Confessions of a live art programmer

| by Aaron Wright

Tags: Theatre Dance Festivals Queer arts Live art Cultural diversity

What is 'good' and 'bad' work? Are we just looking to see ourselves represented? Should we rethink curating? As Fierce Festival opens in Birmingham, Artistic Director Aaron Wright shares some blazingly honest reflections on life, art and live art

Last Yearz Interesting Negro Jamila Johnson Small. Image Katarzyna Perlak and Carlos Jimenez resizedLast Yearz Interesting Negro Jamila Johnson-Small. Photo: Katarzyna Perlak and Carlos Jimenez

It’s been 18 months since I took up the post of Artistic Director of Fierce Festival, Birmingham’s acclaimed international festival of live art. I was 27 when I started the role and the youngest director of an NPO organisation in the country. It’s been a steep learning curve, as I’ve got to know an international circuit of artists, curators and venues. These are some reflections, though more often than not, I’ve been left with more questions than answers:

    1.  We all have some serious baggage when we watch a performance: within us sits everything we've ever experienced, and everything we've ever known, therefore no two-people's experience of a work can ever be the same.

    2. Does my upbringing, my whiteness, my maleness, my queerness affect what I'm seeing? Could my race explain why I wasn't wild about a particular dance show?

    3. Why is every theatre showing the same few artists? Why is representation still so bad?

    4. I talk to an artist of colour who felt like a work by another artist of colour pandered to white audiences. I liked the work.

    5. Who can make art about what?

    6. We like to relate to performance, we like to think it's speaking directly to us. Are we just looking to see ourselves represented?

    7. If your programme isn't foregrounding the work of queer artists, artists of colour, disabled artists – why bother?

    8. Does the term diversity imply a white centre from which everybody else is "diverse"?

    9. Do we need to completely rethink models of curating? Is curating dictating?

    10. For every show I actively dislike I guarantee I'll be surrounded by audiences who feel the exact opposite. Is one response more valid than the other?

    11. I no longer have any idea what constitutes 'good' or 'bad' work. Objectivity is impossible, so do we have a duty to programme beyond our own tastes?

    12. I'd rather watch Britain's Got Talent than go to the opera.
      "Does diversity imply a white centre from which everybody else is 'diverse'?"
      The Famous Lauren Barri Holstein Notorious2. Photo by Timothy Fluck resizedThe Famous Lauren Barri Holstein, Notorious. Photo: Timothy Fluck

    13. Since taking up the post I've been waiting for a knock out show. Why can't I find a knock out show? What do I mean by a knock out show? Have my standards changed since I took up the post? Is the weight of expectation ruining performance for me? 

    14. Sitting through six shows a day isn't a great way to see work. It commodities and objectifies, often belittling an art's practice. One show blurs into another, attentions wane.

    15. Does the commercial theatre group ATG have a stranglehold on our theatregoing culture? Would if be better if audiences saw 12 £10 shows a year rather than two £60 shows?

    16. The future of theatre probably won't be found in new writing.

    17. I know three artists who have featured in Private Eye's Pseud's Corner this year. I know three artists who have appeared on reality television this year. One of these artists appeared in both.

    18.  What is the difference between "low brow" culture and "high brow" culture?

    19. I'd rather go clubbing than go to the theatre.

    20. Should we limit artistic creativity in the name of accessibility? Should we put marketing copy through a jargon machine? Is there value in giving artists total free reign? Would anyone come to the show if the artist was left to promote it?

    21. I remember the first time I ever went in an art gallery aged 15. I felt policed, unwelcome and was on my best behaviour. How can I stop others having a similar experience?

    22. Access to the arts starts with me. How I conduct myself publicly and professionally affects not just how people perceive Fierce, but how people perceive the arts generally.

    23. "Unprofessionalism" is a political tactic.

    24. Is my age and lack of experience an asset to Fierce? If we want to appeal to younger audiences, should we have younger artistic directors?

    25. Do we have to have felt pleasure to deem something a worthy artistic experience? Do we have to have felt like we understood an art work to take something from it? Should we try to move past notions of 'understanding'? is nay response valid?

At Fierce, any response is valid.


Aaron Wright is Artistic Director at Fierce Festival. Fierce runs from 16–22 October in venues across Birmingham. This blog is based on a speech first made at In Between Time Festival 2017.

Aaron Wright visited Bangladesh and Pakistan earlier this year, alongside colleagues from Birmingham Rep and SAMPAD and in partnership with the British Council, to plan a series of residencies in Birmingham for artists from South Asia. As a result of this visit, Reetu Sattar, a performance artist from Bangladesh, performs at Fierce 2017.


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