A Politics of Festival: some ideas following D&D6, looking forward to the summer

I

Devoted & Disgruntled is an annual event for people who are in angry love with theatre. As I write this, dozens of theatre’s pissed off lovers are gathered together in Bethnal Green, employing Open Space Technology to discuss the past, present and future of theatre, now in the context of the UK government’s huge and terrifying cuts — cuts not just to the arts, but scissor-slices through the fabric of our welfare state. As Phelim McDermott, the event’s facilitator, has it: “There has never seemed a more urgent & pressing need for this invitation to go out.”

II

For people at the Open Space, ForestFringe, the free, experimental and radical performance space at the August Edinburgh Festivals, has questions:

ForestFringe: Questions for people at #DandD6 – 1) (how) should we politicise the Edinburgh festival, beyond simply putting on limply ‘political’ shows?

HarryGiles: @forestfringe Politicise Edfringe? Expose the way it runs on armies of exploited volunteer labour, undermining local venues and jobmarket.

ForestFringe: Questions for people at #DandD6 – 2) How can a festival not just imagine but start to enact new models for how we live our lives?

HarryGiles: @forestfringe Reimagining life, art & festival begins with seizing means of artistic production, now exploited by major venues for profit.

ForestFringe:@HarryGiles Thanks Harry. Really mighty stuff. Do you want to put those thoughts into a blog and we’ll post it on the Forest Fringe website?

HarryGiles: @forestfringe I’d love to, thanks! Good excuse to get something longer and concrete down. Could send you something early next week?

III

The Edinburgh Festival — which is more than a dozen different festivals sprawling across the city and out of August — is the biggest cultural event in the world. This stuff bears recapping. The Fringe alone, as the event most people most commonly identify with the festivals, brings out a new series of ever-more staggering statistics each year. Across the performing arts, the Festival performs a huge range of functions: a showcase of your best, a bid to get spotted, a celebration of what we make and love, a laboratory of ideas, a party. It defines something about what the performing arts are, and who performers are. How we continue to create and experience the Festival is terribly important.

For many young theatre-makers, performing at the Fringe is a regular ritual: we build shows to take there, we bring past successes there, we go there to see the best of what others are making. For many this whole experience is exhilarating, but for many it’s utterly demoralising. If you’re lucky, your show might make a bit of money, you might see some good theatre and meet some interesting people, and all your dedication might pay off artistically. If you’re unlucky, you might sink a huge amount of time and money into a piece that very few people see, that goes unnoticed by most reviewers, and which leaves you feeling drained and depressed. I write this — not for the first time, nor am I of course the first to talk about this — just to give a sense of what the Fringe feels like to performers.

Then there’s what the Fringe feels like to people who live in Edinburgh: like the world is having a party in your house. Some folk feel lucky to have such an exciting party in their home; many feel resentful that they weren’t asked if they wanted to play host, and have to be the people who serve the guests and clean up the mess afterwards, despite not being able to afford (or just not being interested) in the entertainment on offer. Again, there’s nothing new in what I’m saying here, but it’s important to get a sense of where these thoughts begin, of where I’m standing when I speak.

The festival is determined by these cultural dynamics, but it is also determined by economics: the means by which performance is produced. That’s what these early ideas are focussing on: I stand in this cultural system of desires and expectations, and I’m talking about the political economy of the Festival.

IV

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.

V

Here’s the crudest nutshell of Marx on how capital works: if you own the means of production (as in, the physical way something is produced, like a factory, or a press, or a theatre), then you can rig it so that the cost of the labour you put into that means of production is less than the value of the goods you get out of it, making a profit. Those who don’t own means of production are required to sell their labour cheaply to those who do: if you have capital, you are able to exploit those who don’t (as in, pay in less than they’re worth) — indeed, the logic of capitalism requires that you do so. At the same time, those who labour are alienated from their labour: they have sold it as best they can, have been separated from its function and value by their cut-price wage.

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. This is a relatively uncontroversial description of the business of the Festival.

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.

VI

What about market economics? The crudest nutshell of Adam Smith: in a free market system, where prices are not controlled by an authority, the fluctuations in what people are willing to buy and sell for will naturally drive more efficient and innovative production. And we get laws like supply and demand: if there’s lots of a thing and not many people want it, it’ll be cheap, but if a thing is rare and lots of people want it, it’ll be expensive.

Lots of people want a venue at the Festival, so venues get more and more expensive to rent. The more people running shows pay in rent, the more money they need to make to break even, so ticket prices start going up and up. Loads of people want to work at the Festival, because it’s good experience for people wanting to work in the arts, but there aren’t that many jobs, so the value of those jobs goes way, way down. That means that 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.

Say you want to try doing this a different way: you’re going to run a small, independent venue at the Festival, and you want to charge decent prices to the people using it, with affordable ticket prices for greater accessibility, and you want to pay your workers a living wage. Fairly admirable, but the problem is, the markets for your running costs have been fixed by the big venues: the costs of marketing, equipment, accommodation, Fringe membership and so on have all gone up. So you’re going to find it pretty hard to do.

Say you’re a locally-owned venue that’s part of Edinburgh’s year-round arts scene. The Festival ought to be your milking station — so many golden geese audiences! But again those costs impinge, and all that cheap labour floating around starts to look tempting. (In a national labour market, immigrants are often the cheapest workers, because they need that work more and are willing to sell their labour for less; the same is true of the Festival labour market, except that the immigrants are more often University-educated middle-class white young people who want a job in the arts. They may not look like it, but they’re as much seasonal labour migrants as Mexican cotton-pickers.) What are you going to do to compete with the big venues who arrive in town just before the Festival begins and leave right after it’s over?

VII

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.

Forest Fringe asked, in brackets, whether the Festival should be politicised. Of course, it already is: the decisions we make when putting on shows, buying tickets and working for venues tacitly and vocally support the economic and political structures of those venues and that Festival. To imagine that there is no other alternative is to be dull-minded; to imagine there is no better alternative is to fail utterly.

At the moment, Forest Fringe itself represents one of those radical alternatives: it’s somewhere between anarcho-syndicalism and liberal charity, with a mission of providing a free, experimental space. But that means it also relies on volunteer labour, audience donations and occasional sponsorship (state or otherwise) to do what it does, and it doesn’t currently appear to be run on any democratic principles. Other alternatives like the PBH and Laughing Horse Free Fringes are even more basic LCD alternatives: everything is voluntary, including whether audiences pay you anything. Then there’s less radical (but also less tentative/exploitative) alternatives, like the work done at professional theatres, such as the Traverse, where we at least know that some folk might be getting paid, or the Five Pound Fringe, which is working for audience accessibility.

My point is not to slam any of these models — I admire the work of many of these organisations — but to point out that all of these models of Festival work have a political economy, and the decisions we make here matter profoundly for life, work and art. My point is that we’ve got to start thinking seriously about this.

VIII

How much should artists be paid? Should audiences have a say over what art gets produced, at what cost, and for what wages? Should performers own their company equally and have democratic control over it? Is the theatre co-operative a radical and appropriate business model? Is any of this economically viable? Should we legislate over wages and costs? Should we unionise? Should we encourage audience boycotts? Should we hand out flyers saying what workers get paid? Should we make a show out of what people are paying and getting paid? Should we be making a performance out of things?

Let’s talk demographics, or rather, let’s look at them and listen to them. What colour are the skins in the Festivals’ audiences? What accents and languages do they speak with? What proportion of their income are they spending to be here? What time is your show on? Who is coming to your show? Who do you want to come, and why, and how do you get them there? Who are you speaking to, for and about? Have you given them a say in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it? Do you know any of the answers to these questions? Does anyone?

The answers to these questions matter so much to the Festival because it is a celebration of who we are and what we do, and if we cannot model what we want to be then, then we never can.

IX

Edinburgh is a city, not a month; it is a home, not a hotel. If you do not live here, and you are at the Festival, then you are a guest here. Behave accordingly.

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

What I mean is, you’ve come here to be in Edinburgh, not just to see the Festival. You’re churning up the lawns you walk on, you’re keeping the neighbours awake, you’re making folk’s journey to work pretty unbearable, you’re making it so they don’t have space in their local, you’re clogging the streets, you’re trashing the place. Sure, we’re milking you for every penny you’ve got, but that’s just to make sure this whole affair is worth it.

We do have an obligation to be good hosts as much as you have an obligation to be good guests. Our relationship to you is pretty dysfunctional, and I’m not sure either of us is doing our job properly. Let’s make a new start.

“Radical” comes from “root”; “political” comes from “city”. It is a bad pun, but if your Festival is going to be radically political, then it better be rooted in this city, and there’s no use making a show on political themes if you’re ignoring the loaded political question of why you’re doing it here in the first place.

X

Here’s another unregulated libertarian marketplace: the Royal Mile, where throughout August everyone with a show to hawk will gather to sell their wares. This is the most medieval place I’ve ever visited, complete with jesters, fire-eaters, pickpockets and charlatans. If you haven’t ever seen it, imagine a crowd as tight as a mosh-pit shuffling and stumbling past hundreds of hopeful young things handing out flyers, twofers, freebies — wearing bright costumes, or gothic make-up, or camply statuing, or doing something that’s supposed to be shocking, or swishing kilts — and sometimes a well-funded parade might pass — and street performers make their stages and point guilt-trippingly at the cash-hat — and it’s wonderful and awful.

This is the best part of the dispiriting rammy that is advertising at the Edinburgh Festival. You’re expected to be here every daylight hour that you’re not performing. Every vertical surface in EH1, inside and out, is plastered with posters; sponsored recycling bins are liberally distributed to cope with the piles and piles of flyers. You’ve got to shell out a bundle to get in the Fringe programme, and then there’s the programmes of your venues and mini-fests. There’s the promotions at the sheds of Princess Street. There’s the stages where you can perform snippets. There’s all the reviewers from papers and news-sheets and blogs and websites. Everyone at the Festival is trying to do something different to everybody else (the market breeds innovation), trying to do the best advertising for the least money (the market breeds efficiently). Most of them with fail.

But this is not a level playing field. Again the big venues distort the market: they’re able to put up more posters and bigger posters in more places, and pay folk a pittance (or nothing) to go out every day to stick up new posters on top of all the others that have cropped up that day. The more money you have behind you, the bigger an advert you can buy in the Fringe programme, the more pay-only poster boards you can get yourself on. The more money you have, the easier it is to get reviewers into your show. It’s obvious: if you’ve got money, it’s easier to bring audiences in to give you more; if you haven’t got money, it’s hard to get on that ladder.

The mechanisms of the marketplace are supposed to be driven by the decisions consumers make, but in the marketplace of advertising it’s easy to win a semiotic monopoly — to dominate the world of signs that potential audiences are negotiating, to gain greater control over the choices audiences make, to own the means of meaning production. There’s no such thing as a free judgement in the Festival marketplace.

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.

XI

The only surfaces from which posters and flyers are assiduously removed are the surfaces with a Royal Bank of Scotland logo on.

XII

So far I’ve talked mainly about the economics of the Festival, and how that impacts on its cultural space, but I’ve said little about what this means artistically. But if half of what I’m suggesting about the Festival’s current political economy

— that artists are underpaid for their work, that it’s hard to succeed with experimental work, that the whole business is too exhausting to be particularly fulfilling, that the Festival has the thinnest of connections with the local community and arts scene, that it’s difficult for audiences to find surprising work —

if half of this is true, or a quarter, maybe, then the Festival can only be a gross parody or simplification of what is great and important about contemporary arts, more pseudo-science rather than laboratory, more beauty pageant than talent show, more piss-up than party, more tired rehearsal rather than celebration.

XIII

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.

I am asking not “What art do we want to make?” but “How do we want to make art?”

Seize the means of artistic production!

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