So that’s it: IBT17 is finished. The festival’s embers continued to glow for a few days more at the Arnolfini – in particular, with Selina Thompson’s phenomenal Race Cards, a set of probing, soul-scouring questions about racism, black experience, white perception and more – but now they too have lost their heat and will be swept away by the next thing. I’ve been reflecting on the idea that a festival like this can be both a crisis and a crucible: in its extremity, it shows up the problems of the live art sector and culture more generally; but also offers an opportunity to emerge transformed. IBT17 began by asking: “How can live art unfuck the world?” The answer, over and over again, has been: only by each of us committing to a personal and radical change that will benefit everyone else.
Often that encouragement towards change has come twinned with a bold stare into the face of death. “We’re all going to die,” Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley intone in the second half of Project O’s Voodoo, which calls its audience to dance beneath and upon the bones of ancestors, and through that act remember that we’re all alike bodies, vulnerable flesh. It’s a work that seeks to suspend and disrupt time: as you go in, you place any clock device, whether watch or mobile phone, into a thick black envelope, not to be reopened until the end; and Voodoo begins with a long scrolling history of human culture interwoven with events from Hemsley and Johnson-Small’s own lives. Sometimes this history is irreverent (the release of the Spice Girls movie gets a mention, as does that time in 1998 when David Beckham got a red card), sometimes powerful in its record of racism and those who have attempted to fight it. Even without those events acknowledged, it’s incredibly loaded and deliberate for two women of colour to insist repeatedly: “We are not slaves to time” and “Tonight there are no masters”. The abandonment that Voodoo attempts to inspire could be to the music and the moment – or could be something bigger than that, an abandonment of all the rules and restrictions by which we currently live, in this “world of excess”.
A similar invitation, to join her in a dance, is made by Vivian Chinasa Ezugha in Because of Hair; The Dichotomy of Culture and Identity. Born in Nigeria but now living permanently in the UK, Ezugha uses a mixture of hairs to construct heavy, potent masks that give her a Yeti-like immensity and otherness. And yet, all we are seeing when we look at her is hair. So what is this weight given to hair, and by extension to appearance? As she removes the masks and lays them one by one on the floor, somehow her body retains the power they imbued in her; but it is a power we all hold, to look at each other differently, and celebrate each other’s difference. Whereas Project O invite their audience to dance to music recognisable from the pop charts, Ezugha’s dance is to traditional Nigerian music: unfamiliar sounds that few in the room might dance to ordinarily (as is so often the case in the UK, Ezugha’s audience at IBT was predominantly white). And yet, on giving your body to the song, you realise immediately that these movements come naturally. It’s a beautiful way to remind us that the brutal divisions created by history are false, and the only way to mitigate them now is by working, and working hard, to recognise common humanity.
And what better way to understand our common humanity than by thinking about our bodies as objects in decay? This is the invitation in French & Mottershead’s audio work Woodland, for which you lie down outdoors and listen as it describes in meticulous detail how a dead body left to the elements will decompose over time. I’m going to be honest: about seven minutes in to the 21-minute recording, I thought I was going to have to take off the headphones, roll over and vomit. The creep of maggots into mouth and nose, the swell of the intestine with noxious gasses, even writing about it now makes me nauseous. But as well as being literally, grossly visceral, Woodland is also astoundingly beautiful, the more so as the years roll by, and the nature surrounded the body flourishes, nourished by its chemicals. As a calm voice told me of nibbling hedgehogs and soft lichen growth, I looked up at the network of tree branches above and felt an incredible sense of peace. But that is the peace of death: in life we should be searching for something more.
During the invigorating conversations at the Friday Morning Assembly, one woman suggested that, as humans, we live 60% in the past, 30% in the future and 10% in the present. Across its programme, IBT asked us to consider how differently we might live if we shifted those percentages. We need to know where we’ve come from not to repeat our mistakes; we need to know where we’re going to appreciate the time we have. And in the middle, artist Nic Green suggested in her provocation, we could do more to be present: to practice openness towards each other, the care and compassion needed so desperately at this time. IBT created opportunities to stare at death to remind us that we’re living: and as long as we’re living we have power, and can use that power for change.
So let’s go. Let’s make it happen. Let’s report back in another two years, and see how far we’ve managed to get.