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Modes of Participation at the festival: the cultural contingency of the audience as observer.

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The active participation of the ‘folk’ in the traditional carnival described by Mickail Bakhtin is often considered the quintessence of carnivalesque social forms . Johann W. Von Goethe’s study of the early modern Roman carnivals of 1787 and 1788 describes the oppositionality of the rebellious crowd as rooted in the raucous pagan Saturnalia. Members of the crowd fulfilled a performative role, inverting gender and social roles with costume and enactment in the context of a festival ‘not given to the people, but by the people to themselves’ . Theorists and historians have shared in a discovery of inversion that is manifested in symbolic behaviour: ‘sex roles are inverted in masquerade with males dressing as females and females dressing as males… [and] masters serving their serfs’ . Significant here is not only the playful opposition to social norms, but also their participatory and performative nature. These oppositions are not ‘portrayed’ through artistic dissemination, from artist to audience but are performed through the action and role-play of a creatively-active audience. It would be therefore be reasonable to deduce that the Bakhtinian concept of a carnivalesque crowd demonstrates a form of audience participation that is highly performative.

However, what it actually means to participate in music culture is unclear when contemporary claims about more subtle forms of participation are taken into consideration. Participation needn’t be an outwardly observable ‘action’. Simon Frith claims that simple observation and listening is itself a performative ‘experience of sociability’, and subsequently he questions the distinction between the traditional conception of performance and the performance of the everyday that manifests itself in popular behaviour, such as joke-telling, anecdotes and the performance of style and identity . The collective experience and appreciation of music and art is seen as participatory in its primary ability to create a shared consciousness amongst participants. Significantly, this takes on a potent and socially catalytic character in the case of politicized music. Steinberg’s analysis of the role of rock music in Serbian student protests observes that music ‘is a participatory practice of constructing a social space… where understandings of collective belonging can be accomplished in the absence of specific impersonal ties’ .

Participation in the arts has also become a key issue in social policy and arts funding discourse and its achievement is claimed to pertain to a whole host of social benefits – facilitating autonomy and inclusion by making accessible the means to achieve cultural empowerment. Some claim that the democratization of the arts is the route to political equality , whereas others question the use of the arts in achieving social aims. Both the sanctity art and an ideal of political independence are assumptions that seem to underpin their claims that participation in the arts cannot and should not be used instrumentally: ‘culture is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself’ .

‘Arts participation’ has been applied to almost all forms of aesthetic engagement, some subtle and others not so. A comparison between the different forms of participation in the carnival setting; observing, listening, performing, role-play, even eating and drinking – throws light on the varied manifestations that can be more usefully classified in terms of, perhaps, the extent of outwardly-observable creativity involved. Thomas Turino’s anthropological work on participative and presentational performance in Zimbabwe provides an excellent illustration and true account of two audience extremes – the audience as passive observer versus active producer/performer. Participatory and raucous celebrations of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe typify the traditional and dominant mode of festivity that existed up until the 1930s. These constituted the active performance of the entire community, whose members danced and sang in a ring encircling a fluctuating collection of drummers that provided a rhythmic backing . The more proficient musicians were expected to keep to a simple and monotonous beat to create an underpinning of rhythm for the less-able of the community to embellish and keep time. The colonialism of the 30s and 40s in Zimbabwe brought with it a new cultural consciousness and an emergent and cosmopolitan middle class. Though the traditionalists continued to uphold participatory celebrations, the fashionable middle class were increasingly attracted to the ‘presentational’ Western concert model that showcased the musical prowess of ‘stars’ whose audiences were ‘still, polite, quiet, attentive, and appreciative’

Participation and the loss of Authenticity

Turino’s account does forewarn against the interpretation of this transition as a loss of authenticity. Despite coming from the West, this new mode of aesthetic experience was nevertheless a true expression of a globally-conscious middleclass. Active audiences have, however, often been equated with authenticity; conversely the spectating audience has been cynically interpreted via passivity and a post-modern loss of community. Marianne Mensil’s assertive typology of festivals and the era’s of their production concludes that the modern industrial city is incapable of producing a genuine festival:

“the city is no more a self-centred, autonomous community; it is a small part of a supra-urban system, the nation… Festive time is not a time of rupture of any logically or symbolically relevant temporal dimension. It does not constitute a separate reality, apt to bring to life events of cosmic dimension. In this context, affirms the author, carnival proper cannot take place… In this new context, carnival changes into something else, structurally different, termed a ‘folklorised festival’. This new event keeps only some of formal characters of former festivals, becoming a “show” with passive spectators, a ‘make-see’ and no more a ‘make-do’”

When the act of ‘seeing’ over ‘doing’ predominates, so too does the emphasis on providing aesthetic stimulation and entertainment for spectators in the absence of an engaged, and engaging, community. And so the ‘folklorised festival’ becomes a Baudillardian simulacra: unreal, existing as no more than a hyper-simulation of history and therefore, one can deduce, significant only in it’s communication of nostalgia for the past. Of course, this interpretation is severe on several counts. Many traditional festivals embody an odd mixture of tradition, ritual, community, tourism, sacred, profane and participation – as Guss’ anthropological account of the Vegetarian festival in Phuket observes, some were there for religious transformation, whilst others, vacationers from the West, were there to watch the spectacle and eat the food.

The politics of participation has also been applied to the pop/rock concert of the 20th /21st century and the Western world. Woodstock has been critiqued for “dramatizing” the separation of the performers and consumers through creating a format of music-reception that encourages the worship of rock stars and the physical separation of the audience from the performers on stage. Confusingly, though, there are others who have interpreted the notorious event as conducive to the exact opposite: a ‘communitarian’ Woodstock ‘with no great spiritual or physical distance between artist and audience’ with a ‘fluid boundary between the audience and performers’. It would certainly be wrong to suggest that the separation of the audience from the performers in the context of the 60s rock concert invalidates the experience of the audience. Though Mensil mentions the 60s counterculture in passing, she glosses over the fact that, for those who partook in festival culture, their very attendance was a significant form of participative alliance to a cultural ideology and anti-war politics. In the words of Steinberg, it was the ‘“aesthetication” of the political message, through the medium of culture, [that] motivate[d] popular participation’ .


Mickhail Baktin

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘The Roman Carnival’, Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. by Alessandro Falassi (University of New Mexico Press, 1987) p14.

Alessandro Falassi, ‘Festival: Definition and Morphology’ in Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival (University of New Mexico Press, 1987) ed. by Alessandro Falassi, p4.

Simon Frith, ‘Performing Rites’ in Evaluating Popular Music

Christian Lahusen, quoted in Marc Steinberg, ‘When Politics Goes Pop: on the intersections of popular and political culture and the case of Serbian student protests’, Social Movement Studies, 3:1 (2008)3-29 p8

Francois Matarosso, Art, Society and Autonomy, Lecture given at the 49th Loccumer Kulturpolitisches Kolloquium, 18-20 February 2005 at Loccum Evangelische Akademie, Hannover, Germany.

Eleonora Belfiore, ‘Art as a Means of Alleviating Social Exclusion: Does it Really Work? A Critique of Instrumental Cultural Policies and Social Impact Studies in the UK’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 8:1 (2002), 91-106.

Thomas Turino, ‘Participatory, Presentational, and High Fidelity Music in Zimbabwe’ in Thomas Turino, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), p140

Marc Steinberg, ‘When Politics Goes Pop: on the intersections of popular and political culture and the case of Serbian student protests’, Social Movement Studies, 3:1 (2008)3-29 p3.


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