Festival Futures

Live Art in Scotland: Festival Futures was the second in a series of events engaging with artists, culture practitioners, researchers and members of the public in conversation about the conditions of possibility for interdisciplinary and experimental work in Scotland.

Staged in Edinburgh at Summerhall in summer 2022 ahead of the first fully live-and-in-person Fringe since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, it focused on the major role that festivals have played in Scotland’s cultural ecology – and explored how we might re-imagine arts festivals as more sustainable, hospitable spaces for culture workers and audiences alike.

1 We began the evening by hearing from five contributors who had been invited to speak about their experience of festivals in and beyond Scotland, and the ways in which we might imagine their futures. Our contributors were:

In the following sections you can read and listen to highlights from their opening comments. Harry Josephine Giles was unfortunately unable to be with us in person but kindly pre-recorded their contribution – not incidentally, adding another important perspective to how we’d explore questions of access over the course of the evening.

FK Alexander

FK Alexander is an Edinburgh-based performance artist whose work is concerned with wound, recovery, aggressive healing, radical wellness and noise music. Their work has been seen at Spill Festival, InBetween Time, MPA Berlin, Latitude and the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as streets, derelict building sites and forests. Their performance work includes the Total Theatre and Autopsy Award winning show (I Could Go On Singing) Over The Rainbow.

From FK’s contribution

I was going to see five shows a day to assess them for the [Total Theatre] awards, and the overlap between genres, if you will, was alcohol: whether that was alcohol that the performer drank themselves, whether it was offered to an audience, which was much more prominently than [before], or there was a joke about it, or it’s 11 o’clock in the morning, and people have drinks in their hands. And the thing about any festival, I guess, is that there is a sense of ‘holiday mode’, or, you know, ‘like, well, we can have a drink at 11am, that’s fine’. Or if there’s an established show that includes alcohol, but the only place that they can put it up is at an 11 o’clock showing, then it’s booze at 11 o’clock.

I was talking to people who were like, a hired person, so they were coming up from London – say, they were doing music, it wasn’t their own show, and they were sober and they were anxious, they were nervous, and they really were finding the pace of everything really horrible. And every morning they would have their team meeting in a bar. And they didn’t feel like they had the wording or the whatever to say, ‘this isn’t okay for me’. I mean, because of, I guess, you know, this pressure or expectation or allowance of, you know… holiday mode.

Further contexts:

Natasha Ruwona

Natasha Ruwona is a Scottish-Zimbabwean artist, researcher and arts programmer.  Natasha’s practice is research based and investigates racialised spatialisation in line with Black Feminist Geographies; the recognition of spaces and places in relation to Black identities. They position Afrofuturist thought and worlding as a method to both navigate the past, and reimagine ways of living and thinking together. For more on their work, visit their website: https://natasharuwona.com

From Natasha’s contribution

The question I’ve asked myself to guide this presentation is, what would it look like to implement rest and care within festival structures from conception to production?

I want to begin by sharing a little bit of my research into rest and care practices. For roughly the last six months I’ve been thinking about radical rest practice in response to the almost continuous burnout I’ve experienced as a result of short term contracts, expectations to always be available which doesn’t account for the other freelance work or allowing a day off, outcome driven pressures and being brought into rooms with a short turnaround. I’ve come to realise that I have a general dislike for doing things that feel too fast rather than what feels like the better and more obvious alternative: slow, considered and intentional.

The Nap Ministry centres on slowness as part of its rest practice. Let slow research be a part of your deprogramming and healing, they write, time is care and care is time, specifically giving more time: to deadlines, to people, to everything. Could we also embed slow practices at festivals as part of this resting philosophy?

Festival Futures – Summerhall, Edinburgh – Natasha Ruwona

Further contexts:

Mamoru Iriguchi

Mamoru Iriguchi is a performance artist and theatre designer based in Edinburgh. He often explores liveness/pre-recordedness, gender/sexuality, evolution theories/fairytales in his performance work including Sex Education Xplorers (S.E.X., Made in Scotland 2021), Eaten (CATS nominee) and 4D Cinema (Autopsy Award). His theatre design work includes Mincemeat (Cardboard Citizens, Best Design, London Evening Standard Theatre Awards) and Love Song to Lavender Menace (The Lyceum). For more on their work, visit their website: https://www.iriguchi.co.uk/

From Mamoru’s contribution

Why do I do the Fringe? There are four reasons I thought about. One is to meet national and international programmers and then that could obviously lead to presentations elsewhere. And secondly, meeting national and international artists. I did meet artists who really shared the same sort of artist view, and that’s an amazing encounter. And thirdly, meeting national and international audiences. When it comes to that, you often encounter audience members who react to shows very differently from the British audience. And then finally, the Fringe run is often the opportunity to have an extensive run, and really own the show. […] I think it really helps because once you do the run on the Fringe, when you remount, it’s really easy because it’s in your body physically.

Within the venues that already have a reputation for showing experimental work, it may be quite difficult [to find a suitable space]. As a kind of proposed solution, is it possible to have a more committee-based curatorial team that’s based in Edinburgh, to operate the kind of mini-festival run by BUZZCUT or Forest Fringe, to introduce experimental performance artists? Which has got flexibility to find the space for the artist that best suits their project? I am really interested in this committee-based curation because even if some members need to leave that committee, that [space] can always been filled with somebody else who can share the same sort of interest in specific kinds of experimental art. And that means it’s not so singular a vision. One of the problems with curation at the moment is that those posts are often filled by cis-white males. So I think by having a committee we could have both the sorts of people who experienced in curating as well as those people who haven’t previously been appointed to those roles but can come on with fresh perspectives. In that way, it could be a very smooth transition to more diverse practitioners taking over that sort of role in the industry.

Further contexts:

Anthony Schrag

Anthony Schrag is a practising artist and researcher, and Senior Lecturer at Queen Margaret’s University (Edinburgh). The central focus of his work examines the role of art in participatory and public contexts, with a specific focus on social conflict, agonism and ethics. He leads on both the MA Arts, Festivals and Cultural Management and the MA Applied Arts and Social Practice and is a member of the Centre for Communication, Cultural and Media Studies Research Centre, leading the Practice Research Cluster: Finding and Using Creative Knowledge.

From Anthony’s contribution

Sustainable development is still premised on a notion of growth, it’s still premised on the fact that yes, we are continuing to continue to develop, we will continue to grow in that way. Sustainable prosperity, on the flip side, actually asks, ‘how can we live well with less?’

I read that in 2019 the statistics were 2800 artists [participating in the Fringe] which is brilliant. And obviously artists that come end up being able to have interesting experiences. So we want to keep that. But if they’re coming from 40 different countries, is that ecologically sustainable?

And I guess within that, where do we as individual programmers, artists, policymakers, tech people, critics stand? Do we continue to go to the festival when we know that it’s third only to the Olympics and the World Cup [when it comes to] large-scale environmentally damaging festivals? Do we continue to do that? Do you feel okay with that? Going ‘Well, it’s okay. It’s the festival’? And I suppose the last question to think about and it started off with actually what FK was saying is, are we in an abusive relationship with the festival? When do we recognise the damage to ourselves or other to other people? And I have no necessary solution for that at point, other than saying, perhaps we just need to recognise that and then from that be able to make some critical decisions about not only what we ask our policymakers to do, but also what we as individuals do in our contribution.

Festival Futures – Anthony Schrag

Further contexts:

Harry Josephine Giles

Harry Josephine Giles is a writer and performer from Orkney, now living in Leith, whose work ‘generally happens in the crunchy places where performance and politics get muddled up’. As a theatre artist, Harry Josephine has been featured in the SPILL National Platform, and at festivals including Forest Fringe (UK), NTI (Latvia), Verb Festival (Aotearoa) and Teszt (Romania). Their one-to-one show What We Owe was listed in the Guardian’s “Best of the Edinburgh Fringe” round-up – in the “But is it art?” section. Their multimedia poetry show Drone debuted in the Made in Scotland Showcase at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe and toured internationally. You can read more about their work on their website: https://harryjosephine.com

From Harry Josephine’s contribution

Hello, everyone, this is Josie. I’m not with you tonight, because I have COVID. I’m through the worst of it and feeling well enough, but I’m not with you tonight, because the event hasn’t been set up for remote participation. And most importantly, because I neglected to ask the organisers if the event would involve remote participation when I agreed to do it. […] One thing I’ll be doing from now on, is always replying to event invitations by asking what accessibility measures they’re putting in place, and no longer doing non-hybrid events. I’m not saying all this to make you or me or the event organisers feel guilty. Goodness knows we’ve got enough guilt to go around.

Edinburgh’s festivals are primarily festivals of landlords, mining time and space for wealth. Everything that they are is in service of this logic. Art is squeezed into the space deemed the most efficient by capital; labour is handed the working conditions that capital can get away with. This gravitational well distorts the social goods available to the city throughout the year. Our housing market is shaped by the needs of festival landlords, whose rental systems are designed to keep the summer months clear. Our parks are slowly privatised so that maximum profit can be extracted. Our transport infrastructure is shaped by the movements of tourists. And a whole country’s year round art scene can never escape the black hole at its centre.

What did you think about when the festivals were not happening? What ideas that you have about what we could do instead? Why can’t we execute those ideas now?

Festival Futures – Josie Giles

Further contexts:

2 In the second part of the session, we opened up to the floor a broader conversation with everyone present – as in the Glasgow residency event, Bryony White took active listening notes which captured some of the main themes and ideas that emerged from our contributors talks, and then framed our discussion.

Our conversation began by thinking about our individual and collective experiences of the festival as punters, artists, venue staff and culture workers. We talked about:

  • the tension between our attachments to the Fringe as an exciting, experimental, carnival space and our understanding or first-hand experience of its difficulties (particularly the ways in which the festival encourages self-exploitation, and how it can be unsafe or exclusionary for a range of different people).
  • the potential of the Fringe to support or sustain spaces of care – and the question of how we might care for ourselves while working tiring or intense jobs, as well as how people with care responsibilities for others might (or might not) be able to participate. Who leads on this activity? How might venues and artists work together with this goal in mind? What does a safer space look like in the context of the Fringe?

We asked: how do we create greater opportunities for care and accessibility without formalising something that can be chaotically joyous? Is there a (necessary) trade-off?

We also talked about the economic models of the festival and the role of bodies like Creative Scotland and other organisations in (not) funding work that appears at the Fringe, as well as the terms of pay and conditions across different contexts.

  • Is it always clear what you’re signing up for, as an artist or a venue worker? How is the conversation shifting, given the Fringe Society’s new and seemingly stronger stance on addressing exploitative working practices? Some of us were (very cautiously) optimistic..
  • What do you need to know in order to weigh up an opportunity’s potential benefits when it’s not paying a full wage? It’s not as easy as a spreadsheet because economic cost/benefit is only one way of thinking about our experience of festivals. We (often) love what we do – this doesn’t pay for rent or food but it shapes our encounter with the festivals, nonetheless.

We talked about the social and environmental impact of the festivals on Edinburgh’s residents, and the ways in which a month of intense festival activity shapes (and perhaps distorts) the year round cultural ecology of Scotland. We tried to think about the future – not just in August 2022 but further ahead.

What will the Fringe look like in a future without so much international travel by plane?

3 Steve closed the session by suggesting that the night’s conversation was part of an ongoing, broader effort to rethink the Fringe and imagine its futures – and conversation which isn’t ‘just’ talk but action. It may be easy to think that the Fringe’s problems are intractable but the past few years have seen significant shifts, led by activists, campaigners and artists – and evident in the impact of work led by groups like Fair Fringe and Fringe of Colour.

How can these and other efforts be sustained to enable broader shifts in the way we make space for creative risk and experiment, and the communities of practice able to be involved in such work?