»Why festivals? Questions of character and social context”
By Thomas Oberender
Firstly, I would like to consider the reasons why arts festivals and festspiele came into being in the 20century and why, as time has passed, more and more festivals have ome to be held. What are festivals? Also, what is the difference between festspiele and festivals? For example, if we look back through history, we can see that the forerunners of festspiele and festivals were feasts of royal courts, and religious festivals such as those in ancient Rome that celebrated the gods of agriculture and abundance and harvest festivals. There is a fundamental difference between such ancient festivals and modern-day festspiele and festivals. Today’s festspiele and festivals are unrelated to religious or social traditions, or, in other words, traditions that demand the participation of entire populations. Modern festivals have been distilled to become events that arouse interest in specific groups or sectors of society. This group-based enthusiasm is limited to specific fields. Accordingly, the group-based criterion is an important factor in the creation of festivals today. The group becomes focused on a particular event or idea, from which a transitory community is formed. For example, there are festivals that celebrate specific composers, such as a Mozart or Wagner, and others that celebrate musical genres, such as African music or electronic music, and still others that celebrate the works of specific playwrights, such as the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. These kinds of festivals are not based on religion that draw all people in, nor are they designed to create a social or political order, such as the ancient festival of Dionysus.
Furthermore, festivals today are not characterized by the private enjoyment an individual gets by inviting people to an event or the enjoyment experienced by the invitee. In that sense, a royal wedding or similar event does not constitute a festival. This is because only true devotees of a royal family attend such events and these people are always giving thought to the meaning of a royal wedding. Festspiele and festivals refer to artistic events that form a body of work or a community that is focused on a common interest shared by different people. This community does not appear nor is it known in any other social context. At the center of such a community are the works of art, people and theme of the event.
The word »festival” as I use it in English is something that is grounded in society, and it does not refer to a festival as a religious event or ritual. That being said, in the latter half of my speech, I will touch upon the concepts in German of a »Fest” (festival) and a »Feier” (celebration). Firstly I will explain where modern festivals are positioned in modern culture and then I will go on to discuss the social development as expressed by cultural transition. This is linked to the fact that I believe there is a connection between cultural transition and festivals.
When we say »festival” in Europe, we imagine a temporary event. Events such as the Festival d’Avignon, the Cannes Film Festival, the Donaufestival, and other famous music festivals such as those in Salzburg and Beirut may spring to mind. There are also many small-scale festivals that are focused on special themes. There are many famous such festivals in Berlin alone, with approximately 70 small- to medium-scale festivals being held in the city each year. In addition to these smaller festivals, there are the famous festivals, such as the Berliner Theatertreffen, the Berlin International Film Festival and the Musikfest Berlin. These small- to medium-scale festivals continue to grow in number. The Berliner Festspiele of which I serve as director is an international festival that brings together a number of small-scale festivals on extremely specific themes for a relatively limited audience, including the JazzFest Berlin, MaerzMusik and others. In that sense the Berliner Festspiele is a very interesting example of a festival. Until about 15 years ago the large-scale Berliner Festspiele was held over the course of several weeks. Since then, however, it has evolved to become a series of events and festivals held throughout the year, on various scales and featuring highly individual and characteristic events.
The trend is still for large-scale festivals to be held over the course of several weeks, including the festivals of Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne, Venice and Beirut. In contrast to this type of festival, larger cities have started to create small-scale festivals over relatively short periods that target various specific communities. In festivals in smaller cities visitors come from all over the world, charmed and fascinated by the arts that are on show. In contrast, in larger cities, festivals tend to be dominated by their own citizens who create celebrations in the form of festivals. A festival held in a large city where the cultural environment is well-developed is a special event that brings together visitors with an interest in a specific theme. It is at such festivals that visitors can further indulge and enhance their own interests and passions. Accordingly, in general it is not the case that the world’s major cities utilize festivals as a means of attracting tourists. Although large cities have major galleries and palatial museums, like the British Museum, in general they have tremendous heterogeneity in the arts and cultural scene, including traditional locations (such as museums) for collections of art, mega events such as big concerts and many and varied temporary events. Berlin in particular offers a particularly diverse and heterogeneous scene.
However, I perceive festivals as playing a complementary role to such heterogeneous scenes in major cities. They have a transitory existence that while longer than a single concert, or a night at a club or restaurant, is shorter than the period of a large-scale exhibition. What is important for festivals is how they incorporate future options, or, in other words, what they decide to include in their programs. There are many choices for such festivals. However, the more that festivals can attract artists and visitors from far afield, the more interesting and engrossing they become.
With regard to this point, festivals are very different from the so-called market transactions conducted by city administrations, as well as city government-led sister city celebrations and commemorative ceremonies. Even if various stakeholders in a city all participate together in a single program, this does not constitute a true festival. Examples of such events are Berlin’s Music Week and Fashion Week. These are extremely popular events that are conducted by the city as a whole. Participants from various communities in the fields of music and fashion come together under a single concept and this has the effect of mutually enhancing the value of the individual organizations that are involved. However, festivals are not borne through such events. Although events like this may have a theme, they have no program that is planned and devised by a curator, nor is there any involvement by third parties. Events that are first and foremost commercial by nature do not seek to consider or devise themes that encourage participants to think about why the music is being played and what is being expressed through fashion.
Finally, I would like to touch on new forms of events that are positioned as something between a symposium and a festival, or something between a festival and a trade fair or market. In Berlin there is the example provided by re:publica, a conference that started nine years ago, based on themes relating to digital culture and society. There are also computer trade fairs like game shows that feature celebrities. These kinds of events bring together academic lectures with commercial fairs. However, they also have some of the characteristics of festivals. As can be seen from these examples, a festival is always something that is formed by mixing things together. In other words, it is a confluence of diverse factors, such as works by artists, knowledge that covers multiple discourses, and markets or fairs.
What I refer to as a festspiele or festival is a non-religious, secular event that provides cultural enrichment. Such events also generate, or create art experiences, discourses and shared experiences in different forms. What is important is that festivals have an absolute existence, and that they are positioned a safe distance away from market, religious, or political activities. Naturally such an absolute existence to which I have just referred will link to other things, but these are all generally loose linkages. At the heart of any festival is the introduction of artworks, and a temporary community that is formed around such artworks or items.
Festivals create a special time that is given the greatest attention during the course of a year. They represent a few days or a few weeks that bring about a trend in the general continuous flow of cultural activities. In Berlin there are more than 9,000 theatrical productions each year, of which 140 are world premieres. Furthermore, approximately 750 opera and 1,800 ballet and musical productions are opened each year, including approximately 26 world premieres. These productions are wonderful in terms of content and normally all performances are sold out. Each year there are more than 2,500 rock concerts within the city limits and 800 classical music concerts at the Berlin Philharmoniker and concert houses alone.
So, to return to the title of my address: »Why festivals?” Each year the 157 art museums in Berlin hold approximately 400 exhibitions. There are also more than 400 events held by private galleries. In contrast to these exhibitions, festivals present a myriad of exhibits at one time and are implemented to focus attention on a predetermined theme. Performances that are implemented at festivals create a new space. Our experience of art changes together with the composition of the audience. Furthermore, our concepts and knowledge standards relating to art are further expanded. More than anything else festivals contribute to exchanges. They also bring with them at least two implicit promises. The first is their capacity to inspire together with aesthetic exceptionality, and the second is the function of forming a community. At the same time, festivals are held repeatedly. If you were to attempt to systemize the season program of an orchestra house or theater it would result in contradictions appearing, but the exceptional characteristic of festivals is that they are held within a systemized context.
Although festivals may be considered to be a recent phenomenon, there were already many festivals being held after the First World War, or to be more precise, there was great discussion concerning festspiele. I believe that there is a correlation between this upsurge in the creation of festivals and the historical era, during which political power was diversifying and new social orders were emerging. Many of the long-running classical festivals today were born after the first and second world wars. They were originally established as festspiele. The Salzburg Festspiele and the Breisach Festspiele were both established in 1919. From the 1940s onwards there were a number of other festspiele that were established, including those in Bregenz, St. Pölten, Ludwigsberg, Bad Hersfeld and Berlin. There were also festspiele established for works by Wagner, Mozart and Handel, the Nibelungen festspiele and the Karl May festspiele.
From the early 1980s the East-West political confrontation in Germany became more fluid and from before and after the fall of the Berlin wall several large-scale international festivals were established in Germany, including the Theater der Welt and the Ruhr Triennale. These large-scale festivals sparked the emergence of many relatively small-scale festivals. The Theater der Welt festival was established in 1988 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and since then it has been held every four years in a different German city each time. The newest, most financially well-endowed and conceptually the most modern of all of Germany’s festivals is the Ruhr Triennale. Since 2001 it has been held for six weeks each year in various areas of the Ruhr region.
These festivals not only seek to showcase to an international audience the cultural environment of Germany, they also aim to promote the necessary structural transformation in regions that were once proud of their public culture—the Ruhr Triennale being a case in point—and to give those regions fresh stimuli and an international voice. In that sense, a culture has been formed that goes a step further forward from public culture and this is also why these new festivals serve a role in promoting structural transformation.
The Manchester Festival could be said to be another kind of example. The Manchester Festival does not rely on cultural elites, but rather is closely linked to community building and opportunities for participation through the introduction of art.
Festivals are a nexus for self-confirmation in a historical and modern context for people to observe and practice new social activities. Above all, festivals create points of contact for forming networks, in that they provide forums where various issues and subjects that are being faced are condensed into a limited space. Given the multiplicity of festivals that are being opened and launched one after the other, it is difficult to take a broad view of the entire picture, but I believe that all festivals serve to create a certain kind of order. Festivals create micro-linkages between groups and organizations and give people a sense of belonging to a group, which is one of the truly valuable secondary effects of festivals, which can sometimes be overlooked or dismissed when festivals are considered to be merely part of event culture. This is because at their initial point of conception festivals are nothing more than an empty container. They are capable of accepting and bringing in all kinds of contents from traditional culture to public culture. By acting as special events that are something extraordinary and removed from normal daily life, festivals have the capacity to bring strangers together to engage in a shared group experience. Over the course of time these special events can grow to become defining points in the lives of specialists, corporate employees or politicians. Why should this be the case? This is because they make their mark on the lives of those involved and create change in people’s lives. Festivals are at the center of experiences that are repeated year after year and become topics of conversation in their own right. This is because they are the canvas on which, now and in the future, people recall and develop their own personal growth. For example, a conversation might be started by someone saying, »Do you remember the Hans Neuenfels production of Die Fledermaus at the 1999 Salzburg Festival?”
In the ideal case festivals can also become forums for the creation of new policy spaces. In particular, performing arts festivals were for many years events that attracted regular ticket holders who came to see their beloved star performers on stage, which excluded much of the general public. However, today’s festivals are being held in urban spaces far removed from the red carpet style of old, and targeting diverse groups and various performance formats and media. Festivals today are organized to be open to all, allowing all people to indulge their own pleasures, and also provide opportunities to encounter new perspectives, such as urban club culture, youth leisure culture and immigrant living environments. As well as being an extremely effective way for society to cultivate culture, festivals also provide means to expand awareness and shed light on lesser-known areas of society. Examples include translator festivals, LGBT film festivals and festivals of the music of the Sami people.
In the internet age festivals are a valuable means of creating real and tangible encounters. In general, preparations for a festival are spread over the course of a year and as they may be organized by small-scale organizations they do not seek to confront traditional and classic institutions like theaters, concert halls and museums, but rather work together with then. With themes planned and set by curators festivals enable the realization of diverse outcomes and above all have the tremendous attraction of creating a space for discussion and intercourse through works of art and drama. The flexible structure of festivals means that they also play an extremely effective complementary role to the standard and regular cultural activities implemented by cities. This demonstrates the fruitful complementarity that festivals have with traditional cultural activities.
Almost all of the major theaters in Munich, Berlin and Hamburg have organized festivals of their own to date. Examples of these are the Festival of International New Drama (FIND), the Berlin Playwrights Festival, the Hamburg Lessingtage Festival, and the Munich Relations Festival, all of which are held at traditional city theaters. So, are festivals the future for theaters? That is not necessarily the case and I can say with certainty that it is not the case in Germany. As a temporary format festivals have been an actual part of major theater programs for many years. Furthermore, the festival spirit has been incorporated into traditional repertory and theater management from many years ago. These theaters have followed the logic of festivals throughout their entire seasons and have increasingly come to use it in their management. It is very common in the German speaking world for theater management to be criticized from time to time for the »festivalization” of season programs.
Approximately 25 years ago the now-legendary theater and artistic director Frank Baumbauer aligned the principles of his Hamburg theater with the principles of festivals. Baumbauer daringly sought to break down the old system and introduce four definitions into the private theater system in Germany, namely internationality, intermediality, inter-culturality, and inter-disciplinarity. He also invited in a corporate designer from London and promoted a model for domestic and international cooperation. His aim was to create and coordinate a performance program that would be communicable via the media and also to create an ongoing discourse that would supplement the stage productions. He also contributed to the formulation of political perspectives and described his notions in the cultural columns. Since then the number of independent, small-scale festivals has continued to grow. Why should this be the case?
There are five reasons why an organizer chooses to hold a festival. The first is that a festival can introduce people to things that they do not normally encounter on all levels, for example by bringing foreign repertory to regional audiences, discourse and artworks, and artworks with other forms of art. Festivals also combine performances with installations, and the search for city spaces with guest performances by outside theater groups at famous theaters. They enable classic works to be performed side by side new, first-time works. However, such combinations are distinct from creative activities implemented to date and are limited to cases that seek to provide an opportunity to cast a »third eye” over the era in which we live and find new qualities in such combinations. Festivals create opportunities to promote new understanding and are to the greatest extent possible compact and festive occasions. Secondly, festivals can also be large-scale »messe.” Thirdly, for artists festivals can be a means to support their creative activities financially and also to raise their reputation and name value. Many projects and international contents are born from the networks nurtured by festivals. Fourthly, festivals send out a message to the world about their particular themes. They create conceptual directions, set out political issues and present ideas that cannot be as easily ignored as they could be if they were presented in single isolated events. Festivals tend to magnify their contents. This is simply because the richness of their program attracts attention. Furthermore, as festivals are time-limited, their intentions are similarly limited. They therefore have value to the political and economic worlds. Festival infrastructure is efficient and dynamic and the degree to which they attract attention is relatively large. Fifthly and finally, festivals can be a relatively large adventure for the organizers. Not only large-scale repertory but also small-scale repertory gain attention. At festivals the core repertoire allows the works of unknown authors and artists to be viewed by a wider stratum of the public that is impossible in the context of consecutive performances or standard repertory theater.
It is for these reasons that artists who engage in joint productions enjoy invitations to participate in festivals rather than stand-alone performances. Accordingly, festivals cannot be events that are held over a long period of time. For each festival it is necessary to consider the appropriate period, venue and costs and to ensure that ticket numbers and the festival structure are in alignment with the resources at hand in the host city. Consideration needs to be given to what the audience wants, who will be mobilized and what is the highest price that the tickets could be sold for, among others. Neither must festivals create internal risks. In other words, a theme must be developed that enables boundaries to be broken and is content-driven, not the reverse.
Festivals could be said to be the rocket engine for the promotion of knowledge in the art world. While traditional theater applies the skills of its ensemble throughout the year, a festival provides a one-off encounter and then ends. Preparations that last a year are brought to a climax at the start of a festival when the program begins and the performances linked by a single theme spew forth onto the viewing public. A good festival will provide something new and excessive. It is valuable to have elements that are well-balanced as well as those that are excessive. It is from among such a selection of offerings that over the course of several days the audience can enjoy experiences and inspiration that would not be possible anywhere else. A festival provides a forum in which time passes to a different rhythm than normal. In contrast to repertory theater or concert halls, which people tend to visit after work, in the ideal case a festival is something that engages the viewer for a longer period, from morning to night, allowing them to be immersed in arts. A good festival will not just provide individual experiences, but rather it will also realize dialogue and discourse among events.
In a lively and vibrant city a festival provides an agora in time. From a political perspective festivals have organizational connotations of a clash between the things that we are used to and familiar with and those things that break down our regular perceptions. In addition, in a fundamental sense there is a further relationship between the audience and works at festivals, namely the difference between the culture of a celebration and the culture of a festival. In the culture of a celebration, for example the experience of listening to a concert by a philharmonic orchestra, the focus is on the audience listening quietly and respectfully to the piece and the excellence of its interpretation, as well as the outstanding abilities of the musicians and stars. In contrast, the culture of a festival is one that focuses on the moment, where the movement in and out of people is permitted and one that does not require any prior knowledge and is generally more welcoming to a younger audience in particular. Festival art is as a rule network art—something that has been created jointly. Well-respected celebratory organizations do not have the capacity to easily set out on a tour. Accordingly, the ballet of the Paris Opera, for example, basically does not go on tour. In contrast, dancers and choreographers like Meg Stuart, for example are constantly on tour. The relationship with art is constantly on the move, seeking out new locations, and forming networks. In the same way, the audience also changes. The lack of an attachment to a particular theater enables the artist to focus on artistic opportunities, issues and perspectives. Their attachment is to the festival title rather than to the name of a theater. The world of festivals is not a sphere with relatively little freedom that is limited to innovating from predetermined works, or one that is encumbered by rules.
In terms of a culture of celebration, in Japan there is the tradition of Noh theater, which has been passed down through generations almost unchanged. The literary form was established and the performance style was influenced by the teachings of Zeami and passed down by the famous Noh acting families. The Noh audience knows what it wants and expects to see. In contrast, the festival spirit is one that is innovative and inclusive, seeking to look more closely at the present, seeking to create more of an atmosphere and possessing a sense of competitiveness. Festivals bring together the latest developments in the arts from around the world. They also create a market. As the target of festivals is contemporary art, discourse and debate is also engendered, resulting in winners and losers. As festivals create short-term relations among the audience members and between the audience and the artists, the creators that are involved in this collaborative world can be subjected to more vociferous criticism that the long-term relations nurtured by private theaters, concert halls and opera houses.
From a social perspective the world of festivals serves to create freelancers and entrepreneurs and it could be said that festivals are a prerequisite for their very existence. I do not intend to discuss cultural policy theories here. What I would say here is that in contrast to artists of established arts institutions, the sphere of activities and creative situation for freelancers is extremely challenging. However, behind such discussions of cultural policies are the concepts I have described today, which give birth to new types of organizations, production houses, foundations, hybrid theater models and mobile ensembles, to name but a few. These new forms and organizations are in direct contrast to traditional art forms such as Noh, kabuki and bunraku. Festivals are by their nature a mobile and ephemeral phenomenon and performers cannot have their works seen unless they move with festivals. However, we, as an audience seek to watch such works as part of the culture of celebration. It is the culture of celebration that has a sense of dignity that follows closely ancient traditions, unique terminology and self-knowledge.
To the best of my knowledge there are festivals, productions and cultural networks in Japan too. For me, two representative Japanese artists at opposite ends of the rich spectrum of mild and comedic culture are Yoko Ono and Kyohei Sakaguchi. However, both of these two artists have created hybrid art forms positioned between artworks and political activism. Festivals seek such art forms in place of the theater stage, galleries in place of museums, and exchange in place of looking back on tradition. If we perceive large cities to be a combination of multiple complex systems, festivals can act for us as a point of contact in a specified subsystem. They bring us together with people with no social contact or »otakus.” Just as a strong wind will carry desert sand across the ocean and just as the tsunami lifted up ships and left them stranded on the Pacific coast, festivals have the capacity to create and perpetuate active exchange by influencing production ideas and playwrights’ styles and encouraging competition. The question of whether a large-scale festival would function best for a mega-city like Tokyo, or whether various small-scale creative talents working together within a wider framework would be best, is a question that depends both on financial aspects and also on the presence of good ideas.
Culture and Social Innovation: Tokyo Conference 2014 »Cities of Cultural Creativity and Festivals”, November 7 2014, Citizens’ Hall