by Lewis Church
The writers working with The Sick of the Fringe are here to produce rich texts that provide expanded context for artistic work engaged with issues around medicine, mental health and the junction between art and science. At Edinburgh in 2015 and 2016 a diverse group of writers produced over 200 ‘Diagnoses’ for performances at the Edinburgh Fringe: critical engagements with shows that avoid judging success and instead expand their context, offer links and suggest supplementary ideas. At the London festival, we are looking to consolidate and open up this body of work further, charting themes and connections across multiple events within the program, in the arts and sciences more generally, and across everyday life.
Another medical term, ‘Prognosis’, has been adapted to describe the new writing being released in advance of and alongside the London festival. Diagnoses suggest an analysis that examines the content of a show and identifies its key characteristics, just as in a medical context a diagnosis refers to identifying what is going on with a particular patient. Prognosis, however, is a term that refers to the ultimate outcome of those issues: the potential course of an illness or injury. A prognosis is a longer-term assessment of significance and a potential outline for subsequent developments. Sick of the Fringe Prognoses offer deeper analysis than the Diagnoses, but are still committed to the same core purpose – offering new ways of writing about art and performance that illuminates the links between the strategies and concerns of artists, scientists and medical professionals.
Prognoses like this one will therefore identify and interrogate the broader themes of the festival, linking to relevant Diagnoses from our Edinburgh archive and offering new perspectives on broader issues and trends that the shows and events in the program relate to. The program in London includes performance events originally seen and developed for Edinburgh, and the new writing here allows us to interrogate the significance of their presentation in a different context. This first Prognosis is intended as an overview of the London festival, pointing to ideas and concerns that remerge throughout the program. Like a Sick of the Fringe Diagnosis, links to supplementary material are included throughout, and some of the most relevant Diagnoses from Edinburgh are listed and linked to below to encourage further engagement with the archive as a resource for those interested in performance, science and society.
Mental health in a variety of forms is a key concern of the London festival, as it was in many of the shows diagnosed at Edinburgh in both 2015 and 2016. This is hardly surprising as awareness of issues around mental health increases, even in the face of governmental cuts to clinical provision and social care. Almost certainly the neglect of these services has contributed to the current epidemic of mental health issues, whether amongst students in higher education, young children or elders. Artists too are struggling in the face of austerity and neoliberalism, that ceaseless fetishizing of competition and economic achievement that makes success seem more important even as it is further out of reach. As they become squeezed by the same pressures of living affecting everybody, limited space, resources and time, and the drift towards measurable impact as a requirement for arts funding limits support for new forms of creativity.
The Sick of the Fringe is committed to engaging with artists around these issues, knowing that art never exists in a vacuum but reflects the lives of those both making and consuming it. Tickets to My Trauma examines techniques and strategies for artists as they approach making work which relates to their own lives, just as Starring Your Pain questions the responsibilities and difficulties of critical responses to that work. Many of the artists at the London festival are also offering deeply personal narratives within their performances. Le Gateau Chocolat’s Black at Conway Hall and Brigitte Aphrodite’s My Beautiful Black Dog at the Wellcome Collection both offer powerful affirmations of the performer’s experiences with clinical depression. Sharing stories such as these can help by breaking taboos and offering solidarity to other artists and the audiences who attend. As we are reminded by activists, when government fails to act, it is up to the public to demand action, and the breaking of the silence around mental health is a vital action in which artists have an important role to play.
The sharing of stories extends throughout the program, many other artists also offering their individual experiences and personal history to their audiences. By sharing personal experiences collective understanding is generated and nurtured, around the subjectivity of our own positions as much as the universal. This attitude of generosity holds true whether it is stories of lived illness being performed, as in The Conker Group’s Gutted or Malachi’s I’ve Got a Problem with My Thingy, or in the invitation to reflect on how you treat yourself in Sheila Ghelani’s installation Nurse Knows Best and FK Alexander’s Recovery. Throughout the 2016 Edinburgh festival too, the sharing of personal stories of health and self-care was a pervasive concern that emerged across several Diagnoses, reflecting its urgency at our current moment.
Bodies, the physical reality of living is another key theme of The Sick of the Fringe in London, and here again there are points of connection with the concerns of many of the shows diagnosed by writers in Edinburgh. Mamoru Iriguchi’s Eaten interrogates a universal experience: the processes of eating and food. These common processes of eating are taken to their logical conclusion in the conversation Life is Shit, Shit is Life, discussing digestion, shit and its place in everyday existence. The younger audience intended for Iriguchi’s performance also points to another ubiquitous process similarly central to the festival program, that of aging. Lynn Ruth Miller’s showcase of intergenerational comedians, The Fringe is Turning 70, commemorates both the maturation of the Edinburgh Fringe and the differing experiences of age of some of the most exciting comedians in the UK.
The work being presented at The Sick of the Fringe London covers many ages, genders and identities and as many topics, stories and experiences. The artists, whether performing for The Sick of the Fringe for the first time or veterans of the Edinburgh Fringe, are all engaging with newly urgent concerns in the synthesis between art and science. In an increasingly technical world of virtual echo chambers and digital loneliness, artists of all forms and genres are more able to access research and more devoted to the personal, unique experience of direct engagement that comes from being in an audience. In the forthcoming Prognoses, writers from will put forth concerns, questions and extrapolations that encourage deeper thinking, new connections and articulations of the experience of enjoying the scientifically adventurous art (and artistic science) at The Sick of the Fringe in London.