Traumata, Achillia | Photo: Tilly May

Tempting Failure 2013 promised ‘an immersive experience of live art & noise’. It certainly delivered. Curated and produced by Thomas John Bacon, the festival is now in its second year.

The setting? The Island, a disused police station situated at the heart of inner city Bristol. The site itself stank of a rich history of authority and social control, rules and regulation. I found this provided the perfect backdrop against which to transgress a multitude of borders and boundaries. Narrow, dank and dirty cells housed intimate and durational performance works, whilst larger areas such as the Main, Holding and Isolation spaces offered room for set-time pieces to be witnessed. Every functioning area was transformed into a usable space, with live, video, noise, participatory and installation works showing simultaneously. Programming concurrent works did leave me a little disappointed that I couldn’t see everything, but on the upside I was continually drawn to investigate everything and anything, not wanting to miss out on viewing something beautiful or grotesque, shocking or sublime.

Traumata’s Achillia was a set-time piece, performed in the Isolation Block, an empty, whitewashed room with flaky floors and peeling paint. A circle of spilt milk gently trickled across the dirty floor. It glistened poetically in artificial light. The female performer entered, half clothed in a long white gown which trailed the floor. Scar tissue on the performer’s exposed upper torso bore the marks of performances past; a body in trauma which lived to tell the tale. Milk began to bleed upwards into the fabric as faint drops of crimson blood spotted the robe, hinting at an underlying injury. Slowly, and with conviction, she bound her wrists. The skirt was gradually lifted to expose needles which pierced her skin above each knee. After mental preparation, the performer walked to her left. She squatted, back straight against the wall in a seated position, arms above the head. The position was held for an extended period, during which the physical manifestations of a body struggling against exhaustion begun to take form. Skin reddened, thighs shook, face contorted; signals of a body in pain, desperate to resist its own weakness. I was transfixed. I felt an almost sadistic pleasure in watching her muscles begin to weaken and shake, violently. Internally, I screamed over and over for her to continue: ‘don’t give up!’ I longed for her to win the battle against herself. Inevitably, she slumped to the floor having lost. Standing up, she walked to the centre of the space, stood within the milk once more and removed a needle. Blood tickled down the leg and swirled itself into the white liquid at her feet; a moment of visual pleasure, abject horror and corporeal transgression. For me, Traumata’s performance was about the feminine struggle against a history of patriarchal tradition and virtue. I saw the performer as an ideological feminine figure, both maternal and virtuous. Draping herself in white linen and surrounding herself with milk, she was both Mother and Virgin. What I enjoyed the most about this performance was the complete deconstruction of these socially fashioned feminine roles. She displayed an ‘other’ femininity, both carnal and strong.

Similarly, Rachel Parry’s Blind Breath was a visual spectacle of private suffering and feminine strength. Blind Breath charted Parry’s torment at the loss of an unborn child. Carving a heart shaped insignia into her chest, Parry used her own blood in a desperate attempt to give life to an ice head sculpture, cast from her own face. The emotional exhaustion she experienced in the piece led her to wailing uncontrollably as she exhaled with each breath. Hearing her voice break stirred a highly emotive response from members of the audience, which left many with empathetic tears trickling down reddened cheeks. The inevitability of the ice head melting away during the live performance poignantly highlighted the sense of loss the performance was portraying.

Angela Edwards’ Surrenders Destruction – Acéphale, Part 1 2013 also took place in Cell Two, an old police holding cell which had in the past been used to house the arrested. As I entered the space, I smiled as I wondered what the authorities would make of this scenario: a naked female body, wrists bound, blindfolded, lying on a dirty steel bed; an objectified body to be used and abused. To the left were a series of implements Edwards invited the audience to use upon her: knives, sex toys and condoms. As I entered, two people were knelt before her, slowly tickling her skin with butcher’s knives. The suspense at this point was quite high; a little slip of the hand would bring blood oozing to the surface, seeping out of the audience inflicted wound. It was at this point that an audience member entered and declared ‘I’m performing an intervention’, took off her coat and covered Edwards’ naked body. The performance changed at this point, and it was never able to bring back that sense of tension, fear or immediate danger. Audience members entering the space now chose to nurture the performer, clothe her, stroke her hair and talk softly into her ear. To the performer, who obviously hoped to invite the audience to participate in a series of sadistic actions upon her body with the implements she provided, it might have seemed that the performance failed. The lack of control being exerted by the performer paradoxically led to the audience feeling the need to take control of the environment, make it a safe space again. This warmed me actually, and I felt a genuine sense of compassion being exerted by the audience.

Yiota Demetriou’s Love Letters also took place in a cell. Demetriou invited audience members to write a note to a loved one, both on paper and on her own body. Examples of different types of love were printed off and hastily sellotaped onto the walls. It looked scruffy and I didn’t feel compelled to read what it said. The real saving grace of this performance was in the final action. Demetriou invited her audience to blow red or blue powder paint over her face and body. Scooping a good handful, I took a deep breath and steadily blew it upon her. It was such a satisfying gesture, as the fine consistency of the powder meant that it clouded up and lingered in the air, engulfing the performer in the space, vibrant colour whirling about her body. It was a truly magical moment. I was transported into an enchanted space, spreading fairy dust, making a wish, painting the landscape. The performer smiled at me as I stood back and watched the colourful dust settle upon her skin. I loved her! I stood back and watched others perform the same action. It was such a visual delight. Transfixed, I watched it many, many times over. Leaving the space, my hands were still stained from holding the powdered paint. I felt a sense of connectedness with other audience members who were drifting through The Island with sullied hands. They too had shared in the magic.

NW’s Cup was a noise piece which delivered a delicious mix of screeching sounds and boundless, childlike energy. NW, a male performer, knelt before a mixing desk. Silently, and with a beaming smile upon his face, he dedicated the time to ‘cheers’ every single member of the audience with his plastic cup which came complete with attached contact mic. As he poured water into the cup, sounds of the glugging liquid were projected around the space via his connected speakers – a simple action transformed into an audio event. As the performer drank from a water bottle, he held the cup to his chest; the sounds of the liquid moving downwards along his internal digestive tract was heard around the space, the internal now becoming external. Because he was topless, and I was sitting behind him and viewing his back, I was able to witness the inner workings of his body; lungs, diaphragm, muscles, expanding and contracting as he thrashed about on his knees. As the energy built, NW began to breathlessly moan into the cup. The audio was edited, extended and exaggerated within the space, delivering a deeply melancholic sound which eerily lingered in my mind. As the sound grew to an almost unbearable level, the performer stood up and began to rock back and forth, forcing breath into the cup, skin sweating, eyes bulging, energy expelling from his every pore. As he fell to the floor, screams of exhaustion could be heard faintly in the background of this audio symphony. For me, the joy of this performance came from its apparent simplicity; one man and his cup. The use of silence and stillness at the start of the performance was contrasted well by the extreme energy and high intensity of the enveloping soundscape. I was extremely pleased to see the performer firmly position his own body at the heart of his performance, as all too often noise artists hide behind their various technologies. Here, technology and the body came together in order to produce a well-crafted performative piece with a strong dramatic curve.

Hannah Millest’s Run to Run was a participatory, durational piece that engaged audiences throughout the evening, set up at the back of the Main Space. Millest’s interactive project required participants to stand upon a square table and run. Sensors picked up on the pace of the runner, which in turn moved an animated figure on screen through various life journeys. If the pace of the runner slowed down too much, the figure suffered from a premature death. Starting with birth, the figure goes through adolescence, loves and losses, university, buying a house, marriage, having a child, middle age and eventually… I never got that far to find out! Wanting to see the eventual outcome of my stick figures life, and the sheer frustration of not being able to keep up the pace of running for that length of time made me come back and try again and again. This piece was addictive. Each time I tried that little bit harder, and each time I seemed to fail right at the last hurdle. If ever a piece encapsulated the term ‘tempting failure’, it was this.

There were many ‘failures’ I witnessed during Tempting Failure. Traumata failed to win the battle against her own body whilst repeatedly squatting against the wall, and Parry inevitably failed to give life to her ice head sculpture which slowly melted away to nothing, without trace. Both of these performances, along with Millets Run to Run, embedded failure within the performance. They invited it. Tempted it. In a wider sense, I think Temping Failure provoked me to consider live art as a medium which embraces failure by its very nature. The artists body, which sits firmly in the frame of most live art practice, is a problematic vessel. The body is weak, frail and tires easily. It decays, withers and eventually dies. I find the performance work which tries to challenge the body and its frailties engages me the most. Work which fights failure, or at the very least attempts to.

Tempting Failure gave me access to a vast array of live art, noise and performance work over its marathon nine-hour showcase; works which captivated and challenged, shocked and saddened, traumatised and transfixed me. The Island’s rich architectural history brought a contextual background to the table which affected my understanding and interpretation of all the works I’d witnessed, realising a whole other level of contemplation and complexity. Traumata’s battle against feminine conformity, and Edwards’ invitation to abhorrently abuse her naked form, seemed all the more poignant in this space. I’m not sure if I would have felt the same level of visceral subversion, had I seen these pieces in a pleasantly lit theatre space for example. And I think this is key. The success of the event was in part down to the genius of programming work within the building itself. The Island posed a space in which to continually disgruntle ‘The Establishment’, and I look forward to more deviation from Tempting Failure in 2014!

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