Can Festivals Save the World?
Abigail forwarded me this trailer for a web series on transformational festivals called Bloom.
It left her feeling uneasy and self critical. She wants to support festival culture, but is concerned by what she perceives as self congratulatory and over hyped claims of saving the world. And she is right.
I think festivals are hugely important, I have seen them change lots of peoples lives mostly in positive ways. They can be significant models for all manner of new societies we want to create. And you can’t just dance oppression away, you can’t party away economic injustice and you can’t vacation your way to sustainability, especially in the middle of the desert.
Don’t get me wrong. I am excited about Bloom. If the trailer is any indication, these are very thoughtful funologists. They are looking at the need for rituals in current culture, they are challenging the commercialization of daily life, they get that festivals can heal participants and catalyze personal transformations. They understand that these festivals are a chance to model new behaviors and cultural norms. I applaud this approach and their investigation into the power of these events, especially festivals that are cash free internally.
But there are hazards in promising too much while not significantly shifting things and even reinforcing problematic ideologies in the dominant culture, while deluding ourselves that our good time is much more than what it really is. There is a dangerous new age mix in which mostly white and mostly affluent people can think that festival culture is the key to a better world. The message that comes through to people who are watching it casually is “hey we can solve our problems by going to festivals and dancing and making art.” Which is not true, and feels like a dodge of the hard work which needs to be done in more hostile environments.
These events can be escapist experiences disconnected from peoples regular lives. Where people don’t quit their straight jobs or break out of their stuck relationships and instead save up for the year to spend a week in the wilderness having the experiences they wish they could somehow have all year. The Bloom points out the power of co-creation at these events and that important lasting relationships are built. But largely individuals go home alone – we have not yet successfully exported festival cooperation to the daily lives of most participants. Important work undone.-
Also especially around gender roles, beauty standards and sexual violence. The Bloom pitches the idea of “gender alchemy” with some wonderful words about respect, healing and understanding. Some of these transformational festivals are doing amazing things in these areas, and it is still the exception rather than the norm. I don’t want to throw out this important tool, and i think overall with regard to sexism and reinforcing the corrupt values around objectification, these festivals are mostly setting us backwards.
Where it gets really dangerous is the novel notion of re-indigenization. A word i had not even heard before i saw this trailer. The theory is fantastic: “How transformational festivals honor and support a deep connection with the earth. And the way this is catalyzing a cultural re-encounter between neo-tribal festival communities and representatives of indigenous communities in right relationship.” But, we have to wonder, who chooses these indigenous representatives? What about problems of cultural appropriation and on-going genocide of these indigenous people? I have been struggling with these issues for the past year, and i am confident i am working on them harder than most festival goers and have made pathetic progress myself. So the short answer is “No. Tranformative festivals can’t save the world.” At least not the ones of which i am aware. The Bloom is dangerously over-promising. Yet it still makes sense to have these festivals, to work on these issues, to recognize that we do need models and experiments and to change the lives of participants and the dominant culture. They are important tools, but no substitute for less pleasant, more self-critical and self-sacrificing work which needs to be done in less comfortable environments.