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'How Many Performance Artists Does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?': Aaron Wright on Fierce Festival

Fierce Festival is one of the UK’s most respected festivals of Live Art & the leading organisation for Live Art in the West Midlands. The festival embraces theatre, dance, music, installations, activism, digital practices and parties. Fierce fills the city with performances in theatres, galleries and other out-of-the-ordinary spaces. Fierce’s work is informed by an intersectional queer politic that seeks to challenge established understandings of art & give a platform to marginalized artists. Artistic Director Aaron Wright is a curator and producer of Live Art and formerly worked as Programmes Manager at the Live Art Development Agency (London). He writes about the festival for Run Riot.

 

Steven and Susie love culture. They just can’t get enough. Its central to who they are as people. Their favourite band is Elbow: they went to the prom they did which was absolutely amazing. Last weekend they went to the new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery – it’s not as busy as Tate but they’ve still seen some absolutely amazing things there. Susie entered the recent Punchdrunk ballot to try and get Steven tickets for his birthday, but she wasn’t successful. They saw The Drowned Man twice – absolutely amazing. But mention performance art and these nifty culture vultures suddenly purse their lips and come over all nauseous, shaking their heads in dismissal. Needless to say Steven and Susie are absolutely awful.

Performance art is the butt of endless jokes. You see, anyone can do performance art. It’s silly and vulgar and attention seeking and it’s TOO LONG. Even some of the most revered performance artists have tried to distance themselves from it: if I hear Carolee Schneeman say exasperatedly one more time that she’s a painter, I might grab her paintbrush and do a bit of my own performance art with it. But how did we get here? Why all the laughing? Why all the jokes?

I laughed myself when I first saw Aaron Williamson’s Demonstrating the World, a piece we will present at Fierce Festival this year, in which, for hours at a time he demonstrates the most mundane tasks right down to their tiniest detail. For example, in explaining how to put on a jumper Williamson talks us through at least 6 different hand positions needed to complete the job. The mundane becomes epic, which in turn becomes incredibly boring again. If I wasn’t laughing I’d be crying at the sheer dullness of our daily existence. Similarly I recall an article by Stewart Lee where he recounts watching a performance by Anthony Howell of the Theatre of Mistakes which had the effect on him of moving him from a fit of the giggles to tears.

The most common response to performance I hear is ‘I didn’t get it’. But I’d like to suggest that, actually, I think you probably did. Maybe you didn’t like it so much, or just found it a bit ‘meh’, but trust me: you got it. Or got something. And whatever that something was, it was valid. The spectrum of human intelligence isn’t so vast that swathes of “genius” artists are capable of producing works so intellectually challenging that they have absolutely no relevance to anyone of a lesser intellectual standing.

The art market and its accomplices have bludgeoned us into an acute state of intellectual self-doubt so it can convince absolute buffoons with more money than sense to spend millions on a Jeff Koons poodle, a Damien Hirst skull or an Anish Kapoor void under the pretence of some higher understanding (see also Scientology).

This isn’t to say that we wouldn’t find certain performances more enriching if we knew a little bit more about the form or context, but that’s the same of anything in life. I’d enjoy football more if I actually learnt the rules and paid attention in transfer season, but I’m grateful to my parents that they didn’t put me in a football kit the second I left the uterus, otherwise I’d have had no time at all to sit trawling the web as a child Asking Jeeves about “weirdo artists”. What if we gave babies a copy of the Futurist Manifesto when they left the uterus instead? Imagine the headline in the Daily Mail: “Performance Art classes for all new-borns: Corbyn’s latest bonkers pledge”. I’d donate to that crowdfunder.

Over the years people have laughed at Fierce Festival, Birmingham’s premiere festival of performance, a lot. We’re frequently described as wacky and weird in the press, because it’s an easy way to dismiss something that on the surface might be quite difficult to process but under the surface might be affecting us quite profoundly.

Back in 2006 the city was gripped by Fierce’s The Great Swallow, which saw Performance Artist Benjamin Verdonck live in a giant Bird’s Nest on the side of the Bullring Rotunda. Derided by the media at first, over the course of the week, the city became moved by this lone figure who departed as suddenly as he arrived. Similarly, it’s easy to be shocked by the work of Rocio Boliver, Mexico’s most transgressive performance artist, who will present her Sweet 60th at Fierce 2017 but time and time again I’ve seen people be transformed by fearless performance artists who uncover truths, touch nerves and make us feel things we’ve not felt before and can’t easily explain.

This year’s programme obliterates notions of high and low art forms and caters more for those happier in a night club than watching the latest at the Donmar, darling, and who perhaps see more to life than marriage, a nice house and two kids. I hope it has a sense of fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously either. We’ve got clubby contemporary dance shows by Michele Rizzo and Lucy Suggate that whip the audience into states of euphoria. We’ve got transgressive, angry, brash performance art from Preach R. Sun and marikiscrycrycry. We’ve got experience’s like Simone Aughterlony & Jen Rosenblit’s beguiling Everything Fits In The Room where you need to stay pretty alert elst you might get run over by a rogue DJ and wondrous and strange experimental theatre in the form of the hit CAMPO show Multiverse by Louis Vanhaverbeke. Simply put, you’ll see performance at Fierce you won’t be able to see anywhere else in the UK.

If you can’t make it out of the M25 for a weekend, for the first time we’re delighted to be presenting work in the capital at The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick. When I say ‘cabaret’ Steven and Susie would probably think Britain’s Got Talent and turn their noses up but this isn’t cabaret as you know it, Jim. Erin Markey’s brilliant show Boner Killer has got some serious teeth and they’re coming for Simon Cowell’s throbbing golden buzzer, boner killer indeed. It’s coming to the Yard Theatre for two whole weeks as part of Fierce vs The Yard from October 3th – 14th. Markey’s a major star in the states and amazingly these are her first European performances. You’re actually encouraged to laugh at this one, but don’t be surprised, Steven and Susie, if you feel some other emotions along the way too.

 

Fierce vs The Yard present Erin Markey’s Boner Killer, 3-14 October at The Yard Theatre, London. Fierce Festival runs 16-22 October in venues across Birmingham.