David McGillivray

Professor, interested in events, culture, digital participation & sport.

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A Year without Festivals (or public space)

I started 2020 looking forward to working with colleagues on the HERA-funded Festspace project to explore the relationship between festivals, events and public space. In January 2020, I was invited to speak at the Cockburn Association’s ‘City for Sale‘ event in Edinburgh, where there had been a furore over the impact of that city’s winter festivals (and related events) on the use of prime city centre public greenspaces. Across Europe 2020 was shaping up to be another busy year with increasing numbers and diversity of festivals and events being hosted in our public spaces – parks, streets and squares.

And then the pandemic struck. Meeting up, sharing cultural experiences, attending events and being co-present with others was restricted. We all moved online to work, speak with family, shop, attend gigs and experience the events we used to consider important markers of our personal and collective lives. Yet, people adapted, as did recognition that our public spaces are even more valuable than we had ever imagined. Spontaneous creative responses, founded on the need for social solidarity in troubled times produced new festive formats ranging from socially-distanced street parties to balcony festivals. That said, along with examples of everyday creativity, our urban centres were also defined by their emptiness, avoid of their usual people-centred vibrancy. The affective urban atmosphere created by festivals and event was replaced with silence. Overly contrived and sanitised drive-in events and their equivalents provided some entertainment (at a price) as our partner Andrew Smith highlighted, but as we entered the tail end of 2020, the outlook for the festivals and events sector continued to look bleak. I shared my thought as part of the Journal of Public Space ‘2020: A Year without Public SpaceĀ under the COVID-19 Pandemic’ initiative.

News of vaccine approval in the latter part of 2020 lifted the spirits of people across the world. However, the hope that in 2021 people can again come together to celebrate, commiserate, commemorate and create is also accompanied by uncertainty as to what a post-pandemic festivals, events and public space landscape will look like, and prioritise. These uncertainties include:

  1. How confident people feel about returning to mass gathering in confined spaces given the medical and governmental messaging about the risks associated with this activity throughout 2021.
  2. Whether the contracted festivals and events sector will rebound and recover, including the event types that will be prioritised/in demand as the health pandemic subsides.
  3. The extent to which the growing recognition of the importance of locality and neighbourhood leads to a focus on festivals and events that help places prosper. And what becomes of the mass gathering of people in prime city public spaces?
  4. How the public space designers currently creating the public spaces of the future are viewing the role of arts, culture and festivity in ‘animating’ those spaces. Are festivals and events still viewed as a festive means of bring places and spaces to life?

These, and other questions like them will be the focus of our Festspace team’s work in 2021. Hopefully, next year’s end of year post reflects on (half) a Year with Festivals and Public Space!

David McGillivray • December 18, 2020


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