Dorothy Max Prior goes to Fierce Festival in Birmingham and finds a city re-imagined

A speaking garden, a deconstructed car, a nail bar, and a sit-down meal with a bunch of pre-teen boys. Passive consumption not an option – we’re here to engage, to interact.

The opening weekend of Fierce Festival 2014 took its audience out and about into all sorts of far-flung corners of Birmingham and beyond. Getting from one site to another proved to be something of a psychogeographic experiment, one big drift into ever more peculiar environments: all large cities are an architectural pick-and-mix, but Birmingham beats anywhere else in the UK hands-down for its extraordinary mix of streets that morph into shopping centres, buildings stranded on traffic islands, and desolate subways and footbridges that don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular.

But the feeling of being a bit-player in a film about urban displacement just added to the artistic adventure, and after 24 hours, I felt I had some grip on the geography of the place – despite the suspicion that some strange dream-war morphing of space was happening.


Birmingham Paradise Place

So, approaching the documenting of this visit from a geographical perspective, I’m going to start at the centre and work out.

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Phoebe Davies: Influences. Photo James Allan

Bang in the heart of the city, in Centenary Square off Broad Street, is the new library, which is celebrating its first birthday in October 2014 – a great aircraft hangar of a building with a postmodern-playful silver and yellow exterior, its circular inside space kitted out with LED–lit escalators that offer a panoramic view of the rainbow arcs of bookshelves inside and the hotch-potch cityscape outside. This Fierce Fest opening weekend is also Birmingham Literature weekend, and Fun Palaces weekend – so a row of desks promoting the various artistic wares on offer are lined up in the foyer. What I’m here for is Phoebe Davies’s Influences: The Nail Bar. How it works: you turn up, get assigned to a nail bar art worker (one of a team of teenage girls), and given a menu of nail wraps – a series of ten nail-sized portraits of women being honoured (for the Fierce season, women from Birmingham and the Midlands). Who to pick? I consider Mashkura Begum, director of the Birmingham Leadership Foundation, who is ‘passionate about championing young leaders’, or Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana, an advocate for women experiencing forced marriage or honour-based abuse ­ but in the end I plump for Justice Williams, a writer and editor who has set up her own social enterprise scheme to support disadvantaged youngsters affected by gang culture. Getting the wrap is a pretty minimal experience, but if you ask, you can get the rest of your nails painted too – although, it has to be said, this isn’t done that meticulously, which is a bit of a disappointment! I’m not a manicure sort of person, so I had high expectations. But that, I know, isn’t the point: this is a piece that is less about the execution of the chosen interface – nail art – than the process of engagement with the community involved in the workshops that lead up to it. Phoebe Davies works with local community leaders (in this case, the Birmingham-based Sister Act) to locate or create a working group of young women. The group meet to debate female expectations and current attitudes to feminism, and to learn how the artwork will evolve. Out of that process comes the research and choosing of suitable candidates for the nail wraps. All this we are encouraged to speak about with our assigned nail art worker. As the piece has been performed in many different locations, there is also the value of the accumulation of research across the country.


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Mammalian Diving Reflex: Eat the Street. Photo James Allan

From 13-year-old-girls to 12-year-old boys, a whole world apart. The next location on our city map is Piccolino’s restaurant, in a pedestrianised and somewhat sterile area just around the corner from the library, which has been taken over for the Saturday lunchtime slot by Eat the Street, a project brought to Fierce by the always enterprising Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex (other works include Haircuts by Children and The Children’s Theatre Awards). The premise is simple: a group of children (in this case, year 7 boys) are trained up as restaurant critics. They have notebooks and cameras, and audience members are invited to sit with them to share the experience of dining and critiquing. The outcome is wonderful: I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at a dinner party. I struck lucky with Jack and Shea who, if they don’t become famous footballers (they are both in the school team) or rock stars (they both play in a band), will almost certainly become a famous comedy duo. Our intrepid twosome quiz their fellow diners (‘You looked extravagant’ says Shea, explaining why I was encouraged to join his table), regale waiters who forget to bring the garlic bread, amuse us with stories of the most unusual things they have eaten (kangaroo, it turns out) or of Instagram faux pas, and eventually start a revolution against the fixed menus for children, chanting ‘ ‘SET MENUS ARE PANTS’ when they are told they can only choose between vanilla or chocolate ice-cream, and can’t have the cracked caramel copa with amoretti biscuits.  I’m an enormous fan of this company – and dear reader, am in fact a recipient of a Mammalian Diving Reflex Children’s Award – a lovely chocolate trophy won at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival a few years ago. ‘The only problem with the chocolate trophies,’ says company director Darren O’Donnell, ‘is that they get eaten by mice’. A suitably surreal note on which to end a delightful dining experience.


Tania El Khoury: Gardens Speak. Photo Jesse Hunnford

Circling outwards: to the north-west of the city is the old Jewellery Quarter of St Paul’s, a pretty area with cobbled streets and warehouses put to new uses as hotels, restaurants or vintage clothing shops. Here, in the AE Harris building (an old metal factory) is where we find Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak, an interactive installation which honours the lives of ten Syrian martyrs. In a waiting room, audience members are asked to take off shoes and socks, and to put on a hooded plastic mac. We are invited to choose a card from a basket – mine gives the name Abu Khaled – and led into the dark installation space. A large soil-filled plot bears ten gravestones, written in Arabic. First task is to identify our assigned martyr, shining torches onto names written in the unfamiliar script. Once found, we kneel at the ‘grave’ and dig, ear to the ground, unearthing the story coming from a buried speaker. To hear what’s being said, you need to really scrabble down in the earth, then to lie down, ear close to the ground. It’s dark and damp and the smell of the soil evokes powerful memories: my parents’ burials; gardening with my children. Abu Khaled, I hear, is just 40 years old at the time of his death. He (or rather, the storyteller playing him) calls me ‘my child’, which I like – even though I’m old enough to be his mother. We are all children of God. Abu, I learn, is a shopkeeper, not a soldier – a kind family man who gives crisps and cola to the local kids, killed instantly by a piece of shrapnel as he closed up shop for the night. I’m hearing this story on the day the news of Alan Henning’s murder is announced, and both become linked in my mind – the unbearable sorrow of those who remain, the terrible loss of these two lives, both kind and gentle men in their 40s more interested in caring for children than in fighting wars. One man whose name and image is currently racing around the newspapers and TV channels of the world; one whose name is little known, buried in a grave in a private garden in Syria – apparently funerals are often targeted by Assad’s troops and graves desecrated, so burials are frequently kept secret. Tana El Khoury’s use of the term ‘martyr’ for her subjects reminds us of the original meaning of the word: one who bears witness, or gives testimony. Her work has honoured lives which would otherwise be unknown to us – as the horrendous statistics of the dead and displaced of Syria continue to dominate the news, it is good to be placed in direct engagement with the human stories behind the terrible stats. There’s an odd tug between reality and artifice in this voicing of words placed in a dead man’s mouth, but although it is a fictionalising of a story that can never be told by its protagonist, I feel I have met Abu Khaled.


Jo Bannon: Exposure. Photo Manuel Vason

Right across the map, in the south-east corner of the city, in a raggle-taggle area of coach stations, disused buildings, and muralled walls is The Edge, a rough and ready artist studio space that is put to use as the Fierce Festival Hub: pop-up café, late-night bar, and a venue for some of the work – including Jo Bannon’s Exposure. Small-scale one-on-one performance with autobiographical content is probably the fastest-growing form of practice within contemporary live art. Anyone who has been to the National Review of Live Art will have experienced scores of these encounters. All this a prelude to saying that it is a pleasure to see the form used well. Exposure tells a small but perfectly formed story – a story of looking and being looked at, exploring the difference between looking and seeing. Using recorded text (Jo Bannon’s words, which she chooses to relay mediated rather than live, for reasons she explains to the listener), and an interplay between darkness and focused bright light, the piece reflects on the artist’s life as someone born with almost no pigment in her retina (‘albino’ in the common parlance). The childhood experience of being stared at in public spaces, of being aware that she is different to her sister, the subject of scientific study, is subverted as we are invited to look, to see, to be looked at, to be seen. Not to flinch from seeing and from being seen for what we are. Just 5 minutes long, but a timeless experience, rich and resonant.


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Dina Roncevic: Car Deconstructions. Photo James Allan

Even further afield, at a car mechanics’ workshop in Digbeth, an area of old warehouses and brick railway arches that is fast becoming a destination for artists and makers, Croatian artist and car mechanic Dina Roncevic and her team of 10- to 12-year-old girls are busy with Car Deconstructions, which is pretty much what it says on the can. The girls have received some rudimentary training in mechanics and coachworks, and over three days dissemble a car down to its component parts. In the front of the garage, a pile of wheels, fenders, nuts, and bolts is building up. Behind the pile is the car, with a crew of girls in boilersuits happily pulling bits apart, under Dina’s guidance. In a cage to the side, a laconic male mechanic focuses on his paperwork. (I presume he’s not necessarily part of the artwork, but his silent, unconcerned presence feels important.) Issues of social identity and gender roles are at the heart of the artist’s work. It’s a conceptually and visually interesting piece, and one which I think would be good to return to a number of times to witness the process from whole car to dissembled parts, although sadly I only have time for one short visit. I perhaps ought to add, on a personal note, that my father was a car mechanic, so I felt no sense of discomfort or alienation in this ‘masculine’ environment – on the contrary, it felt like home.


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Forced Entertainment | Tarek Atoui: The Last Adventures. Photo James Allan

And finally, beyond the city limits… Warwick Arts Centre might perhaps stretch the boundaries of Birmingham a little further than most would consider reasonable, but this was for the UK premiere of Forced Entertainment’s The Last Adventures, so a hefty contingent of Fierce attendees made the perilous rush-hour journey by train to Coventry, then stuffing into a convoy of taxis to wend their way at a painfully slow rate out of the city and across the university’s rambling campus. It was a close shave but we got in just as the show went up.

The Last Adventures sees the return to the large-scale and epic for Forced Entertainment, who have created the piece in collaboration with Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui. It features a cast of 12 (company members Richard Lowden, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden and Terry O’Connor, and a team of guest performers, including Mark Etchells) and each new location adds in a guest musician – in this case, Japanese electronica/’cosmic noise’ artist KK Null. As far as I can gather, Tarek Atoui has created the base score, and each invited collaborating musician is free to create whatever sound design they wish to place over this, with a very short rehearsal period for the elements to be integrated. Shades of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, perhaps? Certainly, the concept reminds me of Cage’s Music-circus, in which no notes or forms of music are prescribed in the composer’s set of instructions to guest musicians.

At the start of the piece, we see two performers sitting on chairs, facing the other ten, also sat on chairs, classroom style. There is a long call-and-response section, a typical Forced Ents list of things that are both foolish and philosophical: ‘A bridge cannot apologise’ says a caller, and back comes the parroted response: ‘a bridge cannot apologise’. Sometimes there are tongue-in-cheek word plays and inversions: ‘People eat animals’ and ‘animals eat people’. Sometimes a line is repeated as a kind of chorus: ‘Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong’. Shards of intense electronic sound cuts through the words. After a while, people leave, one chair after another taken away. The voices stop. A forest of plywood trees takes their place. And from then on in, there is no more text – there is sound from KK, and there is visual imagery and physical action, as the company play out a seemingly chaotic treatment of familiar storybook tropes and archetypes – kings and soldiers, princesses and dragons. In one of the strongest scenes, a childish war-game erupts – all overcoats, tin-pot helmets, broom-handle bayonets, and red ribbons streams of blood. It’s stupid, funny and heartbreaking all at once. This is a show in which the company’s dressing-up box plays a central role, raided for trusty old favourites familiar from earlier shows. The skeleton costumes get an airing in a really lovely scene that plays (again, in childhood war-games mode) with obedience and disobedience. A favourite moment sees the arrival onstage of a wonky robot, standing in an uncertain way downstage before careering round wildly, losing its head, and eventually crashing. Meanwhile, Medieval maidens skip around the space, and a disjointed dragon weaves through them. The forest of trees with legs comes and goes, as does a set of similarly animated 2-D waves and clouds. The deliberately low-key, hamster-wheel-treading performance mode of the ’dancing scenery’ animators becomes tiresome after a while – no doubt tedium is the point, but it feels like we’ve been here before, and the joke wears thin. Perhaps in the massive space that the work was created in (an old coal mine in Germany), there may have been a different visual effect – a kind of Myth of Sisyphus depiction of endless travail, perhaps – but here (despite this being a good-sized stage) it just looks cramped. For the most part, KK’s contribution is a brilliant aural assault of electronic drones, and ear-splitting screeches that erupt beautifully from moments of silence. Occasionally, sampled sounds are used, and these feel rather too illustrative. It is hard to know how much of Tarek Atoui’s work remains in the current version of the piece, or whether at this stage his contribution is more the conceptual idea of an ongoing collaborative relationship between Forced Entertainment and each guest musician. It would be good to see the piece a second time with a different guest musician to really understand the nature of the collaboration better. It would also be great to see it staged in the UK in a similar environment to the space in which it was created. Theatre stages just feel too limiting for this scale of work. Location is everything!

Fierce Festival, 2–12 October 2014. Dorothy Max Prior attended the opening weekend, 3–4 October 2014. For all events and information see 

Birmingham Moor St DMP

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer working in theatre, dance, live art and street arts. Under her alter-ego Dorothy’s Shoes she creates performance work that both honours and usurps the traditions of popular dance and theatre, and plays with the relationship between performer and audience. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She is also co-director of street theatre/dance company The Ragroof Players.

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