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Fringe benefits

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The alternative to bread and circuses is on London’s fringe, writes Merlin Fulcher

Bread and circuses may have marked the decline of the Roman Empire with shallow spectacle, but today the demise of free cultural events in our cities threatens an eternal dullness. This is particularly clear in the Olympic Games’ wake, as the subsidised arts resume their ragged shuffle to fiscal rectitude.

As memories fade of the Cultural Olympiad, which saw £55 million spent on the London 2012 Festival alone, identikit ticketed music ‘experiences’, such as LoveBox, Get Loaded in the Park and South West Four, re-join the ghastly pop-ups on London’s South Bank in an unconvincing bid to persuade the capital it has a thriving public arts scene.

For London-based arts and architecture collective Post Works, however, there is a way out. Duo Matthew Butcher and Mellissa Appleton’s £40,000 Writtle Calling installation – a pop-up stage and radio station in Essex – used its fringe location to critique the capital’s cultural offering with a series of free and richly imaginative live performances.

On scrubland and hay bales on a remote agricultural college campus, the audience – transported by coach from the metropolis – were haunted by performance artist Edwin Burdis’s atmospheric weaving of agriculture and space travel and enlivened by psychedelic funk group Clout!’s home-made instruments.

Constructed from scaffolding, bitumen shingles, weatherboarding and gate posts, the ‘agricultural, semi-suburban’ architecture (pictured) was, according to Butcher, inspired by studies of buildings along the A12 and A414 route of our voyage past Olympic arenas and executive boxes. The journey, and plans to reconstruct the stage for future performances, is one reason why the immediate future for public arts might not be so bad.


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