Festival Profile – An Example of Something Inside Out

Frank Wasser reports on FIX 21 as both a performer and observer.

Rachel McManus, Keep Smiling, 2021, performance at FIX21; photograph by Ben Malcomson, courtesy the artist and Catalyst Arts. Rachel McManus, Keep Smiling, 2021, performance at FIX21; photograph by Ben Malcomson, courtesy the artist and Catalyst Arts.

I am writing this sentence during a five-hour durational lecture-performance, entitled Title, to be announced (2021). I am the performer, and the performance has so far lasted about 45 minutes. There is an audience, which upon last glance consisted of five people – six including my own body. I am writing this on my iPhone, which is concealed from the audience by a white towel that has the words ‘Hospital Property’ woven into its fabric. I am in the strange space of writing an article about a festival that I am in participating in, while also trying to make sense of something irreducible to language. 

Moments later, I switch from the Microsoft Word application on my phone to an Instagram live streaming of the performance. I can see the audience around me are waiting patiently for something to happen, while ten viewers (located around Ireland and Europe) are simultaneously watching my every action online. In the onscreen image, a faint light shines beneath the towel as I walk slowly towards a desk. Many books, notebooks, objects and a laptop are carefully arranged on its surface. 

All of this is happening at Catalyst Arts in Belfast as part of FIX21 – a long-running performance art biennale, staged during the last two weeks of October. The 2021 edition celebrated performance and live art from Belfast and across Europe, online and in real life with the biennale’s thematic framework summarised by the title ‘Super Inclusion’. This year Catalyst exploited the proliferation and potential for online-based works (brought about during the pandemic) by working with other institutions globally. All online works were also screened in the gallery. Collaborating institutions included MS:T Performative Arts (Canada), OUTPOST (UK), Cabbage (UK) and AMEE (Spain). FIX21 also focused on the works of Belfast-based artists and invited Catalyst members, including me. 

MS:T (Mountain Standard Time) Performative Arts presented A story about an almost dead dog (2021) by Halie Finny – a work which foregrounds a multitude of images of bodies, human and non-human. The work complicates ideas of liminal spaces of grief, life and the afterlife. ‘The body’ or ‘bodies’ are the central conceit of many of the works in this biennale. Having watched most of the performances online, my body arrived in Belfast on the penultimate day of the festival. 

Upon entering the gallery, Husk Bennet, a recent graduate and Belfast-based artist, is performing. MeNtAliyY oF ThE hIvE mInD (2021) situates the artist at the centre of the gallery, sitting at a desk, wearing a white garment and a large papier-mâché head. Bennet makes drawings on acetate and projects them onto the gallery walls, only to trace them roughly with black paint, using brushes made from the artist’s hair attached to long sticks. Child-like drawings immediately and deliberately undermine the formal conventions of the exhibition space. Whether intentional or not, what comes to the fore is the performance of decision-making. Husk flips through a folder of sample acetates in the middle of the performance, as if deciding what to do next. In fact, each contribution to FIX21 feels like an example. Making an example of something changes the meaning of that thing. As Giorgio Agamben has posited: “What the example shows is its belonging to a class, but for this very reason the example steps out of its class in the very moment in which it exhibits and delimits itself”¹.

My attention is diverted to the other side of the gallery, where Bojana Janković is standing behind another table, waiting patiently to engage in conversation with a viewer. I approach the table cautiously, ever wary of participatory art. Janković’s work is titled Just Gibanica (2021). In the press release, food, questions, and moments of awkwardness are promised, and all are delivered upon. Janković offers me a slice of gibanica, which she tells me is savoury Yugoslavian dish. It is packaged in a small cardboard box and offered to me as a gift. Janković explains that she is a first-generation immigrant from Serbia and proceeds to tell me about the low paid labour of Serbian immigrants living and working in Belfast. I am then invited to vote on whether I think the artist should be paid the artist fee (£200) or the much lower wages of an immigrant working in catering. The piece provokes the viewer to consider the complicated business of how we determine value outside and inside the context of art, as well as bringing attention to the dreadful working conditions of immigrants. I ask the artist if they think making art is a job? She seemed surprised by this question – surprised that I would think that artmaking isn’t a job, at least not in terms of how work is defined under capitalism. 

Each performance was accompanied by a text by an invited writer. These texts took many forms, from Padraig Regan’s concise footnotes on my own performance, to poetic responses from Jennifer Alexander on the work of Sinéad O’Neill-Nicholl. 

The importance of a festival such as FIX21 cannot be underestimated as a platform giving opportunities to emerging artists, writers and curators to test work and take risks. That such a festival was executed in such a detailed way in the midst of a global pandemic is a credit to the current directors. This is performance art in the twenty-first century, whereupon bodies are splayed and scattered across an array of platforms and dislocated perceptions operate within the territory of doubt and risk. 

Frank Wasser is an Irish artist and writer who lives and works in London.

Notes:

¹Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p22.