FEST EN FEST in Deptford
Great art thrives within the constraints of convention. But great art – whether words, dance, image or music - can also soar into the empyrean when liberated from formal boundaries. And it’s this quest for new heights that makes art endlessly fascinating and inspiring.
This pioneering spirit is beautifully manifested by Fest En Fest, a biennial UK-Nordic event curated by Hanna Gillgren and Heidi Rustgaard of H2DANCE which investigates the nature of choreography and asks where the artform can go from here.
Based on the series of extraordinary performances I saw, ranging from the intensely intimate to the mind-mangling scale of the cosmos, the answer is simple: There are no limits.
Fest En Fest set out its stall from the off when artist and choreographer Joe Moran took over the APT Gallery in Deptford to present a hypnotically thought-provoking event made up of film, paintings and performance that probed aspects of power within a relationship. I especially loved the wall art, a collection of Moran’s spray-paintings featuring cutouts, outlines and absences whose static simplicity was a thrilling contrast to the mobile complexity of the performance going on beside them.
Thrilling contrasts were at the heart of many of the performances at the APT Gallery, where the human and the inanimate collided, combined and coexisted, sometimes with unsettling results, as the five-day festival explored themes such as feminism, gender, queer culture, horror and sexuality in pursuit of expanded choreography.
A case in point for me was Going Berserk, a work in progress by Marikiscrycrycry whose performance as a lost soul shaking his booty to a relentlessly repetitive soundtrack till he vomited blood brought to mind the existential despair and exploitative horror that characterises pornography yet remained beautiful even as I felt more and more uncomfortable watching this descent into the darkness. I thought it was a stunning subversion of male-gaze iconography.
Equally stunning was Sweet by Stina Nyberg. Taking as her canvas the whole sweep of cosmic history and archly transforming a puffer jacket into (among other things) a mastodon and a volcano, Nyberg gave us a wise and witty potted history of the human race’s emergence from the primordial ooze, through our present status as “Creation’s assholes – everything else hates us”, to our inevitable destruction, a demise that will delight the planet’s surviving life-forms. The bleakness of the message was wonderfully underscored by ending the work with the jauntiest of dances that was, well, sweet.
In yet another contrast, Emilyn Claid’s SKINNED (above) was anything but sweet. In fact, it was unnerving. Created in collaboration with Rustgaard, it was a fearless, often ferocious solo piece danced in a sort of wolfskin among the audience, at one moment confronting us nose-to-nose, eyes staring into ours with a predatory glint, the next breaking into an embracing smile of amiability and even complaisance. It was an amazing performance by a veteran dance practitioner who, I wasn’t surprised to learn later, is also a psychotherapist. It was definitely not for the faint-hearted.
It’s an axiom of contemporary art that a work only springs fully to life when it is shared with others. Fest En Fest’s belief in expanded choreography takes this concept a stage further by insisting audiences can also play a key part of the process of creativity.
This was given full rein in Helka Kaski’s playful Paperworksbody, which involved the artist crisscrossing the performance space with a network of paper strands, some anchored on wall-hooks, others coiled around audience members. This created a web of uncertainty – any slight movement would cause a rip and a suspended sheet would fall to the ground, randomly creating another pattern in what quickly became a form of choreography in itself.
The following day at APT, Gillgren and Rustgaard’s festival finale Amplified Edition No2 (No1 was a star feature at Fest En Fest’s 2020 incarnation) pursued the same goal while using everyday plastic sheeting instead of paper. In a series of video installations and performances, they examined the capacity of objects to transcend their quotidian function and in the process made important points about the environmental damage plastic does to the planet and also raised the spectre of we the consumer becoming we the consumed.
This was a suitably challenging way to end a festival that is always uncompromising in its quest to blaze new trails.
Throughout the five days of Fest En Fest, there were also satellite performances in Cambridge and Colchester that I wasn’t able to see. Circumstances meant I missed other key performances in Deptford as well, notably Serafine 1369, Dead Unplugged, Material and the alumni platform.
In keeping with the curators’ credo that community is just as important as performance and process, there were also a series of discursive lunches and workshops led by many of the artists showcased during the week.
After the 2020 festival, I wrote that Fest En Fest had been a triumph, thought-provoking yet accessible, intellectual yet fun, and, like all true art, unique. I’d add only one thing this time – given the state of the world today and the relentless creep of mediocrity, we need unapologetically challenging events like this more than ever. Here’s to 2024.