Bennett Miller Dachshund U.N.

Painting with your arse. Rape alarms to the head. A pyre of hopes and fears. Feet on fire. Berlin in Birmingham. Billet-doux. So far, so Fierce!
Now in its 14th year, Birmingham-based live-art extravaganza Fierce Festival was originally founded as Queerfest in 1998 by Mark Ball. After a two-year hiatus, the festival relaunched last year, when former Battersea Arts Centre programmers Laura McDermott and Harun Morrison stepped in to co-direct.
The pair moved to Birmingham to helm the event – immersing themselves in the city that makes the highly site-specific festival so, well, Fierce.
‘I think there’s a distinctiveness to how things are done in Birmingham’, says McDermott. ‘The location affects the way the events are put together – most strikingly in the amount of physical space which is not developed and unpopulated.

‘It feels very present and possible here – because there’s a lot less saturated art scene here there’s a lot more collaboration, and there’s some really exciting practitioners.’

There’s no doubt that the surreal rawness that envelops much of Fierce couldn’t be recreated elsewhere. The eerie, desolate streets of its Digbeth home are the perfect stetting for the upside-down aesthetic of experimentation; making even artist havens like Hackney Wick in the capital seem overtly jostling and gentrified in comparison.

McDermott says, ‘We use the art to help us get under the skin of the city and the psychology of it – the artists really use the art to explore and burrow into it.’

Graeme Miller Track

This notion of being a ‘tourist in your own city’ and viewing the environs in new and unexpected ways is at the fore in Graeme Miller’s Track –  a moving, one-on-one installation that sees participants moved along a 100 metre length of track, facing upwards and gazing up at the intersection of Spaghetti Junction.

Another of this year’s highlights is the Australian artist Bennett Miller’s Dachshund U.N. – a scale-replica installation sculpture of the former UN office in Geneva, with politicians replaced by live Dachshunds.
The sculpture is activated by the participation of the dogs – and this participatory element is a trope carried throughout the festival’s events. Berlin Love Tour, by Dublin-based company Playgroup, takes the form of a walking tour around the city – led by the obligatory bright umbrella. The tour imaginatively reconfigures Birmingham as Berlin, both in physicality and the emotions and remembrances of the tour guide.
It’s a tale of physical monuments and emotional monuments erected to the past – of found love and lost love; of a city crumbling to the beat of a heart doing the same. It’s a novel idea – if a little lengthy in the cold – and one that we feel could have perhaps made better use of the space, with the frequently mawkish tears feeling at times trite, rather than moving.

There was nothing trite, however, about the aptly surreal Holy Mountain Party. Inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain, a series of visceral performances were accompanied by music from one half of The Knife, Oni Ayhun and Joseph Quimby.

A brilliant performance by Joost Nieuwenburg saw the artist striding nonchalantly around a floor embedded with match heads, igniting fire with each sweeping footstep. Elsewhere, in homage to the ‘bum painting’ film scene, Fierce laid on trays of red and green paint, inviting the audience to drop their trousers, dip their asses and sit on large sheets of paper. Emboldened by performative spirit, a desire to subvert and, yes, wine, Volt Café took this one step further – creating some brilliant – and very, very fierce tit paintings…

A less dissident performance was the somewhat Hallmark-ish Love Letters Straight from the Heart, by Bristol-based collective Uninvited Guests. Prior to the performance, audience members had been asked to submit dedications and accompanying songs, to be read out in a drawn-out DJ-set-cum-love-story.
Flagrantly discounting the festival’s boundary-pushing ethos (and obviously, its original name), there was a glaring omission of same-sex dedications; and an embarrassing fawning to gender stereotypes. The woman wears a pretty white dress, dances all cutesy-cutesy, bats her eyelashes; the man sports a suit – afraid to open his heart until the final cheesy denouement.

Taking the interactive element back to its surprising and discomforting best is London-based artist Reynir Hutber’s Stay Behind the Line. Her video installations project the image of the viewer into a white-washed room containing Hutber’s naked, cold but twitching body – an eerie work that subverts the idea of viewer and artist, making them merge into one voyeuristic piece.
As in the playfulness of the Holy Mountain Party, Hutber’s work is a case of the unexpected  – a primeval jugular shot of emotion and unease that best showcases what Fierce is all about. This is what we want – the ‘collision’ the festival purports – not the mawkish retelling of failed relationships, or a piece derived around tired man/woman stereotypes. This is where Fierce succeeds – in feeding our desire for the unexpected and the subversive.

As McDermott says, ‘We want work that’s striking, and conceptual, and vigorous. We’re providing a space where new ideas can be pushed and explored. [Live art] is such a transient thing that it’s the ripples it creates and the myth that’s left behind that keeps you going.’

She’s right. We don’t want live art that’s clean and pretty, neatly housed in a gallery space or a fiction dinner party: we want to wake up covered tit to arse in paint, hair smelling of match sulphur, mindful not to trip over a projected naked woman. That, readers, is fierce.

Images thanks to Fierce

Words by Emily Gosling


Bennett Miller, Emily Gosling, Fierce Festival, Graeme Miller, Joost Niewenburg, Reynir Hutber, The Knife,