Making and Re-Making Public Spaces: The Co(Vid)-Creation of Music Festivals

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Signe Banke, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark
Ian Woodward, University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark

We are researchers from an interdisciplinary team funded to study music festivals as spaces of social mixing, exchange, and encounter in multiple European settings [1]. We prepared to collect field data in early summer 2020. Because our project was designed to address questions of sociality in (physical) public spaces, the spread of Covid-19 calls into question not only our methods and approach, it challenges us to reflect upon the project we promised to complete. Although this contribution comes from the Danish research team, the issues faced are very similar across partners in the European project.

Festivals are now a staple of many people’s cultural consumption and leisure diets across Europe, and beyond [2, 3]. Music festivals, from iconic forms like Woodstock, Burning Man and Glastonbury to local and DIY events, draw upon powerful cultural images [4, 5, 6]. In their generic form, they perform the social function of circulating collective representations which are both contested and shared. Ideally, festivals performatively accomplish collective celebration and afford effervescent feelings of belonging in temporary spaces of relative social freedom [7, 8]. Because of their ubiquity as a mode of cultural production and consumption, music festivals are at the centre of debates about commodification and authenticity, environmental sustainability, and also cultural sustainability [9, 10]. As spaces of social liminality and cultural excess, it might be tempting to think we could do without them for at least a year, but what would be the cost?

In the first instance, we know that the live performance industry is worth many billions of dollars worldwide, contributing directly and indirectly to national economies and to the livelihood of towns, regions, and neighborhoods. Moreover, it is the case that many who work in the economy of live performance, music, theatre, and the cultural industries more broadly are amongst the most precarious sector of our workforce. These losses are of course not the most severe effects of the virus, relative to loss of life and personal trauma. Yet, they are quantifiable and become substantive evidence of the deep economic destruction and community fragmentation Covid-19 has, and will, cause. A tragic example pulls together all these aspects. One of our festival research partners, Tønder Festival, was due to host the renowned US folk singer John Prine, at the 2020 festival. Prine died of complications due to Coronavirus on April 7, 2020. Tønder Festival, an important part of the southern Danish town’s calendar since 1974, was also cancelled that day when Denmark’s government called off all large gatherings until September 2020. Personal, cultural, and economic trauma is globally interconnected, multiple fates and collective memories entwined, and losses felt in multiple ways across borders.

Empty festival fields will be this summer’s norm. Field visit to Tønder Festival field. Tønder, Denmark, February 2020.

More than this, there is an explicit collective cost that is worth considering and which makes social scientists essential to giving voice to the explicitly social elements of the Covid-19 crisis in the context of festivals, but also in other social settings. What we refer to here is the effect on collective well-being, cultural resilience, and social cohesion resulting from the loss of festivals as important social and community events. The social effects of Covid-19 might be felt even more sharply when opportunities for experiencing collective effervescence are curtailed or restricted. When summer finally kicks in, and when the holiday season comes around, where will the iconic festival experiences be? Drawing on Collins [11], we ask what opportunities will replace the ritual music festivals offer; of embodied co-presence, sustained mutual focus, and the emotional charge of festival sociality that affords a significant boost to our systems of ‘social immunity’, intense feelings of belonging? Once we hit the deep, prolonged phase of Covid-19 ‘physical distancing’ or ease into the gentle – but inevitably frustratingly slowly paced – plateauing of the slow opening-up of social spaces, a different dynamic is evident. The opportunity to celebrate with others is denied and loss of rituals of belonging on a large scale becomes manifest. We might then understand a further extent to which Covid-19 impacts us socially.

In relation to understanding disruptive impacts of Covid-19 on large scale events like music festivals, there are some precursors to the situation we face. Using the example of rain we can identify an analogous – but not identical – situation of cultural disruption. Rain is indeed a classic ambivalent object [12] vis-à-vis the music festival as social event [13]. As it starts pouring, the rain creates muddy fields, slippery stages, and reveals the state of your tent or rainboots. The rain reminds us – festival organisers, festival-goers, and researchers – that we are at the mercy of the water coming from above, but also that it may offer creative and unexpected pleasures and possibilities.

Rain is unwanted, but can be guarded against. Signe interviewing Thomas Fleurquin, Director of Distortion Festival, as part of a street walk interview about Copenhagen’s long-running street festival. Copenhagen, Denmark, February 2020.

This agency of the humans and non-humans which we are entangled with [14, 15, 16] has been a concern since the material turn in the social sciences, and here we also bring in consideration of Ulrich Beck’s [17] risk-based theory of second modernity. Whether it be the longstanding volunteers or paid professionals, the streets of Copenhagen or the scenic location by a Renaissance castle, the open air stage or the intimate tent stage and so on, it is things which shape what is (im)possible [18]; the making of these forms of socialisation and ritual that is observable in music festivals. As one such thing, what rain does is to remind us of this agency; the social willpower of this unpredictable and all-altering natural phenomena [19]. Interviewing a group of regular festival goers a few months back, they start talking about one iconic Danish festival, and one naturally remembers ‘the year it was pouring down’ and everybody around the table nods, knowing exactly what year this was. Covid-19 is this festival season’s rain, and the 2020 festival season – cancelled or not – will be ‘the year with the corona virus’.

While both rain and Covid-19 are unsolicited partners in arranging, experiencing and researching festivals, the latter is both far more unknown and more invisible than the former and thus carries many more social and personal risks. While we do not how much or for how long it will rain, rain is at the end of the day visible to the naked eye yet may be mapped on screens and its impact more readily predicted. It is also a material we can touch, and which has a language that sometimes even permits enjoyment and celebration in the festival’s performative context. Rain can be combatted with a sturdier tent and rubber boots, and muddy fields with a good layer of chipped wood. Not least, rain does not cancel festivals, it “just” complicates things for organisers and yet can be a symbolic and material agent full of ludic and narrative possibilities.

‘Co(Vid)-creation’ of festivals – and public space more generally – is on the other hand mostly unexplored terrain. And this process of co-creation [20, 21] is happening right now, as governments discuss safety restrictions, as festival organisers go ahead with planning, postponement or cancellation, as they communicate with their audiences, as events go online, as consumers imagine the upcoming festival season and as we – social science researchers – adapt methodologies, research questions and emergent thematic questions. This Co(Vid)-creation of festivals will not end as governments lift their bans, and as festivals go on; the virus continues to restructure these physical public spaces, how people move about, modes of interaction and sociality, and ultimately asks questions of cultural solidarity, survival and adaptation. This makes our social science practice all the more fluid, difficult and challenging, but it also offers us an opportunity to make incisive contributions to emergent public debates about the social spaces we inhabit and what they are un-made and re-made of.

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