Festspace International Symposium in Barcelona goes online

Festspace International Symposium in Barcelona goes online

The social reaction of an empty city in full swing

Last February 10th, the Festspace International Symposium in Barcelona was held online under the title “Spaces and crowds without festivals”. As well as other events and festivals during the pandemic, academic events have also to adapt to the restrictions imposed by governmental health and safety measures. In order to do so and avoid cancellation, the Barcelona FestSpace research team organised a virtual symposium with diverse speakers distributed around various discussion tables via Zoom, live streamed on YouTube.

The seminar aimed to answer questions related to the impact of Covid-19 in the development of events and festivals located in public spaces of urban environments. More than 150 people registered, some of them as active audience members commenting and proposing questions to the speakers through the YouTube chat.

The activity was organised around three discussion tables.

Opening session: Cultural events in Barcelona, the emptiness of social action. The social effects of a landscape without events during the pandemic.

You can watch this session in the video at the end of the post, from hour and minute 00:00:00 to 01:47:00.

The first table  was focused on the cultural events environment of Barcelona. The guest speakers for that table were selected according to the typology of festivals and cultural events in Barcelona developed within the frame of the Festspace program. After creating a database which included all cultural events held in Barcelona’s public space with the collaboration of the city council, three different typologies of cultural events emerged. The first type was cultural industry events, festivals organised by for-profit companies with different forms of collaboration with the city administration such as Film, music and literature festivals, among others. The second type of events were those festivities related with traditional and popular culture, which usually are in close relation with particular actors and locations, include a strong emphasis on voluntary work, are linked to a festive calendar and are organised by civic associations and/or city council, such as Festes Majors, Carnival, La Quaresma, etc. The third type is related to cultural diversity in Barcelona and to the festivities celebrated by the new communities established in the city, with certain relation to the city council, such as The Chinese New Year, the Pakistan Day or the Ecuador National Festivity.  

To facilitate the inclusion of all three different typologies, the table of discussion was composed of three different specialists in the cultural event sector in Barcelona with backgrounds related to each of these categories: Gaëlle Patin, responsible for the diversity and interculturality program of Casa Asia, a public diplomatic institution with the headquarters in Barcelona, she provided a perspective from events focused in cultural diversity and interculturality; Esteve Caramés, director of the cultural programming of the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona, from Barcelona City Council, he had a special  vision of both organizing and collaborating with traditional and cultural events on the one hand, and culture industry events on the other hand; and finally Guillem Roma, a cultural activist, providing a point of view of civic associations related to traditional and cultural festivities.

Even though discussion was focused on particular aspects of Barcelona’s cultural sector reactions to restrictions, the aspects signaled in the session are also shared by the different Festspaces cities. Prominent among them were the growing hybrid format of cultural events, the importance of presenciality, the differences between community events and more commercial framed activities, the organisers relation with administrations and the various ways of affectation in the liveliness of a city that provoques the emptiness of public space, among others.

FESTSPACE session: The social functions of events in complex times. Social (in) (ex)clusion in cultural and other events in the cities of Glasgow, Dublin, Gothenburg, Barcelona and London.

You can watch this session in the video at the end of the post, from hour and minute 02:16:00 to 04:16:00.

Having explained quite extensively the diverse environment of cultural events in Barcelona, the next debate focused on the comparison between the reactions to the pandemic in the five Festspace cities. The table was composed of the five main researchers of the Festspace project, and the discussion treated the social functions of events in complex times. Dublin, Glasgow, Göteborg, London and Barcelona cases were explained, with an emphasis on describing what has happened to events held in public spaces since the pandemic arrived. It has been very interesting to compare the different situations of the five cities and how administrations and people have reacted to the common loss of public spaces and on-site gatherings.

On a positive note, some creative ways of resistance to avoid cancellation of cultural events or to propose new uses of public space in pandemic times have flourished in these five cities, although the most critical similarity between the cities is the enormous change that covid-19 has brought to events held in public space. For example, in a city like Dublin, not particularly related with large international mega-events (except Saint Patrick’s festival and Rugby 6 Nations Championship) but with small and medium scale events and community events, the pandemic has brought disruptions since March 2020. These disruptions have been leveled up since January 2021, with strict regulations and very few things happening in public space. Of course, these changes have had an enormous impact on city life. Still, some creative ways of delivering hybrid cultural content, on-site and online, have been emerging. For example, several pieces of art were moved away from the city center to smaller locations in different neighborhoods and some festivals reacted with the creation of virtual spaces and adapted content. The decentralization of cultural activities and the flourishing of cultural proposals in a hybrid format are two of the responses that can be found in each city, which responds locally and differently to a common threat.

Closing round table: Festivals as spaces for social interaction. What does the future hold for festivals and events as spaces of inclusion and socio-cultural interaction in post-pandemic times?

You can watch this session in the video at the end of the post, from hour and minute 04:50:00 to 06:21:00.

The third discussion table also functioned as a debate between four professionals from the event sector in different cities: Susan Kirby, executive director of Dublin St. Patrick’s Festival; Fran Hegyi, executive director of Edinburgh International Festival; Begoña Ruiz, translator, interpreter and mediator in Barcelona; Tasso Stafilidis, former director of Cultural Festival of Göteborg. Whereas the previous table focused upon the academic framing of issues related to the inclusion/exclusion in the use of public space promoted by events and the impact of covid-19, in this table a more professional-led discussion took place, drawing attention to concrete examples from the professional perspective of the organisers.

As previously touched upon, the symposium raised more questions than it answered. A large number of issues emerged as inspiring fuel for further discussion, as if it were a large focus group discussion, as commented by the Barcelona FestSpace researcher Joan Pujolar via YouTube chat.

Different common issues were addressed. For example, in relation to the growing hybridity (online/on-site) of events during pandemic times, participants questioned whether it will remain when restrictions are over, and whether digital platforms will be accessible to the whole community or will create lack of opportunities. Also in the same direction, researchers and professionals from the event sector in the 5 cities considered presenciality as a key factor for the social impact of events; reactions to restrictions and creative ways to avoid cancellation in 5 cities have had to relegate presenciality in order to deliver some sort of activities, a fact that is not understood as a permanent solution, although virtuality has also brought a different type of audience in some events. Discussion also focused in imagining what positive outputs could develop from the quick reaction of the event sector to pandemic restrictions. From that perspective, the sustainability issue establishes with strong arguments: Covid-19 has relegated mega-events to cancellation, so more localised, smaller-scale, community events are flourishing when restrictions allow them, and it has brought a new perspective on the possibility of framing events under the lengths of sustainability and targeting them to local audience instead of international crowd. Different topics also emerged, all of them related to imagining the reframing of the event sector after the impact of restrictions in social gatherings and in the use of public space.

In conclusion, the symposium offered an initial picture of different local strategies trying to address a common global problem. Although Covid-19 has brought much pains and difficulties, it also gives us the opportunity to rethink cities in new and refreshing ways. Taking this into account, for the future of festivals and cultural events held in public spaces, it is essential that we look and compare what are the other cities doing, how they are reacting to pandemic times.

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