Festivals allow communities to connect, reclaim and celebrate and they are some of the resons I love them so much!
Two weekends ago, in a summery heat haze and with the air thick with dive bombing Christmas beetles, I witnessed the transformation of one of my local towns, Mullumbimby, from a sleepy hippy country vibe (Australia’s biggest little town if we are to believe the welcome sign into town!) to a bubbling explosion of colour, music and celebration. The Mullum Music Festival is a very local feeling and relatively low key music festival. Local spaces are sequestered and transformed into separate venues dotted around town. Line ups are drawn largely from the organisors distribution company artist pool and all manner of local arts groups, from an all Aussie boy Russian men’s choir (Dustyesky) to flash mobs of 80s clad local mums, perform throughout the weekend. In the landscape of festivals I’ve attended in my life it may not have been star caliber but it’s positive impact on most who attended caused me to review what it is I love most about arts festivals.
- Reclaiming spaces. Seeing ordinary spaces being made extraordinary for a moment in time can break us out of our ennui. It gives the average folk back ownership of buildings and common land. Local grazing land becomes a tent city, empty shop fronts an art gallery, inner city parklands a bustling market place and a local hall a high end music venue. The Canberra Enlighten Festival is an amazing example of spaces reclaimed and reinvented. Home to some of Australia’s most iconic institutions, Canberra is perhaps known nationally for a certain political dryness and its clinically orderly town planning but during Enlighten these institutions are turned on their head. The national library foyer becomes a silent disco, reverence and irreverence hand in hand. The national art gallery is turned inside out with artworks inspired by the gallery exhibitions projected on the external walls and the high court of Australia, with permission from all 6 high court judges, becomes the back drop to a fire installation. In one way or another festivals reinvent our spaces.
- Catharsis, healing and the Human Spirit. After the devastating earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2011, the once bustling city centre was left in ruins and people living in the city were without water, electricity, sewerage and other basic services, some of them for up to a year. Amidst the death toll and sheer destruction The Christchurch Arts Festival was scheduled to run. With every single venue destroyed and the organising members themselves living in chaos, a decision was made to go ahead and stage the Festival. From reflective dance performances, wearable arts made from materials found amongst the ruins to celebratory music performances, the festival became the context for catharsis, connection and an opportunity to find joy and release in amongst the darkness. It reminded me of a favourite quote of mine by Pablo Picasso “ The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Festivals can be an amazing opportunity for people to come together to process, celebrate and heal.
- Socialising. This is the Dionysian aspect of the festival, where we let go of inhibitions, indulge and revel in living. Attending a festival in a local setting sees you connecting with your community in a different way. The lady from the bank is a dab hand in the town ukulele group, who knew your neighbours kid was such an amazing circus gymnast and the school principal is a beer swiller like the rest of us. Conversely being in close quarters with strangers can find you sharing stories in the toilet cue, hugging people you’ve never met with the excitement of seeing your most favourite ever band play and resigned to tolerating new levels of body oder, noise and human foibles. We wear clothes we wouldn’t normally, eat food out of the ordinary and make connections with people we may never see again through our common experience. With everyone on an even playing field social differences are stripped back and we are left free to connect as humans sharing an experience together.