Outburst Queer Arts Festival
Ruth McCarthy revels in the transgressive nature of this year's diverse programme
Usually, when I’m transcribing interviews, the conversation dissolves into my just showing off, with the poor interviewee left confused and increasingly traumatised; I can usually disregard the last half hour of the tape. But with Ruth McCarthy, director from Belfast’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival, I cannot get a word in edgeways.
McCarthy is a woman who warms to a theme with volcanic intensity. Now in its eight year, Outburst is here, she says, it's queer and it’s fizzing like a sparkler in the immensity of space. There are robots, Timelords and stars spattered all over the 2014 programme, and so the question begs to be asked: why the space theme?
'We don’t really have themes,' McCarthy says, 'but with the idea of space there was the notion of feeling alien. We very deliberately use the words “queer” as opposed to LGBT, because LGBT stuff is becoming more mainstream, and that’s obviously fantastic, but what has been lost at little bit from the culture is that cutting edginess that’s always necessarily there when you’re an outsider.
'There are always those who can fit in, who can “pass”, and what we’re interested in is the stuff that’s on the boundaries. There is a safeness to a lot of the arts these days. Everything has to have its demographic and be put into its neat little box, and the wonderful thing about queer culture is that it’s not afraid of exploring those frayed edges that we don’t like to talk about.'
And so this year, Outburst audiences can look forward to a performance by artist David Hoyle who, for many, is indicative of a 1980s transgressiveness that simply does not exist nowadays – of Channel 4 before it became an ungateable sluice of 'scripted reality television', when it really was 'an alternative'.
'I remember watching The Divine David (Hoyle’s performance 'character') on Channel 4 and being in awe, thinking “My God, I’ve found my people!”,' McCarthy recalls. 'Channel 4 used to be a very queer channel, because in a wider sense, queer is about inclusion of people from all different backgrounds who are, maybe, disenfranchised or “other” in some ways. And that’s very much what Outburst tries to do.'
So what exactly is Hoyle doing at the festival? Well, to all intents and purposes, he's invading the Ulster Museum. 'Visibility is the number one issue for gay people,' McCarthy explains, barely pausing for breath. 'It’s the heteronormity that gets to people rather than the homophobia. Obviously the homophobia is bad but when you never see images of yourself, when you have no visible history, it’s difficult.
'So I approached the Ulster Museum and they were really up for it and I think they wanted to open the museum up in different ways and find different perspectives. It’s really just an exploration of that in David’s sort of ad hoc approach. He just sort of reacts – to the people, to his environment, to the moment. It is a first for the museum.'
The title of the festival, Outburst, is, in itself, an eruption of sorts. It suggests a certain brashness, a will to be heard as well as to entertain. As such, McCarthy admits that, as a programmer, she feels a sense of freedom to take risks where perhaps other might shrink from the task.
'We have funders like everybody else and we need outcomes, but it’s like what Roisin McDonough from the Arts Council has written in our strategic plan: “We need mavericks; we need people to take risks.” And we are expected to be that jester figure, poking away and saying things the others can’t. I don’t want us to ever lose that. Our job is about creating spaces where people can try something new.'
That willingness to present new art, created by artists from Northern Ireland and further afield, is reflected in the programming for this year's Outburst festival. For instance, Patrick J O’Reilly – writer, performer and director who recently wowed Belfast audiences as the Emcee in Bruiser Theatre Company's version of Cabaret at The MAC – will premiere a new play, Damaged.
'Right,' confirms McCarthy. 'I really wanted the play for Outburst. It’s very us. It is hard-hitting – I wanted a brandy after watching it! It’s not afraid to say something and it does it with no neat edges because the subject matter – reparative therapy – has no clean edges around it.
'That is something that I expect will develop beyond Outburst, too. Damaged is a finished production and it's going to be quite slick, but I see Outburst as that place where people can play. “I’ve had this thing in my head for a while, can I try it?” And I love that.
'In times of austerity, there is a tendency towards nostalgia and conservatism and trying to do what we’re trying to do might be a bit more difficult in this environment, but it's needed more than ever. The arts is where we have those difficult conversations.'
McCarthy browses through the festival programme, stopping here, there and everywhere to pick out talks, plays, film screenings and more that she just cannot wait to see. Her enthusiasm for the artists and their products is infectious.
'Blackouts, by 'Drag Fabulist' Dicky Beau, is something I hope we get a wide audience for because it’s about taking that queer sensibility but it’s not just for a gay audience. Where other drag acts mime to music, Beau mimes to words. He puts them in to a new context, using it as a basis to look at how all of us are alienated from ourselves. Visually, too, it’s fantastically beautiful.'
A Week In My Homosexual Agenda is a title that veritably jumps out of the brochure. What, exactly, does it entail?
'The term “the homosexual agenda” always gets bandied around and we always look at each other and go “What is the homosexual agenda?”,' says McCarthy. 'So we got some local amateurs together and asked them to photograph their agenda.
'And there’s a small exhibition of those on at the Black Box, but then online we’re inviting everybody to contribute and already there is an extraordinary amount of really interesting work. It’s so great to interact with our audience.'
The show boating narcissist in me finally rears its ugly head over Gayllifrey: A Queer Celebration of Doctor Who, as I mercilessly dissect everything that was wrong with the concluding episode of the recent Dr Who run on BBC One, at increasingly shrill, increasingly high volume. McCarthy looks suitably appalled.
After a period of calm reflection, she gets me back on track. 'Gayliffray is part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder celebration, and we’ve had a vote on the two queerest episodes of Dr Who, old and new. There will be discussions too, and a quiz.
'It comes back to that feeling of otherness, of being alien,' McCarthy concludes. 'The wonderful thing about queer culture is that thing of being on the fringes and margins, which is where all of the ideas come from. Sci-Fi mirrors that experience exactly. It’s a whole universe of wonder.'
Outburst Queer Arts Festival runs in venues across Belfast from November 14 – 22.