a live art notebook
Below is a report of my placement at the Fierce Festival that took place in Birmingham in the Spring of 2011. The report is meant to be read as a sort of “notebook” or a book of notes that mainly contain four kinds of information, 1) what I set out to do (research questions and objectives meant as a starting point); 2) what happened (overviews of what transpired during my internship); 3) who did I meet (encounters and interactions with people negotiating with live art); 4) what my body has learned from these encounters (inspiration that informs my performative trajectories).
starting point. how forms take shape: from vagueness.
Looking back at the research questions that I formulated as departure point in approaching my placement, I realize that I was coming from from a macro2perspective. I came in with an outsider’s view from somebody who was just about to get in. I was unfamiliar with the (any) live art scene, particularly in England. As a way of revisiting them, my questions were rather uninformed and somewhat general:
How does the production and curation of a festival like Fierce create an impact to the identity, image and history of the city of Birmingham?;
What factors / variables are considered in curating this festival? Who are the artists invited? Why them? Which venues? Who are the sponsors?;
How are people working for the festival mobilized? How do organizers create dialogue with artists and eventually invite them to join the festival?
How does sponsorship / funding sources affect the content and outcome of the festival?
How does the festival relate to other curation of performances in the city? e.g. Birmingham European Festival
How does the festival update, re2invent or reinforce its queer identity (from Queerfest to Fierce)?
My initial aims were rather vague as well, though somehow consistent to the learning experienced that actually transpired in my internship:
To be able to participate, collaborate and observe in the conceptualization and organization of a festival of live performances.
To learn more about queer contemporary art, particularly live performance in a specific context (Birmingham)
The actual experience proved to be more than my simplistic assumptions.
And I got more than what I asked for.
This report can also be read as a way of my personal journey as I discovered the new horizons of live art, a channel where I saw my previous (framed) skills and experiences as a dance performer; my personal questions and contingencies on identity, migration, double consciousness, melancholia; come together with a performative potential. That the precariousness and openness that I perceived of the live art process opens new possibilties for my next trajectories.
fierce festival. orientation.
Together with my co2intern and friend Maritta Horwath, the two of us hopped into the Fierce Festival wagon right in the middle of its already accelerated pacing, and not when it was just about to begin to roll. It was fast approaching a climax, as preparations for this year’s edition was well underway, barely a few days before a diverse group of live artists performed their site specific works for the city of Birmingham. That was one of the first things I learned about the Fierce: it is firm in its sense of identity: that its performances are made by artists specifically for the event, and inspired by the city of Birmingham. As opposed to other festivals that invite artists who bring work that they have already staged somewhere else.
site * specific * live * art
For a city like Birmingham, a far second city of England; it is an industrial wasteland at first glance. At the beginning, it was for me an urban space that immediately disappointed, because the first thing that greets you when one arrives from its train station is a vast consummerist heterotopia of shopping malls. Therefore, it needs a distinct (and intimate) mark of identity. Fierce Festival responds well to that need as it creates an involved dialogue with the city, by letting artists from outside Birmingham create something organic from within the city spaces… the world comes to birmingham for birmingham
In our initial process of coming in, naturally, the organizers led by its two young directors, Harun Morisson and Laura Mcdermott were already preoccupied preparing for events that they had planned almost a year ago. I imagine the pressure that was pinned on their shoulders as it was their first time to curate this now decade long festival, which, from its early history and curation, saw the emergence of now well2known performance artists: Ron Athey, Franko B, Keira O’Reilly to name a few. The curators seemed to have large shoes to fill. The initial challenge that we encountered, then, was for us to be able to be of practical use to the Fierce organization, while keeping in mind that the placement must primarily be a source of learning. Eventually, it was decided that we work with the organizers for planning of the next edition (2012), specifically for the preparations of the Start Party, an event that launches the “caravan of artists” that, throughout the year, will prepare works for the 2012 festival. The start event effectively regenerates energies, resources and gathers momentum leading to the said future event. It is also meant to disseminate awareness of the festival to the people of Birmingham, majority of which are not really immersed in the city’s rather small and some insiders would say, ‘incestuous’, artistic community. In this sense, I found that Fierce is trying to engage with both
artists and constituents / audience in the sense that it attempts to get involved with both of them by making public events the whole year round. However, even if we were going to start from the beginning stages of the festival planning, we still had to contend with our unfamiliarity with the city and the artistic community, and our relative outsider’s status. Fierce consists of a lean but sufficient four member staff that are basically from the city, and that they have worked with the festival for a longer period of time. For an event that relies on committed involvement from its team and familiarity with the city, how can we dive in quickly, and be part of it? The answer came in one of the side events that I did for Fierce.
lull. preparations for the start party. immersion with the fierce archive.
The organizers could probably have done the Start Party without our help, as it has dedicated staff and a network of volunteers that are familiar to Fierce happenings. But our presence and participation to the activities of the festival somehow relate well to the Fierce culture of bringing together artists from outside and ushering them into the city. Eventually, the process became similar for me as I tried to achieve a sense of having arrived in the community, and finding subjective experiences of Birmingham by weaving new relationships with the Fierce people and its peers. What helped me further in creating for myself a sense of attachment to the festival and its ten year history was our brief though meaningful immersion with the archive. In one of those lull periods during the preparation of the start event where we couldn’t do anything but wait for feedback from invited artists, Harun asked us to help him sort out the archives, as he was looking into the possibility of putting them under the care of a sponsoring archival institution. It meant looking at and pouring through, one by one, more than two dozen boxes and cabinets containing posters, creative texts and scripts, brochures, slides, photos, videos, newsclippings and other documents tied to Fierce. All of Fierce’s written history is currently kept in a storage basement at A.E. Harris, a former industrial factory warehouse turned art gallery / performance space. The process of sifting through the archives was, in itself, performative, as it provided us a crash course on what it has been through the years. At the end of it, we were tired and overloaded with archival memories, but at the same time, we emerged somehow more involved with the festival.
start party! june 18, 2011
sleeping Pills, burning headlines, and dancing with a dance manifesto
The final activity of our placement was the Start Party / Launch of the 2012 Caravan of Artists for the Fierce festival. The word “caravan” itself hints at the precarious and nomadic nature of the festival, as it began as “QueerFest” but later took on a bigger shape that embraces the vast and expanding spectrum of live art performance. The raw physical energy of being at the start of a year-long unfolding event was clearly felt. Seven of the 18 artists / groups attended the event, while the rest who couldn’t come were symbolically present through installations pertaining to their works2in2progress or past works. As members of the organizing team, we were part of the setting up of the whole venue from a virtually empty space
into a site of meaningful interventions. During the event, we also made sure everything was running according to plan, and that the guests are made to maximize their time in the space, through the experience of the installations, interaction with the artists, and free barbecue! One of the groups called Uninvited Guests, interacted with the party guests by asking them to read the day’s newspaper and selecting the stories that are most important to them and to write their own edition of its headline in a tissue paper and record a re2telling of these stories. The recordings were simultaneously and overlappingly broadcasted all over the venue, through small radios placed in various locations, thus, the guests could hear themselves at any given time. Later on, as a finale, the group ushered the guests into a tour of the venue, while listening to the re2intimated stories on the radio, and the artists burning the paper one by one into thin air. It was a poetic performance on the ephemerality and subjectivity of everyday life.
Another artist, Mehmet Sander was present in the Start Party. Although he did not really perform, the self proclaimed “movement architect” read to the public his manifesto on dance.
The subjects of each dance are the movement themselves…
Gravity should be demonstrated as an initiator of movement
rather than be camouflaged as it is done in ballet…
One of our tasks as well during the festival was to make sure that the invited artists are attended to in whatever they need. Because of this, I profited from my extended interactions with them, most especially Mehmet Sanders, whether it was through the conversation of our minds or the conversation of our bodies in the dance floor. As a fitting climax to the event, Eloise Fornieles, one of the 2012 Fierce Artists, roused from her sleep in the dance floor induced by pills and by dancing her way to exhaustion. She awoke, wrapped in yellow balloons, amidst dancing, semi2drunken bodies surrounding her. And the opening of her eyes produced a response from the audience that were a mix of joy and relief. The Start Party has formally ended, but it informally extended into the wee hours of the morning, when artists, curators, intern and staff went home together in the curator’s house to share one last cup of tea.
The most valuable lesson I learned at my placement came from curator Harun Morisson himself, as we were casually sitting in a pub, while sharing pizza and beer, after a long day of sifting through the archives. We were discussing about the nature of his collaboration with Laura Mcdermott, co-director of the Fierce Festival. Rephrasing Harun, he said that something beautiful happens in collaborations in that when at least two curators work together, when their ideas meet…
“a third curator”
…emerges, a product of the meeting of two minds, their synergy producing ideas that are beyond both of them.
I am happy to look back, that somehow, our brief presence and involvement at the Fierce Festival, somehow made a difference. I have learned to love Birmingham, and I feel that I have arrived there. If this was a gauge in measuring the success of my internship, then it has truly succeeded. More so, my stint at the Fierce, generated future collaborations as well, such as a possible performance on identity for an exhibition at the Trouve Gallery in Birmingham; a possible involvement at the next year’s Fierce through Mehmet Sander’s workshop; and an invitation from Eloise Fornieles to a cooked dinner at her house in London; and many other valuable contacts / new friendships.
As a way of summing up, my placement activities were stories of orientation, creating relationships, collaboration, and social network that resulted in my immersion to the different aspects of the creative practices: curating, organizing, managing, networking, and performing. I also consider it as my introduction, a ‘rite of passage’ of sorts, into the realm of performance art. I consider myself very fortunate to have been placed into the Fierce Festival as it turned out very meaningful and useful to my current artistic, scholarly and personal destinations.