Got to love Fierce!

Fierce Festival 2005: The Great Swallow, Benjamin Verdonck from Fierce Festival TV on Vimeo.

Last night I was privileged to be part of In Many Hands a performance conceived by Kate McIntosh and mostly performed by its audience. The premise is fantastically simple – a group of people sit side by side at a long table and pass materials down a line to each other – the unfolding and execution of the idea is very elegant and the choice of materials assured. The minimalism of event allows us, even forces us to think about our relationship with objects, the materiality of materials, the distinction between sight and touch, nature and modern humanity.

Hold on, and extraordinary piece of international performance art, happening in Birmingham, could it be Fierce! time again?

It surely is.

For about six days every couple of years Birmingham UK becomes the centre of the Live/Performance Art world because Fierce! invite a beyond ordinary bunch of artists to do their not very usual kind of thing in and around and about this city. I love it. Even when I don’t love it I love it.

Years ago I had to acknowledge and come peace with the fact that I’m too squeamish for the whole body art strand of the festival and it has always been clear that I’m too uptight for camp clubby side of things. I’m also quite tough to please in the whole austere performative action end of things. However despite all this, plus rarely being comfortable having to ‘participate’ in performances, I wholeheartedly celebrate all that Fierce! is, that all these strands exist for those who love them, and that despite being a jaded, grumpy, cynic somewhere in the program I can always find – or be directed to – a gem that I love and which stays with me and changes the way I think about art and life. What’s not to celebrate in all that?

We’ve grown up with Fierce! In 1998 Mark Ball founded Queerfest and the following year enfranchised us by rebranding as Fierce! Mark was/is a visionary ringmaster. By mixing very visible public performances, such The Great Swallow, for which Benjamin Verdonck built a giant bird’s nest on the side of The Rotunda, with high profile provocative artists such as Ron Athey, Mark ensured his fledgling festival was visible and talked about both on the streets and in the media.

From its early editions Fierce! was a festival of national significance and it is interesting to reflect now on the controversy that swirled around it in those early years. Is the decline in media hysteria around the festival because our society has become more familiar with and accepting of LGBTQ+ culture since then? Or is the decline in hysteria directly linked to the decline in the old media itself? Unfortunately the hysteria found on social media suggests it may be a bit more of the latter than the former.

When Mark moved on he was succeeded by the team of Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison. who it appears from the outside brought a more, process based, grass roots approach to programming.

Now Aaron Wright is at the wheel and steering an assured course mixing a rich international programme with artist development and audience engagement.

So in chronological order these are my top Fierce! performances (minus those I’ve forgotten or no longer remember as being part of Fierce!).

The Great Swallow – see above. A great and startling intervention in the city.

Dachshund UN by Bennett Miller – performed outside Ikon Gallery – playful and hilarious and provocative. A mock up of the United Nations general assembly with Dachshund’s taking the place of the politicians. A show celebrating our ability of an audience to anthropomorphise reading intrigue, snubs, skulduggery and grossly unprofessional behaviour into unwitting improvisations of the canine actors. MUCH better and weirdly more serious than it sounds!

Track by Graeme Miller – under Spaghetti Junction. Audience members lie flat on their backs on a small platform on rails and are slowly pushed along a track under a section of the motorway intersection. MUCH better than it sounds (and I always thought it sounded pretty excellent).

Becoming an Image – Heather Cassils. Performed at our venue @ A E Harris. We are all stood in a circle around the heavily muscled performer who in turn is stood beside a smooth rectangular monolith of clay as tall as she is. The lights go out, it’s pitch black we hear punching sounds and someone gasping for breath. A photographer’s flashbulb occasionally gives us an instant of the action as Cassils pummels the clay as if it were a punch bag. Eventually the punching sound stop, the lights go up to reveal a sweating, exhausted performer stood beside a much mutilated lump of clay. MUCH better than it sounds!

And now In May Hands – Kate McIntosh – The Rep Studio. Audience members pass stuff to each other. MUCH better than it sounds!

You may have gathered now that one of the great things Fierce! has taught me over the years is that you should never judge a thing until you have experienced the thing, just hearing it described and imagining what it may be like doesn’t really do the job.

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