown world thrown into the neon future universe of Belfiore where he is wrapped tightly in crackling tin foil. The substance is important. The transubstantiation is important. Fernando mechanically glitches, stutters and repeats, an abstraction that disrupts the communication into form itself. There’s a sensuality and equality between the forms and energies of objects and Fernando’s body. He crouches ape-like, perhaps pre-human or perhaps after all human life has ceased to exist, a mirrored mask creating the illusion of the absence of the head, violently smashing a piece of tin foil through the air; as the reflective surface travels under the multi-coloured lights above it creates a fleeting transient rainbow around him. There’s a sense of being transported to a post-human, post-digital cosmos, a place where the real and the virtual have leaked into each other, where the remains of any civilisation are just form, sound, light, glitter and the echoing of Sia’s Chandelier.
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist
I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
– Sia, Chandelier, 2014
After returning back to the [then] present (and some much needed and pretty delicious Caribbean food) PME-ART hit the decks for their Listening Party. [I will write about this shortly and will link it here]. This ends with a dance party as the light begins to fade in the Drum auditorium and we slide together to Chic Le Freak.
The festival crowd begins to thin, with much hugging, holding and kissing as those with jobs to go to leave us via the brand-new spaceship-like Birmingham New Street station. For us who remain, we take our seats and get our drinks for Karaoke (ART) at BOM. The video art that Davis Freeman has commissioned and collected for this performance are phenomenal. In my eagerness, I start with Bowie’s Lets Dance, with a video made by Walter Verdin featuring the Rosas dancer Fumiyo Ikeda; it’s really bloody beautiful. There’s some great moments throughout the evening with Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor from American Realness singing Sinatra’s New York New York with a video from Anouk De Clercq & Fairuz featuring Endurance Idahosa, a 16 year old Nigerian migrant who embodies ‘hopes, dreams and…endurance’ of the song. Miguel takes to the stage for Whitney Houston’s I will always love you with a video from Steve Cohen that is a stunningly emotional tribute to the black woman who raised him in South Africa. During Gio Black Peter’s video for Elvis’ You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, which features as an epilogue a male group ‘shower’, the windows of BOM attract an enthusiastic audience of onlookers. The simultaneous performative presences of the original artists (Bowie, Queen, Radiohead), with the presences of the video artists (Tim Etchells, Laure Prouvost, Sarah Vanaght), the bodies and forms held within the videos (sexual, serene, comic) and finally the presence of the singer (you, me, us) creates a multi-layered tapestry of liveness and (ART).
We finish the night with the gorgeous Boy with Wings, my memory is beginning to fade here… We dance until the paint peels of the floor of BOM. We finish Fierce’s left over alcohol supply. We definitely do the hokey-cokey at one point, our bodies slamming together in the centre of the floor. There’s a video that plays of beautiful people in a Berlin squat in the 1980s. We take a family portrait on the stage. We kiss, we dance close, we hold each other, Boy with Wings play Nisha Duggal singing The Internationale as our closing (socialist) anthem…
Stand up, all victims of oppression,
For the tyrants fear your might!
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions,
For you have nothing if you have no rights!
Let racist ignorance be ended,
For respect makes the empires fall!
Freedom is merely privilege extended,
Unless joined by one and all.
Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone.
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us,
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.
In our world poisoned by exploitation,
Those who have taken, now they must give!
And end the vanity of nations,
We’ve but one Earth on which to live.
And so begins the final drama,
In the streets and in the fields.
We stand unbowed before their armour,
We defy their guns and shields!
When we fight, provoked by their aggression,
Let us be inspired by life and love.
For though they offer us concessions,
Change will not come from above!
So come brothers and sisters,
For the struggle carries on.
Unites the world in song.
So comrades, come rally,
For this is the time and place!
The international ideal
Unites the human race.
– The Internationale Eugéne Pottier & Pierre de Geyter, adapted by Billy Bragg, performed by Nisha Duggal.
&&& that’s where the festival ends….
Fierce understands that it’s not just the party that matters, but the traces it leaves behind. Those traces change our relationship with the city, not just for the duration of the festival but forever…
–Lyn Gardner, ‘Birmingham’s Fierce festival is a gem of local legacy-building,’ The Guardian, 2011
Additional to all those mentioned above, I didn’t get to see the amazing Ria Jade Hartley’s one-on-one Spit Kit (so read about it here).
I would also like to thank the people of Birmingham: Levi, our security guard, who was our sleepover guardian angel, giver of fire and saintly shepherd; the man who cat called us with the refrain ‘HEY! 21st CENTURY RAINBOW!’, the man at the bus stop who advocated creativity on white cider, the lady on the bus that told me off for not sitting up straight, the labourers in their neon orange costumes based next to the hub at BOM who were consistently entertained and confused by our activities inside, and finally the two small children in Kings Heath who asked very seriously if I needed some help on the Monday morning after the festival…