Transformational Festivals: Reflections on Social Movements and Transformational Festivals as Civil Spheres by Eric Turner
The following article, written by Eric Turner, was first published in the Psychedelic Press UK journal.
To the many people who frequent music festivals and raves, and generally rejoice in creating temporary communities in diverse settings, the protest encampments which appeared all over Europe, North America and beyond in 2011, must have appeared oddly familiar. What most of us saw was a clear intention to create a space for egalitarian interaction that eschews the impersonal realities of urban life in the developed world. Yet the protest encampments were created for primarily political purposes and with political motivation as opposed to the sub-cultural features behind the ethos of outdoor music gatherings. So can we dismiss this similarity between festival and protest tent cities as purely incidental? This essay attempts to argue against this latter point by showing some of the common narratives that link new protest movements to festivals, especially as seen through the lens of the concept of the ‘civil sphere.’
To me the idea of the civil sphere, is the most powerful idea that links these new movements to the connectivity that is achieved at transformational festivals. I borrow this very nifty term from the talk given by Jeet Kei Leung at TEDx Vancouver. The concept of civil sphere is associated with a Twentieth century German social theorist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas. He called it “bourgeois civil sphere” and gave it three fundamental criteria, closely linked to ideas of egalitarianism and pluralism: 1) Disregard of status; 2) Domain of common concern; 3) Inclusivity.
These civil spheres have existed throughout civilization in one form or other: the Agora in Ancient Greece, the Imperial forum in Rome, the Ale Houses and markets in medieval England and Europe in general, and the coffeehouses of Nineteenth Century Vienna and Paris are all examples of civil spheres. But it is in the late Twentieth century, with the explosion of popular culture and its diversification, as well as with mass movements, in which we see an exponential increase in quantity and diversity of these civil spheres. Simply put, people realize that they need to go beyond making demands by protesting and petitioning and seek instead to really be, in Ghandi’s own words, “part of the change they want to see.” That’s why we have a flourishing of communes, squats, community gardens, and eco-villages, as ways to demonstrate how to live the ideas one believes in, including, most notably, the critique of private property and a wide range of approaches to the idea of environmentally sustainable living.
The struggle here runs across parallel lines. On the one hand there is a desire to show others how we can live sustainably, with at least some of the burdens of private property taken away by the concept of collective ownership, and with decency and respect for fellow human beings. On the other hand it is also a defensive reaction to this over commercialization of public spaces that has happened in the last few decades. It is indeed very sad to see that our city centres, especially in the US but also in Europe, are conceived more and more just for commercial exchange, and less and less for spontaneous encounter and interaction, which are also discouraged by all sorts of restrictions on loitering, drinking in public and public performances both political and non-political. This is pretty clear if we look at the way our airports, town centres, train stations, malls and so on are set up.
My argument here is that eco-villages, squats, and also transformational festivals, constitute a defensive reaction to this trend, because they usually transform a private, secluded area into an area for creativity, sustainability, egalitarianism and transformation. However, the encampments set up by Occupiers are a step ahead of the game for they constitute the next stage in this process, they are indeed the first form of offensive reaction to this increasing phenomena of over-commodification of public space. This is so because in the case of these encampments a highly visible public space is used to create a new civil sphere, ensuring much greater visibility and centrality for the alternative ideas and lifestyle that are nurtured in squats, communes and transformational festivals. This is a unique opportunity for a new reconfiguration of our social relations, and discovering our potential for fraternity, respect, information and frank debate.
In some ways, in this respect, it may be unsurprising that the camps all over Europe and in the US were dismantled either by the police, who often used very frivolous laws and motivations, or by the protesters themselves under pressures from authorities. A hidden reason for this dismantling is that the project and ideas spread through the camps could not have been more in contradiction with the neo-liberal agenda, so dominant in the last 20 years, which has led to the commodification of public services, as well as all sorts of repressive behaviour on behalf of the police, as well as other undesirable aspects such as privatization and commodification of public services such as health care, transportation and education. However this should not discourage us: social change, from a historical perspective, happens slowly through steps, and every revolution in history has always come together after at least 50 years of struggle, repression, uncertainty and divisions. Only time will tell if history is on our side.
Now I want to make an argument about how this concept of civil sphere can help us understand the contrast between transformational festivals and other, especially commercial, festivals. In order to do this, I first want to define transformational festivals. These festivals tend to share the following set of characteristics: First of all, there is an emphasis on sustainable practices (ranging from recycling to composting toilets, to autonomously generating solar and wind power); second of all, there is a tendency to apply a policy of social ticket pricing, ranging from student discounts to low income earner discounts to plenty of opportunities to get a free ticket by volunteering and/or participating in numerous other ways; third, these festivals attempt at making it about ‘more than just the music’ and thus put plenty of effort into cultural, artistic and educational endeavours.
Furthermore, transformational festivals tend to use little or no corporate advertising and corporate presence, and promote themselves mostly through the Internet, through sub-cultural fanzines and through word of mouth, as opposed to the more conventional promotional channels used by commercial festivals. The last difference is in terms of the music—while each set of festivals can be often quite musically eclectic, in commercial festivals pop music and mainstream acts dominate, whilst transformational festivals tend to be dominated by electronica, especially psychedelic music.
So which festivals are transformational, and which festivals are not? On the commercial end, obvious examples include Roskilde (Denmark), Rock am Ring (Germany), Reading and Leeds (UK), Benicassim (Spain) and Sziget (Hungary). On the other hand, examples of transformational festivals include Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle (US), Secret Garden Party, Glade and Sunrise (UK), Boom (Portugal), Ozora (Hungary) and Universo Parallelo (Brazil). I also want to emphasize here that the definition is not as clear cut as I have described it so far. For example, there are some festivals (such as Boomtown Fair and Bangface in the UK and Outlook in Croatia) that, while not fully falling under the transformational category, fall under this bracket in some respect. Glastonbury is perhaps the most problematic example: while its transformational intentions and early history are beyond doubt, its growth over the last few decades has triggered a process of commercialization that is difficult to ignore, yet in other ways this festival has also retained some transformational aspects.
In spite of these partial exceptions and contradictions, my argument is that the difference between commercial and transformational festivals goes much beyond an organizer’s choices and intents. It is a fundamental difference that is reflected in the higher levels of solidarity and fraternity that can be found at transformational festivals. This can be seen in some ways as a truism—it should not be surprising to observe that festivals with a greater environmental ethos attract people more prone to clean up after themselves. Yet the differences in behaviour can go to considerable lengths. For example, while many commercial UK festivals ban their punters from bringing glass containers, at psychedelic festivals in continental Europe no searches for glass are undertaken, yet the lawn is always free of broken glass, and many people walk around barefoot.
There is a similar relationship between the rules and the actual behaviour of people when it comes to alcohol and drugs—many commercial festivals carry out extensive drug searches on entry and limit the amount of alcohol that can be brought in. Other less commercial festivals don’t, yet they report less problems with drunken behaviour or people ‘doing too much of everything.’ This brings me to a fundamental dilemma that goes along with this theory: Do transformational festivals contain better behaved groups of people because of their laid back rules, or because they simply attract a more benign crowd? I am unwilling to dismiss either interpretation, and am inclined to think that it is a mixture of both.
I want to use one last example to highlight the differences between commercial and transformational festivals, by showing how vastly different the ‘dance floor ecologies’ are in the two sets. In commercial festivals the main stage (hosting mainly rock bands) is a very hierarchical space: we have the performers at the centre of everything, and separated by a thick line of security and a VIP area, from the crowd, in which people tend to push against each other to get as close as possible to the performers.
On the other hand, in most transformational festivals the main stage performers are usually DJs so there is no desire on behalf of most punters to get as close as possible to him or her. Therefore the crowd tends to be evenly and more comfortably distributed across the arena. Furthermore, there is no big line of security, and either much smaller or non-existent VIP areas. Therefore we can observe here how transformational festivals reframe and democratize even the very conception of space around music. Their stages tend to be organized in a round shape, in a matter that emphasizes that it is the crowd, not the DJ, that is the true performer. The DJ merely provides the rhythm for the performance.
So, when one looks at the differences between commercial and transformational festivals, it couldn’t be much greater in terms of how they set things up and the respect, interaction and fraternity that is encouraged and enhanced by the organizers, in the same way the contrast could not be any greater when we examine a commoditized public space to a new civil sphere. This sets up big questions about what kind of a society we want to live in. Do we want a society dominated by a commodification of values, with more pollution, with more restrictions on our freedom, more hierarchies, less solidarity? Or do we want a society where fraternity, respect for the environment, solidarity, friendship, democracy and egalitarianism dominate?
I would also like to make an extra point about another form of civil sphere dear to me—web civil sphere. We have talked about how the web has facilitated interaction and communication with social movements, and it has doubtlessly done so with festivals and music in general too. It has opened up unprecedented access to independent music from around the world that would not otherwise be accessible by so many people. After all, how did forty thousand people make it to a festival at a far flung corner of Europe, which doesn’t do any advertisement at all? It is also through the web that independent festivals have become so popular, without needing to spend thousands on advertising campaigns, but just through word of mouth, through its fans. Clearly this owes much to how the Internet has put the world ever so closer to our doorstep.
To sum things up, as we have seen, this concept of civil sphere, formed of three elements (disregard of status, domain of common concern, inclusivity), is an important instrument of analysis to understand how transformational festivals, eco-villages, new movements and so on, are all part of a common mission of struggle against the dehumanizing tendencies of the neoliberal agenda. Many talk about inequality and the struggle for better environmental practices, and these are certainly fundamental, but there is more to this struggle than just economics or politics. It is also a cultural and social struggle for cherished values such as trust, respect, tolerance and solidarity. And it goes further than most think—this struggle permeates our city centres, our streets, our universities, and our parks, the places where regulations, violations, and injustices occur in everyday life.
I would also add that, at the simplest level, it is a struggle on what interaction we want to have each day with our fellow human beings. This is why, when the summer comes and we answer the call for some extended days of dancing and socializing in the outdoors, that we do more than simply party, it is part of the process of learning what kind of an interaction and how much solidarity we want between us and others, both for our generation and for future ones. This is why the journey between, on one hand, Zuccotti Park, Syntagma Square and Puerta del Sol, and on the other, Black Rock City, Idanha-a-Nova and the Isle of Wight is more direct and clear than one might first think.