Chatting With Andy Field, Co-Director of the Forest Fringe
“I kind of see the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as the hideous and perfect mirror of late globalized capitalism,” the British artist Andy Field told me in a recent Skype conversation. “It’s nominally open and democratic—anyone can participate in it—but there are so many barriers to participation. The cost of it, but also these invisible prescriptions on what kind of work you can do there.”
“But at the same time it’s a huge entity with an immense gravitational pull in the UK,” he added.
A little more than eight years ago, Field and his college friend Deborah (who he consistently refers to as “Debbie”) Pearson began collaborating on the Forest Fringe, a showcase of live art and experimental performance that quickly became a highlight of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (this summer was the Forest Fringe’s eighth year), and has evolved into a touring frame-work, bringing artists showcased as part of the Forest Fringe to Austin’s Fusebox Festival, Vancouver’s PUSH, and—this weekend, Oct. 3-5—to New York City at Abrons Art Center.
Field and Pearson met in college at Queens University in Canada. Upon finishing, Pearson—who grew up in Canada and is a dual UK-Canadian citizen—returned with Field to the UK to crash on his couch in Edinburgh, and began volunteering at the Forest Café, a volunteer-run, self-sustaining arts and social center, then located in an old church. In 2007, in the way that projects organically emerge from such a space, Pearson wound up programming performances at the Forest Café during the fringe festival, and in 2008, Field—who was living in London and working at the Battersea Arts Center, a contemporary performance space—began working with Pearson on the Forest Fringe.
The first few years were very by-the-bootstraps affairs. Initial funding was limited to a small grant that Field was able to get them from BAC.
“It was kind of wild at that point,” Field recalled. “The Herald newspaper wanted to give us this award, but they didn’t know who ran the festival. They knew Battersea Arts Center had given us money, so they rang up BAC to get our number and we’d already left Edinburgh.”
A lack of resources or institutional support, though, was—and remains—a virtue of the Forest Fringe and the artists it supports. From the beginning, the sort of performance showcased at the Forest Fringe has been a none-too-subtle critique of what the Edinburgh fringe has become: a marketplace for theater, driven by the economics of artistic desperation, as much a trade show as an authentic theatrical experience. Much like the APAP mess in New York every January, that’s not to say that fantastic art isn’t showcased; but both of them feature the same irony, in that artists take part in such events to gain exposure and support at the same time that those events increasingly become the primary vehicle for presenting such art.
Rather than despairing for the future of theater, Field and Pearson decided that what was important was to showcase performance that spoke to audiences in a different way, and was produced in radically different ways from conventional theater.
“Debbie and I thought, ‘Well, there seems real potential here, and real appetite for a space that operates in a different way, and privileges ideas of experimentation and community, and where everything isn’t commercially driven,’” Field explained. “What that meant in practice in the first few years was that the work you saw was a kind of process. The kind of performances taking place at Forest Fringe were transparent on a lot of levels. They showed the venue itself—the fact that Debbie and I were running around trying to fix this or that. The fact that we’re standing up at the end of a performance and I’m saying, ‘Hi I’m Andy Field, I’m one of the co-directors of Forest Fringe.’ I guarantee that 99 percent of audiences at other festival venues have never met the person in charge of it.”
Their early success was something of a watershed moment, particularly against the backdrop of the financial crisis and European austerity, which led to slashed cultural support. The Forest Fringe’s artists were not only making a virtue of having less resources, but in turn using the materiality of the spaces they were operating in to make a political statement not only about the broader socio-political climate but the means by which artists were operating in a society.
“In the time we’ve been around you see that some of that aesthetic has bled out to the rest of the festival,” noted Field. “You go to Summerhall which appeared a few years ago and is now one of the biggest venues in Edinburgh. Every room in there they make a virtue of the fact they’re in an old veterinary college.”
Then, in what I quickly gathered was his characteristically self-deprecating style, Field joking observed: “Obviously you always worry that’s your own vanity, seeing your influence in other things.
The line-up of the micro-festival at Abrons features several mainstays of the Forest Fringe, as well as local artists invited to partake. Both Field and Pearson are presenting their own work. Pearson’s The Future Show, on Friday and Sunday, is probably one of can’t-miss performance (which I’ve heard from people who’ve seen it in Austin).
“The thing that’s so lovely about that show is that it appears so simple,” Field told me. “In fact it is so simple you can describe it in one sentence: Deborah sits on stage and describes to you everything that’s going to happen in her life after the show finishes. But that description and that simplicity conceals so much tricksiness, so much richness of tone, and such a rich play that’s going on with the audience. And Deborah re-writes the show for every venue she goes to, to be able to go implicitly and intrinsically to the space in which it’s happening.”
“Deborah described it as an attempt to destroy her writing career forever,” he continued. “That she very much comes from the background of an aspiring Canadian playwright and writer, and has moved very much towards being a conceptual artist. This is a piece of very fiercely rich live art concealed as storytelling.”
Another highlight is Brian Lobel, a writer-performed who’s now an annual fixture of Forest Fringe. He’s presenting two shows—a solo performance called Purge, on Sunday, about which I sadly know little—and Love Letters and Lehman Brothers on Saturday from 2 to 6 pm.
A durational, ongoing performance project and installation, Love Letters and Lehman Brothers is a re-performance of Lobel’s correspondence with his former (and now deceased) partner, recreated textually as a collage cut out from the printed text of the Lehman Brothers Examination Report, a massive documentation of the demise of Lehman Brothers—and, implicitly, the beginning of the financial crisis—that his partner helped draft shortly before his death.
“What you have is this really powerful, but at the same time almost ridiculous, literalizing of an attempt to take this grimly functional, but in its content depressing, document of late capitalism, and, through care and violence together, transform them into love,” Field said. “And as sentimental as that may sound, the simplicity of watching him do that there’s something effective in the literalizing of that desire.”
“I think it’s a really nice demonstration of the sometimes playful, sometimes formal, quite abstract, and sometimes quite sentimental—and even occasionally obtuse—relationship Forest Fringe artists have to policits.”
Other presentations include Made in China, a critically lauded ensemble, who present Gym Party on Saturday and Sunday. Local guests include Erin Markey and the beloved Banana, Bag & Bodice. The full line-up is available here.