If there was a Fringe Arts Taunton then I guess it’d be called FAT? Probably just as well that we have FAB instead, Fringe Arts Bath festival of free visual arts, performance and film ran in the city from 24th May until 8th June 2014. This was my first visit.
Art everywhere! Just not maybe where you would expect.
A lingering thought in my attitude towards ‘art’ is beginning to take root; I’m becoming less interested in the art on the walls, in the windows and on plinths and pedestals, instead I’m noticing the places, the stains of human remnants and decay in which all this stuff is being exhibited. To this extent some of the best things I saw in FAB were the empty, unused buildings and spaces that housed the work. Open to the public for the first time it may seem harsh but walking in a former empty shop on New Bond Street where portraits, drawings, photos and canvases were on display as part of the Fab Open felt all too safe and familiar. There was nothing particularly different or challenging, the work was ok but incredibly dull. The winner of which is bizarrely hidden around the corner instead of being on prominent display. Such was the beginning of what seemed some weird curatorial decisions (or lack of) in Bath Fringe.
The glimmer of hope came when I headed reluctantly at first, downstairs into the basement, away from the ‘acceptability’ of the Fab Open into the ‘Cellar of Curiosity’ where all those deemed ‘unworthy’ of being shown in the prominence of a Bath shop window front are given creative freedom to be exposed in all their, uh, glory. This space could have been curated but instead it looked as if it was left to whatever a group of the artists felt-like which is a shame because it could have been something more thought provoking than the slightly disturbed mess that it was. Still, I enjoyed exploring this dank, dark, dripping, naturally aged, rotting pit of a space infinitely more than any of the art upstairs. The contrast between Bath’s historic yellow stone buildings, the spa and tourist facade compared to the grungy, unseen reality of urban detritus I was facing was nothing short of brilliant. Whilst most of the art, in my opinion, was only slightly better than what you may see at a weak student exhibition, I was glad to see it there none-the-less. If artists hadn’t decided to exhibit and take the ingenuity to use these spaces then people like me would never get to see them and I still see the value in making art and need for expression even if sometimes the results are pretty morose or lacking in quality (I include my own successes and failures in this sentiment).
|In the Cellar of Curiosities on New Bond Street where the cellar itself was the curiosity.|
On the whole Bath Fringe wasn’t good or bad, some of the work was interesting but let-down, I feel by a lack of continuity in how the work was presented within venues and between venues. 'Research Matters', an exhibition of performance writing in FAB1 and 'Building Volumes' at Bath Artists Studios being more organised in having the same labels and context for everyone’s work. In a festival of many small exhibitions, 'Photo< >Paint' explored the links between the practices of painting and photography working well as an overall show. However, there were more opportunities that I noticed where it felt work was ‘plonked’ in any available space instead of being placed with reason/intention that left me drawn-to and feeling more pernickety about the quality of work and its presentation than normal. I am critical because I think it matters and am conscious that it remains difficult for a lot of art to be taken seriously and, in turn valued. I do not think we do ourselves any favours by being complacent in how we present it be it at student level or professional.
I was left unsure of the identity of the FAB. On one hand it seems to be in favour of being a bit grungy, anti-establishment and celebration of amateur or emerging art whereas on the other it seems like its trying to be an alternative showcase of contemporary art/artists in Bath and the South West? Either way it could be 'sharper', if I was an emerging curator or artist I would want to raise the bar higher and FAB had too many unfilled holes (conceptually as well as literally) or filled holes left unpainted, foam board cut sloppily and work hung/placed seemingly chaotically at times or in need of editing. The design and publicity is good, but the branding and identity of FAB venues is at times wooly and not helped by what, in my view was a really confusing website and street map. Regardless of the quality of the work itself it deserves to be presented properly and can sometimes make all the difference to how that work is seen. Liverpool Biennial achieves this balance well, between having exciting abandoned spaces met with careful presentation and use of these spaces. Every piece seems it is placed intentionally in that space whether it’s in a white walled gallery or an old sorting-office shoot. Arguably they probably get more money than FAB do in employing help to make this possible, but equally have seen many volunteer led local exhibitions consistently deliver top-quality.
|Installed piece by Helen Grant as part of 'Shaping Space' in FAB4 New Bond Street|
Work which was installed or hung in relation to/in response to its context. Reminded me of Anna Barriball's work (just a thought).
|Highlights from FAB 2014: Artist unknown found board upstairs in the FAB1 on Stall Street.|
What did work for me was alldaybreakfast’s ‘Holy Souls’ (pictured below) in the basement of what, I assume was a former shoe shop on Stall Street. This installation was site-specific and worked with the space using it to create an eerie filmic-like stage set in which the participant could explore and create their own narrative. Sound familiar? It felt very reminiscent of Mike Nelson’s ‘Coral Reef’ (which is the second time I’ve mentioned it on this blog in the last two weeks) where the viewer is disorientated and left to explore a labyrinth of uninhabited rooms. The narrative implied by the objects and lighting left in each of the spaces. In the case of ‘Holy Souls’ we move from a plastic lined waiting room, ala David Lynch into a sort of film noir office complete with lamp and typewriter. The mystery thickens....we follow clues, fragments room to room in what was an immersive and atmospheric experience.
Similarly, Resonance in FAB1 on Stall Street saw artists respond to the underground space of Bath, it's subterranean sounds and darkness to interesting affect. I am not implying that everything which is site-specific is more successful or interesting but it is dangerous to ignore the environment you're exhibiting in all together. Amongst these there were plenty of great ideas too, 'The Charity Shop Appreciation Society' by Rosemary Ashton and Peter Lloyd is sort of fun, sad and kitsch at the same time doing what it says on the tin, rehoming unwanted charity shop art, each piece for under a fiver http://charityshopart.com/. With more humour and a sense of innovative thinking in Lee Neil's 'The Beards of Bath' a celebration of beards in the form of photographic portraits displayed in shop windows on Walcot street (it does make you spend more time looking in the shop windows there, which is a clever idea for increasing trade).
|alldaybreakfast's 'Holy Souls' site specific installation as part of FAB2.|
Perhaps my expectations were too high, I have been harsh in my opinion of Bath Fringe baring in mind this is only covering the Visual arts side of what is also a music/performance based festival. It remains a festival full of good ideas, it's fun and has great potential to grow better. There are a few brilliant things I saw here art wise as I hope I mentioned, photography in 'Nocturne', a drawing machine, some excellent installations and printmaking (particularly at Bath Artists Studios). It is a shame that my overall impression was blighted by the overall feeling of it being a bit bitty, disorganised and lacking polish that drew me to being more excited at my day spent as an urban explorer rather than viewer of art (assuming there's a difference of course!), but I don't think that was what was intended.
I continue to learn much from seeing art and no doubt will be back for more next year. Of course!