The Long Goodbye, notes on the past (and future) of festivals
The title of this essay is double edged. On the one hand it refers to a life with festivals. In it you have learned how to deal with them, how to enjoy them, know what feasts of inspiration and a multitude of views they can be, places too where life-long friendships may be forged, both with artists, colleagues and random visitors. Festivals as meeting places were life may be celebrated, warm hospitality enjoyed. The talks, the walks, the terraces, the drinking and the dinners together. Looking back nostalgia creeps in and you know very well which festivals 'worked' for you and which didn't, and finally the latter did not matter.

The long good bye also encapsulates the process of a world changing and the festivals in it, your own accumulative gaining experiences and insights in the workings of the pressure upon festivals and their makers. Seductive shifts in the 'raison d'être' of the phenomena of festivals, the unstoppable growth of gatherings that carry the name, but hardly can compete with exquisite concepts of many a wonderful event.

But if we scrap the old experiences, memories, knowledge of how it was then, how we wish it might be now, we can also come to the simple conclusion that past and future of festivals is just the idea of the evolution of a concept.
Festivals as things in and of themselves defined by what they contained. Their contents are what add up to whatever meaning a festival will have. So we can understand what festivals were by looking at the performances and artistic expressions they contained. All that activity added up to something, and the totality of that idea was the meaning of that festival. And their future? The future has to do with the evolution of content. In time and place. And the forces brought to bear on their definition of content. Here we go:

22 January 2007

Rumor has it that the visual arts are usually ahead of the performing arts with indicators of trends. True or not today there was a picture of a forty meters long (reconstruction) of a demonstration structure build - until dismantled by a police-force of 78 - in front of parliamentary buildings in London. This time as an exhibit in the Tate (not the 'Modern'). Same date a photograph of a demonstration of Break Dancing in the (Modern Art) Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht. Same day a friend sends me pictures of an action by the Museum of  Contemporary Art in San Francisco: hundreds of people, naked on bikes, their bodies painted in glorious designs.

There's a clear shift in programming concepts.

4 November 2006

Senior art critic of NRC/Handelsbad newspaper Janneke Wesseling holds a lecture under the title "The theft of the present: between contemporary art and cultural heritage". In it she quotes Jan Willem Siebergh (53), financial director of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam from an interview published by the same paper. He has cheerfully mentioned a publicity expert giving such a wonderful description of his museum as: "an esthetical gas-filling station with a mental carwash".
What he means was that the museum provides an escape from the hectic of daily life, as a refuge to put things in a different perspective. The Museum as an "Arts-spa". Further on he argues that it is fashionable to philosophize about the meaning of life. Look at Madonna, who nowadays calls herself Esther. She no longer, as in the 80's, is a material girl, no longer a sexual girl as in the 90's, but a spiritual girl. And Madonna is an expert in  understanding the Zeitgeist. (Madonna as a guideline for Museum policy for the most prestigious museum of the Netherlands, and prime guardian of our heritage).

There is a clear shift in programming interpretation of content.

25th of December 2006

The New Yorker publishes a reportage on Art Basel at Miami Beach by Peter Schjeldahl: "In contemporary art, this is the decade of the fair, as the nineties were the decade of the biennial. Collectors with piles of money, have displaced curators, with institutional clout, as arbiters of how new art becomes known and rated, and therefore of what it can mean: less and less, after qualifying as the platonic consumer good.
Art fairs are the new disco. There were even artists on hand, as awkwardly interested as cows at a creamery." And he finishes his two page article with a flourish: "Money, like virtue, is as it does."

There is a clear shift towards blatant consumption and attitude toward product.

When we look at festivals, when we're part of them -- either the making or the witnessing -- we too easily recognize them as repetitive structures, rather than as maximum efforts to achieve a unified ideal. There are interesting dangers lurking around the corner.

September 1996

I don't think I would have been able to articulate them, had I not taken a number of DasArts students and staff to Wales to attend a conference last year. The conference was entitled 'Performance, Identity and Tourism', and was organized by the Centre for Performance Research, which is run by Richard Gough.

So a large group of us went to Wales, and almost before we knew what was happening, we'd been cast in the role of tourist and were henceforth treated as such. The conference moved all over Wales. We visited historical sites, beauty spots, lectures, parks, lecture demonstrations, and site specific performances. We were guided from place to place by tourist guides -- not real tourist guides, but people who were performing that function -- and they made sure that we swallowed our individuality entire, and generally treated us like the cattle we had become, or the nitwits we'd been cast as, or as a nice mixture of both. The conference was unique. The experience of it quite illuminating... also with reference to festivals of the future.

There is a shift here towards the Tourism and Heritage industry, tourism and heritage are the product.

June 1996

The Oerol Festival on the little island of Terschelling in the Netherlands is a perfect example of a unique operation.
It offers the island as a stage. Theatre in farmhouses, community centers, stables, beaches, bits of forest, meadows, its harbor. It offered the widest range of performances to an ever growing tourist trade. Originally the festival was created for its inhabitants, but it has grown to "one of the best known stages" in Europe. Tourism however became the major factor of the festivals 'raison d'être' . The division between tourism and the 'art'-part
Are getting fused. It is threatened to become the virtual reality of itself. (The islanders won't mind so long the trade grows; and yet, the local politics have just voiced that there must be a stop to the influx of tourism, the island cannot handle any further growth.)

Now ten years later the program is defined by site specific Activities with the exclusion of all else; there is no evolution of content.

August 1996

I visited the small festival in Sibiu, Romania. It might grow into something wonderful if it realizes that it's future does not lie in becoming world famous in Europe. If it concentrates on its own characteristics. Major student activity, site specifity, and its Eastern European tradition of hosting and feeding large numbers of guests from all over.
This way of operating is uniquely theirs. Above all there is an eager curiosity of the locals to learn more about what's going on elsewhere in Europe. If  it's careful with its ambition, creating a time and place to meet under stimulating circumstances, a place where we might be the best of ourselves, rather than the cattle we're programmed willy nilly to be elsewhere.

In 2007 Sibiu gained Cultural Capitol of Europe status. The City has become the product.

November 1997.

Frans de Ruiter, then, four year director of the Holland Festival writes a letter to Dennis the Rougemont the founder of the European Festivals Association:"Why does one need a festival when so many other things are already happening? The only reason may be that a festivan is more than the sum of its parts; not a repetition or simple improvement, and therefore falls out of step, reflects, and comments on what is already happening. In this way, a festival becomes - when it is a good one - a teller of stories about our cultural inheritance and the way we have to deal with it, but first and foremost it is an expert in creating meanings. One has to ask of any component of a festival the exact reason for programming this particular production, concert or exhibition in this form, at that particular moment and in this festival program. Thus no repetition, no representative cross-sections, no import based on an obvious tour, but rather adventure and the search of the unknown, the unprecedented."

Before the shifts all seemed so blissfully simple at one time.

And yet there is hope. It is expressed in a strong and inspired formula, that basically reinvents the very foundation of what a festival might be. Never mind the tourism, never mind the city marketing.

11 November 2006

The New York Times (excerpts from an article by Anne Midget) tells us about the "New Crowned Hope". The title of a festival (within the celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart) named for Mozart's Masonic lodge, consisting entirely of non-Austrian artists doing new work. Not a note of Mozart is being played. Instead, the music of New Crowned Hope ranges from operas by John Adams and Kaija Saariaho to a concert series by illegal immigrants living in Vienna. Alice Waters is cooking; Cambodians are dancing a version of "The Magic Flute"; homeless women are serving tea.
But the festival's most significant component may be the six feature films that were commissioned, using $2.5 million (of a total budget of more than $13 million) as seed money. The whole program conceived and directed by Peter Sellars.

Mr. Sellars, 49, is a springy, animated figure who spins out words like a small American Scheherazade. Stage directors, after all, are storytellers, and as a festival maker, Mr. Sellars simply has a bigger story to tell.
 It is a story that, at New Crowned Hope, begins with Mozart's end. "Mozart was born in Salzburg, and he died here," Mr. Sellars said. "So that's the story that has to be told from Vienna. And the question was, where was he going, because he died so young. What was next?"
In his commissions, Mr. Sellars defined this question in terms of the themes he saw in the three major works Mozart wrote in 1791, the last year of his life.

"Magic and transformation in 'Magic Flute,' " he said, ticking them off, "with a focus on the trials by fire and water of a young generation. And style truth and reconciliation, which is where 'Clemenza di Tito' invites us to go, in a most visionary way. And then, of course, the ceremonies for the dead."
The Requiem is the third focal point. "All over the world, mass graves are being uncovered every day," Mr. Sellars said. "And this country is no stranger to mass graves."

Some say money makes imagination possible - or easier. Is that the best we can do?

Maybe it is as simple as Peter Schjeldahl suggests: "Money, like virtue, is as it does." We have to start all over and define from the ground up. Comparative studies of existing festivals, at a rough estimate of 3000 worldwide, and counting, won't help us there.

"What then matters?" Daniel Taylor, author of 'The Healing Power of Stories' asks himself. We learn to live with the burden of this question; we need not be in despair to ask it of ourselves. His response: "A brief answer is anything that reveals or explores our humanity. What matters, among other things, is a human encounter with, and response to, pain, happiness.  Evil, boredom, love, hate. Grace. Violence, goodness, greed, God. Laughter, spite, and on and on."

We could do worse than base a festival on this. Roughly with: "Anything that reveals or explores our humanity". We can now take a step back. And list our priorities.
It is necessary to be as personal about all this as you - and as we - can possibly be. You must be totally obsessed with your central idea. You must be well prepared, well informed. You must have done your homework and your background research. You have to be light on your feet, and versatile. You need a strange mix of stamina and generosity. You must have the willingness to invest deeply in the creative talents you'll invite to realize your idea of a festive meeting place. The locality and the local inhabitants must be incorporated so they feel a real 'pride of place' in your festival. Copy someone else's idea, and you're lost before you begin. Repeat yourself  and you have shortchanged yourself and a multitude involved. And you must realize that only you can be the key to what you make. And what an inspiring challenge that could be.

If we are aware of changes - and we are - because we have summed them up: shifts in programming concepts, shift in programming interpretation of content, shift in attitude toward product, tourism and heritage as the new products, city as a product, then we can consider how to apply these changes. Or minimally, how not to be eaten alive by them.
If governments can only think of bums on seats, if sponsors need publicity and branding, if cities want blatant promotion , if a future festival must basically be understood as a publicity event, rather than fight these aspects we may find ways how to incorporate them.

This can only be done, if we know what kind of festivities we are thinking of. The more so given our knowledge of the forces that are upon them. After all we are now looking at a container that needs to be filled according to our convictions, experience,  professional orientation of what's on offer, and a fine tuned selection to fulfill our purpose. Any knowledge we ever had of festivals is now obsolete. We have to make our own.

Nobody, but NOBODY can tell you about the festival of the future. It won't exist if you yourself are not reinventing it. 
Those of us who've been writing in this little book are the Rabbits out of the A.A. Milne's story about the adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  We're the self-appointed guides who are leading you, while we all walk together in a thick fog.  We say we're taking you toward home, but in reality we're walking around and around a pit, and we're not getting you anywhere at all.

You must be the Winnie the Pooh of things.  When Rabbit tells Pooh, "We'd better get on, I suppose, which way shall we try?" Pooh responds, "How would it be if as soon as we're out of sight of this Pit, we try to find it again?" To which the Rabbits of our time will of course grumpily mutter, "What's the good in that?" At which point Pooh -- as befits a famous Bear of Little Brain -- mildly tells Rabbit, "Well... we keep looking for Home and not finding it.  I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find that, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't  looking for, which just might be what we were looking for, really."

You're the key.  Be Pooh.  Forget about the Rabbit questions.

Amsterdam,  27 Februari 2007
Ritsaert ten Cate (text edited by Colleen Scott)




Text edited by Colleen Scott