The Future of Festivals
[This is a short talk I gave yesterday at LIFT’s Future of Festivals event at the South Bank Centre]
I was invited here today to talk to you about Forest Fringe and how we had helped develop a community of artists around it.
Unlike Simon and the Manchester International Festival, there might be many of you in here who aren’t that familiar with Forest Fringe so for your benefit I’ll offer you a quick recap.
1. In the beginning
Forest Fringe was born in Edinburgh in the guts of the world’s biggest arts festival.
It was born in 2007 in the year that that festival was celebrating its 60th birthday, as were Leslie Grantham, Camilla Parker Bowles and coincidentally both Elton John and Kiki Dee.
It was born out of an opportunity offered by a remarkable organisation called the Forest Cafe, who wanted someone to be able to use the scruffy grandeur of their high-ceilinged church hall to host some kind of performance festival during the August festival season.
It was born by Debbie Pearson, my co-director, who took on this challenge and brought a bunch of her friends together, myself included, to make use of that space in whatever way we wanted.
It was born without a theatre license and without too much notice from those in the official fringe festival in which it was nestled.
It was born in a period of widely-shared frustration with that festival.
With the increasingly high costs associated with it
with the proscriptions that festival made upon how artists were able to present work there
with the oversaturation of that festival
and with the seeming stranglehold maintained by a few very powerful and ruthlessly commercial venues whose care for the artists they worked with extended about as far as showing them where the venue toilets were
It was a frustration with the fact that the festival had become a callous competition-driven arts marketplace that promoted a very particular version of success that many artists didn’t recognise the terms of
A very particular version of society that many had spent years trying to resist
It started because we were actually given the opportunity to create something that might respond to this
And so we did
2. Starting with nothing is sometimes a good place to start
Perhaps the most important thing to know about any of this is that when we started, Debbie and I didn’t know a lot about what we were doing or why.
We were artists.
Really quite young artists.
And as young artists we didn’t really anticipate that we would end up running our own festival
As such we had no business plan for Forest Fringe and no five year strategy.
Forest Fringe had no profile to play off and no prior models to base itself on.
We had almost no funding and consequently no deliverable outcomes that needed to be met.
What we had was a big room above a vegan cafe
About 6 theatre lights
A sound desk
Two weeks every summer
And, like many young artists
and the kind of anonymity that is at once both incredibly liberating and like trying to scream for help in an airless room.
We were young artists and we had all kinds of ideas but we didn’t know an awful lot.
We did not begin with a vision of what Forest Fringe would or could become
We started not with a statement of intent but with a question:
What do you want?
And we spent a lot of time listening.
Most importantly we spent a lot of time listening to other artists.
In the first instance we were delighted that so many people seemed interested in being involved
And so we took care to listen to what it is they wanted or needed from a festival
Or more particularly, what people wanted or needed from Edinburgh
We listened to the anxieties and the hopes people had for the festival
We listened to artists hoped to get out of being in Edinburgh
Which was generally not money
And a place where they might belong in an environment that too often felt more like a Ryan air flight than a festival
We listened to the very particular and often very peculiar projects that people wanted to be able to work on or present in Edinburgh
And we tried to find ways of accommodating that
We tried to say yes unconditionally
We said yes to things we didn’t know were possible
We said yes to people we liked and believed in, without knowing what it was they might want to do
We said this because we trusted them and they trusted us
And that was, and still is, the most important thing about Forest Fringe
It is that shared trust that makes it what it is
And so Forest Fringe was shaped less by strategy and more by the things that artists wanted or needed it to be
So when Paper Cinema said they wanted a two week residency to help put together a new show, that became something that we did each year
And when Ant Hampton and Tania El Khoury wanted some intimate rooms in which to explore pieces for very small audiences, we found two rooms in the basement, renovated them and that consequently became something else we did
And when Abigail Conway and Subject_To_Change needed a totally separate space to house the beautiful card board city of Home Sweet Home we found an empty shop on the other side of town, and those kind of satellite projects became something that we did
We supported work by very young artists and very established artists, as long as it was work that we liked and we felt couldn’t happen anywhere else in Edinburgh
Because Forest Fringe was still raw and new and soft around the edges we had an opportunity to invite those artists to help bend it into the useful shapes they needed it to take.
Each year was a new set of experiments
Some very successful
Some borderline disastrous
But all of them worthwhile
Because we started from nothing we started together and we were able to build something that was valuable to all of us, and could continue to be valuable to all of us, as we grew and changed.
Much more so than a venue, a festival affords you this possibility
A festival can have a sort of wild amnesiac vitality to it
Able to reimagine and rewrite itself at will
Spilling itself into new shapes and new ideas
Reincarnating itself in response to the needs of those people to whom it belongs
The flipside of this is that if a festival doesn’t find ways of reinvigorating itself, it can fall into the dangerous cycle of returning as an ever-more bloated facsimile of its old self.
To misquote Woody Allen
I wonder if Festivals aren’t like Sharks
And they have to keep moving forward or they will die
And if there isn’t something important about knowing when you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
Not everything needs to live forever and I wonder if there isn’t as much to be cherished in a festival that happens once, brilliantly and at absolutely the right moment, as there is in those festivals that have 60 years of history in them.
3. Start your own fucking movement
Debbie and I have often been invited to events similar to this to share some the secrets of Forest Fringe
To maybe offer some examples of what we did that could be repeated elsewhere
Perhaps, as is often the case, examples of the things we did for little or no money that could be used by bigger, more prestigious and better funded organisations to help emerging artists
Organisations who are a more reliable bet for nervous funding bodies than very new organisations run by very young artists
Organisations who are likely to have the time and the staff to labour over the minutiae of various strategic funding opportunities
Organisations more likely to interest the kind of private donors who are unlikely to attend a gala event at 2 in the morning in an old church hall above a vegan cafe in Edinburgh
But unfortunately I don’t think it works like that
In 2008 Nic Green performed a show in the back garden at Forest Fringe as part of the development of a piece called Trilogy and in that piece she encouraged the audience to start their own fucking movement.
The problem with taking advice from Forest Fringe is that
I think that we are more like a movement than a model of best practice
Forest Fringe was the product of a very particular set of circumstances in Edinburgh and has been swept along on the trust and love and care of a group of artists who didn’t need an artist development programme
They needed a home and a community
They needed somewhere and something that could belong to them
A place in Edinburgh (and now a place beyond Edinburgh) that was for them
It worked because we were so naive
Because we didn’t really have a pre-prepared model to follow so we worked with artists to make it up as we went along
Because we didn’t really have a profile so the artists were able to feel like they were genuinely part of building that profile
And then anything we did make really did feel like it belonged to them
Forest Fringe is now as much a community of artists as it is a festival.
It is a series of festivals around which a community of artists come together
And whilst that community of artists continues to grow and will continue to grow
There are also artists now who have been a part of it for almost as long as Debbie and myself have
Artists like Action Hero, Tania El Khoury, Ant Hampton, Chris Thorpe, Lucy Ellinson, Alex Kelly and Tim Etchells
As Alex Kelly said recently ‘At some point, you realise Forest Fringe is not ‘they’ any more, that they are ‘you’. That you are part of the growing family of artists who make up Forest Fringe.’
And as a consequence Forest Fringe has continued to grow and change as much as any of those artists have
As many of the artists we have worked with for years begin to be noticed internationally, we have started exploring how we can work together in this new context. Already this year we’ve been to Culturgest in Lisbon to create our first international Microfestival, an experiment in creating a touring festival model that might allow us to work collaboratively to present adventurous new work by all kinds of artists in unusual international contexts. This involved nearly a dozen artists occupying different corners of the building, from the car park, to the conference rooms to the main stage of the auditorium.
We’re also encouraging artists we work with to become curators themselves. In April we’re going to be at the Gate in Notting Hill with a two-week residency headlined and curated by Forest Fringe artists Dan Canham and Chris Thorpe. Later in the year we’ll also be at Latitude where, again, the artists will be responsible for curating what happens.
Forest Fringe is a movement not a model
And it continues to move
And Debbie and I continue to find ourselves on the very edges of the things we know and understand
And we continue to find ourselves surrounded by artists who are sharing that journey into something very unknown
Artists who are undoubtedly part of an ‘us’ that is Forest Fringe that is constantly in search of new ways to articulate itself.
New ways to make a festival, in Edinburgh and elsewhere.
New ways of supporting this community and of testing its limits.
An exploration of what we hope might be better ways of making art and better ways of living.
Which is all a way of saying that Forest Fringe is not so much an example of what to do, as it is perhaps an encouraging wave from the other side of the river
That though we may look small some of us are stronger swimmers than we look
Forest Fringe is a plea to trust us
And rather than trying to borrow what we have done to support artists
I would strongly recommend that you go out there and find people who have all the necessary
and are trying to start their own fucking movement, and you support them to do it.
People like Nick Anderson and Rosana Cade who are producing Buzzcut in Glasgow, Hannah Nicklin’s DIY Performance in the Pub nights in Nottingham, or Lock Up Performance Art, a lock-up garage on a housing estate curated by Jordan McKenzie, Aaron Williamson and kate Mahony.
Whilst Forest Fringe may have started with virtually nothing
Without a few small but crucial supporters in the earliest years who really trusted us
Who believed from very early on in what we were trying to do
We certainly wouldn’t have been able to do half of what we have.
So if you’re a big organisation looking to support some artists, perhaps rather than setting up your own development programme – help support the artists to develop their own project.
In 2008 BAC gave us just £1000 and told us we could do anything with it, and that proved invaluable.
And if you’re the Arts Council or another major funder – find better, more imaginative ways to support these organisations directly, early in their careers.
For us, undoubtedly the trust and support of Jerwood Charitable Foundation has been crucial in helping us do things that we have.
They trusted us. We trusted the artists. And between us I think we were able to make something quite remarkable.