The Radical Fringe

The Fringe is a stage for both the struggle for better working conditions and the production of revolutionary Scottish culture, writes Mim Black, curator of our exclusive pick of the Fringe.

Every year, the Fringe hits Edinburgh like a deluge. The sudden noise, crowds, and wallpapering of this year’s posters always take us by surprise. For the month of August, the city is chaotic with delight and desperation. 

Punters come through on a two-for-one deal to see their favourite TV comedian or the jaw-dropping new circus from Australia. Journos from the world’s press sniff about for stories. Rent – of course – skyrockets, and last year the refuse workers went on strike, making strategic use of Edinburgh’s annual fifteen seconds of fame to leverage better conditions and better pay. With a global spotlight on Edinburgh, the unemptied bins overflowed into the street, making it abundantly clear how essential these workers are to the functioning of events like the Fringe, despite usually being invisible and undervalued.

But the effectiveness of the strike was not well received by many performers at the festival.  The clash was most keenly felt when some performers came together to ‘clean up the streets’ after Fringe forums and Facebook groups were plastered with complaints about the state of the city. Where was the solidarity between artistic workers and service workers both toil under the yoke and strain of capitalism, the endless drive for success, and the promise of financial gain? 

Every year, the festival brings with it an opportunity for solidarity within and between the workers who create the festival. But that depends on artists being conscious of themselves as workers. The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts trade fair in the world. Tens of thousands of theatre makers, comedians, artists, producers, bookers, directors, film makers, publicists, journalists come to the city to find the next big thing. Mountains of cash are dropped by precarious freelance workers every year on marketing, accommodation, travel, venue hire… the list goes on, with little promise of financial return because there is little choice. To make it, you have to make a big splash in the market. If things work out, you are booked and busy for the rest of the year. If not, you might be filing for bankruptcy. 

This festival is a microcosm of the wider injustices of this extractive economy. The workers – makers and facilitators of art – end up exploited and empty handed, while shareholders at the top (big venues, the universities, marketing companies) scrape off the significant amounts of cream. Artists and other workers share a common cause, and this brings the potential for powerful coalition building and conscious cooperation. By valuing and becoming conscious of art as work, we can perhaps see it more in common with the effort of public service workers to create the new from the debris we inherit, with hands, hearts, minds.

Through the production and collaboration of workers of all kinds, world-changing, subversive, deeply important revolutionary art is being made and performed at the Fringe. Some quarters defy the precarious conditions so prevalent they are mostly accepted as inevitable. Venues like the Blundabus and other pay-what-you-can venues provide safer spaces where artists can present work with less risk of ruin. LGBTQIA+ work takes to the stage in celebratory, emancipatory glory. 

It can feel tempting on the Scottish left to dismiss the fringe as a pretentious London arts festival that has nothing to do with us. It is in fact a powerful locus for imaging and creating a radical, just reality for all. It is part of the work of the left to commit our hearts and minds to the creation of that world. First step: go see some art and get your heart cracked open.

Mim Black is a former Fringe publicist (StorytellingPR and Summerhall) and burnt out climate activist turned mushroom farmer at Rhyze Mushrooms in Edinburgh.