The Sick of the Fringe

Brian Lobel & Hannah Maxwell

image by Mamoru Iriguchi

image by Mamoru Iriguchi

The Sick of the Fringe, commissioned by Wellcome Trust and piloted at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, was a series of events which aimed, simply, to inspire collaboration between health, medicine and the arts, or so said the 50-word marketing copy. In reality, and as is often the case, the inner workings of the programme were significantly more complicated, with small and big decisions made at every point along the way which influenced the overall curation of the event and public perception of the work we were aiming to achieve.

The programme itself consisted of three main elements: public talks (including two keynotes, one panel discussion and two interviews) which welcomed audiences of artists, researchers and health professionals, amongst others; one-to-one meetings between emerging artists and Wellcome Trust representatives; and a website/blog which highlighted our ongoing presence within the Fringe community at large, scouring Edinburgh for the perfect Opening Acts to perform alongside keynote speakers: activist-comedian Liz Carr and neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore. This website featured Diagnoses of over fifty Fringe shows, not as a critique of aesthetics, but as an analysis of how ideas about health-based issues permeate our cultural consciousness – how they knowingly or unknowingly inform one another. The Sick of The Fringe (TSOTF) is not the first curated series of events/performances on the theme of health and medicine with other initiatives including Clod Ensemble’s Performing Medicine Seasons in London and Cardiff, Curious Directive’s Snow Base for Edinburgh Science Festival, and SICK! Festival in Brighton and Manchester, to name but a few. With TSOTF however, our proposed intervention in form/practice was to chart the theme of health and medicine across one festival in ‘real’ time, to see and share how we as artists or scientists make sense of the world through different lenses – equally valid, and not necessarily oppositional.

Each of the various strands and activities of TSOTF involved bringing together people from the often-distinct worlds of art and health: as audiences at our Open Meetings, as thinkers connected through social media and our Diagnoses links, and as speakers and performers sharing the stage at our concluding talks. We aimed to straddle the health-arts border, and to keep talking until everyone had forgotten it was there.

In this reflection for ‘Interventions’, we highlight some of the practical approaches and influencing factors which gave the initiative its critical edge, in hopes of not only generating broader conversation about medicine and the arts, but also to reflect on public engagement more generally, and how people can most effectively engage with multiple contexts and audiences simultaneously.

On ‘Two Cultures’

Edinburgh in August is an incredible melting-pot of views, backgrounds, stories and forms. Several festivals take place concurrently: the Book Festival, Arts Festival, International Festival and – jolting us every night with fireworks at 10.30pm – the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. With thousands of distinct, diverse events rubbing shoulders throughout August every year, the Edinburgh Science Festival (held annually between March and April) might seem conspicuously absent. In a programme which comfortably spans the gulf between Verdi and Nina Conti, is all of ‘science’ without a place?

The division between arts and science is often treated as immutable in Western culture, and is felt particularly pervasively in the UK, with the BA/BSc line in our education system. In his ‘Two Cultures’ Rede lecture in 1959, novelist C. P. Snow commented upon the ‘sheer loss to us all’ from the polarization of the two schools of thought. He confronts the intellectual snobbery of both ‘high art’ and ‘pure science’ – the extremities on the spectrum who see little merit to the other pursuit.1 In the 55 years since Snow’s talk, the nature of both fields has altered (though not completely): in particular, the ‘high art’ Snow aligned with cultural arrogance is no longer so clearly identifiable. In this pilot year of TSOTF, a great number of the artists we collaborated with were creating work which politicised the personal, exploring their own corporeality as humans, in ways which connected with medical sciences in often surprising ways. The programme curated by TSOTF included artists exploring the fact of themselves, of their bodies, as the core of the work; Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn with clinical depression, Emma Frankland and the experience of transition, Le Gateau Chocolat and the Other-ed black queer self. These pieces drew on current, evolving understandings of mental health, psychology, biology, sexuality and stigma. It is not to say that the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘science’ isn’t extant or useful – but it is complex, blurred, and most mutually beneficial when bridges are built across it.

On Money

Sometimes, when you are doing a project commissioned by, supported by, or funded by Wellcome Trust, or when you tell people you are working on a project commissioned, supported or funded by Wellcome Trust, the conversation quickly – and in the worst of cases, reductively – turns to money. As Arts Council England and other funding bodies internationally are providing less and less money and with more and more restrictions, Wellcome Trust – as an independent funding body with a well-watched, critiqued and commented upon £18billion endowment, and a reputation for funding innovative, strange and sometimes radical projects – becomes an attractive source for artists (working explicitly or suggestively with themes of health, medicine or science) from which to seek financial support. When other financial supports are less accessible, however, suddenly everything becomes a sci-art project, or worse, projects which are inherently about something else suddenly have a component which might be scientific or medical, demonstrating an engagement with science or health which is disingenuous or led by funding remits. These are not cynical outlooks on the motivations of art-makers, but rather an attempt to articulate the possible effects funding remits have on how (or what) art is created.

An initiative like TSOTF was new to Wellcome, although the Trust had supported (in various capacities) individual projects in Edinburgh in the past. As a team we were careful to introduce this new initiative without either being coy about the Trust’s financial position or overpromising possibilities to artists, nor did we want to distract attention from the disastrous public cuts to the arts sector. In hopes of acknowledging the Trust’s funding interests and streams, we scheduled a number of days of one-to-one meetings with Wellcome staff. These ‘surgeries’ were opportunities for those interested in science and art to learn about funding possibilities, ask questions about current projects, or (most usefully) make contact with current projects/contexts/research. With the goal of coordinating these meetings between the commissioning body and the public (although we are ourselves not Wellcome staff), we could hopefully alleviate some of the money talk from the overall project.

Conversations about funding the work are critical, and the Wellcome Trust (in its shiny office on Euston Road, London) may not seem accessible to artists who a) don’t live in London, b) have only the beginning of a project idea with no scientific partner, c) are not part of an institution which is used to large funding applications, and d) have learned – because of the constant financial attack on the arts – to think small or to be shy about asking for funding. The energy of the Edinburgh Fringe is such that anyone could be drinking next to anyone in the bar at Summerhall, or be sitting in a five-person audience with their idol while at Forest Fringe; given this promise (or threat) of accessibility, the opportunity for artists to meet, casually, with funders was a critical piece to making TSOTF meaningful beyond the Fringe. While everyone is (theoretically) entitled to meet for advice from an Arts Officer at Arts Council England because of its public funding, with private foundations (not only Wellcome, but organisations like Jerwood, Gulbenkian, Clore, etc), the how, why and when of meeting can be difficult to negotiate, and dependent on either funders being very keen to meet people they don’t know, or artists relentlessly pursuing face-time with funders. For TSOTF, we tried to maximize opportunities for genuine networking in hopes of influencing how artists and funders conduct their work during the other eleven months of the year.

On Eschewing the Star System and Critical Generosity

By mid-August, all of the huge posters which advertise (mostly male) comic after (mostly male) comic, or (sexy) circus after (sexy) circus, are covered in white strips announcing all of the stars that the shows have received from various Edinburgh-based media. While some are covered in five stars, four stars, or excerpted singular words, others remain bare – a warning to potential viewers that either the show has not been deemed press-worthy, or that it has received less than four stars. The size of the posters and the constancy of these white strips succinctly and visually demonstrate the frenetic energy around marketing at the Fringe, but one hears about the stars too, everywhere, with young flyerers shouting (or embarrassedly whispering) “Five-star comedy starting right now!” “Free four-star physical theatre at 1:30?” Although this kind of marketing strategy is what some people love about the Fringe, critics have, for years, tried to eschew the importance of the STARS, with people like Lyn Gardner talking about the subjectivity and broader context that is needed to think beyond the star rating system in The Guardian.2 Other outfits, like Total Theatre or Andrew Haydon’s Postcards from the Gods, remain free from the tyranny of the stars. Although these efforts are clearly anti-star system, artists, performers and marketeers are still guilty of privileging the stars, a well-learned, Pavlovian response mechanism which makes (or marketeers hope makes) audiences buy buy buy.

But what remains after August? And what remains for those who are not in Edinburgh? Or able to see that show because it clashes with their own show? Or if the show is too expensive? Or is in an inaccessible space? While the best theatre and art criticism does expand the dialogue and connect relevant themes through shows and different makers/contexts, press in Edinburgh – perhaps because of the extreme number of shows seen/covered – remains primarily (or overwhelmingly) in the realm of what shows to see and not see. In response to this reality, we created Diagnoses about shows that we covered. The goal of each of the 300-word Diagnoses was simple: describe the show and its context enough so it’s relevant for people who have not seen it, and draw out themes so that people can learn from its exploration. We wanted work which would sit outside the star system, and not be afraid to link readers to other people exploring these themes. In both scientific enquiry and social science, one would never trust a study that wasn’t peer reviewed and/or that featured a literature review of relevant related studies. But in theatre and performance reviews (particularly those in popular press), such descriptions written by artists are less common, particularly as they pit artists against each other and may compare incomparable performances. Of course, if one makes qualitative reviews – saying that a show is less good or more good than a similar artist making similar work – and then assigns a star to them, one can understand why an artist would hate such a thing. But if the goal of the review is to expand and open the conversation beyond the maker (and recognises that we all respond to work that comes before), then there is a hope that the response, review, Diagnosis, might be useful outside of the context of the Edinburgh Fringe and outside of the Arts pages of a magazine, newspaper or blog.

In Acts of Intervention (1998), David Román’s seminal work charting early performances and AIDS activism, Román introduces the concept of ‘Critical Generosity’, which he describes as an understanding that ‘criticism can be much more than simply a procedure of critique or means for qualitative analysis. Criticism can also be a cooperative endeavour and collaborative engagement with a larger social mission.’3 Guided by his example, TSOTF’s diagnoses remained purely about the idea behind the work, and focused less on how effectively that message was communicated. TSOTF acknowledged that creating work on health (often the personal health and body of the maker) can be a process both fragile and vulnerable, and can – in its creation – be of use to others, regardless of whether or not the performance was ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is not to say that TSOTF’s diagnoses were apolitical or lacking opinion, but rather that the critique was focused more on understanding and working through the dramaturgy of the work and the implications of the models a work employed. In a number of cases, artists unhappy about their Diagnosis got in touch, and TSOTF team availed themselves for conversation and continued dialogue. By demonstrating an earnest desire to connect on these themes – and by staying out of the marketing game altogether (we were careful not to have pull-quotable language), we hope to create a readable, sharp and searching resource which can be used by artists well beyond the Edinburgh Fringe.

But you can see for yourself, and please let us know how we did.

Sample Diagnoses

Brian Lobel is a Senior Lecturer in Theatre at University of Chichester, a Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow, a founding Director of The Sick of the Fringe, a Core Artist for Forest Fringe and an Associate Artist with Performing Medicine. His performance work has been shown extensively in a variety of contexts internationally, and his publications include both academic journals, chapters and reviews, as well as creative texts, scripts and artist DVDs. www.blobelwarming.com

Hannah Maxwell is a writer, performer, artists’ assistant, and graduate of Queen Mary, University of London. As well as contributing to the Sick of the Fringe Diagnoses, she provides editorial assistance to academic and creative texts, copywrites content for exhibitions and arts websites, alongside creating her own performance texts.

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Notes:

  1. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures [1959] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  2. Lyn Gardner, ‘Critic’s Notebook’, The Guardian, 21 August 2011, and Lyn Gardner, ‘Reviewing the Reviews’, The Guardian, 10 August 2015.
  3. David Román, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture and AIDS (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. xxvi.

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