Festivals in Lockdown
Author of the text/moderator: Marcelina Obarska (PL) / theatre critic, graduate from Theatre Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, participates in theatre and performance projects in Poland and abroad
Jan Jiřík (CZ) / theatre theoretician, head of the Department of Theory and Criticism at DAMU (Prague), dramaturge of the Palm Off Fest festival
Katarina Figula (SK) / cultural manager, producer, executive director of the Bratislava in Movement festival, producer of the Divadelná Nitra festival
Bartosz Szydlowski (PL) / theatre director, founder and artistic director of theatre Teatr Łaźnia Nowa, artistic director of Boska komedia festival
Ivan Medenica (RS) / theatre critic, professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, artistic director of BITEF festival
More than just platforms to showcase productions, performing arts festivals represent an opportunity to bring people together, build community and collectively debate the issues facing society today. In this episode, we discuss the impact of the pandemic lockdowns on festivals, perhaps the most social manifestations of the performing arts. Guests from the BITEF, Bratislava in Movement, Divine Comedy and Palm Off Festivals share their current and past experiences of navigating the pandemic, along with broader issues concerning the environmental sustainability of festivals, there social function and what role – if any – streamed or hybrid performances might play in the future of festivals.
Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
Bratislava in Movement
Divine Comedy Festival
Palm Off Festival
What Future for Festivals, Salzburg Global Seminar
#10_Festivals in Lockdown
A discussion of the topic of “festivals in lockdown” in September 2021 highlights a specific moment of suspension and uncertainty. Having collectively experienced strict lockdowns, our outlooks are now enriched with new conclusions. All of us have learned something. At the same time, the ghosts of further lockdowns and waves of the virus are still hovering over our heads. Some experts say that we should be bracing ourselves to experience a “new normality” characterised by further virus outbreaks and their consequences. A sense of being over the worst part of the pandemic is merging with intense uncertainty about the future. Is it really over now, or is the worst yet to come? Has our reality been irreversibly altered?
Discussing the topic of “festivals in lockdown” – and the coronavirus impact in general – leads directly to the notion of a hyperobject. This phenomenon is described as an entity that exceeds our regular cognitive abilities; that exists beyond our sense of time and space; that affects us globally but is hardly noticeable in a very literal sense; and that has a sprawling temporality: hyperobjects started to exist before we were born and will probably endure (along with their consequences) long after we ourselves have ceased to exist. As a global crisis, the pandemic exhausts this definition in a very precise manner. It reveals contemporary economical, political, ethical and social problems and casts a dim light on our speculative future.
Performing arts festivals and their organisations can serve as a lens that brings into focus several dimensions of the pandemic’s impact on the cultural community. Economic responsibility, artistic visibility, community building, networking, sustainability… These are the issues that were tackled during the debate. Alongside Katarina Figula of the Bratislava in Movement Festival, Jan Jiřík of Palm Off Festival, Ivan Medenica of BITEF (Belgrade International Theatre Festival) and Bartosz Szydłowski of Divine Comedy, we attempted to answer questions about the past, the present and the future.
Three out of four of the festivals represented by the guests were cancelled or postponed in 2020. Only Divine Comedy, a Polish international theatre festival, was transformed into an entirely online event. This may be treated as a highly emblematic course of events: physical simultaneity, liveness and direct presence are features that lie at the core of theatre as a medium – that is why online theatre and dance are usually perceived as an unwelcome exigency, rather than a natural alternative. This attitude towards the online presentation of the performing arts is comprehensible and odd at the same time. It is hard to accept losing the physical – even the physiological – closeness and collective energy exchange but we have delved too deep into the realm of virtuality to fetishize the liveness of theatre. It is also a matter of accessibility: a full rejection of online presentation is inherently ableist. In the fantastic book Beasts of Burden. Animal and Disability Liberation, American writer Saunara Taylor highlights a very common assumption: that the default representative of society is abled.
I personally experienced the online version of Divine Comedy and I have a few reflections concerning this mode of experiencing theatre. Even though some researchers and experts argue that we desperately need physical closeness and social gatherings after and between periods of lockdown, I prefer to take a sceptical approach. The experience of the pandemic has affected our mental condition in such an acute way that sometimes staying within the comfort zone of our homes is the most reasonable solution and the most favourable choice. The report “What Future for Festivals?” issued by Salzburg Global Seminar includes the statement that we need festivals now more than ever, arguing that the pandemic has led us to a moment when being together is a common good and that in order to be alive we need to gather and share. However, I would rather say that we need to take care of our mental health now more than ever. Surveys show that the pandemic caused a sort of post-traumatic response in some people. We should take care of our state of mind and not feel forced or rushed to socialise as we used to do during pre-pandemic times. Without any doubt, the decision to postpone an event or transpose it into an online version is the autonomous decision of every organiser and it is definitely not an easy option to choose. Katarina Figula from Bratislava in Movement mentioned the moment the festival had to be cancelled after it had already begun: “The decision to cancel the festival in the middle of it was difficult and frustrating.” Still, it is essential to bear in mind that there are always people that will benefit from online events and that this remote access to culture may sometimes be the only way to experience art. Divine Comedy online was held during the second week of December. Imagine deep, dark pandemic days and the cosiness of your own home, just you and the streamed performances. From the spectator’s point of view, it was a good decision to move the festival online; the decision conveyed a sense of continuity and resilience, but also brought assurance that this mode is not worse or less authentic than live performance. It is just a different way of encountering the performing arts. It can never replace the sensation of physical simultaneity but that does not mean that it is a mere surrogate. I think it’s good to treat it as a different medium.
This continuity of the event is also important because of the community-building qualities that are an essential part of any festival. Searching for different ways of upholding the community networks constituted by the social power of the festival is a crucial task that festival organisers have had to confront in the face of the pandemic crisis. Both professional and non-professional relationships ought to be viewed as deserving of security and protection. This also involves treating the performing arts not only as a sphere of production and distribution but also as a site of pedagogical activities, communal care and collective knowledge construction. “Culture is a process that is deeply structured in the society,” said Bartosz Szydłowski, the director of Divine Comedy, commenting on the community-building and social dimension of art, which cannot be smoothly transformed into a mere PR announcement. “Performing arts festivals are not only showcases of the pieces but make a context for social gathering; they are a place where community is building itself, challenging itself, rethinking itself. That is why I think it is so important to have it live,” stressed Ivan Medenica from BITEF.
Another essential dimension when discussing the different sides of live, online or hybrid forms of an event is the issue of territory. The form an event takes is not solely a question of the quality of individual perception but also a question of sharing and dividing space. This perspective was shared by Ivan Medenica while mentioning a form of open-air debate that was held partly online, but watched and experienced by a live audience so that the attendees might share space.
It is hardly possible to discuss any contemporary issue without addressing the related dimension of its sustainability and ecological impact and this is certainly true of performing arts festivals. There are plenty of solutions that are deployed by the organisers of other cultural festivals (e.g. music festivals) that are environmentally friendly and help festivals contribute to the global shift towards better ecological solutions. While staying aware that the majority of the responsibility lies in the hands of corporations and governments, we can still implement some smaller-scale solutions that will be beneficial to the environment. A major aspect of the postgrowth movement, considered one of the key stances directly related to the sustainability problem, is decreasing consumption. In the context of festivals, this may mean limiting travel (especially air travel). Sustainability and an ecological attitude open multilayered questions. Solutions can be introduced in very material ways (e.g., no longer printing catalogues and leaflets) and in discursive ways, for example by addressing ecological questions in artistic pieces and constructing thematic foci within festivals. Sustainability is ultimately also about working conditions, transparency and ethical standards. “It is not only about talking but also about implementing certain ecological standards in our everyday life,” said Ivan Medenica.
Even though smaller-scale sustainable solutions undoubtedly matter, individual lifestyle choices can sometimes work as a smokescreen: one of the clearest examples of this is the movement encouraging people to stop using plastic straws instead of just introducing a ban on the production of disposable plastic items. The issue of air travel is a similar case; one can decide to stop flying in the name of collective ecological wellbeing, but it is budget airlines and low-cost, short-term travel that lie at the heart of the problem. The other thing to remember is that our online activities affect global warming as well: every action on the internet leaves a carbon footprint, including online festivals and streamed performances. In this context, individual choices become much more part of a lifestyle than real political decisions that would make an impact.
When discussing the topic of “festivals in lockdown,” it is essential to talk about the status quo and the notion of the “new normal.” Some have said that if “normal” means perpetuating privilege, poor working conditions, incessant productivity, little support for the freelancers and unequal distribution of resources, then we should not ever go back to the “normal”. Still, the “old normal” is something we know well; it is comfortable and tempting to return to. Our brains naturally tend to stay within structures that are already familiar. Yet the pandemic crisis unveiled so many problems that rethinking our future seems both extremely important and inevitable. The redistribution of financial support for artists and artistic institutions is definitely a key issue. The pandemic crisis threw into sharp relief that while the virus does not choose a target, the process of dealing with the disease and its consequences is not democratic: those with better access to resources are more likely to survive unscathed, while those with fewer privileges are in greater danger. This simple yet striking rule applies to both individual and institutional life.
According to Jan Jiřík, what was considered “normal” in the pre-pandemic times is actually a serious aberration: “The pandemic situation showed how the whole system does not work so well. Theatres are under pressure to overproduce. People in public culture are overexploited. The situation of covid showed this “normality” pretty clearly.” The pandemic crisis may therefore be seen as a sort of a litmus test that reveals the true basis of a society and cultural system. It also showed that what we perceive as “normal” and “immutable” is in fact very fragile and may become subject to change very rapidly, turning our reality upside down. If we treat this situation as an opportunity to acknowledge that what was treated as “normal”, was in reality dysfunctional and devastating, we can see that nothing in political and social systems is “natural”. Everything is created as a part of a collective agreement, which means that it can also be transformed or replaced.
In any case, it is very hard to define what “normal” means and what the “new normal” might be. All we can do is express our hope for a better future for festivals and the cultural environment as a whole. Let’s let the “new normal” mean “a better future”.