What happens at the festival stays at the festival
Review by Vanessa Bartlett
It seems contradictory for a festival that uses the word ‘Supernow’ as part of its tagline to be preoccupied with documenting its own history. The notion that performance exists only in the present has long been considered an obstacle for the archivist, marking the ‘nowness’ of the practice as one of its enduring artistic and political virtues. If performance is a collision of personal experiences brought together in a unique moment, the prospect of drawing together a compelling art historical exhibition to be explored amid the liveness of the 2013 festival is riddled with incongruity. How can fragments of the past stand up to the allure of the festival in the present’ And how might knowledge of the festival’s history add to the production of new experiences in 2013’
This exhibition is pitched as a tentative beginning to a larger archival project that will cover the whole of Fierce’s15-year history. It features a set of festival brochures, a DVD of promotional material and an audio recording and wall painting of memorable phrases from the festival’s often-controversial press coverage. Understandably for a project so near inception, the focus is on the public facing aspects of Fierce that are easiest to evidence. The brochures are available to be handled and read, although their presentation on painted white shelves frames them more as museum object than as tactile material. A post-it-note attached to one of the earliest brochures provides the only clue about the functional histories of these festival ephemera. A scrawled message ‘last copy - only remove to photocopy’ speaks volumes about the lack of resources available at small performance festivals and just how easily this documentation could be lost without a trace.
Formally known as Queer Fest, Fierce has always positioned itself as a pioneer of live works that challenge convention. Skin, glitter and showmanship figure heavily in much of the projected imagery. Ron Athy’s hands glide rhythmically over the body of another man in Massage from 2007, while Benjamin Verdonck’s 2005 work The Great Swallow documents the artist looking out over the city from a giant bird’s nest attached to the side of one of Birmingham’s most prominent public buildings. Given the festival’s leanings toward radical intervention, the formalities of this exhibition’s presentation in a white walled gallery at Birmingham Institute of Art perhaps sets the wrong tone for a body of information fused with humour, provocation and sexual display.
Archives have become an increasingly fashionable as an outreach tool for arts institutions over the past ten years and it is worth celebrating the fact that more of our alternative histories will be preserved. Yet amid this preoccupation with the archive, it is important to question how these scholastic instruments can connect with curious and playful public audiences who may not be familiar with archival convention. Academics and artists alike continue to battle with the cultural relevance of the performance archive and I look forward to seeing how future incarnations of Fierce’s own material might add to the debate.