The Future of Festivals
I'm having a conversation with filmmaker and writer Nathan Budzinski about his film 9 Futures: Sounds Fragmenting, which had its world premiere at the CPH:DOX festival last year. It’s a conversation based on his film and the future of festivals, but which quickly reaches beyond that and into a plethora of different subjects. Throughout, Budzinski alternates between passionate rants and considerate preciseness about the topic at hand. Normally being the interviewer, his new role as interviewee takes some getting used to, before he lets go and talks as candidly as he writes.
9 Futures looks at the music festival network European Cities of Advanced Sound (ECAS) over a period of six months between September 2014 and February 2015. Together with photographer Theo Cook, Budzinski travels through Europe, visiting nine different festivals. These include TodaysArt in The Hague, Cimatics in Brussels, Musikprotokoll in Graz, Skaņu Mežs in Riga, Unsound in Krakow, Insomnia in Tromsø, Cynetart in Dresden, CTM in Berlin and FutureEverything in Manchester.
The film looks at how ideas about the future of experimental music and festivals are interpreted by the artist communities involved. “That’s the fascinating thing about festivals – that it’s this collaboration,” says Budzinski, who has experienced this collaborative aspect first hand. Through his work as a writer for The Wire, Frieze, Art Review, and Sight & Sound, he has explored and mapped tendencies in art and experimental music for more than a decade. Talking to him about the artworks and festivals he has visited, it becomes clear that he has an eye for the fundamental personal relations that make up warp and woof of music festivals.
9 Futures is a film that explores nine different festivals that take their outset in experimental (often electronic) music. It is hard to say what commonalities they share aside from being preoccupied with broadening the boundaries of what music, art and festivals can be. There are many other festivals like them, and as such 9 Futures is also a document of current trends in festival culture. Yet, the film is more than that. It employs known documentary techniques, but is also an experiential account of dancing, drinking, listening and staying up past one’s bedtime. In this sense, the film not only documents these new festival forms – it takes part in them.
Rethinking the Fabric of Festivals
You must’ve gained an almost survey-like knowledge of these types of festivals?
»Yeah, about festivals in Europe, for sure. Although I didn’t go into it with any sort of illusion – there’s a load more festivals out there. And the more you find out about it, you realise just how led by individuals it is – how particular each festival is. It only excites me! I find it interesting.«
The happiness of discovering the new?
»Probably. And the happiness of discovering the people behind it. Who work hard. Who fight for this stuff. It’s really valuable, but they don’t get paid anything to do it.«
Over the past ten years, festivals have been popping up in most European cities. To the point where there is barely a weekend without a new niche festival going on. This is to some extent due to the willingness to fund more substantial projects rather than one-off concerts. The experience economy plays into this too, where museums, galleries and concert bookers are expected to create unique experiences and memorable events on a larger scale. Festivals are more suited to this than concerts, so naturally, money flows towards the more lasting and memorable experiences of these events. Beyond this, festivals present an opportunity for artists and organisers to rethink their format – and to investigate societal issues.
»So all of these festivals that the film looks at, they are more or less – in my mind – run by people who come out of the late 80s and early 90s. The European techno scene. And that idea of music as a seismograph of societal change – that’s really important. So the film tries to look at – or prompt – each different festival – the organisers, the artists involved – to try and rethink it and go ‘Where are we? Are we succeeding at this?«
That idea of music as a seismograph of societal change – that’s really important
Budzinski realises that although festivals might come off as institutional tastemakers thought up in an ivory tower, they are really the product of passionate individuals who work tirelessly in the face of budget constraints, deadlines and logistics. On top of that is this idea of change. The need to change programming, methodology, curation, concepts and politics – to create something new. The ‘new’ is deeply ingrained in the creation of festivals, which attempt to challenge and speculate about the now and the future.
»The idea is that the festival is always in the context of trying to rethink itself. All the festivals we went to have loads of other activities outside of their original context that change what they do. But common for them all is that they want to present either ‘now’ or ‘the future.’ And they try to define the future in a lot of ways and anticipate it in music. And I think that some of the more ambitious festivals want to rethink the past and predict the future.«
What would you say is the role of the organisers or directors of these festivals? Are they in any position to speculate about the future?
»Well, directors and organisers have to set the structure for that to happen. Musicians on their own, a lot of the time, can’t do it either. That’s the fascinating thing about festivals – that it’s this collaboration. A group effort to set up some kind of interesting dialogue – whatever it is. Whether it’s all of these Q&As that have suddenly been happening over the last few years, where everything has been totally academicised. Or putting different musicians in dialogue through different showcases. Or themed nights – Unsound in Krakow does a really lovely job of that, I think. They have all of these different strands going on inside of the main theme. CTM too. These festivals should just be setting the scene for that, not dictating it.«
Surviving and Making it Happen
How about sponsors? I see more and more of these commercial collaborations or sponsorships come into the festivals and some times dictate part of the programming. And a lot of festivals seem to have no qualms about this. What are your thoughts on that?
Budzinski laughs: »Yeah sure. They can’t do that. The festivals can’t have qualms about that. That whole dialogue just becomes really… I mean, you just gotta make it happen, right? And how you protect yourself from your sponsors – that’s up to each individual. You can have Red Bull Music Academy come in and just dictate everything or not. They can give you money and trust you or not… It’s a personal relationship. They’re really fascinating from a marketing point of view and how they operate. They’re very kind of singular, and not all bad.«
Don’t touch the Red Bull fridge! They gave us too much money! Keep it pristine!
Yeah, and that’s kind of the thing, right? They aren’t all bad. They produce a lot of interesting things…
»…but through other people, right? They’re good at partnerships. And that’s a classic kind of model now. You partner up with people who are good at what they do. In some way it’s a kind of austerity measure… One of the festivals in the film was doing something with Red Bull, and they were apparently required to fly in a DJ booth! Like a 900 kilo DJ booth. And that’s just kind of ridiculous because that costs SO much money.
And you see other festivals… Like Festival of Endless Gratitude here in Copenhagen, which in many ways is a really amazing wonderful festival, that has some really crazy music and some really great music coming in. Some really bizarre choices going on there that makes it ever more fascinating. But I went to the bar and they had Herslev beer – this kind of craft brewery a lot like Mikkeller or something – and then off in the corner there was just this pristine vitrine-like, sculpture-like Red Bull fridge. Just sitting there glowing. It had this massive space around it.«
Yeah, I remember. It must’ve triggered your art background, putting it on a pedestal like that.
»Yeah, yeah, yeah! Treating it like you didn’t want to buy anything out of it. Like a Jeff Koons piece, right? (In an eerie voice) ‘Don’t touch the Red Bull fridge! They gave us too much money! Keep it pristine!’ Nobody there is gonna drink fucking Red Bull anyway! Red Bull is for like club kids and, I dunno, truck drivers..? ‘Go to Festival of Endless Gratitude and get a Red Bull and Vodka?’ No. It doesn’t seem to work.«
The Political Economy of Music Festivals
Exactly because of how large companies support festivals to imbue their brand with a sort of authenticity, the need to think about the core of what festivals are is now greater than ever. This speculative approach to festivals and what they should or should not do is more than idle pontificating on the part of the programming committee. Theoretical considerations are an integral part of what festivals are. It is no longer enough to present inspiring music, festivals have to say something about the world – and hopefully change it in the process.
»The film is pretty collage-y. The whole background of the film – and many of the festivals – is Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. The film’s premise is loosely based around Noise. I mean, you don’t really have to know the book, but it definitely comes out of that. A lot of criticism around the book seems to have been made to get away from the central argument he had. The argument that sound and music predicts social forms – types of social organisation to come. And it still kind of runs through a lot of different thinking. And I don’t think it’s actually his original thinking. I mean, you have people writing about free jazz and improvisation earlier than him, so obviously he sort of came out of that too. Or maybe that thinking was in the air in the 60s and 70s…«
Music has it’s own different temporalities all at the same time. It’s all about the past, the present and the future at any one moment – at least with interesting music
In Noise: The Political Economy of Music, French philosopher and economist Jacques Attali describes how music (and culture) is intimately tied up in society’s mode of production. However, this relationship between music and power gives music the ability to foreshadow social change. Attali writes, “First, music – a channelizer of violence, a creator of differences, a sublimation of noise, an attribute of power – creates in festival and ritual an ordering of the noises of the world. Then – heard, repeated, regimented, framed, and sold – it announces the installation of a new totalizing social order based on spectacle and exteriority.” That is to say, when music is taken out of its original context and re-performed at a festival, it gains the power to create a new social order. In this way, festivals subvert political and societal dogmas. Festivals let us be something more than employees, workers and adults; they let us be human.
»CTM in Berlin for example is really invested in what I hesitate to call a theoretical way of thinking. Because you don’t really need to fucking theorise about that kind of thing. Music has it’s own different temporalities all at the same time. It’s all about the past, the present and the future at any one moment – at least with interesting music. And festivals should be about that too. And the experience of going to a festival is all of that and all at once, and that’s kind of the wonderful thing about it. They’re these very confusing, unsober kinds of dream-places, right?«
Exactly this experience of the unsober dream place is what Budzinski communicates with his film 9 Futures. The constantly flowing camera-movements. The fading in and out between artworks, performances, festivals and cities creates a sort of phenomenological exploration of what it is like to go to a festival. Confusion, excitement, exhaustion, inebriation, carelessness, anxiety, ecstasy, pleasure…
»You go for the day, stay out through the night and give in to a lot of that. You see people sleeping at these festivals. And that’s sort of roughly what the film is about. The sensation of that experience.«
Escaping into the Future
It seems like a lot of the draw behind going to festivals is exactly this experience that is so different from our day-to-day lives. Especially within these more experimental festivals, there is a love for exploration and discovery on the part of the audience, but attending a festival is also a means of escape. The social aspect of any festival is half of the draw. Attali mentions how sounds break down the barriers of everyday life; “[…] rhythms and sounds are the supreme mode of relation between bodies once the screens of the symbolic, usage and exchange are shattered.” Festivals offer escapism through dancing and existing together with hundreds of bodies all sharing the same act of aesthetic pleasure – an affective co-mingling.
»To me it’s so logical. It’s an escape. Purely. An escape into the future – whatever you wanna call it. Escape into the past, the present. Escape up your backside or escape into a dream or a fantasy world. It’s all because of that daily life and how constrained and conservative that is. Techno is like Robin Hood. Introverted electro-acoustic music is still social. It’s still made by people for a reason. It’s still related to lived experience in the world.«
Techno is like Robin Hood. Introverted electro-acoustic music is still social. It’s still made by people for a reason. It’s still related to lived experience in the world
The film seems to circle a lot around the artworks and performances at the festivals, almost more so than the festivals themselves. The names of the various festivals aren’t even shown on screen – only the cities they’re in. So unless someone verbalises it, there’s actually no way of knowing what specific festival we’re watching. Whereas the artworks are often shown and described by the artists.
»I think it ties it all together in a – I guess a really clichéd or predictable, but – actually quite powerful idea of this hypnotic, dreaming and kind of fucked up state that you get into when you’re there. Like at Unsound Festival in Poland with the Evian Christ laser setup where it’s this incredible lighting. It’s just fantastic. It’s really cheesy. It’s totally predictable, but also really fucking great! So I wanted the film to blend into that. Like you’re just falling asleep and having these fragments of a dream. Like when you’ve gone out to all these festivals and fall asleep at four or five in the morning. Your brain’s still dealing with all these visions and memories.«
The film really is this experiential account of what it must’ve been like to be at all these festivals. Like the way you presented artworks such as Musikprotokoll’s Let’s Merry-go-round.
»Yeah, it’s almost like a Kylie Minogue song, isn’t it? Very basic ideas, but it also fulfils something we want when we go to those festivals. It depends on what you go and see music for. What you want to experience. A lot of the time, when people go out for music, it’s just a kind of side-effect of wanting to be social – of wanting to go out and stay up late and get a bit off your head. Like I was saying earlier, at my most cynical, the music industry is an excuse for drinking. And experiencing music is much of the same. I mean, why would you go out? You’re going out to escape your shitty job that you do all day. You want to actually be with people on an equal level and drop the pretences of professionalism and this capitalist fucking garbage that we fucking live through every day. You know, it’s hell right? It’s fucking hell. And music’s way better than that. You can dance around and fall asleep inside of it. Your mind can do what it likes. You’re not sitting and writing banal shitty emails. And they all go hand in hand; why wouldn’t you get drunk if you have to go and work at some fucking call centre every day? You know?«
Woolly, Utopian Agendas
You talk a lot about futures now and in the film. Although you follow nine different futures, do you feel there’s maybe one shared coherent dream that permeates all the festivals?
»No. Like a dream, they’re all fractured and kind of nonsensical. They don’t have an agenda. Or, the only agenda there is the kind of dreaming and imagining – or to open up a space for dreams to develop. It’s so vague and woolly and utopian.«
Oh, but that makes sense. Instead of trying to make these definitive cuts or having agendas saying, ‘This is how it is! This is what we’re doing!’
»That would be so crazy. It’s not the 60s anymore – you can’t get away with being dogmatic about the future. You can kind of hope.«
You can’t get away with being dogmatic about the future
In the film, there’s a guy from Unsound in Krakow who asks whether festivals can really be subversive. I think that’s quite a poignant question, since it’s sort of what we expect – or have expected – of music for a long time. But festivals are these huge entities – can we expect them to subvert anything?
»Yeah, but if that doesn’t set the stage for something to be subversive then what does? I also think that he’s coming from the idea of festivals creating emancipation and freedom. Like what we were talking about earlier about avoiding the day job and the rest of the shit that comes with it. You go out to transform yourself – to try and have a transformative experience. However, I don’t think you can engineer subversion. It happens for a complex of different reasons. And maybe the guy speaking from the Rewire Festival in The Hague is talking about this too – about how conservative we’ve become because everything’s become so complex. And that’s just a smokescreen. We’re all so neurotic about getting things right in this big fucking lie.
And so subversion happens no matter what. Was there ever a subversive music? No. Subversive music only happens because of the people involved in it – what they stand for and what they do outside of that. I don’t think punk or any of the 60s guys were really subversive. It’s an expression of something else. It doesn’t exist in and of itself.«
An Attempt at Something New
After the dream-like experience of 9 Futures it’s hard to say exactly what kind of festivals the future will bring – or what kind of futures these festivals propose. Just home from Kirkenes in Norway, Budzinski participated in the Dark Ecology tour – a three-year creative research project created by the Dutch festival, Sonic Acts. The project takes its name from philosopher Timothy Morton’s idea that ecology is ‘dark,’ because it invites – or demands – that we think about our intimate interconnections with the world. In many ways, this project – and others like it – is the ultimate union of philosophy and the arts. I asked Budzinski if he saw this as a novel take on the festival genre, since it is both far away from everything and with a very specific focus.
»Yeah, on one night in Kirkenes, there were these two artworks by the artists Joris Strijbos and Margrethe Pettersen, respectively. Everything was in the dark and we were all in snowmobile suits. It was like we were all at an art opening, but with paper cups of vodka. The snowmobile suits were really thick and kind of warm, so you could lie down in the snow. And you stopped paying attention to the work in and of itself, but it gave you an experience where you could dip in and out of it without feeling dictated to – you didn’t feel like you were made to be in school and pay attention to anything. You were kind of given the right to have your own experience inside of that. That sounds like a hippy-dippy thing, but at the same time it was a valuable experience.
It’s like – fuck – you travelled all this way to have this experience. But you wouldn’t have that if you went to Charlottenborg or Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre. Those places are really heavily framed around the experiences that you should be having; you cycle there, you stay around for 30-40 minutes and politely read the fucking pamphlet. You do all of that; you enact your cultural sensibility. Whereas Dark Ecology was… I mean it’s not bourgeois. But it’s definitely kind of touristy. You’re taken there. But on the other hand, I’ve been to Frieze Art Fair a load of times; I’ve flown places just to see art shows. And actually, what’s the difference? This is way better! If I’m going to burn the carbon footprint, why not do it in that way? Why not have a particular experience, because that’s all you really can do.«
Was there ever a subversive music? No. Subversive music only happens because of the people involved in it
Because it was more one-to-one at Dark Ecology?
»It wasn’t one-to-one, because it was still with other people, and you definitely felt like you were with others. I think you could’ve engineered the cold and the intimacy in Copenhagen, but I think you’d have to travel far to have that attention. I can fly to any central German kunsthalle and have the same experience that I can have anywhere else. Why am I here? It’s not going to give me anything on a personal level. So maybe that’s it. It’s about that personal relationship with the experience, and the tolerance levels for that are just ramped up. I don’t know…«
»But for me, what’s interesting about the Dark Ecology tour, is the Sonic Acts, which has been going on for years and has been a very interesting and influential festival. And like many others, they’re branching out into smaller projects that are scattered and dotted throughout the year. So it’s almost a mess, but it’s kind of wonderful for that. You have people like Graham Harman [philosopher and central figure of speculative realism] come along and give a keynote lecture, and then sit in the front of the bus for the rest of the week staring out at the wasted frozen tundra. Around the same time, Unsound has gotten some money from the Goethe institute to curate music in remote places. And there are all of these initiatives going on that take festivals and sort of splinter them. If you talk to all of these people, there’s just this constant anxiety and dilemma about what a festival actually is… Why does it happen over a week? Why does it happen in the course of a few days? When does a festival begin and end? What is an event? And they’re stuck in these kind of pseudo-philosophical, ontological dilemmas. ‘What is it? What is it?!’«
»But really… It’s a bunch of gigs put together, isn’t it?«