Skirting Around Situation Leeds: Eavesdroppings from the Edge



Situation Leeds is open submission, it’s free to take part, most of the events are free. In other cities, or in other disciplines, these tend to be the internal characteristics of a fringe festival. However, fringe festivals are usually a more avant guarde adjunct to another festival. Fringe festivals exist very deliberately, and often very successfully, on the edge of other more mainstream festivals – Edinburgh Fringe, for example, is bigger than the Edinburgh Festival itself. But, Situation Leeds is not an adjunct – it stands alone. So, here we have an arts festival that, internally, has some characteristics of a fringe festival but isn’t connected to another festival.

Is Situation Leeds a fringe festival? If it isn’t a fringe festival does it have a fringe of its own? If it does, what’s this fringe like? Where is it? Perhaps a notion of “fringeness” redundant in this context? So, I spent some time looking, and experiencing Situation Leeds. Trying to find a fringe. Trying to find a sense of fringeness. I looked, I experienced, but most importantly I listened.


The first event I went to was the opening dinner at Patrick Studios, hosted by East Street Arts. We were met by Ken on the door and given our membership cards, “Ooh wow”, “how posh”, “what do I do now?” ESA is “re-launching” itself as a social club and there is an air of excitement and mystery tonight. People are giggling and smiling. We’re given a drink and asked to select a beermat/role. I’m a music maker.

“I hope I don’t actually have to make music”.

Is there dissent already? Probably.

Scott (probably the best) compere (ever), introduces the night. There are moodmakers with joss sticks, builders, music makers and decorators. We’re going to make a space and eat dinner in it.

“Everyone thinks there’s not really any food, what do you think?”

“There’d better be food, I’m bloody starving, I’ve been at work all day.”

I can smell curry.

We don’t have to participate but there appears to be one of those things you hit a horse with, a switch, and a threat of punishment of you don’t play ball.

“Food, yes, theme the music on food, um, mashed potato? Maybe, I’m not sure”

“We really need to start buying some music, who knows how to do itunes, who’s done it before?”

“What about dips, Deeply Dippy?”

The food is served, a queue system with raffle tickets, it’s delicious but people are starving and threatening to cheat, but no-one does. We’re regretting the soundtrack now. Right Said Fred; what were we thinking?

A Family Day Out

I took my children to see Sarah Spanton’s work Bridge. In a glass corridor suspended over a courtyard, two performers in white shirts and baggy trousers move, there’s writing on the windows, they ascend a step ladder. They seem to be mimicking each other’s movements. We’re watching from a distance, on the road, out of the back of a pub, broken glass on the floor. Instinctively we press our faces between the bars of the huge black metal gates that stop us from entering the courtyard. I can see they’ve seen us.

“it’s like a moving mannequin, like a living doll, it’s an astrologer with a telescope”

“Is it alive or not?”

“There’s a person building something and a person looking at the stars”

“It’s better viewed from the other side of the road”

“OK”, we’re not that enthusiastic, we were enjoying the caged view. Who was in the cage, in the zoo? Was it audience or performer?

“Why are two people doing exactly the same thing? Copying each other?”

“Maybe that one is a projection and the other one is actually there.”

AAHAAH X О – О – , she’s writing code on the window, I →   III← ←

At the Henry Moore Centre we can see close up what’s happening. The children are much less interested.

We walk into the dark arches and find Harry Meadley’s work.

“When sea creatures touch a seabed it’s like this.” It makes people laugh.

“It’s like a giant kaleidoscope.” The kids dance around in the interactive projection – this is proper participation.

“Yeah, some scallys came down and they just danced about in it and chatted up women.” It smells weird down here.

Coffee and a Chat.

I haven’t been to the information hub at Leeds Metropolitan University yet, by Black Dogs. I’m sitting in the Costa Coffee on the edge of the Merrion Centre, and I want Andy Abbott, from Black Dogs, to tell me about it. Does it really matter that I haven’t been? This work is, in part anyway, about asking people to talk about art works that they haven’t seen while pretending that they have seen them. So, writing about this vicariously seems appropriate. “Works still exist when they don’t happen.” This really is a different kind of encounter! “Discussion of the artwork frees you”. Really? No. Apparently, this might be wrong. “Does artwork just perpetuate the same conversations over and over again.” We talk about relational aesthetics, about Barthes, about spectacle…

“You can only refer to something in the past”

“It’s not that fun to talk about”

We’re in café, drinking coffee, in the middle of the city, there’s no physical evidence of Situation Leeds here but it’s bleeding in – Andy Abbott hands me a book.

“you don’t need venues when you’ve got spaces, you’ve got the city.”

“that was a piece made for artists, it’s in a gallery space”

“that idea of artists being original is a failed project”

I walk around the corner, into the Merrion Market, to have a look at Retoyed Trash.

“I made her neck stand up by putting pins in it, her name’s Lily Whitelegs, named after my fish that’s passed on, I’m quite attached to her”

There are a lot of women here, sewing, chatting, it feels nice.

“there was one boy here on Saturday”

“Lily Whitelegs needs a boyfriend because she can’t really talk to the animals”

Shopping in Leeds Market

FrenchMottishead’s Post Echo project involved them selecting phrases from the local newspaper, the Evening Post, the next day they would encourage people from Leeds to re-enact this phrase and photograph them. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to eavesdrop, to listen in, to encounter….

“it’s our special paper”

“it’s an art project”

“Do any of these tickle your fancy?”

“you could be a victim or a murderer”

“one last thing is we need to get your official permission”

“You’re a campaigning mother, what are you going to campaign about?”

“I suppose I should campaign about midwives”

“That’s very nice but I’m just waiting for my wife and we’ve got to catch a bus”

“ooh I’d hate to be in their shoes”

“lucky so and so”

“I’m not going to play the cello for you – no way, but I used to play the recorder.”

“He’s your man, Peter, come and have a look at this!”

“Do you want me then? I could be ski-ing, Oi oi oi oy”

“I’m a mechanic on the alps, so I could be ski-ing, I’ve not been yet this year”

“We’ve been on everything you know, street doctors, I were on that. When I was 25 I got Pyrani’s disease, you know, when the penis doesn’t go erect, I’ve been on Radio Leeds quite a lot”

It was a whirlwind, a spin, a cacophony of voices.

At the launch of the Post Echo. At Borders. There’s wine and crisps.

“on the front page you have to have death, politics, and human interest”

“we were hoping we could make the first page”

“he thinks he’s going to be on TV, he thinks he’s photogenic”

“it’s fantastic, such an ego trip”

“it was surprising and exhilarating”

“I didn’t even realise it was tonight; I was in for something else”

“that was nice, that, wasn’t it?”

“it’s about the event of the photograph”

“it’s a thing you could, sort of, you know, um, build on.”

A Drink in the Pub with Friends

I’ve been told to dress for a night out and I don’t know what to wear. “If they try and get us to take our clothes off I’m leaving.”

I’m back at Patrick Studios again. It’s FrenchMottishead’s event Ready To Where. We’re not allowed to know what’s going to happen – I’m suspicious. Plastic school type chairs are line up in rows facing each other. Rebecca French takes a Polaroid picture of me with my red coat over my arm. “Write down how you feel in you outfit that you’ve chosen to wear” The people in the room seem to be mostly MA students chatting about relational aesthetics and dissertations.

“Who are you and what do you do?”

“It was just exams”

Nobody wants to talk to me, perhaps because I’m sitting on the end of a row, I’m not worried because it gives me a chance to eavesdrop.

“So, what do you do, Clare?”

“I should make something different up each time, I’m a fishmerchant”, says Clare.

“Sometimes this kind of thing is really good, sometimes it’s just annoying”

“I’ve never been keen myself”

“I like him when he’s complicated on semiology.”

“I think everyone has their one Derrida text, one that they love!”

“Did you cut it off something else?”

“Are you spying on us? How rude!” I stopped taking notes….

They did make us take our clothes off, and swap with each other, and go to the pub for a drink in mismatched clothes. It was wonderful, and weird, and interesting. We got back to the studio.

“there’s a pair of black trousers missing!”

“that looks a bit sinister”

“ugh, other peoples sweat”

“I think I looked good when I was younger; I’ve lost it now.”

“Don’t write anything about ducks”

I’m not naïve enough to think that these overheard responses are more honest, or real. I wanted to eavesdrop, listen in, chat, as a way of potentially accessing those voices; the voices at, or on, the fringe.  This was a straightforward way of exploring the edges of Situation Leeds. All I did was attend some events and exhibitions and look, experience and listen. In this way this festival becomes a series of snapshots or encounters.

So, what can these snapshots tell us about Situation Leeds and its fringe, its fringeness, its impact on the whole notion of fringe. I realised through this process that although I have worked out (in advance) what a fringe festival was. I hadn’t really thought about an abstract notion of fringeness. I suppose, I thought, I would know it, when I saw it. I suppose, I thought, that the open submission, the free-ness of it would tell me what fringeness was. In a way, Situation Leeds did help me with think about fringeness, as at all of these events it was on my mind. So here goes.

A fringe can be a fringe benefit, it can be peripheral, secondary, marginal; an adjunct. A fringe can be lunatic, political, avant guarde. A fringe can also be an edging of hanging threads, cords, or strips, attached to a separate band or ribbon.

If we consider the Situation Leeds festival as the band, or ribbon, that joins up all these threads, cords and strips, then it has an extremely fringey character. However, these threads, cords and strips aren’t simply the works that one can find in the Situation Leeds guide. Through the weave of the central ribbon runs the urban space itself, Leeds, the city, the people, the places, the environments, the market, the butcher, the midwife, the café, the studio, the fishmerchant, the bookshop, the street, the people in the pub who saw us come in, in our mismatched clothes and drink, and laugh, and take pictures of each other. Tangled in amongst the threads of this fringe are the voices of children, of artists, of students, of participants, of Scott, of Sarah, of Andy, of Clare, of the man whose girlfriend thinks, he thinks, he’s photogenic. Woven into the cords are the processes, the experiences, the crunch of crisps, the making, the smell of curry, the drawing, the noise in the market, the feeling of someone else’s cold, stale sweat on your skin, the movements, the walking on broken glass, the looking for projects that are hard to find, the dressing and undressing, the projecting, the hunger, the writing, the eating and the talking. Hidden in the strips are the ideas, the concepts, the relational aesthetics (at least twice), the big ideas, the Derrida, the Barthes, the texts, the difficult words.

Situation Leeds is absolutely a fringe festival, but it’s not an adjunct, it’s not produced in opposition to more mainstream festival. It’s conceptually fringe. It’s fringe in its heart; to its core. No, it’s fringe in its weave and its weft. A notion of fringeness is definitely not redundant here, it’s central. Because of this it does not generate a fringe of its own. It doesn’t need to. It’s inclusive. Situation Leeds is the most fringe that a festival can be.


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