Narrative Transfer programme, selected by Esther Harris, Sheffield Fringe 2013

Broadening the focus of Independents’ Day – Art for the love of it

Today July 4, is Independents’ Day, when independent retailers across the UK celebrate the value of independent shops to the local community and economy. This year Sheffield City Council has joined the national campaign and is encouraging shoppers to support independents as Sheffield’s independent retailers hold special offers and deals to celebrate the day.

In celebration of Independent’s Day, Sheffield Unchained is broadening the celebration not only to retailers but also to those independents that are so passionate about what they do that they do it simply for the love of it and for the joy of sharing their passions, often receiving no monetary return.

Sheffield Fringe, an artist-led project exploring the intersection of art & documentary practices, began three years ago when a group of artists and filmmakers came up with the idea after an especially inspiring trip back from Sheffield Doc/Fest in November 2010.

The project, which is a free event, is held annually to coincide with Sheffield Doc/Fest and aims to create a complimentary space in which arts and documentary communities can cross-pollinate. In its first year the project was held in a flat in Sheffield and advertised through word of mouth. A year later with different artists selecting various programmes, screenings took pace at S1 Artspace. This year, the project was held in collaboration with Bloc Projects Ltd, a not-for-profit artists-led organisation that co-ordinates a programme of exhibitions and events. It also included an open studios day at Bloc Studios on Eyre Lane, Sheffield.

Swapping ‘mixed tapes’ of films

Minou Norouzi, a moving image artist based in London, and one of the co-organisers for Sheffield Fringe, told Sheffield Unchained how it all began:

“It started off with four of us on a road trip back down to London from Sheffield Doc/Fest. The idea was sparked by our attendance to an impromptu, word of mouth party held by the Scottish Documentary Institute in a hotel room. The party got shut down pretty quickly by a friendly hotel concierge because it obviously wasn’t a ‘sanctioned’ activity but it was great fun. At the same time conversations I had had with other film festival programmers during Doc/Fest, sparked the idea for Sheffield Fringe.

““I was being deliberately provocative when I asked a couple of esteemed programmers what their curatorial intent was and the answer I got was ‘well we show what we like’. Whilst that is ok to express informally, it sparked in me this question as to why artists have to come up with ‘mini essays’ to justify their work and their desire to show that work. Yet it seemed to me that in film festival programming there was no agenda other than the agenda of business and a propagation of personal tastes. I thought about how as an artist I wouldn’t get away with saying that I do what I like. I have to have a concept, a reason, a motivation and a passion with that and I have to be quite eloquent as to how I express that before my work has a chance of being seen.

“So we wanted to challenge that culture or power dynamic by creating Sheffield Fringe, which is not a film festival, but a curatorial platform. We are trying to generate a different culture that mixes some of the practices we already use in showing film in an art context with the good parts of film festival culture. This includes people meeting together, watching together and experiencing works together.”

Bloc Projects, Your Tongue, Teeth & Ultimately Your Lips screening for Sheffield Fringe 2013

Bloc Projects, Your Tongue, Teeth & Ultimately Your Lips screening for Sheffield Fringe 2013

The core Sheffield Fringe team is currently filmmaker Jennifer Fearnley, moving image artist Minou Norouzi, artist and curator Esther Harris and filmmaker Amanda McDowell. They describe the project as being ‘dedicated to the collapsing notions of what constitutes the documentary form’ and it does so through screenings, talks, exhibitions and research.

Sheffield Fringe has involved a number of guest curators working with the core team, who have complete autonomy over their projects. Thus creating a programme of many tastes and points of view. Minou likes to think of these collaborations as filmic mix tapes being swapped with collegues and fellow arists, sharing their various tastes with each other:

“I love that aspect, like swapping mixed tapes with your mates when you were kids, only with films.”

The project also holds screenings and exhibitions throughout the year in various locations and is presented in partnership with Openvizor, a UK based non-profit arts and cultural organisation which fosters grassroots projects working with individual artists, local communities and institutions around the world.

“Sheffield Fringe started as a sort of intervention I think, an intent to fill the gaps of what we felt was missing at the time. I am a great believer in DIY culture and I think that if you have a discontent about something, instead of complaining about it you should just do it yourself.”

Entertainment as engagement rather than escape

Sylvia Harvey, a founding member of the Sheffield Doc/Fest has been very supportive of Sheffield Fringe:

“Sheffield Doc Fest has grown enormously over the last twenty years. But any decent Festival deserves a critical and innovative Fringe. The Sheffield Fringe of 2013 has opened some new doors and windows, introducing the work of filmmakers not bound by the requirements of broadcast TV but also not afraid to show some of the best broadcast work of the past. In memory of the great documentarist, Michael Grigsby – who sadly died earlier this year – the Fringe showed his extraordinary film ‘Living on the Edge’.”

The 2013 Sheffield Fringe programme looked at how artists have used the documentary medium to connect with social, political and personal realities. On Saturday excerpts from the Sheffield Media Unit archives were screened, portraying the spirit and attitude of Britain and its young people in the 80’s. This was followed by the late Michael Grigsby’s documentary, Living on the Edge, made for ITV in 1987, which shows the struggle of three families living in Thatcher’s Britain.

Andi Stamp and Georgia Stone of Sheffield Media Unit said:

“Working with Sheffield Fringe was wonderful. Minou, Amanda and Jen integrated the Media Units’ work into the Fringe programme in a way that was fresh and invigorating. As well as a screening the Units’ tapes were shown in their own little garden shed videotheque, which really added wit, fun and charm. This has inspired us to work with Sheffield Fringe on a major event for the 30th anniversary of the Sheffield Media Unit and to celebrate the range of people involved in its success, some of whom are sadly no longer with us.”

Sheffield Media Unit (1984-1989) looped VHS programme, garden shed installation at Bloc Studios, with filmmakers Amanda McDowell and Jennifer Fearnley

Sheffield Media Unit (1984-1989) looped VHS programme, garden shed installation at Bloc Studios, with filmmakers Amanda McDowell and Jennifer Fearnley

Whilst other Sheffield Fringe screenings involve an international audience, the organisers feel that their annual event coinciding with Sheffield Doc/Fest involves a local audience including what they describe as ‘a vibrant’ artistic community in Sheffield.

The project has a very considered, specialised, and perhaps in places academic flavour, however, the organisers recognise that not everyone wants to think or look at films in this way:

“We had to consider that people want to just experience things and have an interaction and a degree of fun, which is why we added a musical and performance component. I don’t think there is a conflict in engaging with slightly more complex artistic works as a form of entertainment. Documentary filmmaker and programmer Adam Hyman refers to it as ‘entertainment as engagement rather than entertainment as escape.’”

Sheffield Fringe is very open in its criteria for film submissions, Minou explained the thinking behind this:

“The only stipulation in choosing works is that they should not be straight docs, we look for works which are form liberated. We do like stories but we don’t think they always need to start at the beginning and lead us through a middle to the end. This does mean that viewing sometimes becomes an endurance test, so you have to be fanatical about viewing and allow yourself to not understand or be lost or bored even. I think of it as a form of meditation because very interesting things can happen at that point, that is very individual and only noticeable to yourself.”

Minou said that the project is looking forward to expanding their collaborations on the ground and with different artistic communities. Next years Sheffield Fringe promises to include more about the history of media education and local community based films in Sheffield.

“We are also looking forward to continuing our collaboration with Bloc Studios, who were hugely supportive and we had a really good time together this year.”

Sheffield Fringe is also produced in collaboration with Annexinema, who organise social cinema events around the UK, Goldsmiths University of London, and LUX, an international arts agency for the support and promotion of artists’ moving image practice and the ideas that surround it.