Festivals – What’s the Point? BAFA

Lights mark the outline of the bombing by the Luftwaffe in Rotterdam.

Lights mark the outline of the bombing by the Luftwaffe in Rotterdam.

I was invited along to blog about the BAFA conference, a gathering of the leaders of UK festivals, to debate the topic, What’s The Point of Festivals? It sounded like a great opportunity to learn things about how and why festivals operate, and how the folk most passionate about leading them think.

Here’s what I came away with:

Festivals bring joy out of ruin.

A talk on the Rotterdam festival showed us a festival making use of spaces in a bleak city with an ugly city centre; the results, it transpires, of bombing by the Luftwaffe. An art installation throwing light against the cloudy sky showed the outline of the devastation, creating an elegiac work of art that lifted the city out of its history and into a beautiful future.

Festivals revive whole regions.

The Two Moors festival in Dartmoor started after the foot and mouth tragedy brought the entire region to its knees, making it a landscape of blackened ash and smoking piles of animals. Now it’s a festival people travel a long way to get to, and it’s helped the place back up on its feet.

Festival of ThriftThe Thrift Festival in Darlington, a smash success in its first year, was also a surprising success, given the not especial prettiness of the city in question and its position in a region where many of the industries were destroyed by Thatcher. The sense of pride this festival generated in a place not noted for anything wonderful before is important, but immeasurable.

You can’t measure a festival.

Well, you can. The problem is, the only thing people seem to be interested in measuring is money. This, unfortunately, seemed to include not just the funding bodies and sponsors festivals depend on, but many of the people in the room. A (slightly) satirical talk by Robert Palmer suggested proposing a new framework, and language, to describe festivals as ‘systems’ rather than as cultural ‘impacts.’ I thought that was a jolly good idea, changing the language we used to define aspirations and describe systems so it wasn’t limited to how much money something or someone generates.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened in the room; but I was, and dismayed, too: most of the people in the room were challenged by this perfectly sensible proposition.

Why so scared?

By now, something was occurring to me. I was sitting in a room with people who might have started out as artists, or at least as people who liked art, but who were now accountable to a system that didn’t necessarily work very well. Life had made them bean-counters, first and foremost, and their job was to convince people to give them money and then justify the expense. The idea of not discussing festivals in terms outside what could be quantified was too much. Yes, you could debate the magic and fizz a festival generates until you were blue in the face, but this would never convince a hard-nosed money wizard to fund your festival for you. Their job was to ask for money, book artists, and make sure the events ran OK. Asking them to see festivals as living systems was like telling them the world was made of nuance. Clearly, it was a philosophy too far.

Crazy Zimbabwe moneyWhat’s wrong with only describing festivals as a business then? 

Well, quite. Most people get away with doing that for years and years, because it mostly works. There are, however, problems with this money-oriented approach. Firstly, if the people running festivals are embarrassed to talk about the art in artistic terms, why should anyone be convinced to give them money? Aren’t we conveying a sense that we don’t really believe in festivals at all?

Secondly, operating only within a monetary framework means that language loses its agility, and what should be fluid – skills and people – become categorised into boxes.  Thus, stultification of language creeps in, and the ability to see people as multi-skilled and adaptable fades from the critical framework.

Can festival organisers judge art?

A discussion on artistic criticism and whether critics have lost the ability to describe art as good or bad revealed the timidity of arts critics to truly criticise, and the general tentativeness across festival organisers to see art in qualitative terms because they are beholden to box-ticking certain demographics. The idea was put forward that by viewing artistic events as ‘community art’, or art for ‘disadvantaged groups’, not only was critical rigour in the arts being lost, but a certain amount of contempt for certain kinds of people could be seen creeping to the forefront of festival discourse; a controversial argument that was shot down before anyone truly had a chance to think about it honestly.

Pink contortionistSo what did I learn?

It’s easy to carve people up into divisions and ticky-boxes because it makes them easier to count and describe. For a sweating accountable person, the easier this is the better. But it also means that talking about the essence and magic of bringing tons of artists together in one place to create an electric atmosphere becomes taboo – or at least, slightly embarrassing.

A festival is an animal – a massive, shifting, multi-headed creature, and only counting its valuable tusks can never be an adequate description of the whole. Palmer is right; we should be describing festivals as systems, but until we can reach a time where that kind of sensible premise isn’t sniggered at, we will still live in a world where the most important, and intangible, aspects of festivals are dismissed as mere romance, naivety, compared to the solid, scientific evidence of money.