A Politics of Festival: Blog for Forest Fringe

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

The folks at Forest Fringe, the free and radical performance space at the Edinburgh Festivals, asked me put a blog post together about the politics of the Festivals after a Twitter exchange about Devoted & Disgruntled. You can read the result — an exploratory trip through capitalism, performance, rootedness and festival — at their blog here; some extracts are below:

Here’s the core idea in the Forest Fringe’s question: if the Festival should be politicised, then that politicisation requires not reform (a part played here by shows with political themes but without politicised means of production), but revolution, which is to say, by overturning, by radically changing the means of artistic production. That in this crucial political-artistic moment (“crucial” comes from “crux”, as in “cross”, as in “crossroads”), a political Festival would be a Festival which reimagines not just what theatre we make, but how we make it, which overturns not just what we’re talking about, but what our intentions are in speaking.”


“Much of the Festival works on these principles: Some people own the means of production — access to venues, equipment, marketing sources, &c. Other people rent those means of production in order to produce a show — and of course the owners of the means of production charge more for that rent than the cost of running the means. And still others sell their labour to the owners. […]The more capital you have, the more capital you can and must make. The bigger your venue empire, the more efficiently you can wring money out of the people using your venues and the bigger still your empire can become. Moreover, you start benefiting from economies of scale — the way buying lots of a thing makes the cost of the thing cheaper than buying only a little of a thing — so that you have easier access to better marketing, better equipment. That means more audiences come to your venues, and more of the renters — the people putting on shows — want to use your venues. The short story: the big venues at the Festival, the ones whose logos you see everywhere, are expanding every year.”


“in many of the big venues, people are selling their labour for the lowest of low costs: “experience”, a bed, and free tickets. When there is a wage, it’ll be the minimum. This is so grossly like 19th century factory economics that it hurts: such a venue is a performance-factory where the bosses own the labourers’ houses and pay them in tokens only redeemable at the bosses’ own shops. I would not be surprised if in coming years the big venues started charging for their employees’ accommodation.”


“Revolutionary political economy tries to think of other ways society could function than this untrammelled libertarian marketplace. I’m not going to get into the huge debates here, but I am going to sketch out some of the possibilities and how they relate to the Festival, using theatre as an example. There’s state socialism, where a government, democratically controlled or otherwise, runs all the theatres for the benefit of employees and audiences. There’s anarcho-syndicalism, where freely organising voluntary associations, strongly encouraged by social pressures, build and run free theatres and shows for the benefit of all, with or without a monetary system. There’s benevolent feudalism or philanthro-capitalism, where individual beneficient dictators own and run the theatres out of their own pockets and to their own principles. There’s liberal charity, where those with time and privilege to give organise theatre for those without. And there’s liberal democracy, where we all pretend that our rare rituals of voting have any influence whatsoever over the behaviour of the elected “representatives” who make pragmatic decisions about how theatre is run determined by whichever way the political and financial wind is blowing.”


“What I mean is, you’re bringing a show to Edinburgh, not just to the Festival. There is a year-round arts scene here which you might want to find out about, engage with, and give something back to. There are people living here who might want to be involved in the Festival somehow, but you’re too busy marketing to tourists: you don’t think about how to find them, let alone make your show accessible and affordable to them, let along encourage them.”


“Festival advertising is a barely regulated market, and the result is possibly the least effective method of matchmaking between audiences and shows. You have to be very savvy to find what you’re looking for, and you have to be very lucky to find something surprising. Most of us just follow big name reviewers, or directors/writers/venues/companies/performers we trust, or go to whatever’s free, or stick with plays and comedians we already know. Maybe we’ll risk one or two chancers, and then go home disappointed. This is terrible for art, for politics, and for life. We have to be able to do better.”


“The Festival is an industrial powerhouse: performance is a factory, and a show is the product of a lengthy production chain. As such, it is already a deeply political artistic space. I am saying that we — performers, audiences, workers — need to take control of that political space. We need to start making conscious decisions about what we want that space to be, and start acting them out. Better still, let’s think about the best way of making those decisions together.”


“Seize the means of artistic production!”

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