PERFORMANCE ART / Making an exhibition of itself: What really sells an avant-garde festival is some good old-fashioned scandal-mongering. Rosie Millard reports

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The Independent Culture
NOW '92, Nottingham's annual festival of live art, has just opened in typically idiosyncratic style. The dungeon of Nottingham Castle is currently filled with plastic sculptures of mating rabbits; plays conducted entirely in Polish are being performed in a warehouse next door to the train station; and a former stationery shop in the city centre is showing an exhibition about pornography, its centrepiece a live performance with a dead pig.

'Accessibility is the most important thing,' explained the festival's director, David Metcalf, with a straight face. 'I try to avoid using horrendous jargon such as 'Time-Based Installation',' he said. 'Simply call it an exhibition; people will know it's something to look at and feel encouraged to come and see it.' With pounds 50,000 of public money to justify, getting bums on seats is a high priority

And so the programme offers more than 45 different performing groups and exhibitions with more than a token nod towards popular culture; mainstream cabaret stalwarts the People Show and Ennio Marchetto are listed alongside more obscure-sounding performance art groups, who are themselves not above making a pitch for the mainstream. Performance artists Dogs In Honey cheerfully admitted their new show 'Aliens 4' was so titled because 'people might come along thinking it was the sequel to Alien 3 '.

Nothing succeeds in reaching a popular audience like a bit of press outrage, and NOW '92's decision to commission a work on pornography, plus some 'sexually explicit' sculptures at Nottingham Castle has led to screaming local headlines ('FESTIVAL OF PORN: A WARNING TO PARENTS'), which should bring the punters out in droves over the next few weeks.

'I'm here to see the bunny rabbits. I read about them in the Post,' said an elderly man who had trekked up with his wife through the rain to the Castle to see Laura Ford's sculptural installation, which the programme describes as 'Little bears in cosy bedwear amid a sea of copulating and cringing bunnies'. Peering at the amorous throng of white plastic rabbits, he admitted that although he lived locally, this was the first time he had been to the Castle. 'But we're here to see the dungeons more than anything,' he added quickly.

What has really enraged the headline writers and Conservative councillors has been John Jordan's piece 'Guilty Pleasures', which has been installed in a shop in the centre of town and will open on 10 October. Jordan is no stranger to controversy; his work has provoked everybody from the Vicar of Alston in Cumbria to the Daily Star. 'I did an installation in the centre of Newcastle where I was asleep in front of a pit of maggots,' he said. 'They ran a piece on Page 3 entitled 'MAGGOT MAN OPENS CAN OF WORMS'. This time I've had a weightlifter coming in threatening to destroy my entire installation. I'll probably get banned,' he added, optimistically.

Jordan's work, which has been specially commissioned for NOW '92, is the result of lengthy research about the effect of pornography on men; setting up a kind of 'video box' in London and in Nottingham, he has spoken to more than 70 men about their use of pornography. The resulting anonymous interviews will be broadcast in the installation, which includes a live performance, a 'peep show' involving Jordan and the aforementioned dead pig. He thinks it will provide a relevant and challenging view of male sexuality and male needs; what the people of Nottingham will think remains to be seen. A brief straw poll conducted outside the shop revealed an interested but unsure public. 'We've got Sky TV but we never watch porn,' shouted one man who had clearly heard about Jordan's pig, and thought the worst. 'I like decent things. I'd never come to this.'

So far, so good. And the performers are only just getting into their stride. 'It's not in the programme, but I'm going to get 60 people to each carry a brick with attache case handles,' said David Warner, assistant to John Jordan and ex-Poly student. 'They will walk around the town for two hours, then all appear in the Market Square, unannounced, and build a tower with their bricks. It's all going to be about property ownership.'