Festivals, Public Space & Inclusion in the post (?) pandemic city, Festspace final conference 10th, March 2022

Festivals, Public Space & Inclusion in the post (?) pandemic city, Festspace final conference 10th, March 2022

The Festspace project is ongoing, having been granted an extension because of the extenuating circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had its final conference on March 10th 2022. Links to recordings of the conference on the Festspace Youtube channel are listed throughout this blog.

Since this project began in 2019, the Festspace team has organised a number of workshops and seminars to present its ongoing work and engage with external academics and practitioners. When we met in Glasgow in June 2019 for our first public event, little did we know that it would be the only time that we would be able to disseminate our work in person. Less than a year into our research, the arrival of the pandemic meant that the social gatherings at the heart of our project, and the festival activities we were studying ground to a halt, at least in the formats to which we were all accustomed. Like all our festival colleagues, we were obliged to re-focus and adapt our research activities accordingly. When we designed our project back in 2018, the public spaces to the fore of our minds were the physical spaces of our towns and cities; streets and squares, parks and green spaces, as well as libraries and museums. But of course, the pandemic accelerated digitisation across all spheres of life and digital space is now a central meeting place. Throughout our project, gathering data, engaging with each other and with externals, as well as disseminating our emerging findings consistently relied on digital media and platforms. We had hoped that our final conference in March 2022 would be physically held on campus in TU Dublin, but that was not to be, and so on March 10th, 112 delegates joined us online for wide ranging deliberations on festivals, public space and inclusion in the context of continuing uncertainties about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The opening conference session featured the five Festspace PIs presenting key insights from the five very different study cities of Barcelona, Dublin, Glasgow, Gothenburg and London. Adopting a variety of perspectives, and a focus on both city-wide and more local contexts, each of the PIs grappled with the slippery concept of inclusion and its colourful companion diversity through maps, visuals, film, graphics and narrative. Delegates were given a sense of the sheer variety represented by the cities in terms of the different degrees of cultural diversity in their populations, the variety of public spaces at their disposal, the manner in which they are marshalled in the interest of staging festivals and events, the widely differing governance frameworks and policy narratives influencing the reproduction of events across city space and the multiplicity of festival geographies produced in consequence. A Visual Scribe was employed to graphically capture the wide-ranging discussions, and the graphic produced from the opening session is below.

Figure 1: The role that festivals play in shaping public space and fostering inclusion in European cities

The opening session communicated very clearly the importance of public space for enabling cultural participation, asserting and celebrating identities and facilitating access to the city, but as the graphic shows, it also showed the struggles that festivals experience in laying claim to urban space in the face of multiple pressures on resources and competing demands for land use. Complicating the situation is a distinct lack of cohesiveness in the governance frameworks encasing the development, use and regulation of public space for festivals and events in the study cities. In this context, while the findings emerging through the Festspace project make some clear statements about how festivals are a vehicle through which cities and their diverse populations can acknowledge, showcase and celebrate diversity, the extent to which public spaces become more inclusive in the process is a much more complex issue.

Parallel session 1 and 2 picked up on several of the themes introduced in the opening session and widened the geographical coverage of the conference to include cities outside of the Festspace remit. Papers tended to share insights from studies of particular kinds of festival initiatives and specific kinds of spaces, often at neighbourhood/community level. The papers were presented in ways that demonstrated how the trends and challenges faced by festivals occupying, and seeking to open up, public space are shared transnationally. Several presenters specifically addressed the effects of the pandemic, sometimes suggesting learnings for the future.

While the morning sessions had a strong academic orientation, the priority for the afternoon was to listen to, and engage with, practitioners. This part of the conference was designed in the spirit of collaborative, co-creative and participatory research, an approach that the Festspace team has tried to make a hallmark of its research activities. It opened with a panel discussion featuring invited practitioners from each of the Festspace study cities. With an allocation of 5 minutes each, practitioners generously shared a wealth of grounded, fascinating and striking insights as responses to two questions: Q1. What makes a festival inclusive? and Q2. What are the opportunities/benefits and challenges involved with staging festivals in public spaces? Following the panel discussion, conference delegates dispersed into facilitated break out rooms and had the opportunity to give their reflections on the questions that the invited panellists had just discussed. As with the morning sessions, our Visual Scribe graphically harvested both the practitioners’ contributions and the break out conversations, and graphics produced in respect of both questions follow.

Figure 2: Practitioner panel discussion on What makes a festival inclusive? 

In giving the floor to experienced professionals coming from different festival positions and perspectives, working in very different city contexts, and adept at negotiating very different policy environments, this session yielded deep and wide-ranging insights. These stretched from the highly pragmatic to the deeply philosophical, with contributors sharing many core tenets as to what makes a festival inclusive while at the same time revealing several points of tensions and contrasting approaches to fostering inclusivity. It also problematised the tendency to conceive of festivals as temporary, time bound phenomena by pointing to the importance of processes involved both in designing and preparing for the festival ‘moment’ and in evaluating and reflecting on how festival practises can be taken forward for the next iteration. Many of the ideas aired by the panel were picked up again in the break out rooms, generating further questions, cases and examples highlighting instances of what people deemed to be good practice as well as dilemmas and fractures that pose real-world difficulties in terms of e.g. resource allocation, access, decision-making and regulation, etc.  The second question probing both the opportunities/benefits and challenges of staging festivals in public space allowed for further specifics to come to light. Interestingly, the discussion on the opportunities/benefits featured a lot of commentary on social and human dimensions – communities, gatekeepers, networks, people, artists and audiences, while the discussion on challenges saw the spotlight move very definitely onto public space which was understood to be anything but a neutral, blank canvas.

Figure 3: What are the benefits of holding festivals and events in public space?

As the graphic in Figure 3 clearly captures, the potentials that arise from holding festivals and events in public space are endless. They can create a kind of publicness that brings out the best not only in people individually and collectively – facilitating creativity, social interaction and connectivity, self expression and visibility, but that also makes the best of available space, using and animating existing resources, making it more open, accessible, flexible and equal. But as Figure 4 below illustrates, achieving these potentials is challenged by a host of difficulties allied to governance, regulation, tensions between private and public uses of space and contestation over how space is used and by whom.

Figure 4: What are the challenges of holding festivals and events in public space?

The final part of the conference was a brief synopsis and summation of the key themes of the day. It highlighted that while much has been achieved, many questions remain unanswered. While this was our final conference, Festspace research continues apace, albeit we are now very much in the stage of writing up outputs and disseminating our findings. Further outputs from the project will be uploaded to http://festspace.net/ as they emerge and we hope that academics and practitioners interested in issues related to festivals, public space and inclusion will continue to engage with our work.

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