The expectations of festivals

26 October 2011 | 0 comments

This is a very belated thought from the front line of Hinterland, which was Hide&Seek’s contribution to this year’s Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. It’s about the expectations that a city full of festivals can generate in people, and what it’s like to share work that runs counter to them.

Hinterland – a game that turns into a poem, or a game about cities and language, or possibly a poem that you play  - was a modest success, I think. We had 227 players in total, of whom 72 made it past Canto 1, and nine hardy, wonderful players made it all the way to the top of Calton Hill and the conclusion of Canto 4.

The relationship between game, poetry and technology, the way it invites the player to just be in a city, look at the people around them and reflect on what a narrow slice of any environment we occupy, bounded by our language and our class and our network, is something I’m very proud of. The players who made it to the end had a really amazing experience. It generated a great look on their faces – shining with achievement, but also having being shown something very beautiful that was right on their doorstep. There’s a wonderful account of the whole experience from a player’s perspective here (warning: minor spoilers!)

So what do I mean by the expectations of festivals? Some snapshots:

  • The look of nervousness on a critic’s face upon being told that in order to play our game they had to seek out and speak with strangers in other languages.
  • Hearing Ruth Little talk about how cognitive scientists have been saying for a while now that ideas reside in processes, not people – that talent is a product of environment, not individuals.  It doesn’t matter whose synapses fire first.
  • Being told by a player who reached the end of the game that playing had become like a religious experience for him.
  • Mucking in with fellow artists in the last days of the Forest Café, running the queue with Gary, manning the box office with Ira.
  • Rohan Gunatillake, at the Festivals as Digital Playgrounds panel, saying that ‘artists need to consider making experiences that are consonant with the lives of the people they are making it for’.
  • Hearing a festival-goer describe the experience of seeing five shows in one day as ‘like eating too much food too fast, so you didn’t taste any of it’.

Being in Edinburgh means that you are showing your work amongst an extraordinary plurality of other stuff –  the Fringe, the Art Festival, the Book Festival, and the International Festival all happening at the same time.

The thing about almost everything happening in all these festivals is that it confirms to a pretty tight definition of how a cultural experience operates. The word is ‘show‘. You go to a place at a particular time, see something. And given the hectic, carnivalesque super-abundance of shows to see, you probably do this several times every day that you are there.

Sharing a piece of work like Hinterland in this context felt challenging… I sympathise with the difficulties potential players faced in fitting it into their intensely busy schedules, but there was more to it than that – changing your mode of operation from consuming to participating is I think a really difficult thing to do. A frequent note of feedback was the ‘stressful’ nature of the asks the game made of players. Aren’t fighting for hot tickets, rushing to make it to the theatre in time for curtain up,  and cramming in extra shows that you feel you really ought to see all forms of festival-induced stress? Just ones that we are inured to, or possibly even ones that we crave?

Having said that, Hinterland worked as well as it did because it was nestled within Forest Fringe. Forest Fringe is the work of Andy Field and Deborah Pearson, who wanted to create a free space for artists to show work that wouldn’t necessarily fit in the confines of the other festivals. It’s run by the artists that they programme, along with a bevy of volunteers. And it all takes place at the Forest Café, which was a ramshackle old place itself run by volunteers, which offered the people of Edinburgh an independent space for art and culture (and falafel and herb teas). This co-operative model set a context in which participation of many kinds could flourish, where a balanced diet of seeing, making and talking was on offer.

And yet… our audiences didn’t leave the other Edinburghs behind when they crossed the threshold of the Forest Café. And it’s too much to ask one venue, one small community, to hold back the tide of passive consumption.

It made me dream of an Edinburgh where Forest Fringe’s vision was the dominant one, and free-to-play open-ended experience in the city was the norm rather than the troubling extension. My instinct is that there would be a wealth of political and social benefits that would follow in the wake of such a shift, as the visions put forth by Kars Alfrink in his recent dConstruct talk elaborate.

That vision is, sadly, further from reality as a result of the Forest Café’s eviction from their home.

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