Fringe Fringe


Left: Miss Behave and the team from the Miss Behave Gameshow at the List Party at Summerhall. Right: Artist Bobby Niven. (Except where noted, all photos: Gemma Tipton)

IT STARTED GENTLY ENOUGH. Pale sun danced over the green lawns of Modern One and fell across the corrugated polycarbonate sides of the Pig Rock Bothy. Bobby Niven’s elaborate shed will become home to a program of performances and residencies before traveling north to be re-sited in remote Assynt; but for now it housed a clutch of artists drinking wine and appreciating the lull before the coming art storm.

Held at the same time as the almighty Edinburgh Fringe (49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in just over three weeks), the Edinburgh Arts Festival has always been in a lower key, sometimes little more than what was going on anyway. This year things were bigger. In addition to “Generation,” the major survey show already open at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Dalziel + Scullion were opening at Dovecot, “Counterpoint” (another survey) at Talbot Rice, and “Where do I end and you begin” (yet another survey) at City Art Centre.

So why all the surveys? One reason is the Scottish independence referendum, a political specter hanging over every feast. As Scots vote in a month’s time on whether to leave the United Kingdom, opinionated temperatures run high. Another is the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow—a source of opportunistic arts funding. At “Where do I…,” five curators from Commonwealth countries had invited a total of twenty artists to ponder ideas of colonialism, globalism, and contested political ideologies.

Left: Faile's Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller with artist Bäst at the List Party at Summerhall. Right: Curator Vidya Shivadas and artist Mary Sibande at City Art Centre.

“I’ve been working on it for a year,” said Indian curator Vidya Shivadas, “thinking about the colonial legacy from a contemporary international platform. It’s important not to be obsessed, but not to have amnesia either.” French-American-Scottish artist Yann Seznec was there too, with his band the Yann Seznec fan club. With such a polymorphous background, perhaps it’s no wonder he was commissioned to create a performance for the night.

Everywhere the Commonwealth loomed large, though after a while it started to feel like art homework. How many ways can you do postcolonial? Outside, different festival crowds merged. Fringe performers, comedians, and jugglers mobbed tourists heading up the hill to the Edinburgh Tattoo; orbiting satellites, energetic and exciting, mingling, not quite meeting.

Anything could happen. We had just been at a preview of Olwen Fouéré’s mind-altering riverrun, better than the best performance art. “It comes from the audience too,” said Fouéré. “Never the same twice.” I had a strong suspicion that over the coming days, if you were wise enough to forget about art boundaries, the adventure of a lifetime awaited. Caught up in that feeling, we gathered our strength to cross town and flung ourselves into the brilliant chaos of the unofficial Festival opening, the List party at Summerhall.

One of Edinburgh’s newest venues, Summerhall (the largest private art museum in Europe) is a crazy mashup of art, performance, studios, and surprises in a former veterinary college. We danced to a succession of DJs in the Dissection Room and caught cabaret in the Anatomy Theatre. Curator Paul Robertson appeared, with a hard-core knowledge of Summerhall’s secret passageways, back stairs and vaults.

Left: Artist Yann Seznec. (Photo: Stuart Armitt) Right: Curator, Artist, critic, and collector Paul Robertson.

Robertson is also an artist, collector, and onetime art dealer, with a background in neurophysiology, psychology, politics, and art history for good measure. His mini “Exhibition in a Pocket” runs during the Festival, as he roams the cafés and corridors, showing the unsuspecting what he’s got in his pants. His collection, currently partially housed in a set of lab specimen cabinets, includes first editions by Marcel Duchamp, Laurence Weiner, Joseph Beuys, and Tracey Emin. It’s bound to be a treat.

We lurched into a neon-lit basement, where FAILE’s Patrick Miller and Patrick McNeil teamed up with Brooklyn street artist Bäst, who was having too much fun to remain anonymous at their groovy games arcade. “People don’t know they’re walking into an art show,” said McNeill. The same could be said of the entire Festival, where the best bits merge between art and theater and you can’t be sure of anything.

Back upstairs, the decadent mayhem continued. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was there, but elusive; h/er gender- and identity-bending exhibition “Life as a Cheap Suitcase” stopped us in our tracks, but another turn brought us into a hall where acrobats from Sonics turned their perfect bodies in athletic contortions. I lounged, resting against a pile of angel’s wings until I was gently moved on; those angels needed to fly.

Fringe regular Miss Behave was up from London. Glittering in sequins, she’d spent the past week in sweatpants, engaged in the unglamorous task of ripping up floorboards at the venue for her Cabaret. That’s what makes the Festival brilliant—not the clean, official stuff, but the raw, the edgy, the riskily cooked.

Cocktails arrived on trays to tempt anyone who had flirted with the idea of sobriety. “It’s on a knife edge of Drambuie,” someone said. “Not a place anyone needs to be…”

We wandered into Gary Baseman’s Mythical Homeland forest. “How did you end up here?” I asked Robertson. “I went to Ricky DeMarco’s birthday party. Robert McDowell was there. I went up to him and said, ‘You should know me.’ Though I had to say it a few more times over the coming weeks,” he confessed. “You know, if you say you are it, you become it.”

Gemma Tipton