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> > > Spill Festival 2015 - the fiery spirit of marginalisation

25 November 2015

SPILL Festival is an experimental artist-led festival produced by UK-based arts organisation Pacitti Company. This year's festival took place across multiple venues in London between 28 October and 8 November. Artist, and former SPILL performer Dr Martin O'Brien gives his personal response to the festival as a whole.

A photograph of Cassils' Inextinguishable Fire, showing the artist, in protective clothing covered in flames

Cassils Inextinguishable Fire

The final performance of Spill Festival has just finished and I am sat in the Dorfman Theatre at the National. The capacity audience is in stunned silence. We have just witnessed something extraordinary. The Canadian born, LA-based artist Cassils was stood centre stage wearing only a pair of black y-fronts when we entered the theatre some 25 minutes earlier for Inextinguishable Fire. Cassils statuesque body on the vast Dorfman stage was a remarkable image that was at once powerful, life affirming yet vulnerable.

The ambiguity of gender on their body conflated any easy understandings of a male/female binary. As a trans identifying artist, Cassils’ body (and body of work) has often asked us to look at gender as fluid, in flux, as difficult and slippery, and perhaps most profoundly as sculptable. As we witnessed Cassils’ body being dressed in layers of clothing all coated in gel causing them to shiver from the cold, an ever growing rumbling sound was shaking me to my core.

A flash of light and the stage is back-lit by powerful white light burning deep into our eyes. It is an assault on the senses. An assistant approaches Cassils with a burning torch, he slowly lifts it into the air. The tension is unbearable, he points the torch towards Cassils feet and cries out ‘you’re on fire’. The entire stage in plunged into darkness, as we witness Cassils’ body ablaze. The dancing fire being the only light we have. We feel the heat, we wait, Cassils burns. Three assistants dash over with fire extinguishers and soon the overwhelming intensity of fire is replaced by clouds emerging from Cassils and the fire is out. Lights up. Cassils stands and quickly leaves. I’m breathless. Cassils, my heart is on fire. You’ve set my heart on fire. 

It was fitting that Spill ended with this feat of endurance that spoke of the capacities and limits of bodies, that explored violence through a violent act, that awoke the audience’s senses. That grabbed us and made us feel. There is something deeply political in the engagement with such a performance. Cassils asks us to consider the plight of others outside the self-imposed risks of performance for whom extreme acts of self-destruction are not an option but, quite simply, necessary.

A photograph from Shabnam Shabaz's Snail Portrait depicting a snail on a person's hand

Shabnam Shabaz's Snail Portrait

Much of the work curated at Spill this year opened up a space of discussion around the politics of our bodies. Robert Pacitti curated a festival which gave voice to a broad spectrum of marginalised people. As an artist, my work is concerned with my identity as a queer man with a life-threatening disease and having performed at two previous Spill festivals, I understand the politics of it as one that gives visibility to the marginalised and the non-normative.

Spill offers a space for queers, trans people, disabled people, older people, people marginalised because of their class, race or ethnicity. The festival theme was spirit, which we could interpret in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most profound understanding of spirit in this context rests in the ways in which something can be generated between people.

For example, Kris Canavan’s backwards crawl through central London in Dredge, transforming his suited body and the misty cold city into a site of political resistance and placing his body at the service of others. As an artist from Jarrow, northeast England, he paid homage to the 1936 Jarrow Crusade in which an estimated 200 men marched from Jarrow to London in protest at poverty and unemployment. The issues raised through his endurance speak as strongly today in relation to conservative governments’ systematic marginalisation of the working class.

Class was also the stuff of Katy Baird’s performance Workshy in the Pitt Theatre at the Barbican, during which she joyfully talked her way through the many jobs she has done as an adult. As a working-class Glaswegian she used her autobiography to reflect upon the nature of work itself and critiqued the economic system and its relation to work imposed upon us by capitalism. Her performance style ensured we all had a good time but it was impossible to miss the political sensibility of the work.

The London-based artist Shabnam Shabazi’s exquisite work Snail Portrait continued her exploration into ideas of home and belonging. She lay still, eyes closed, in an open top transparent rectangular box. A live feed projected onto the back wall, with the camera being operated by an assistant, shows close ups of Shabazi’s body which is covered in leaves and, as the title suggests, a large number of snails.

The snails leave a map of their individual journeys on her skin. Throughout the performance we hear a soundtrack which moves between music and text delivered by Shabazi reflecting on themes of home. Shabazi uses the snail as material and subject matter, but also as metaphor to talk about the displacement of people. The work was timely, I could not watch it without thinking of the images of refugees that are all over current media.

Photograph of Jamal Harewood's The Privileged. He is completely naked except for a polar bear mask.

Jamal Harewood's The Privileged image by Tara Yarahmadi.

The Privileged by Jamal Harewood saw the whitest of apex predators, the polar bear, played by a black male. Harewood was dressed as the animal crawling around the space. The performance relied upon spectators carrying out a series of tasks given to us in numbered envelopes. These included waking, feeding and stroking the bear. It began playfully, this was to change though, as we were asked to remove the costume revealing his human flesh.

Harewood resisted by fighting back and soon spectators began to argue over the ethics of engaging with this act. The piece seemed to point towards the politics of race and the subjugation of black people but through fairly problematic strategies. The Privileged seemed to set up a situation in which people would necessarily turn against each other and rather than becoming a work which addresses the politics of race, it was in fact about pack mentality and the way in which a group of humans negotiate and act under ethically difficult instructions.

The debate hinges on issues of agency and victimhood. If we, as spectators, continue to undress him, he is playing the part of the victim. For those who refused to engage in this way, the performance of victimhood is too much to bear witness to. I would argue that the work has been set up by Harewood in the first place though, he is not a victim. Quite the opposite, he has complete agency over the situation and we, the spectators, are manipulated pawns in his little experiment.

The unveiling of Harewood from his costume is an interesting moment: one in which identity and the politics of race are made evident through an image of him emerging from the white polar bear costume. Visibility was a startling recurrent theme in the festival.

Pacitti Company’s three video installation Moving Mountains showed the same dark space with a spotlight in the centre on each screen. Various people appeared in the light and performed actions before moving backwards into the darkness. As I entered the words ‘Piss on Pity’ were flashing on the screen. As the performers entered and left I realised that this was an act of claiming agency through making something visible. Some of the performers were visibly impaired, others had invisible impairments. The actions they performed cried out that these are bodies demanding visibility and negated the patronising mainstream view of disabled people as in need of sympathy.

The second startling moment of visibility at Spill was the artist Poppy Jackson, who sat nude on the roof of Toynbee Studios for four hours on two consecutive days. The image of Jacksons still body garnered huge amounts of media attention. Her work evocatively plays with relationships between architecture and the female human form. She presented herself almost gargoyle like, claiming the sky as her own in an act of feminist visibility. As well as this image of control portrayed by Jackson, she also made herself extremely vulnerable. There was real physical risk involved in the performance. Climbing the stairs in Toynbee and viewing her from a window directly behind her, I could see the strain in her body. We were privy to the image and the construction of the image simultaneously.

There were many pieces of work at Spill that have also burnt into my subconscious which I haven’t spoken about. Karen Finley’s incredible and profound work Written in Sand which is already reviewed here on Disability Arts Online, Daniel Oliver’s disturbing and provocative Weird Seance and Lauren Jane Williams’ Here is Not the Place for Nostalgia… spring immediately to mind. I’ve tried to capture something of the spirit of the festival here by writing about works that really address issues of identity. Roll on Spill 2016.

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