Feature in Issue 23-2 | Summer 2011

Emily Ayres immerses herself in Birmingham’s week-long live art extravaganza.

For what felt like the first time in a long time, there was a buzz around art in Birmingham. After a two year hiatus Fierce!, the famously esoteric blood-letting festival of love-hate live art, burst into the city at the same time as the first sunny week of 2011.

The festival began with The Irrepressibles, a ten-piece ‘performance orchestra’ who glide and jazz about the stage playing impressively theatrical songs, fronted by Jamie McDermott who has the voice of some dark angel that you hope might visit your deathbed. The orchestra’s choreographed lunges and twitches work nicely with the rhythm of the songs and are sumptuously reflected by the mirrors behind – the Town Hall is by far the most grand of the festival’s venues.

Live artist and academic Dominic Johnson presented two linked works at Fierce!. Departure was made in collaboration with renowned artist/tattooist Alex Binnie, continuing Johnson’s ‘ongoing exploration of the politics of body modification’. We witness Johnson’s left hand being tattooed and the procedure is accompanied by a commissioned sound design. That’s it. For me, it was a bit of a non-event: too clean and predictable – yet to others, as I discovered in conversation afterwards: ‘it was enough to see something beautiful happen live, to be part of that live event’.

The performance ends with a procession to Human Salvage, a performance party co-curated by Dominic Johnson and Fierce!, set in Stan’s Cafe HQ, the AE Harris factory building. The atmosphere was a bit ‘shy’, creating a sense that you had to go to the live art, rather than it coming to you. However, there was the most wonderfully obnoxious performance by Lauren Barri Holstein, who popped eggs in condoms up her vagina and squeezed them out into a bowl whilst singing American teen-angst pop songs halfway up a ladder. It was obscene, fearless and marvellous.

Over at the refurbished mac (Midlands Arts Centre), Sheila Ghelani’s poetic piece Rat Rose Bird is a story of loss told through objects and wordplay which is clinical, soft and controlled (no theatrical excess to be seen here). She handles her material well, staying firmly in performance art mode – rather as a poet doing a reading than an actor conjuring atmosphere.

The following evening we sauntered along to the Rainbow warehouse space in Digbeth for Action Hero’s Frontman, a thoroughly modern piece about iconic frontmen from past and present, the atmosphere of which was greatly heightened by the packed out and grimy venue. The audience was mixed too, and I enjoyed watching some youths trying to work out why this was not quite what they had expected, as the Frontman character, played by a woman, slowly disintegrated into embarrassing arrogance and childish dependency and flung herself into the audience during a scrap with her pissed-off technician. An imperfect show with attitude.

Of course, festivals are about atmosphere. With events spread at disparate venues across the city, Fierce did well to create a sense of communality with their chill-out venue The Dirty End, housed at VIVID’s space, in partnership with Flatpack Film Festival. Good coffee, good food, good dancing and good conversations were had here over the duration of the festival. There was also a hog roast on Eastside Green in Digbeth on the Saturday night as part of EXYZT Burningham’s Fierce! offering which had a nice vibe: their Burningham trailer could be seen from the train as you came into the city, which was a good invitation to the festival.

Highlight of the festival for me was Lundahl & Seitl’s Symphony of a Missing Room, an audio piece set in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This was by the far the furthestreaching piece I saw in terms of elegance, joy and imagination.

The premise is to imagine what the ‘unseen’ or ‘imagined’ architecture of the gallery might be, after first experiencing its physical reality. The architecture created by the paintings and artefacts themselves, by their history and the stories they can tell, added to by the wildness of your own imagination when your sight is taken from you (with the donning of futuristic headsets), is the material for this show. And it is very affecting, making you highly aware of your physicality, balance, reactions and responses as you put your faith in the person leading you. You are told you are in a magnificent ‘missing room’ which is so vast it is almost frightening, and contains characters, whole landscapes such as a wood, as well as objects and histories that would go unnoticed by the other museum visitors that day. The effect is exhausting. It ends when you ‘wake’ on a carpet in one of the museum’s many display spaces, wondering where that missing room might be.

So that was Fierce 2011 – a fun week! As a newly minted National Portfolio organisation, Fierce! promises us an even bigger, better festival next year. The festival’s co-directors, Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison, have taken the live art bull by the horns and are making Fierce! their own… it’ll be exciting to see what they come up with next.

The Fierce! Festival took place 22–27 March 2011 at various venues across Birmingham.

This article in the magazine

Issue 23-2
p. 28