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supernow and the hyperlocal

emily sexton: fierce, birmingham

Emily Sexton is Artistic Director of Next Wave and previously Creative Producer for the 2008-10 Melbourne Fringe Festivals. Next Wave Festival will take place in May 2012, Melbourne.

Lundahl & Seitl, Symphony of a Missing Room Lundahl & Seitl, Symphony of a Missing Room
photo Christer Lundahl

From religion to war, museums to football, architecture, food and micro-local journeys, the program took my hand and gently introduced a place both dirty and profound. A city that—in the words of Andy Field (co-director of the remarkable Forest Fringe)—wears its urban development scars much closer to the surface than other ‘rebranded’ English cities.

March 2011 marked the first Fierce since 2008 and the first without Mark Ball at the helm (Ball is now Artistic Director of the London International Festival of Theatre—LIFT). Like many of their peers around the country, McDermott and Morrison are alumni of Battersea Arts Centre’s extraordinary posse of producers, who establish key collaborations with emerging artists within BAC’s bosom, then go on to present their work in a range of other contexts.

I arrived in Birmingham after a 23-hour flight, one and a half-hour tube ride and two-hour cross-country train. Unshowered, confused and with my eyelids starting to fold inside out, I shared my disorientation on Twitter and immediately received a cheery “Ew! And welcome, see you soon!” from whoever manages Fierce’s account. It was the cheeky first step in unexpected intimacy with the festival’s program and the city of Birmingham itself.

The next morning, eyelids in place, I followed a series of bright yellow ribbons and yellow A4 posters towards the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for Lundahl and Seitl’s Symphony of a Missing Room. With “headphone art” becoming increasingly ubiquitous and sometimes just plain lazy, it was exciting to encounter the thorough and considered practice of this research-driven performance art duo. Six of us were led through the museum, observing the typical 19th century oil paintings, apricot walls and creaky polished wood floors. Upstairs, we were each given Sannheiser headphones fitted with a tiny MP3 player, and blindfolded. Robbed of sight for the work’s duration, we were led through the gallery while an audio narrative reimagined our journey as one through forests, castles, small tunnels and finally, a long winding staircase at the top of a castle overlooking a hill. A series of imaginative Catherine Wheels followed, as choreography, instruction and technology combined with the intimacy of a stranger’s gentle hand to lead us on a beautiful physical and imaginative journey. The work’s lyric storytelling managed to completely reinvigorate my relationship with this kind of institution. Blindfolds off and headphones returned, I wandered towards the Museum’s exit viewing its paintings and artefacts anew, with an increased physical agency within what is usually perceived as a space of formality and restriction. Symphony of a Missing Room has also been performed in Sweden and Brussels, each new iteration folding a ‘museum’ of previous imagery into the new site-specific work. It’s the kind of sophisticated and innovative live art for which established institutions should be clamouring.

Leaving the Museum, I wandered through Birmingham’s infamous ‘Bull Ring,’ an absurdly large retail complex hit hard with the Bedazzler. I ducked into Moor Street Train Station and found a wooden box: Quarantine’s The Soldier’s Song. As someone staunchly anti-war, this was an important work for me. Disappearing inside the box, I was greeted by a lone microphone and TV screen with six karaoke songs and six profiles of male and female British soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan. Warrant Officer Shaun Kelvin (North Wales) and I sang “Sweet Home Alabama” together—the whole thing. It was fun and silly, poignant and breathtakingly unique—when had I ever before associated troops in Afghanistan with giggling joy? Soldiers sing and dance and laugh and feel awkward too; why had I never considered that before? Through Warrant Officer Kelvin’s booming baritone and my squeaky soprano, the political became intensely and unforgettably personal.

On to the ‘dirty end’ of Birmingham and a talk by performance artist Eitan Buchalter at the Fierce Festival Hub, VIVID. Buchalter’s practice reframes human behaviour through a performance context, offering reflective space within the flow of crowds who are restricted in choice. During the lead-up to Fierce, Buchalter had observed VIVID’s proximity to St Andrew’s Stadium and that on football days thousands of people overflowed the footpath passing the gallery. In Veer, he set up barriers that channelled crowds away from the street, through an empty gallery and out again (now with a token redeemable for a beer at the pub next door). The vacant nature of the space makes clear that the point of this work is not to confront non-gallery goers with art, but to make the flow of crowds itself the subject of artistic inquiry. Responses to this detour ranged from hesitant to oblivious to cautious to nervous, with some even crossing to the other side of the road to avoid such ‘confrontation.’ Buchalter has an elegant commitment to letting go of ‘where’ his work takes place and acknowledges that his gestures may result in art that exists most potently in people’s memories. Participating in his workshop the next day, we discussed the vital importance of process-based performance art being presented to audiences in a manner as fulfilling as the original unique experience of the artist, rather than re-presented. The challenge of ephemerality—and the curse of unsubtle documentation—is something keenly felt in Australian live art and performance circles. I found Buchalter’s perspective persuasive and insightful.

plan b, Narrating Our Lines plan b, Narrating Our Lines
photo Briony Campbell
Now nearing the end of the day, I jumped into a cab and headed to the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) for Plan B’s performance-cum-lecture Narrating Our Lines. Sophia New and Daniel Belasco Rogers have geo-tracked their daily movements since 2003. From the birth of their daughter to visiting their favourite cafe, the incidental and the unexpected are gathered and examined for habits, tendencies, moods and prejudices. They shared this intimate practice with 12 residents of Birmingham, creating a living map via donated GPS data. After a long day of walking and thinking, it was terrific to sit and contemplate the constellation of Birmingham’s movements as of Wednesday March 23, contrasting my first steps in this strange city with the hyperfamiliar steps of locals.

So from imagined forests to Afghanistan to the micro-local, a day with Fierce proved instructive and insightful. It revealed how vital a festival experience can be when the artistic direction is passionately dedicated to site and place, showcasing a city’s shiny bits as well as the parts it would rather ignore. I wandered from major government-funded venues to ARIs, from decadent retail strips to industrial bohemia, yet Fierce’s sound artistic choices ensured the experience was consistently joyous, filled with curiosity and love for the diversity of Birmingham and its people. The festival was a lovely example of the extraordinary sense of immersion artistic directors can achieve with a program that’s cohesive and multi-faceted, with good clear signage making the journey between shows as full of character as the works themselves.

Working with an 18-month development period and a relatively small group of artists, as an international arts festival Fierce is miles away from the superficial supermarket approach of some million-dollar arts festivals, where the connection between artist, locality and audience is so presumed, so without consideration or care, as to be lost altogether. Festivals must continue to assert their rationale beyond a marketing guide or catering to a collection of people who came last year. In my own practice and in those that inspire me, there exists an attempt at genuine and specific engagement with artists and the audiences who care enough to pay attention.

With curation charged with humble curiosity for the “hyperlocal” and a dedication to openness and possibility that consistently allowed its artists’ works to exist in the “supernow,” Fierce 2011 impacted deeply on the city it sought to explore, the artists within its embrace and the visitors who witnessed it sparkle.

Fierce Festival, Birmingham, UK, March 22-27,

Emily Sexton is Artistic Director of Next Wave and previously Creative Producer for the 2008-10 Melbourne Fringe Festivals. Next Wave Festival will take place in May 2012, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 6

© Emily Sexton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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