Fierce Festival: putting performance art on the map in Birmingham
A six-day celebration of live art opens in Birmingham on Monday. Ben Kulvichit talks to Fierce Festival’s new artistic director about its 20-year heritage, the hinterland between theatre and galleries and why live art is the ‘engine room’ of culture
Rocio Boliver was a teenage model who became one of the most recognisable faces on Mexican television as a newsreader.
When the network discovered she also wrote feminist pornographic texts, she was asked to leave – and from then on dedicated her life to body-based performance art.
Boliver will close this year’s Fierce Festival in Birmingham, and according to new artistic director Aaron Wright, she best encapsulates its spirit.
Both Fierce and Boliver look to blur the popular and the marginal. Wright calls the work “angry, campy, messy. Something that you’d never find in Tate Modern”.
The Birmingham-based Fierce Festival began life in 1998 as Queer Fest, led by Mark Ball (who would become the artistic director of LIFT), before expanding its specific queer arts focus.
It is now one of the country’s leading festivals for live art, and the event “embraces” theatre, dance, music, installations, activism, digital practices and parties.
Wright, who was previously programmes manager at the Live Art Development Agency, says the festival invites artists from around the world and supports emerging, overlooked and difficult art practices. The festival calls live art the “engine room” of our culture.
Over one week, the festival will feature 37 events ranging from dance pieces to installations, cabaret to a dining experience, as well as a programme of talks and workshops from some of the featured artists.
An important strand of Fierce’s programming over the years has been its exploration of club culture, with its own club nights providing a space for artists to create work that sits outside of conventional theatre spaces.
Wright has made a conscious move to extend this theme into the theatre programme as well, with dance works such as Lucy Suggate’s Pilgrim and Michele Rizzo’s HIGHER drawing from the choreography of the dance floor.
“Clubs can be quite radical spaces,” Wright says. “I was interested in the politics of the dance floor, this communal space where we perform temporary communities at night. They enable us to act out possible futures”.
It’s also about breaking down cultural hierarchies. Central to Fierce has been a “dialogue around our understanding of high art and low art. We’re really trying to fuck with that: it’s bullshit.
“The club is still seen as an illegitimate space in comparison to the prestigiousness of a gallery or a theatre. But a lot of the artists that Fierce work with have emerged from working within club culture.”
Wright adds that the club performances often act as a gateway drug for Fierce audiences – they’ll come to a club night, then look into the rest of the programme. It’s a way of opening up performance art, whose doors often appear intractably shut.
5 things you need to know about Fierce
• The festival was founded in 1998 by Mark Ball, who left in 2009 and went on to be artistic director of LIFT.
• Performance artists such as Bobby Baker, Ron Athey and Franko B have performed at the festival in the past.
• Fierce also runs events outside of festival time, with year-round Club Fierce nights in Birmingham.
• The idea for the festival was birthed from an ICA exhibition on queer culture called ‘Fierce’.
• This year, its Fierce FWD initiative has given emerging artists seed commissions, and many of the resulting works are presented at this year’s festival.
Does Wright find there is a perception of performance art as difficult, or exclusive? “I think it’s a scary term,” he says.
“There’s this idea that people feel like they don’t get performance art, and I think that’s because people have been bullied into this state of intellectual submission where we’re full of so much self-doubt.”
The power of performance art, he adds “is that you don’t really know what you’re experiencing but it’s giving you this emotion that you can’t process. That can be quite a challenging thing because it’s unsettling, and so it’s easy to dismiss it.”
Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment – a company whose work often straddles the gap between theatre and live art, and which has been featured at Fierce in the past – agrees that “no one has a monopoly on making connections to audiences".
Etchells, whose company is preparing to tour its shows Real Magic and Tomorrow's Parties, adds: “The work I really admire somehow manages to speak outside of a particular set of codes or frameworks, and finds new ways to connect with audiences. It’s often more direct, or more visceral than what you’d find in other places.”
In tandem with the desire to make performance art as accessible as possible, then, Wright is aware that Boliver’s extreme performances will not be for everyone, and that the programme should serve an audience that feels it is not always recognised by mainstream culture.
“We always have a big presence of club kids and freaks,” he says, “and I think it’s great that they’re being catered for, ‘cause they’re certainly not going to the National Theatre.”
With its interest in marginalised communities, subversive counter-culture and identity politics, Fierce has one of the most diverse and representative programmes in the UK.
This year, it has performances such as Jamila Johnson-Small’s I Ride in Colour and Soft Focus, No Longer Anywhere and Marikiscrycrycry’s $elfie$ exploring race and sexuality.
This preoccupation with the politics of identity and the body is unsurprising. Live art emerged in the 1970s from a frustration with the commodification of art, and so artists used their bodies as the base material.
Wright explains: “Artists didn’t want a price being put on their work. I think you can make links with the way performance art is derided and the challenge it makes to the economy.”
This rejection of conventional structures for making work meant that live art found itself in an awkward hinterland between forms, belonging neither in the theatre nor the gallery.
5 performance artists making innovative work
• FK Alexander: Glasgow-based artist FK Alexander bases her practice on the restorative properties of noise, ritual and destruction. Her durational piece (I Could Go on Singing) Over the Rainbow sees her channel Judy Garland’s last performance over noise music.
• Annie Dorsen: US performance maker Annie Dorsen creates shows that unfold live according to randomised mathematical processes. Her latest piece saw three singers sight-read an algorithmically-generated piece of music which transitions from the Beatles’ Yesterday to Tomorrow from the musical, Annie.
• Rachael Young: Rachael Young creates performances, installations and socially engaged projects that explore the politics of identity and freedom. Her collaboration with Dwayne Antony, OUT, uses dancehall to explore homophobia and transphobia in Jamaica
• Holzinger and Riebeek: Hailing from the Belgian producing house CAMPO, this duo makes provocative, excessive, erotic performances inspired by pop culture. Fierce presented a one-off performance of the debut show earlier in 2017.
• Richard DeDomenici: Richard DeDomenici blurs art and activism, staging urban interventions that reveal the power relations inscribed in public space. He also recreates famous films shot-for-shot as part of his Redux Project.
Etchells, however, notes a much greater acceptance today of a variety of challenging work from the worlds of both theatre and visual art.
“When Forced Entertainment started in the 1980s, we wasted a lot of energy in constant conversations with people about whether our work was theatre or not,” he says. “In a way that question’s gone away, nobody cares.” The aesthetics of previously underground work have migrated over time towards the mainstream.
There’s been a noticeable popularisation of performance in gallery culture too, with the Tate Modern recently featuring choreographer Boris Charmatz, the Barbican performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and a current exhibition of archival material from the US performance biennial, Performa, running at the Whitechapel.
For Wright, “genres are porous – there isn’t a wall between dance and theatre, between theatre and visual art”.
Etchells thinks less of creating theatre or live art, and more of creating events. “What really matters,” he says, “is how a work engages with its audience, intervenes in a culture and asks questions – it only interests me what its effect and relation is as an event.”
The same could be said of Fierce’s approach to programming. Alongside its shows in theatre spaces and club nights, there are free outdoor performances including Steve Lambert’s roaming interactive installation, Capitalism Works For Me! (True/False).
Etchells sees such events as “acts of social and political triangulation”. He is not interested in creating a collective experience, but in highlighting differences in the room to make you “reflect on who you are sitting with, and what we are as a community, as a society”.
The festival is looking to challenge the divide between high art and popular culture, theatres and galleries, dance floors and public spaces.
Fierce wants to use live art to reach a diverse audience – sitting, dancing, and walking down the street – and force its members to consider new ways of relating to art and each other.
Appropriately, Fierce wraps up with a party for Boliver, dubbed her “Sweet 60th Birthday”, celebrating not just a performance art legend but live art itself.