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Festival Behavior/ Observations
Mary Briggs
Going to keep this to the point: about you, as a cultural worker in the field, relating
to and scrutinizing behaviors –aka the performance of culture-- in relation to the
context of “festival.” I’m going to use as a reference the Kinetic Sculpture Race that
takes place in Baltimore every year in May and is produced by the American
Visionary Art Museum. This year was the 19th year. In many ways the race is a
classic festival in that is cyclical and stakes its claim on a particular time and place. It
contains ritual, competition, and chaos that are dictated by traditions established by
the race over the years. So here we go.
Ok, so it is important to note the role of both ritual and play in the “time out of time”
of a community celebration. Ritual, of course, not being limted to a religious
connotation. Ok? Ritual being a series of actions performed in a prescribed order
that demonstrate or connect the participants to a concept or an activity that is in
some way profound or relevant to those participants. Ritual marks the beginning
and the finish of the festival because it is a statement of intent –the reason why. At
the Kinetic Sculpture Race, the ritual is entirely irreverent—as playfulness and
artmaking are central to the event. The beginning ceremony is mock solemnity with
the lighting of an Olympic-style flame, and speeches—one in particular given as a
homily by a man dressed as a Catholic nun, that articulated the heart of the festival,
namely play—that children should see adults at play, because that way they will not
be afraid to grow up.
In ritual there is order but then –it’s like yin and yang---order is balanced by chaos.
Chaos is critical to play, creative expression --and to participation that refreshes and
bonds a community. After the formality of the ritual, release in the form of actions
that are—at least superficially--rebellious and transgressive—all within the
confines of the festival. So everybody at the festival is in it TOGETHER. This is the
mission of the “festival” ---to build and sustain a healthy community.
Now what is a community? It is a group of people that share an expressive culture-who have something in common: ethnicity, family, region, occupation, religion,
nationality, age, gender, social class, social clubs, school, on and on. Everyone of us
belongs to multiple communities. So when I reference community, think of the term
broadly—not just relating to an ethnic group or neighborhood. You may be a part
of a neighborhood festival but you may also be part of a music festival, a rodeo, a
harvest festival, a carnival—any or all. Remember it’s all about shared culture.
As a cultural worker, you may have vested interest in observing behavior—of being
conscience of what is going on.
How do you know the festival is succeeding? How invested and engaged is the
community? Do outsiders feel welcome and do they understand what is going on?
In other words, is the festival calling on community voices or is it bringing others
into the community? How do you know people are participating as intended in the
mission and vision of the event? You have to observe quality and nuances of
This is the Kinetic Sculpture Race code of conduct for spectators—anyone not
racing. I’ll just let you read it—because I know you can! I think it does a good job of
articulating and encouraging transgressive festival behavior and yet containing it,
especially the last two points. It’s rebellion with a reality check.
So this is your job as a cultural worker—to peal back the layers of meaning of
behavior, sometimes to negotiate it and sometimes to evaluate it.
There are layers of behavior just as there are different levels of participation at
festival.—Major players are organizers and direct participants (artists, performers,
clergy, competitors, etc) But there festival visitors who come to participate actively
or just to be spectators. There are community outsiders who are an interested
audience. There are outsiders not attending the festival or invested in it who are
affected by the event and associated behaviors. I kind of think about it as dropping
a pebble into water and the ripple effect it creates.
At a local festival, ask what are the local norms of behavior? If festival goers are
local, socializing may be part of the behavior event—and types of behavior will
depend on character of the event. At the Smithsonian Folk Festival, large crowds are
mostly spectators who search out specific areas or programs that engage them, so
over-all the crowd seems passive but we almost see small festivals within the
festival. At the National Button Accordion festival, there were live polka bands,
jamming and lots of dancing but most participants were quite elderly so level of
behavior—the energy level is different from a festival with an across the board
younger demographic.
Cambodian New Year festival that I worked on for years starts out quite formal with
religious overtones --- visitation by the Buddhist monks followed by stage
performance of formal dance enacting sacred texts—everyone is well- dressed for
the celebrations—but at same time audience will chat during a performance, stand
up and wave to great friends, skuttle around taking photos—not what we as
westerners would expect at a formal performance. After the main program there
are Cambodian food vendors and western style dancing to a live pop music band. So
it is the behavioral norm for this community.
So there is no rule for festival behavior—because the way different groups of people
conduct themselves is the way they perform their culture.
Also depends on individual personalities. I tend to be more reserved so not matter
what I will be an observer.
Observers are ok, as long as not bored.
Also be aware behavior of business community and locals not invested in the
festival as you may have to be negotiating on behalf of the festival—or the
surrounding neighborhood. As a cultural worker you remember that your job is the
broader community: are locals welcoming, tolerant, hostile? There are ripple
affects—positive or otherwise-- felt in unexpected places—
While taking a bus back to center city Baltimore from Patterson Park in East
Baltimore where several Kinetic Race events took place, the bus was delayed at an
intersection so that the racers on their home stretch could pass. I expected some
grumbling from fellow passengers who were pretty much just East Baltimore folks
trying to get around town. But what I heard were comments like—Hey that one
looks like a cow. I like the one with the flowers. That’s cute. Clearly tolerant and
engaged by a short encounter that punctuated an otherwise normal day. Not a bad
thing at all, but another example of unexpected festival behavior.
So, when you are looking at behavior at a festival, consider the context. Consider the
the community culture and behavioral norms. Consider the mission of the
festival—why does it exist?—is it calling on community voices (inward) or bringing
others into the community (outward reaching)? What is ritual to one community
may not apply to another. What is rebellious or trangressive to one community may
not apply to another. You must be the interpreter.
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