Live art. Collision. Hyperlocal. Supernow. Whilst a part of me always wants to rebel against the possible inaccessibility and self-conscious coolness of Fierce Festival’s tagline, I cannot doubt its accuracy. Structured over two weekends, Fierce is, as you may have gathered, a festival of international live art, based in Birmingham, programmed by joint artistic directors (and evidently tireless humans) Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison. Here I will be limiting myself entirely to Weekend 2, the close of the festival, although even then there is far too much going on to mention everything in one short review.
Weekend 2 began for me with a trip to the Mockingbird Theatre and bar in the Custard Factory (a real former custard factory I’m told) with a presentation of four videos from South African performance artist Steven Cohen. His videos often featured performance interventions, such as when he took to cleaning the streets of Vienna with a diamond butt-plug up his arse in reference to what Jews (his grandparents amongst them) were forced to do during the Nazi occupation. Few of the videos were easy to watch, but Steven’s eloquent and devastating introductions and reflections on his own work were enlightening, and an unsettling performance in themselves, though of course some do prefer to allow the work to speak for itself.
Next was Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel, at Birmingham Hippodrome. Impossible to describe without being reductive, this dance piece from the Montreal-based artist seemed to play relentlessly with fragments of text, black accents and stereotypes, and an incredibly unusual style of movement, which was for me utterly compelling. I can’t quite say what it communicated to me, or even precisely which feelings it inspired in me, but I do know I left with sore eyes for lack of blinking.
The next evening’s shows began with Dancer from Ian Johnston and Gary Gardiner, created in collaboration with the departed and deeply respected Adrian Howells, which gave the performance an added poignancy for some. This intimate and beguilingly simple piece concerns itself in part with the role of dancing, both in general and in the lives of the two performers, particularly the life of Ian who has some difficulty communicating through language. Because of this, one might have initial concerns about his level of agency in what is being communicated with the piece, but the pair’s evident chemistry and joy in the performance soon put pay to that.
This was a wonderful partner with what followed, the wonderfully kitsch and innocent Fierce Slowdance, conceived and hosted by Sherwin Sullivan Tjia. Seemingly a club night which simply plays slow songs, it was much more than this. With designated dancers floating about the floor, we were continually encouraged to ask others, often strangers, to dance. It is a beautiful idea, though I felt sometimes more designated dancers were needed, and more encouragement than Tjia’s intermittent exhortations from behind the DJ desk. In the end however, it served to highlight something basic about human connections, needs, insecurities and kindnesses, which after some initial reluctance, seemed to wear down even the most cynical and hard-edged of the live art crowd.
Fierce is about much more than just the evening shows, and over the ten days of the festival there is an overabundance of exhibitions, talks, installations, intimate one-on-one performances, participatory projects and much more besides, which happily defy categorisation, and which I simply cannot do justice to here. The riskiness and sheer range of work on offer means that some will not be your cup of tea, but you will see some of the most interesting, challenging and powerful work being created in the UK and around the world. Fierce still suffers from the lack of a well-defined base in which one can always be sure to get the information you need, and the many venues are spread out over a remarkably large area, so newcomers to Birmingham will have to do their research, or tag along with a fellow festivalgoer. It is, of course, well worth the effort, and wherever you are, well worth a visit next year.
Fierce Festival will return in 2015. For more information see the Fierce Festival website.