New year, new blog…
Welcome to 2016 and my brand spanky-new blog.
Now that I’ve earned a few academic stripes, I can be frank about some things. Being inspired by something is a feeling. It is an emotional connection between you and something else, whether it is a work of art, a music scene or a dynamic individual. There may be aspects of it that you can explain to another person. But inspiration is foremost a feeling, and it is deeply personal.
“writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon who one can neither resist nor understand”
I couldn’t agree more. “Sheer egoism”, as well as an aesthetic sensibility are among the “demons” he describes. But underlying every book, no matter how factual, also lurk emotions, biases and political causes we wish to justify. Now I’ve finally pushed my own book out, like a long-overdue foetus, I can reflect on a few of my ‘demons’ (or ‘inspirations’, to use a more positive term!)
1 = Creativity
By the time I’d finished teaching a 12 week course in Creative Event Design (CED), I had thoroughly overused the word “creativity” (not to do any discredit to the course, which was awesome, and my favourite at the UK Centre for Events Management). As we kept reinforcing to our students, creativity is fundamental to pulling off entertaining, and perhaps more importantly, interesting events.
Creativity at music festivals in the UK has always inspired me. My favourite festivals push the very definition of the word, and teem with art, decor and other wacky stimuli. Understanding what makes some festivals a hotbed of creativity requires some digging down into what creativity actually is, and why it impacts an audience. On the CED course we emphasised the idea of creativity in terms of doing things differently.
But at the festivals where creativity is the most apparent, essential to its impact is also broad participation: whether it is through running a theme camp at Burning Man, donning a pirate-come-lizard getup at Secret Garden Party or decorating a venue at BoomTown Fair. I am the most inspired by festivals when the place looks, feels and smells like the creative product of the many, not the few. The success of these particular events suggests that I am not alone. This environment allows us to lose ourselves in a sea of creative contributions made by our fellow human beings. We see what we are all capable of when we nurture and expand the crazy compartments of our minds.
This environment transforms some festivals into, quite literally, gallery spaces. I have just completed a project that did just this, co-managed with my husband (a strange but lovely experience that challenged us in all sorts of ways!). ‘Lost Eden’ was our first baby. The project consisted of first winning, and then spending an Arts Council award on transforming a four acre tract of woodland into an arts trail at Kendal Calling. The crowd’s favourite piece by far was ‘Nature Delivers’ by Dan Rawlings, an intricately carved transit van. There are many beautiful shots by Tom Martin and friends on the official gallery, but here is one I took myself:
2 = Change
The handful of industry reports that deal with UK festivals (Mintel 2008 & 2010; Virtual Festivals annual reports, UK Festival Awards Reports and the Association of Independent Festivals Six Year Report) all agree on one thing: the UK festival market expanded an unprecedented rate in the 2000s. It is true that this growth levelled out in the 2010s. Yet we are still left with, compared to other countries, a remarkable density of festivals across the British provinces.
This growth in itself is, in my view at least, a mysterious enough phenomenon to be worthy of writing about. Even more interesting is the idea that the level of competition during this time has encouraged promoters to bring increasingly unique and complex content to the table. However, looking at these changes actually tells us more about audiences than they do about promoters. What the mass gatherings consist of, within this newly expanded social terrain, communicates not only the preferences of the ticketbuyer but how people actually feel about the world; their dreams, desires and the foibles of existence.
The most prominent symbol for change in the festivals industry is, for me, a personal one. My first music festival was Homelands at Matterley Bowl, 1999, which I snuck into aged fifteen. Ten years later I found myself on the same field, but I was at BoomTown Fair, in an environment that couldn’t have been more different. In fact, to label both events ‘music festivals’ seems ludicrous. Unlike Homelands, which had a pretty basic dance-festival setup consisting of big tops and an outdoor stage hosted by Radio One, BoomTown was and is like another world: a caricature of society, built and dismantled in the space of a few weeks.
Not all festivals have moved in this direction, of course. There is still a market for traditional formats, where the focus is oriented towards a list of artists and the main stage. But I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is a healthy market. The fastest growing festivals in the UK, in recent times, are those that have developed their non-musical programs at the same time as maintaining a ticket-selling line-up. This can be viewed as ‘adding values’, like any other kind commercial product. But it’s intriguing nevertheless, not least because the continual push to add value has changed the very format of the music festival event. For most, ticket sales remain dependent on the line-up. But loyalty depends on the quality of the experience, which is about subtle but crucial things: exposure to new art forms, exposure to aesthetic event design, and opportunities to participate in new and creative ways.
3 = Idealism
I remember the exact moment it occurred to me that festivals could be viewed, if one had sufficient powers of imagination, as idealised versions of society. Picture Glasto 2005, roundabout 3am on the Saturday night. A man was strumming a guitar near the stone circle and a modest, and pretty inebriated, crowd had formed around him. After his last song came a fervent speech. Glastonbury should be declared an independent state, he argued. And what we all needed to do was refuse to go home until it was. Before I could ask the sensible questions, such as what would happen when the food ran out and what would we do when the contractors took all of the portaloos away, I was briefly enamoured.
I didn’t exactly support this candid proposal, but the fact that it was there to begin with was interesting. Could festivals represent, if not directly provide, an alternative way of life? In fact, the notion that music festivals are more than hedonism and can offer a gateway into a simpler, and arguably more liberated, mode of existence is not new. It has been discussed by Michael Clarke in his Politics of Pop Festivals, 1982, and later by Kevin Hetherington in New Age Travellers: Vanloads of Uproarious Humanity’ in 2000. In particular reference to the travelling communities in 60s and 70s Britain festivals, Hetherington argued, were a breeding ground not only for drugs and music but for environmentalism, politics and new age spirituality. Arguably, though festivals have entered the mainstream, these facets persist today as part of the DNA of British festival culture.
The idealistic facet of a festival, if it is there at all, is usually a subtle one. But occasionally it is so conspicuous the event seems to blow out the parameters of what a festival actually is, becoming something else entirely – a form of celebratory protest or even a social experiment.
Burning Man is an illuminating example of this, though there are plenty of good reasons for arguing that the idealism of Burning Man covers up what is a very shrewd and very successful commercial operation (and for what it’s worth, I personally don’t believe this undermines its authenticity). But what makes this particular event aspirational, or even utopian, is its organisation around participatory principles and the rejection of commerce on site. Whether you consider this a USP or an ethic, this focus dramatically alters the experience and offers a glimpse of how a society might function without money.
All festivals centre on giving pleasure; only some maintain an air of idealism. Yet the successful integration of party, protest and aspiration at leading events like Glastonbury and Burning Man has left an influential legacy across the global festival scene.
4 = Escape
Two things helped me escape the monotony of daily life in adolescence: great books and music festivals. The way in which they offered a way out had something in common; both had the ability to transport me to another place. Festivals were removed from familiarity in a literal sense, but this was more than geographical-festivals seemed to be hedonistic sorts of islands that had social codes and conventions unlike those found in the ‘default world’ (to borrow a phrase used by patrons of Burning Man to describe, well, the rest of the world that isn’t Burning Man).
For me, the best festival experience is when you feel you have escaped one mode of reality and replaced it, however briefly, with something else entirely. It isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly what creates this impression because it consists of a combination of things. We can speak of life as a series of peak experiences with a lot of routine happening in between. A festival is a peak experience but, with most as three day affairs, the way this is sustained (with more music and art than you could ever hear or see) makes for a different level of intensity.
The escapism of the environment lends itself to a form of communication in short supply in the business of professional life; truly stimulated, less purposeful, unhurried – and frequently, conducted frequently with utter strangers. This change has a lasting effect on me: it seems an unlikely statement, but immediately post-festival I’m physically exhausted but somehow more grounded, and there are always new friends and stronger acquaintances as a result of three days in the fields. Festivals might provide a temporary escape from the world, but the minutiae of ways they change your life stay with you.
5 = Community
Community, as my (supremely awesome) PhD supervisor once said, is a slippery idea. We often hear people say things like the ‘Black community’ and the ‘LGBT community’. But are they really communities? Or is the word a homogenising blanket we lazily throw over groups of human beings that might share one characteristic, but who are as conflicting, complicated and diverse as we know ourselves to be. Actually, I do think there is such a thing as black community and LGBT community. I also believe the word can give off an erroneous impression of oneness that could never really exist for across something as vast as race or sexuality.
But if we can acknowledge the heterogeneous nature of the community, is it possible that there is such a thing as a festival community? Perhaps there is. Almost certainly there is the experience of community when you are sharing a field with thousands of others, a million miles away from home and work.
My older sister was fantastic in the fact that she was continuously introducing me to cool stuff. I recall her starry-eyed references to the ‘festival spirit’, after coming back from Glastonbury. To say that she attended Glastonbury religiously is almost literally true: the experience held that much significance to her. I recall her failure to get a ticket one year, at which she cried real tears, declaring that Glastonbury was what made the rest of the year bearable. Her experience of community at Glastonbury may have been fleeting, but it was one that she awarded the highest level of personal relevance.
These are not the kind of confessions to be made in a PhD thesis – or an academic dissertation of any kind.
When you are writing up, there is this spectre called ‘objectivity’ that you are supposed to maintain at all times. Grounded in positivist science, applying this concept to studying cultural phenomena is riddled with contradictions and has always, if I’m honest, felt pretty awkward. The question is, how to separate your own emotions from the topic?
After grappling with this throughout my PhD research I ended up not answering the question but questioning its own validity. Of course, a thesis shouldn’t be based on feelings or personal intuition (that’s a blog, ha). The aim of research is not catharsis, nor is it entertainment. But should we be aiming to separate ourselves from our topics of study so resolutely, when it is obvious how important personal connection, passion and meaningfulness are to communicating an idea effectively? As a lecturer a little way into the profession (I’m in my fifth year) I have learned the hard way that, without humanising your material with stories, emotion and personal relevance, it falls on deaf ears. To inspire others, you must be inspired. And good writing, in my view, requires an inspired protagonist.
So now I can deliver my confession: I chose to research what I love.