Festival Culture: Escaping, Engaging, Transforming The World?
A/UK have had our festival moments this year… but it’s set us thinking about the state of festival culture. Some questions arise:
- What does it mean to be with people who are seeking some intensity or bigger meaning, and embrace joy, fun and love as they do so?
- What is the role of culture, music, practice and other stimulants in forging an effective festival community?
- Are our festival designs are all that they can be - in order that people can transform the rest of their daily lives, with the bliss they’ve tasted in the field, on the beach, wherever?
A/UK’s co-initiator Pat Kane has written this article for the Guardian Opinion pages today, asking whether festival are moving to the next stage of their (ancient and long) development. Could they become experimental spaces for better societies? In particular, could they be test-beds for how we can make the best of the time and resources potentially liberated by AI and automation?
In the course of pulling it together, Pat solicited comment from some of our friends in the “network of networks” that we’re building from A/UK. ALL of it was extremely interesting and stimulating - though very little could make the piece. So we’ve decided to make sure it comes out somehow, and are posting the material here.
It’s effectively an spontaneous expert symposium of the state of festival culture. We’re opening the comment space at the end of the blog - rare for us - as we feel it could be an important debate. But in any case, please share and distribute. (And if you want to know more about the "friendly revolution" of The Alternative UK, please go to "About" above or read our Editorials).
This is an audio download from Sara Zaltash - artist, theorist/practitioner of carnival and festival, and research fellow of Schumacher College.
It's a brilliant mapping of how festival culture is breaking down the barrier between its “temporary autonomous zones” and “business/work/organisations as usual”.
(BTW, the Russian philosopher of carnival half-mentioned in the piece is Mikhail Bahktin).
Our recent conversations have revolved around how useful that transitory festival bubble is, how long-lasting its effects and how much potential it has to really bring about change in a wider sense.
The best festivals certainly have huge potential to transport people to a different mindset, one that is usually more utopian, hinting at how the world could be a better place, how a hugely diverse range of people could get on in the same space and how we might all learn from that. The physical space is a world away from the incessant sniping of Twitter, or the targeted algorithms of Facebook’s data mining.
The key, for me, is that the festival environment has the potential to become a year-round community. At the turn of the millennium The Big Chill event that I started as a small Sunday gathering not only grew by word of mouth but pioneered an early version of social networking where its forum not only provided a platform to keep the conversation going but was able to galvanise an active year-round community.
We never really defined what The Big Chill ethos was but people seemed to pick up on the anti-corporate (at least in the early days) spirit and were attracted to it often for that reason. We built a huge infrastructure around the festival offering employment to many and a whole range of festival skill-sets which people could learn from. But it was high cost and high-risk and precarious strategy.
What chimes with the times we are now living in is a much more of a DIY and democratic mindset. I’ve just soft-launched Campfire Convention, which I think reflects a trend I’ve been very aware of recently - away from hedonism as it’s driving factor and more geared towards fundamental social change and building a community with a sense of soul and purpose.
The potential for being able to facilitate some of the major shifts we need to be making in society is all the more exciting. Campfire's hub is the social network but the events are equally important.
This weekend we’re doing a pilot event putting together our first DIY gathering, using open-space format where our members can fill in the blanks on a blackboard and propose sessions, whether about politics, well-being, health, education or how to run an AirB&B. It’s a social experiment in many ways but one that offers some exciting experimental directions for gatherings.
At Campfire, we’re making the space happen around our own community ideas and construct the programme as we go and many of these will permeate through into local activism and community initiatives. All voices can be heard and people can hopefully gain in confidence as the event unfolds. We’re not expecting to be entertained.
The best ideas often start around the campfire, which plays a vital role in encouraging freeform conversation, with no prescriptive programming or guidelines. It’s the perfect environment for dreaming of how a better world might look.
What’s different now at Campfire from The Big Chill days is the sense of purpose and finding ways to turn those dreams into reality. The world is changing rapidly and people need to talk about it.
What you’re more likely to overhear at Campfire is ‘I had an amazing conversation around the fire last night’ rather than ‘I danced to a great band or DJ’.
Lachie Gordon Athié
Co-founder, and Mind Body and Soul Curator, at Noisily
My feeling is that around the world, general Festival Culture is levelling off. New events are popping up left right and centre still, but the boom of the last 15 years is over and many have fallen by the wayside, leaving the ones who really get it right.
There are more small well produced events popping up catering to very specific tastes (Red Rooster and Noisily are two great examples) and I think that along with Transformational Festivals these events are taking a good share of the market where some large festivals fail.
Within the niche of the Transformational Festival world, while not many new events are appearing, those in existence are growing steadily. As they bring new people in each year, it feels that the ripple of these experiences are affecting more and more people around the world, as this culture becomes truly global.
I believe that the comparatively slow growth of Transformational Festivals is in part because it takes time to build community. You can’t just spend a load of money on advertising and suddenly have the sort of vibe that you have at Noisily. This takes years of deep friendships and connections to be made within the attendees, as well as deep learnings from the organisers.
I believe that in general, festivals are a much needed escape. However there are a number of transformation events which are really helping to forge the path forward, providing incubators for people to see that a better future is possible. And through discussions and example, creating roadmaps to get there.
My best festival experience of this year was at Noisily on the Sunday evening. The vibe on the dance floor on the Noisily Stage was the kind of life affirming feeling that is hard to describe. A raw energy which hit you as soon as you walked down into the stage. Everyone on the same level, no negative feelings, every person beaming with pure joy and seemingly in some unified state of flow.
Perhaps the other experience of the summer was at Boom festival, watching the a full Lunar Eclipse on a peninsular into the beautiful Idanha-a-Nova Lake. I watching the blood red moon hang in above the horizon and gazed at the arc of stunningly bright planets across the sky… It was an extraordinary experience, at what I think is the world’s best party.
Contributing Editor, New Internationalist and veteran of youth and street protest (especially Occupy London)
I have been watching festival life over the past two weeks (I was a speaker in the amazing new Journey To Nutopia tent at Lunar Festival and did five talks and an assembly at Green Gathering, I’m now watching Off the Grid setting up out my window).
The focus is shifting from pure entertainment and hedonism to balancing that with cerebral stimulation through talks, panels and workshops. The speakers are covering areas that relate to making sense of this increasingly confused world.
The Journey To Nutopia area at Lunar Festival, with Bill Drummond's Land Raver as the centre piece, attracted big crowds every day for a roster of countercultural legends like John Higgs and Michele Olley.
There were also scientists relating their research on psilocybin treatment for depression and an engineer describing emerging technology in green energy. In the evening, the space turns into a rave with artists like A Man Called Gerald and Richard Norris of The Grid playing from decks built on top of the vehicle. The balance between deep thinking followed by deep dancing hit a sweet spot for the Lunar audience.
There is a strong desire for people to meet others and find allegiances in understanding of what can be done for the world. There is a palpable concern, verging on desperation, rippling through the crowds. It’s almost a critical mass of people who are realising that the systems we have trusted to manage the world are broken.
The blazing sun over some of these festivals and the stories of mass deaths caused by heatstroke and wildfires abroad, have made climate change a far more common topic.
People aren't necessarily getting away from the world for a break at a festival anymore, in many ways they are coming to festivals to find the real world, or at least a world that might help them make sense of things. They are coming to find allegiance, to know that they are not alone in how they feel and what they fear.
This is vital to consider: any notions of something transformational happening through festival culture has to be countered by the exclusivity imposed through the steep price of tickets and additional rip offs like charging £10 for programmes.
This means that nothing revolutionary can happen while those most effected by neoliberal policies and collapsing social stability aren't part of the conversation. A more democratic, cooperative based festival culture needs to be encouraged, where profit is not the bottom line at all.
In that respect, Green Gathering, run as a not for profit Community Interest Charity (CIC), stands out as an example of how festivals can be the change we all want to see. This year they created a youth-led, Occupy style participatory democracy assembly, open to all festival goers and the organisers, with a focus on how young people can be more integrated into the festival in the future, with their voice being represented more prominently.
Green Gathering is a festival that wants to listen and grow in a democratic and inclusive way, that is not guided by profit. They’re already in place to meet the inevitable rise in the public's desire for stories and ideas of how we can get out of the mess that we are currently sinking deeper and deeper in to. The fact their slogan is 'Beyond Hedonism' is fitting.
Founder of Alter Ego
The renewal of progress lies in a deeper experience of self. We were inspired by transformational festivals like Burning Man to organise Alter Ego gatherings for political leaders and activists to reimagine progressive politics, drawing on the power of spirituality to help us transcend our dominant culture of individualism.