East Croydon Cool talks… is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. This month we spoke to Helen Burrough, a performance artist and Associate Produce of Tempting Failure to learn more about the world of performance art and noise.
Tempting Failure is London’s Biennial of International Performance Art and Noise that showcases under-represented artwork that may interrogate risk or challenge preconceptions.
Founded in 2011 by Croydon local, Thomas John Bacon, the festival was initially put together as part of his PhD at University of Bristol to examine specific phenomenological concerns around body art. It subsequently expanded to become an annual event and arts organisation.
Using local artists, alongside national and international practices, Tempting Failure never hides behind obtuse overly academic contexts. Artwork, whilst certainly intellectual, remains accessible and open to all.
Held in Croydon, the 2018 Tempting Failure festival offers a showcase of over 70 artists representing 20 different countries, each responding to the provocation of fractured bodies. The multitude of events, performances, talks and more take place from 9th to 22nd July in a host of venues including Matthews Yard, The Front Room, Turf Projects, The Spread Eagle Theatre, Braithwaite Hall, David Lean Cinema and the Croydon Council Chamber.
What is performance art and how does it differ to theatre/immersive theatre?
My preferred explanation of the difference between performance art and theatre comes from problematic fave, Marina Ambramovic; “Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.” Performance art can be beautiful, gentle, intimate or shocking, disturbing and transgressive, the real joy is that you’re there in the moment of creation and something real and vulnerable is shared between artist and audience.
What is sound/noise art?
To some people it’s probably a very specific genre that I’m about to trample all over, but at TF we’re looking for live sound work that experiments with the form and blows apart what music ‘should’ sound like. It can be gentle ambient soundscapes that calm and envelope you, or harsh screaming feedback that fills a room (and blows the amps) We’re just interested in doing the unexpected with sound, and ways of combining it with exciting live moments. No guys standing behind laptops, please!
How did you get into the performance art world?
I was pretty involved in the body modification scene, experimenting with the more ritual side of things like suspensions and flesh hooks and this led to a fascination in artists that worked with their bodies like Franko B and Stelarc. I just said yes to every opportunity to get closer to this world that came my way, learned a lot about what my body can do, collaborated with others, performed in clubs and eventually felt ready to begin creating my own work. I performed at the first TF in 2012, which eventually led to me joining the team and becoming a producer.
How important is a formal education for people working in this discipline?
I’m probably unusual in that I have no formal education in this or any other artistic discipline, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can be helpful. I do truly think performance art can be for anyone – you just need an openness to witness new things and letting them move you. One thing that drew me to TF when it started was that it took performance art out of an overly academic context, one that I’d often found alienating, and made it way more accessible. The only things I think I’ve really missed out on by not coming through a more traditional route is the time and space for experimentation that comes from being a student, and the feedback from peers and tutors that can really strengthen your practice.
What was the motivation for starting up Tempting Failure?
Thomas started Tempting Failure for many artistic, academic and personal reasons, but I think the thing that’s kept us working on this so hard for so long is the need to make a space for the kind of work we make and we want to see in the world. TF is, at its heart, a place that embraces artists that have been told they’re too loud, too risky, too extreme – or just too different. We want to embrace the underground and support artists in making the things that other people won’t allow.
What is the concept behind Tempting Failure?
We get asked a lot of questions about our choice to embrace failure in the festival name, and really all it means is that we want to see the results of your exploration and experimentation. We want you to push yourselves, try something new, and find out what happens when things don’t go to plan. And this all applies just as much to our audiences as it does the artists we programme.
As a producer, does your job involve day to day?
Lots and lots of coffee and emails. At this point, 1 week before the festival, I’m handling lots of emails from artists who are arriving in London from across the world and want to know what to expect when they reach Croydon. I’m planning our first ever closing party, so emailing DJs and venues and trying to come up with a great name. I’m talking about tech and risk assessments and writing out a very strange shopping list. All whilst fielding an endless stream of phone calls and WhatsApps. During the festival my role shifts slightly away from this kind of admin and focusses more on making sure we support our programmed artists to do the best possible version of their work, seeing as many performances as I physically can and demonstrating, loudly and enthusiastically, that although performance art and noise and failure and everything might sound a bit intense and intimidating, TF is a caring, supportive and fun family to be involved with.
What contribution does performance art offer to society as a whole?
I think my answer to this question would depend on how optimistic I’m feeling about the world. Unfortunately for the past year, things have felt pre-apocalyptic, and whilst I love the fiction I’m not sure I actually want to live in a dystopia. That said, our provocation or theme for TF18 is Fractured Bodies and a part of that is finding hope in these desperate times. I’m obsessed with the idea of things reborn from crisis, things broken down and reformed into something new. Scar tissue and kintsukuroi. So maybe if we all come together and acknowledge our fragility and talk about the places where we, as bodies, individuals and societies, are broken, we can start to find ways to survive and repair the ruptures all around us. Maybe performance art makes space for the personal, intimate connections, the visceral real moments, that our digital lives, digital bubbles and divisive rhetoric don’t allow us. I’m too cynical to think that any art can change the world, but it can start conversations and it can make people feel less alone and it can give us beautiful shared moments full of meaning.
For more information on Tempting Failure or to book a ticket click here.