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How festivals help an ancient species understand a modern world

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Farrin Foster

Festival audiences become part of a collective experience giving individuals a sense of community all humans need.
How festivals help an ancient species understand a modern world

Burrindian dancers at the Adelaide Festival

There is no modern condition. The essential parts of us are the same as they ever were. Marginal changes through evolution are yet to rewire the forces that tell us to be the way we are.

There is less traditional mass warfare, but the hatred and ambition that sat at the root of historic hostility bursts forth in other insidious ways. Equally, people were happy even before it was conceptualised as something you might hope to be, but today – for all the talk of happiness and how to achieve it – we continue to stumble across joy obliviously – often failing to recognise it yet feeling it deeply.

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While our lizard brains might, basically, function the same as they ever did – ruled by an instinct to protect those who are part of our family and a fear of death that gives rise to a mistrust of otherness – society has undeniably changed.

In Western communities particularly we are physically isolated from each other. We sleep in separate rooms, gravitate toward private modes of transport, are walled away from colleagues at work by dint of grey cubicles.  

Our politics is driven by a public conversation that panders to self-interest as each news item is distilled into a summation of the impact it will have on your household budget.

Social interaction is increasingly antisocial. People converse through the medium of screens, not faces, which is not of itself a sin but can stall development of the ability to read subtle cues. Even when we’re with others we have half a mind on what is happening elsewhere via the thing that buzzes in our pocket, or worse, on the table.

Amid this physical restructuring of society, our eternal need to connect endures. But now, instead of forming communities around common geography they’re forming them around common thought.

At its most romantic this is a wonderful thing – allowing those who might otherwise have been marginalised to be embraced, and offering the knowledge that being who they are is no crime. However, that’s only one end of the spectrum of possibility. At its most dangerous this fragmentation of society into ideological groups fosters extremism. Cocooned only amongst those who agree, people have the opportunity to affirm and develop the most wrongheaded of ideas.

This latter result of geographical fragmentation is why connecting with people who think differently remains an essential element of successful society. But once we’re beyond school age, experiencing these connections at a genuine and deep level becomes optional.

There are few places in Australian life where these true moments of community continue to exist. Local sport clubs are one outpost that carries the tradition, and festivals are another. Both examples bring together people not through ideology, but through an interest that is uncoloured by schools of thought. By their participation, this hugely varied group of people become part of a collective experience. And while the arts industry may well be dominated by the left, arts audiences are diverse – making the communality of festivals all the more valuable.

Adelaide Festival Centre director Douglas Gautier told CityMag that 60 per cent of people attending shows at his institution also attended sports events at the Adelaide Oval. What figures like this reveal is that far from being the exclusive realm of well-heeled Dunstan-era progressives, the arts belong to everyone from AFL tragics to Liberal party stalwarts to Green Left Weekly toting teens.

Sam Wright – an emerging festival programmer responsible for events like Bus to Big Trees – says he invests his energy in creating festivals because they give rise to moments where “the potential of how good we could be is fulfilled”. There is a profound effect when two people who might otherwise have little in common together experience a moment like those Sam describes. For example, when the entire audience in the Dunstan Playhouse leant forward, enthralled in the house-of-cards structure built by calligrapher Hiroko Watanabe as she performed alongside band Above the Clouds during OzAsia, it was revealed that all of us in the audience felt the hold of beauty in the same way.

The universal deflation of theatre-goers when the tiny robot protagonist of Adelaide Festival’s Nufonia Must Fall ruined his chances for love exposed our common approach to sympathy. As the crowd roared a cheer of approval, waited for the beat to re-emerge from amid twanging guitars and – as one – fell into an energetic dance encore during Fanfare Ciocarlia’s set at WOMADelaide, we felt the happiness of the stranger dancing alongside us and it added to our own.

In each of these moments hundreds of people were unified in feeling. They connected to one another and, unconsciously, were reminded that even though we may disagree on politics, finance and hairstyles there are some core parts of us that are the same. Such a reminder is the antidote to society’s physical and ideological fragmentation, and is essential for us to continue to function in co-operation with one another despite our differences.

These reminders are all the more important for a city like Adelaide, which struggles to create enough connection to keep people here. Director of the Adelaide Film Festival, Amanda Duthie, visits festivals around the world as she looks for work with which to fill her program. Yet, her experience of Adelaide at festival time is unique. “In other cities, there is so much white noise but Adelaide is different,” she says. “Even if you don’t go to a festival event or venue the feeling of being part of something is there – it permeates everything and creates a more wide-reaching collective experience.”

As well as connecting us to each other, festivals connect us to a place. Our surroundings are as much a part of the transcendent moments we experience as our fellow audience members. When people emerged from Puddles Pity Party at The Garden of Unearthly Delights, they stepped foot into Adelaide’s Parklands. Embracing Puddles after his show as the sun set over this urban stretch of green, they created an image in their minds of a singular, deep experience which is tangled up with the place in which it happened. If they had left the venue and entered an impersonal theatre foyer instead of the fairy-light strewn park, perhaps their encounter would have felt different – more awkward, less genuinely heartfelt. As it was, the Adelaide geography that gave rise to something special will remain in their consciousness as a place to return to again and again.

As these people move out onto the streets, they carry a feeling of goodwill with them and it creates an atmosphere of conviviality. From Rundle Street to Hindley Street, people step lighter and stay out longer when festivals are on. They are buoyed by a sense of being part of something that infects those around them. The truth of the moments people experience in this environment are a strong connector to Adelaide as a city – it is moments where we bond, understand and believe we belong that make us feel at home. 

With their ability to connect us, festivals create goodwill for one another and for a place. In doing so, they make us better members of society and more ardent advocates of Adelaide – two things that can never be measured, but have an enormous value nonetheless.

This article is an extract from 'Being Human Among Others' by Farrin Foster, first published by the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHASS).

About the author

Farrin Foster is a journalist by trade, writer by ambition and occasional film maker by necessity. She is the founding editor of CityMag, an Adelaide-based, state-wide free publication. 

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