Familiar voices may be muted this year, but some have found new ways to communicate with their audiences, and to reach new ones. Michael Eades asks some fundamental questions about the future for festivals.
Writing in 1947, the artist a poet Laurence Whistler described festivals as markers in ‘the dance of the year’. Coming in cycles, with a regular and familiar rhythm, what he meant was that festivals are familiar touchstones in the year. They help us to orient ourselves in time and they help us to understand where we are.
This year, however, is different. Starting in those extraordinary weeks in March, one by one we have seen many of the familiar festivals that mark our calendar postponed or cancelled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. A very short list of disrupted activities would include the Hay Literature Festival, Glastonbury, Edinburgh Festivals, Latitude, and Notting Hill Carnival. From village fetes to global events, up to and including the Tokyo Summer Olympics, festivals were pulled from our calendars.
Although some of these events have found ways to continue online, this will nonetheless be a summer in which the rhythm of our festival year is severely disrupted. It will be a summer in which festivals, to a large extent, fall silent.
As a festival organiser myself, I have a stake in this. Beyond feeling huge sympathy for events that have had to cancel or postpone and for staff who have been furloughed or lost their jobs, I’ve been watching closely for what might come next. My own event, the Being Human festival, is in November, and the team and I have been scrambling to re-plan and reshape our programme in the light of rapidly shifting ideas of what a festival (or any type of cultural event) should be.
The disruption that we have seen over the past few months has prompted a reconsideration. Indeed, it has thrown up profound questions about the importance of festivals and their role in society. It has raised questions about the economics that underlie them (how financially precarious they are, how hard they find it to survive even in the best of times). It has raised questions about their environmental impact, and about what constitutes a healthy size of gathering. It has raised questions about transparency, accountability and governance, with the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics in particular facing a storm of criticism for the long delay in postponing the Summer Games.
With the diary largely cleared of mega events, the focus has perhaps fallen more on festivals that are small and nimble enough to have tried something different. Just as people have changed the ways that they connect in their day-to-day lives over the past few months, a number of festivals have begun to explore new ways of bringing people together. Some have attempted simply to recreate their existing model and events structure whilst moving online. However, others have been more ambitious and innovative.
Better than before?
It’s worth asking, are some of these new ways of doing this actually better than what came before? Are they more inclusive, more bottom-up, more sustainable? Are they artist and community led in a way that most festivals typically are not?
On the Easter bank holiday, I went to a ‘Front Room Festival’ coordinated by the podcast Folk on Foot. The Easter holiday was the perfect time for such an event, with the fantastic lineup of musicians providing a welcome distraction from the beautiful weather outside.
The social media engagement around this festival was revealing. People joked about being able to go to the ‘bar’ (their kitchens) without a queue, and about the quality of the toilets being much better than normal. They complimented the performers warmly, in ways that garnered direct interaction. They posted creative photos of themselves having picnics in their front rooms and other festival-ey things. Crucially, however, they also donated money which went directly to the performers themselves, and to a charity supporting musicians affected by the current crisis. Around £100,000 was raised in this way.
In a festival landscape in which performers are often expected to work for free, this direct approach to supporting musicians and creatives was very welcome. The focus on financially supporting artists and placing them more centrally in the planning of events, is something that should be carried forward beyond the current crisis.
Innovation has also come from the team behind Fun Palaces.
Underscoring the fact that across the UK today as many as 16 million people have no regular access to the internet, Fun Palaces launched their ‘Tiny Revolutions of Connection’ campaign early in the Covid-19 crisis. This campaign has explored and celebrated the moments of connection still possible under socially distanced conditions. Continuing Fun Palaces’ long commitment to community-led creativity and participation, this campaign has served as an important reminder of how small moments of cultural interaction may still be possible in the form of balcony concerts, dance competitions, postcard artworks dropped through letterboxes.
The ‘Tiny Revolutions’ campaign has been an important corrective to some of the less thoughtful digital enthusiasm seen elsewhere in the sector. It is a reminder, once again, of what can be achieved in an arts and festival context by harnessing the creativity of everyday communities and putting them at the heart of cultural production. will be fascinating to see how this campaign alters the shape of the Fun Palaces festival itself in October.
So, perhaps 2020 will not be the summer in which the festivals fell silent after all. Whilst some familiar voices may be muted for the time being, others have found new ways to communicate with their audiences, and to reach new ones. Perhaps it will be the summer in which these voices find the space and silence in which to be properly heard.
I’m sure I’m not the only one listening closely.
Michael Eades is the Manager and Curator of the Being Human festival of the humanities, taking place across the UK 12-22 November 2020. He is also a Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.