The flood of festivals

Illness, cure, everyday life

For those who calmly existed behind the Iron Curtain it was hard to even imagine arts festivals, writes Vaidas Jauniskis. But now, over the past two decades, festivals have flooded Europe as if a new religion. Vaidas Jauniskis compares the many festivals of Europe and wonders what the future of festivals will be like in Lithuania.

Festivals that run for a day or three months, settle in one district of a city or wander through various countries, are not limited by concepts nor are they easily adaptable to any of them. They seldom draw huge funds, or get them at all, neither private nor state festivals, nor drinking festivities or feasts of ideas and emotions. Once it was difficult for us to even imagine them, for those of us who calmly existed behind the Iron Curtain. However, over the last two decades, festivals have flooded Europe as if a new religion, getting everybody on their feet and forcing them to become pilgrims to “holy” events and places of art. “The Great Flood” did not leave anyone out, because festivals also became venues of salvation. Today we taste the cream of the great festival cakes, travel to the blessed spaces where everyone has to be, take part in projects and money distribution battles, or hand out funds behind the official battlefield. We get angry, we don’t agree, but we still keep running to where we are being called, to the art that is closest to us, in search for the cultural flowers of the night. Festivals that once broke the daily routine become a routine in themselves, a food supplement, an event that has to be reflected on – preferably by another. At least the smaller festivals.

That is what the Klaipeda Cultural Communication Centre along with the European International Cultural Programme Centre and the Klaipeda City Council decided to do. During the fourth annual conference called Neuzsalanti kultura (Unfreezing Culture), the intent is to analyse the places of festivals against the background of a country or city, and to analyse the phenomenon of the festival itself. Culture does not freeze here, especially in a Klaipeda summer, but this analogy perfectly illustrates the nonsense happening in the spaces of culture since the themes analysed indicate that a new ice age may soon begin.

The conference Neuzsalanti kultura was launched in 2004, and that year the phenomenon of a seaside city was discussed; in 2005 it analysed the question of heritage; in 2006 new challenges in culture management; and this year’s theme was “Festivals: encounters of creativity and city development”. These conferences are constantly instructing us to talk about culture based, not upon measures of creativity and quality, but upon realistically accountable financial, urban, social, and other indexes. Another distinctive feature is that they are almost totally ignored by the makers of cultural policy and by the festival officers on whose shoulders the decisions lie.

Festival and city. Subject and object

Representatives in the same field of art, who each time meet in a different town and continue their discussions without paying attention to the different landscapes – ignoring the surroundings or simply defending themselves against it by invoking art concepts – are the ones who experience best that a festival is lifestyle. Talks about art as well as reviews of artworks provide stability, but these festivals basically go hand in hand with a particular state of weightlessness: temporary hotels, rooms cleaned by invisible hands, mini bottles of shampoo, fast food, brief acquaintances and names that are quickly forgotten, accreditation badges, and kilos of press prospectuses… However, after such a marathon, the participant feels as if he has received an injection of art, new experiences, energy and inspiration. As if he has recovered his balance from a weightless state.

According to etymology, a festival is a celebration, a feast, but sometimes it is also an escapade which allows one to rise above an already commercialized cultural routine while at the same time executing almost forgotten educational functions – or mending holes – discussing everything from the facts of art history to the newest challenges or trends in art. In other words, it is an attempt to be at the cutting edge of the world, to hold a finger on the pulse of art. Thus, for the majority, a festival means not only clearly focusing on samples of a particular trend (such as the five best European films of the last year in two days), but from the point of view of the organizers it is an opportunity to attract money from sponsors and to present a big dose of self-sustaining advertising at the same time. It is not simply an easier way to educate (and be educated), it is the only way, because the sponsors would not allow the release of a good film every month or the presentation of six of the most famous European theatre troupes just like that unless the festival already had some recognition. This because without the “compulsory” advert where the most important word is “festival”, an event will not attract an audience and empty chairs is all that will fill the rented hall. For this reason, our festivals often become not a synonym for a feast but rather a variant of a session, a scientific symposium or a conference, because their educational function is very strong and visitors have to be prepared not only to meet and understand art, but also to have their stamina tested through the entire marathon – from art events to conferences, discussions and night clubs of communication, whatever the organizers organize. But of course, I am talking here about those art festivals that have a clear concept and are not just a collection of famous names and an excuse for wild parties.

That is a festival’s use for visitors. But to those who do not attend festivals, those who equate festival visits with snobbery and hold a grudge against you for going, to them a festival is not a necessity, but rather an unnecessary and expensive luxury – a point that is often emphasized by the country’s politicians who stress that it is impossible to assess a festival’s economic profit to the country.

It is indeed very hard to assess the effect of the knowledge received and the spiritual benefit of culture. But as soon as you go into town and buy the bottle of water you need to sustain you through the marathon, you become an object measured in money, and even in the most insignificant of currencies begin to bring profit to others, i.e. to citizens of a foreign country. Daily allowances strictly determined by your country go into the treasury of another country drop by drop, supplementing it.

An indirect profit is that after you have returned from the festival, you begin sharing your impressions (although you think that you only analyse art) by insensibly praising a town or the country itself, as if the helpful organizers you met are a complete representation of the citizens of that country. The pleasant smile of a hotel administrator can create a country’s scenery for you; hospitality and a favourable economic climate might be created by the tone of the festival’s press representatives. You have been bought but you did not even notice. You, who have become a temporary tourist by being the guest of a festival, are the one now blowing the bugle for that country. Because besides what is written in the press you begin using the most powerful form of advertisement – word of mouth, your story. (According to the culture politician Dragan Klaic, a journalist who has been invited and pleasantly patronized will become a better ambassador of the host country than any other cultural attaché). Here as well as in art objectivity is impossible: even if the plays staged during the festival were not the greatest of masterpieces, if the castle of Mary Stuart was not awash with luxury and the draught was seeping not only into the streets but into one’s home as well, your heart perhaps addressing only the town or maybe some small detail, starts to quietly croon: you (write in the name of the city yourself) are wonderful tonight!

The facts and figures of Edinburgh

Seduction by the biggest theatre festival in the world begins when you start reading British Airways magazine on a plane. One is familiarized with the coffee houses where, during the festival, a famous actor appears, or a theatre critic, a volunteer, a director of a festival (one such cosy and inexpensive coffee house is close to my quarters and I, of course, will go there). Or when you read the ten pieces of advice for a guest of the festival: eat hot but not fast food, write on your T-shirt “I have already bought tickets”, travel or live with a few other people, rent a room that perhaps is more expensive but near the main venues, because that way you will save anyway. A festival’s profit probably begins even earlier – from the moment you start browsing websites: this simple mechanism allows you not only to order tickets but also to choose your quarters, and in addition to the scores of cheaper hotels displayed it offers you an advertisement-reference to the Picasso exhibition that will take place nearby – why should one not go there? In the city you yourself become a calculated object:

1,7 million tickets (ten per cent more than previous year) were sold for the festival which lasted all of August in 2007; the sale of tickets over the internet increased by forty per cent; 18 626 actors appeared on stage; 2000 different plays were performed – a total of 31 000 individual performances were given in one month! We are talking only of the Edinburgh Fringe festival where theatre dominates, but at the same time alongside it, there are the Edinburgh film, jazz, and music festivals, and the Edinburgh Book Fair. Nevertheless, the Fringe takes in seventy five per cent of the market of the festivals that are held each year and earns seventy five million pounds for the bursaries of Edinburgh, and all of Scotland.

From where do such sums appear, and are really such profits made, not only from the visitors who rent hotels and flats? Food stalls prosper on every corner, a fair rent payment is collected from participants who come to the Fringe, and we’re not even speaking about tickets, transport, cleaning and laundry services, Scottish kilts, whisky, souvenirs, etc. The team behind the Edinburgh Fringe Festival itself, consisting of thirteen people who work all year round, is expanded to 120 people during it, because everything is based on the Fringe – and a so-called elite programme running over only some dozens of evenings.

Maybe there are those who think that people go to Edinburgh in order to visit this admirable city that has preserved its medieval culture, such as when five thousand spectators (mostly Scottish) go up to the castle to watch the military tattoo. But I especially noticed that a lot of small snack-bars were closed on the last evening of the festival, people went short of pizzas and hot sausages, and in the morning while I looked around the cosy and empty Podunk it was hard to believe that almost half a million people live here.

Avignon is almost a reversal of the capital of Scotland. There are parallels (the castle of Mary Stuart is in one, the Papal Palace in the other, both attracting tourists) but the odds are that far fewer people would come to either if it wasn’t for the festival. This major event of southern France is more important from the point of view of image (if you have managed to get there, it means that you have climbed a worldwide theatrical Everest) and generates bigger interest, and their fringe, Avignon-off, is far more modest – this year (2007) it offers “only” 866 plays performed by 668 theatre companies. It yields to Edinburgh not only in the number of companies but in overall economics, because the perduring politics of the festival have been oriented to the main programme, and there are comparably fewer websites that offer accommodation. The main programme for Avignon-In attracts about 100 000 spectators, and presents forty plays on ten stages in Avignon and nearby. Thirty five per cent of the budget for the festival consists of the income from ticket sales.

Festivals as the bellwether of cities

The further east, the fewer facts and figures are available. It seems that the distance to a city is measured not by signs showing kilometres but by the spread of its reputation. Maybe the howl of the Iron Wolf also indicates a festival rather than a city? Do many people know about the small Slovakian town of Nitra, with its 84 000 citizens, 70 km from Bratislava? Maybe linguists and historians do because the Cyrillic alphabet was created there and memorials for Kiril (Saint Cyril, the ninth century linguist) and Metodij were built.

Divadelna Nitra will hold its seventeenth theatre festival this autumn.

Here, hotel rooms are provided for free, which is a feature of almost all small festivals because it is the only way to attract important people. Larger festivals do not give any discounts. In 2007, Divadelna Nitra spent almost 22 000 euro on hotels for journalists, theatre critics and directors of other festivals. This subsidy was recovered with interest. (Only as late as 2005 did the city decide to schedule a festival into its plans and budgeted 12 500-15 500 euro, consisting of approximately three to four per cent of the entire city’s budget.)

Nitra cannot offer anything very special on an international level, but there are a lot of posters with logos of the festival, and the advertisements do not drown in a sea of unrelated commercials. Nitra is known abroad only for this festival and its active participation in EU festival programmes and networks (Festivals in Transition, etc.). Divadelna Nitra participated in the research project of European festivals as the partner of Pro Cultura – none of the Lithuanian festivals could boast this.

While talking about Lithuania, it is almost impossible to tell something about the influence of festivals on economic indexes of cities. There is no such calculation. All one can do is to refer to hearsay, spiritual needs and economic feeling. Sponsorship potential is exemplified by the Rokiskis Theatre Festival, formally known as the Vaidiname Zemdirbiams (We Perform for Farmers). During the final evening, sponsors, one by one, bring their produce onto the stage because for a quarter of a century this feast has become an unquestionable and anticipated event in northern Lithuania. Although theatres do not always show their most recent plays, they go to Rokiskis, probably more eagerly than to other Lithuanian festivals, because in Rokiskis real attention is given to actors and artistic directors – which is reflected in a system of voting for the best performances. If I had to describe the Rokiskis festival in the context of other theatrical events, I would have to say it is more like a fringe, if judged by the audience and not by the programme, because it includes an entire repertory scale – from open commerce to the subtlety of art. The audience is not spoilt; rather, it wants to learn, wants to know and is curious and un-snobbish.

A festival-conference, Siaures vasara (Northern Summer), moved away from Nida five years ago. This symposium (probably a more suitable term) of literature and other arts – jazz, film, discussions and open readings – lasting several days, takes place in a farmstead and park of Jurbarkas. This move to Jurbarkas was motivated by the sheer number of other things available in Nida, where bohemians do not lack temptations and inspiration. In Jurbarkas, Siaures vasara is both central and secluded: participants can enjoy the quietness and spirit of Castalia because the symposium is not very visibly promoted (in the ads I read only about the sale of a goat, and about a male striptease show in a nearby town). It holds an intermediate position between the elite and let’s say plebs: literates and other authors can feel like ascetics and analyse the subtlety of their art with especially subtle concepts, while citizens who are interested in literature, film, music, or just wish to see living classics have an opportunity to come to the cultural feast (a hundred or so of these visitors come every year). For the citizens of Jurbarkas, these evenings are a real cultural banquet. Later on, one often meets some of the younger people who come to the capital to study, or go to the theatre, the cinema, or to literature evenings. One cannot be sure that this is because of the influence of the festival. That influence can also not be measured by any financial or other tangible indexes.

Leisure = culture?

The speech by the above mentioned Raimundas Palaitis during the conference Neuzsalanti kultura (Unfreezing Culture), was symptomatic not only of the community of politicians but also of the majority of our society, including some of the organizers of the festival even. This member of parliament stated that he had searched for an answer to what a festival was on Google. He must have had 650 000 hits from such googling, and he came to the conclusion that a festival was a celebration, and its main feature that of recurring continuity. Thus the politician referred to not only Pancake Day and Smelt Feast as Palanga festivals, but to New Year’s parties and the J.Basanavicius Street summer “festival” as well. Nakties serenados (Night Serenades) received a separate epithet of high culture. According to Palaitis, in order to implement Palanga city visions there is only one thing needed (your guess is correct!) – a modern, multifunctional centre, because culture for politicians first of all means construction.

Nijole Lauzikiene, director of the Klaipeda Municipality Social Affairs Department, reminded us of Rotterdam Erasmus university research where it is emphasized that festivals are “the brightest form of a city’s cultural life”, and then offered proof that it is possible to calculate the economics of festivals after all. She provided specific facts and figures on the Juros svente (Sea Feast), so dear to every citizen of this lighthouse country, but also revealed a dangerous tendency: no new festivals have appeared in Klaipeda, begging the question if the environment in the seaport town is favourable to new festivals. Although Juros svente collects forty four per cent of the sponsors’ revenue, strategists for the city do not relate this event, or other events, to any increase in tourism or significant economic gains. But all of this is easily calculated: during the festival, the production of consumables increases two to three times, the turnover for companies producing foodstuffs increases by fifty to seventy per cent, and more than a thousand additional jobs are created. It means that we can calculate everything even without much research, if we want to. But even more important is to interview people and observe changes during the event itself. Other festivals, even smaller ones seeking serious cultural education, do not in the end create an image for their city. Juros svente, however, also helps influence the taste of mass culture consumers.

Festival: age and problems

Almost all cultural events today are called festivals, if only because this attractive label opens the wallets of sponsors and draws in advertising. Some conferences last for several days, while Moscow’s spectacular A. Chekhov Theatre Festival lasts for three months. Then there’s the Spielzeit Europa in Berlin, a solid summer meeting of famous names in music, or Lithuania’s newest example – the festival Tylos! (Silence!) that earlier was simply called a review of LMTA students’ graduation dissertations… One night of fireworks… But how many festivals come to fruition? Do they re-examine their mandate as did London’s LIFT, which traded festival activity for cultural work in industrialized south London and in this way revived the entire district? Do festivals themselves create ideas or are they created accidentally by the performances of guests? How to distinguish one festival from another when there are so many, when, for example, Hungary organizes one thousand festivals each year and Spain prepared 712 international, state-sponsored theatre festivals in 2005? During the last decade the number of festivals in Croatia, Spain, Germany and Finland doubled1.

The European Festival Research Project2 undertook a study to find out what varieties of festivals there are. One of its coordinators was Christopher Maughan who manages Lester Comedy Festival and lectures in art management at De Montfort University in Leicester. In his opinion, festivals deserve economic calculation because the funds appointed to them tend to dry up, and one needs solid arguments in order to receive support. Because Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Britain, was not very interested in culture, festival organizers needed to look for means to persuade her – and so “creative industries” have become a phenomenon.

A festival is postulated as a space where various problems are solved. Though its format may remind one of carnivals and fools’ feasts in the Middle Ages, it is also a factor in the good governance of a city (helping citizens to relax and relieve tension). A festival creates an identity of place, a civil space, and tries to diminish social separation by strengthening the feeling of community and self-respect. It also helps develop cultural tourism while at the same time creating challenges for artists, managers, etc. – all of which is detailed in the Intercultural Dialogue Declaration of Art Festivals3. Bernard Faivre-d’Arcier, former long-standing director of the Avignon Festival, specifies similar merits for “real” theatre: a democratization of the culture makes it more accessible to everyone; a festival creates an illusion that strengthens local identity and relieves social tensions; and it creates communal and cultural connections. According to Faivre-d’Arcier, businessmen and politicians were for fifteen years persuaded that a festival was good business: every euro invested in a festival generated at least three euro and often even ten euro. A festival creates a specific image of a specific place that could not be created in any other way; moreover, a festival becomes a challenge for artists and their innovations where risk-taking is permitted, and there is a public looking for new trends. Also, there is the educational aspect. Discussions are encouraged, round tables organized, rumours spread and the press help broadcast them.

However, for a festival to remain alive it is necessary for it to constantly re-evaluate itself as a festival. Christopher Maughan presents Ichak Adizes’ “circle of common life” as a metaphor: after deliberations and matchmaking, a child (a festival) is born; he can die immediately or continue to live until maturity, and then he blossoms (but if the partners get divorced, this is a threat for his potential to reach maturity). After a stable and prosperous phase, the honourable life of a gracefully ageing aristocrat awaits him, but the biggest problem is that he might become a bureaucrat, which is the fastest way to death. The essential part of organizing a festival is management, described as PAEI – a medley of Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur and Integrator. One phase of a flourishing festival can be described as PAEi. But danger signs emerge when business diminishes and the administration starts dominating (pAei) – business risk is then replaced by bureaucratic license and fear of risk.

Thus after UK cities heard that Liverpool was going to become European capital of culture, instead of showing their disappointment and passively resenting it (remember more than once that outraged cry of “Vilnius again!”), they accepted this development as a challenge. The citizens of Edinburgh started to attend their own festival more (normally many would leave and hand their city over to the visitors), and Manchester joined forces in order that tourists would not dismiss this Brit-pop city located fifty km from the birthplace of The Beatles. Manchester’s festival opened in 2007 with the slogan “24-hour party city”, the first international festival presenting only new, original works. It has already been awarded Manchester’s tourism prize as the event of the year.

Other planet

To festivals clubs and other attractive places where one can share opinions are necessary in order to catch the unofficial gossip. Intimate, informal communication helps one get acquainted and places individual levels of importance in the background. For example, Mariana Kajantie states that she was impressed by director Kristian Smeds’ newest play Unknown Soldier, and now she is eagerly awaiting Real Asterix in Finland – a play which apparently deals with a country not yet concurring with the European Union… Wait a minute, it is not a freelance critic who is talking about this, it is the head of the Helsinki Culture Politics Department herself!

Two enthusiasts created Baltic Circle, one of the famous theatre festivals in the region, which now not only presents Finns with the latest productions but also creates international networks. Its directors constantly and critically review their work: “If preparation for a festival becomes similar to sessions of a committee – it will fade”.

One Finn who is madly in love with documentary films received 15 000 euro in support and created the first documentary film festival in Finland – DocPoint – which is now a major European festival. It is not easy for city culture administrators to find allies for implementing such grand projects. Thus, according to Kajantie, culture politics have to have constant connections with institutions that supervise finances in order to persuade them not to demand results too quickly, but to make assessments after three to four years. Not earlier.

She also supported Tero Saarinen, a modest dancer, who this year in Vilnius in the National Drama Theatre introduced his worldwide premiere Next of Kin. Mariana Kajantie states: “The most pleasant part of my work is not to dispense millions to city theatre every year but to support an unknown artist and impatiently observe how a new flower blossoms.” When I, hiding my jealously of this Helsinkian, asked Mariana where her attitude had come from and how it was possible to maintain such an attitude for so many years, she confessed that she had danced in a dance company once (but did not become a famous dancer), and her colleagues at the Helsinki Culture Politics Department had also not climbed the ladder of fame – one of them had not yet written her first novel and the other had not become famous as a singer. But they understand artists better than anyone else.

This year, contrary to the conference Neuzsalanti kultura (Unfreezing Culture) of 2006, where there was talk of a new management, it seems such words like mission, audience and ambitions have not been mentioned. It seems as if it goes without saying and therefore there is no need to mention them. Cristopher Maughan, who participated the last time, probably thought that we had learnt our lesson. Moreover, according to one speaker, Lithuania is a young country with its future ahead of it, and this creates jealousy. No one would ever have thought that the citizens of a country which hasn’t even reached its twentieth year could be lazy and old. But the word “revision” rang out in the very nick of time. Moreover it is close to “remission”, a state when a patient seems to get better and the illness is not going to return. If the present situation does not change, we may have to name the next conference “Uzkalkejusi kultura” (“Calcified Culture”).

Published 17 April 2009
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Kerry Shawn Keys, Kristupas Sepkus
First published by Kulturos barai 7-8/2008 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai © Vaidas Jauniskis / Kulturos barai / Eurozine



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