Fierce Festival, Birmingham 22nd-27th March 2011

Published in this is tomorrow.

There was a pleasing audacity to the timing of this year’s Fierce Festival. Bursting to life during the build up to Arts Council England’s National Portfolio funding outcomes and coinciding with a weekend of mass anti-government protests, the festival offered the perfect opportunity to speculate about the future amid a moment of fragile uncertainty within in the arts ecology.

In their programme introduction, the festival’s new Artistic Directors Harun Morrison and Laura McDermott suggest that at this pivotal moment, “the kind of art that is made is shifting; perhaps a sharpening of politics, perhaps radicalised ways of relating to the audience are emerging.” Born as Queerfest in 1998 under the Directorship of Mark Ball, Fierce has existed since the time when culture first became wedded to regeneration via the mandates of a Labour Party, who declared that the arts should be “central to the task of recreating community, identity and civic pride that define our country.” Years later in a moment when Big Society rhetoric begins to force notions of participation and community into the territory of cynicism, how might a festival such as Fierce reflect new ideas in localism, urbanism and engagement with political activism?

I arrived in Birmingham on the first day of Fierce as a complete newcomer to the landscape of the city. Intrigued by use of the term ‘hyperlocal’ on the front of the festival brochure, I sought a selection of public realm artworks to help me stake out this new territory. My first encounter was with ‘Burningham,’ by French architecture collective EXYZT: a temporary structure built in collaboration with local community groups and designed to host talks, exhibitions and social gatherings. Positioned on abandoned Curzon Street, along the route of the proposed HS2 high-speed rail link, the work was intended by its placement to breathe life into a dead area of Birmingham’s industrial landscape. Having been offered food and warm conversation, I lingered on the site forming new acquaintances in a space where there would previously have only been an abandoned patch of grass.

Fierce’s Artistic Director Harun Morrison explains the term ‘hyperlocal’ as culture ‘made by the people of a site, for the people of that site.’ Differing from the more familiar term ‘site specific,’ hyperlocality is a direct reflection of a vernacular politic or agenda. On the second day of the festival I participated in Kayak Libre by Manu Luksch and Mukul Patel, a work that invited the audience to take a water taxi service along part of Birmingham’s canal network, while engaging in a conversation with the ‘driver’ about how this archaic from of transport might play a role in the future of the local community. Utopian in its ambitions, the work had a strong political and environmental intent. But as a first time visitor to Birmingham, the real joy of this project was in the interactions it facilitated with the baffled joggers and dog walkers that I encountered, as I kayaked purposefully down one of the most derelict and dirty waterways in the city.

On the 26th March 2011 (the penultimate day of the festival) an artist acquaintance of mine participated in the mass anti cuts protest that took place on the streets of London, wielding a banner emblazoned with the slogan, “David Cameron, all artists hate you.” Although crude in its sentiments, this statement speaks volumes about the increasing schism between artists and cultural policy and about the candid language that art is ready to use to articulate its antipathy to power. While much of the work in this year’s Fierce Festival had no need for such directness, its playful concern for localism and political engagement speaks volumes about the important role festivals can play in animating a city. Art should not simply be a tool for encouraging tourism, regeneration or any other of the deeply instrumental terms that are often brandished by policy makers in order to validate its existence. It should act as a catalyst for offering changed perspectives on the world through interaction, dialogue and play. Its fantastic news that given its recently announced National Portfolio status, Fierce will be able to continue with this good work for may years to come!

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