Festivals are coming back but at what social cost? We ask critical questions about the return of festivalisation to Edinburgh and the capacity of festivals to be socially inclusive for the city.
Preliminary work with stakeholders of the Edinburgh Festival scene reveals the pandemic hit at a time the city was ripe for change. Urban infrastructure faced decline as one month of events mushroomed over time into a long summer of festivals. Communities protested against the appropriation of their shared spaces as event hubs. Our projects tries to trace the process towards a smart, or even a wiser post-pandemic city of festivals. Using co-designed methods such as data collection by performance, the project will also be an agile intervention in the new normal of festivalisation.
After months of uncertainty, many couldn’t believe their ears when the news finally came on the 13th April that the International Festival will return to the city in August 2021. With implications spreading far beyond the city limits of Edinburgh, generating widespread international coverage and providing several insights for our project – in the present circumstances, ths begs the question as to whom the organisers are addressing and exactly who are we expecting to welcome back?
More than any other city within the set of SMARTDEST cases, Edinburgh has made its reputation through the festivals, which have underscored a wider entrepreneurial turn in urban governance – evident in spatial, economic and environmental planning. Beginning 74 years ago with the International Festival, the calendar of events has expanded well outside of the traditional summer festival season, to become a year-round product in Edinburgh, attracting significant criticism in recent years. A similar trend towards festivalisation has been observed by human geographers in cities since the mid 1980s.
In her beautifully titled article ‘La Festivalomanie’ (1992), Inez Boogaarts documents the shift to a neoliberal steering of the cities, putting a spotlight on how festivals became part and parcel of cities competing with each other, to attract visitors. As the Amsterdam team show in their latest blog, the past decades have seen other identities thrown into the competition. Specifically, research has shown that over time at least two crucial dimensions of festivalisations have appeared that are important: their role at the heart of multiple mobilities and their capacity to be both inclusive and exclusive. These dimensions include many of those elements identified by Sheller and Urry (2004) in their classification of tourism mobilities.
In this respect, festivals became spinning wheels for labour and capital mobilities. On one hand, we see mobilities of support labour, local and migrant, that deliver services such as security, catering etc. as well as within the wider city environment – accommodation, transport etc. This increasingly includes workers in the gig or sharing economy. By the same token festivals are important platforms for the mobilities of volunteer labour, frequently intersecting with the mobilities of lifestyle, and of students. Last not least, precarious performance or creative labour that produces the festival often evolves at the margins of established festivals. In Edinburgh, placemaking processes central to the neoliberal reorgansion of labour, place and economy play out spatially in the city through the Edinburgh Fringe. The fringe festival – co-existing side-by-side with Edinburgh International – platforms precarious talent and precarious labour away from the full-bodied crumbs of the media attention the International Festival draws.
While it is difficult to decouple processes of inclusion or exclusion related to the festivals from broader patterns of entrepreneurial urbanism, the pandemic has drawn attention to the need for a rebalance in policy to favour the citizens of Edinburgh. In this respect, the comeback of the International Festival is a double edged sword, occurring at a time where policy-makers are planning for a more equitable recovery. Regardless of the enduring risks associated with COVID-19, the mobilities of festival-induced displacement saw communities and individuals uprooted on a temporary or permanent basis in order to accommodate both physical and socio-cultural manifestations of the festival.
Concern over the actual benefits of the festivals have drawn protests, discussion and encouraged a debate around overtourism in Edinburgh, and the emergence of many contesting narratives. How much of this is spectacle, and how much of this counters public perceptions of exclusion remain to be seen. To develop an understanding we will be going out to communities – conducting data collection by performance and wider visual representation – at the time of the festivals this summer, seeking to find out if there is more of a trickle down than the usual August showers.