It feels like the dust has settled a bit on the live art extravaganza of the first ever Buzzcut festival, which took over the Old Hairdressers and then the Glue Factory for a five day celebration of radical art making and general performance radge-ness. But I wanted to a share a wee reflection on here anyway.
A total festival in its own right, Buzzcut has been linked to Behaviour through shared publicity, and occasional sharing space with the Arches (Richard Layzell did a workshop here, which I heard was smashing). It was programmed and organised by Rosana Cade and Nick Anderson and a team of tireless volunteers, and was self-consciously framed as a response to the sudden loss of New Territories and the festival formerly known as the National Review of Live Art. But Buzzcut is its own thing, and – from what I could tell from the two days I spent at the festival – had its own identity and its own exciting, upstart, energetic sense of itself, right from the get go. For this reason, when thinking about Buzzcut I’ve personally tried to resist the temptation to talk about it in the same breath as NRLA and New Territories, because to do so might be to mis-represent the uniqueness of each.
Although, having offered that qualifying sentence, I am now inevitably going to spend the rest of this post talking about Buzzcut and New Territories in completely the same breath, repeatedly. Sorry about that.
New Territories was an institution. A prestigious one. An institution that had been influential on generations of contemporary performance makers and had consistently brought international cutting edge work to audiences in Glasgow and shattered paradigms in the minds of undergraduate students across the country for years. It is for these reasons that it will be sorely missed, but this is also something that is impossible to replicate straight away. Buzzcut could never be New Territories, at least not straight away, not without making a decision to set out to do what it did and committing to it for years, decades even, with focus and dedication. But, I’d suggest, it was precisely all the ways in which Buzzcut was not New Territories that made it a such special and exciting event.
Whenever I went to NRLA I would always see something amazing, and also see lots of work that I found frustrating, or difficult in an ungratifying way, or navel-gazing, or something. That’s arguably as it should be for a eclectic experimental festival. I’m certainly not alone in this. And, if a piece of work had really left me cold, I wasn’t alone in wanting to sound off about it either (a friend of mine once, complaining of what he saw as excessive posturing and self-absorption, dubbed the festival Nobody Really Likes Art). Because with the prestige, and the influential significance, and the international scope, comes a whole set of expectations around an event, which condition a spectator’s relationship to it. Like any major established event in the calendar of any art-form, NRLA felt like a Big Deal. And if you’ve navigated the complex festival programme, paid for your festival pass, queued for the internationally established artist who everyone is talking about, and then ultimately left feeling cold you will arguably be well-disposed towards feeling a little pissed off about that experience.
At Buzzcut I probably saw an equal range of work at the old NRLA that was. As I said, this is good. This is as it should be for an eclectic experimental festival. Some stuff I thought was great, including work by Andrew Houston, Edd Crawley, Laura Bradshaw, Murray Wason, and Ultimate Dancer, to name a few. Other stuff I was less keen on. But crucially, I never left feeling annoyed, or frustrated in the way I might have done at NRLA. At Buzzcut, it was so clear the main thing holding the whole ambitious gig together was the collective optimism, hard work, generosity, and passion of those involved. And as a spectator you can’t help but connect with that, and engage with the event – and so, the work that it contains – on those terms. You can’t help but want to be generous. If you see something you don’t like, but you’ve just shown up and paid what you can and been given a bowl of hot home-made soup to ward off the warehouse venue chill, and the artist or company is there simply because they want to share the work with you, and the festival is only happening because some people believed enough in community and in art to make it happen – well – it is obviously a lot fucking harder to want to want to feel resentful about anything in those circumstances.
An important point of clarity: I’m absolutely not talking about a kind of “aren’t they doing their best against the odds” kind of forgiving-ness here. This was a live art festival of real scope and quality as far as my non-expert eyes could tell. What I’m talking about is how Buzzcut had a particular spirit of generosity and celebration and enthusiasm which characterised the event, and in turn defined my relationship to it as an audience member. There was a closeness between audience and performer that is much harder to find in big established, institutional settings. In short, it was genuinely grass-roots, and this, for me, was a huge part of what made it special. Spending a full day at Buzzcut, I enjoyed the whole day as a day, appreciated the whole event for what it was, in way that I don’t think I was ever quite capable of at NRLA.
The really difficult and interesting thing will be in figuring out this can be maintained, and whether it can be. Of course maybe part of what made this First Ever Buzzcut unique was the sense of urgency and newness that is particular to a very successful First Ever, and there is no point chasing that down and trying to recapture it entirely because it will never again be a First Ever. But thinking about how it might move forward does raise some interesting questions. Can the grassroots spirit survive the inevitable bureaucracy of the introduction of funding? Can the organisers of the event maintain the huge output of physical, mental and emotional energy required, year after year, while not getting paid and still having to work elsewhere to make a living? If the event is going to be able to continue to serve a vital function for experimental performance in Glasgow then isn’t greater support going to be necessary?
There will be those who will suggest that the spirit of the grassroots and the bureaucracy of funding are irreconcilable. I’d disagree, and suggest that to expect artists to work for free and producers to organise events for nothing is very different than to admire them when they choose to do so out of a passionate response to an urgent need and a belief in the importance of what they do. Obviously there are contexts where art can and should exist without money being involved, and contexts where great things happen against the odds of great financial constraint – brilliant. My fear though is that these days I hear too many people in the arts world who would probably align themselves with the political left using language that is inadvertently supportive of the austerity agenda and the rhetoric of Davey Cameron’s Big Society by suggesting that there is no problem in expecting artists and people in the arts to work for free, simply because they believe fiercely in the value of what they do. Everyone should believe in the value of what they do. If you can’t believe in the value of what you do then it probably shouldn’t exist as a job.
But of course it is complicated. Because how does a festival like Buzzcut stay light on its feet, responsive, oppositional, and radical? How does it maintain a vital spirit of generosity between audience and performer while finding a way for people to get paid in return for their work? In this rambling reflection my thoughts turn to Forest Fringe, who I think have done a pretty good job over the years of striking a decent balance in amongst some of these issues. They’ve deliberately avoided a drift towards the establishment, they’ve emphatically not become Underbelly, but they’ve used their burgeoning reputation to allow some of the artists that make up their festival programmes to grow with them. Who knows what is going to happen to Forest Fringe in Edinburgh in August given the recent closure of the Forest Café, which provides it with its home and its name, but in previous years, the philosophy has always been that the space is given for free, and everyone – including the producers – works on a gift basis in order to keep all the events free to audiences. There are difficulties here of course, but in the context of the hyper-commercialised money glut of the Edinburgh Fringe, this feels like an important part of the political and artistic purpose of the event. They’ve deliberately decided to stick with this, and found ways of making it work; like last year getting in a technical manager in Jim Harrison, on a job-swap basis. But, crucially, throughout the rest of year, at music festivals, and at their own microfestivals across the country and abroad, Forest Fringe use the leverage of what they’ve collectively achieved in Edinburgh to create contexts in which experimental artists can be paid for their work, and not only that but expand its reach and connect with a wider range of audiences.
But I was talking about Buzzcut, which as I’ve already said can only and should only be its own unique thing. And of course, this conversation will be nothing new to Buzzcut team. They’ll probably be chewing over all these things right now, unless they’re still too exhausted, catching their breath and taking a well-earned rest. They may have opinions that are totally different from mine. Whatever they choose to do, will be their choice, made for the right reasons. They may decide to apply for some funding, they may decide to do it again exactly the same, they may set up a company, they may decide that it was a special one-off and leave it at that. Whatever they do, all power to them. The point is, I’m just speculating. It’s their baby.
But since we’re here, what do you think? About Buzzcut as an event, about its future, and also more generally about the whole Grassroots/ Money/ Art As Gift/ Art As Labour/ Big Society/ DIY/ Weighty Institutions/ Light-Footed Reactive Communities/ Counter-Mainstream/ Form As Content/ Resist Exploitation/ Stop Making Capitalism/ Fandango?
Rosie, you can get comments on this thing right?
@RosieArches You certainly can… comments in the box below, please!