What are festivals for, and how has our culture been festivalised?

Not all international arts festivals are created equal, and not all international arts festivals are created for the same purpose.

Edinburgh International Festival formed in wake of the Second World War in 1947, intending to look out towards the world, and Adelaide Festival, formed in 1960, had a similar brief. Both have been considered amongst the world’s most prestigious and rigorous arts festivals for the last several decades.

But Sydney Festival has quite a different history, developing out of the Waratah Festival, which included all variety of celebrations, including a parade, art competitions and beauty contests. When it finally transformed into the Sydney Festival in 1977, it initially included vintage car rallies, face-painting, kite-flying and dog obedience trials.

That means that while Sydney Festival might have transformed into an international arts festival, it has a slightly different focus to most festivals around the country, and retains its broader range of activities.

“Sydney Festival was really about celebrating the city. It was called the Festival of Sydney, originally,” Festival director Wesley Enoch said yesterday, speaking at the Sydney Opera House’s Culture Club event: What are Festivals For?

He was joined by Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan and Adelaide Festival director Rachel Healy for a broad discussion about the role of festivals across Australia and the world today, and the recent explosion in new festivals in Australia.

“We’ve seen the festivalisation of our entire cultural landscape,” said Healy. “Back in the day, there were just a few festivals in Australia. Adelaide Festival was seen as the preeminent festival with Edinburgh and Avignon, and it was a multi-disciplinary, very internationally-focused arts festival. Growing up in Adelaide, it was incredibly exciting that you would see and expect to see the greatest artists of our generation in the performing arts. In the same way that you would hope somewhere in Australia, you could see a Picasso in a gallery, you could also see Pina Bausch or Peter Brook, for example.”

In addition to those more traditional arts festivals, plenty of new festivals, big and small, have emerged in recent years. Many arts festivals have been formed recently by performing arts centres, who want to attract the audience, media, funding and administrative benefits from clustering activities together.

When Healy was Director of performing arts at the Sydney Opera House from 2006 to 2010, a wide variety of festivals were formed in and around the venue, including Vivid, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Graphic, and the former Spring Dance festival.

“There’s a lot of ritual around festivals as well,” Linehan said. “It’s amazing how quickly Vivid took hold as a ritual … It’s why festivals are so hard to get rid of once they’re started — people get into the ritual of them.”

Of course all Enoch, Healy and Linehan all lead festivals with strong rituals behind them: Sydney Festival is inextricably tied to January in Sydney and the city’s light and bright mood at the time, Adelaide Festival is tied to “Mad March”, and every August, during Edinburgh Festival, the city’s population doubles from 500,000 to one million.

So given these strong, embedded, historical rituals, how can these major festivals continue to be relevant and shake up a city’s population?

Wesley Enoch thinks there’s arguably a more important role for festivals to play now than ever before.

“If anything, world events of the last six or eight months have shown that we are often living in our little echo chambers,” he says. “We algorithmically tend towards people that agree to us. And to come out into the public and into the streets, and engage with people is really quite fantastic.”

Featured image: Richard III at Adelaide Festival

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