The Borders of a Festival
Daniel Blanga Gubbay | 20 08 2020 | Essay
In recent months we have been dealing with the notion of space. The pandemic reinforced the division between the ideas of interior and exterior, between the inside and the outside, often romanticizing the idea of both home and public space and bringing out a clear border between the two. At the beginning of the lockdown I had a conversation with artist and thinker Ola Hassanain, whose practice investigates the relation between public space, politics and gender in Khartoum, Sudan, within her ongoing research “Space as a Discourse”. Ola recalled how space –a public space, a private space– always carries a question about the conditions governing its access, and how every spatial form of protection, or inclusion, is forcibly built on a logic of exclusion.
As I write to you, we finalized a program for Kunstenfestivaldesarts for upcoming September, titled Every Inside Has an Outside, emerged after the cancellation of the previous edition, and that –in the uncertainties of the present– might happen or be cancelled again. Through a series of artistic projects and talks, the program discloses a series of reflection on the politics of space generated by the pandemic: a continuous articulation of inside and outside. Yet, its title, Every Inside has an Outside, can apply to the same idea of a festival.
Since some years I started being interested on the idea of the festival as a space. Last year when I was in Riga for Homo Novus, I shared a reflection on this issue, starting from a concept that was resonating in one of the projects of last year’s program, the concept of heterotopia. Michel Foucault outlines the notion of heterotopia in Des Espaces Autres, written in 1967 while he was in Tunis, to describe certain cultural, institutional and discursive spaces that are somehow ‘other’: disturbing, intense, incompatible, contradictory or transforming. Heterotopias are worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet upsetting what is outside. Foucault provides examples: ships, cemeteries, bars, brothels, prisons, gardens of antiquity, fairs, Turkish baths and many more. Nevertheless, is the format of the festival in itself a heterotopia, a world within world or an exceptional space?
Per definition a festival is a concentration of activities that is marked by a discontinuity with the time that does not belong to it. The same genealogy of modern theatre festival has to be found in the ancient festivities, rituals –existing in different regions of the world– that used to merge the divine, the divinatory, and the use of the arts. Festivals are also often characterized by an exceptionality of time. They are also often marked by an idea of excess, an intensity of experience that would not be possible in a different or longer temporality. In being defined by these two categories of exception and excess, the festival seems to affirm itself as a heterotopia, as a place that allows something within its borders, that would not possible outside them. This model of exceptionality–which primarily appears as a model of freedom for the space of the festival or the one of artistic creation– is often defended in cultural policy. But what kind of impact does the definition of the exception have on the norm?
Some years ago, in the frame of Santarcangelo Festival, I proposed a School of Exceptions, an open program, co-conceived with Livia Andrea Piazza, whose task was to gather participants in analysing the use of the exception, its consequences on the norm, its use in the arts and the model of the festival as exception. Back then, we proposed to draw a map of different models of relations between the norm and the exception; we proposed to start from three historical-political models of the use of the exception, to then focus not on the space of the exception or on that of the norm, but on the existence of a border between the two.
The first historical model is the exception emerging in order to confirm the norm. This model can be found for instance in the Jewish tradition of miracles: miracles are not only an instrument of rescue or wonder, but are voluntary infringements of the law of Nature through which God remembers the existence of the same law. A similar model of relation between exception and norm is embodied in the Carnival’s tradition –often used to describe the exceptional temporality of festivals– as a transgression normalizing the rest of the year. This first model reminds how exception can never be analysed only through its content; rather it requires a glimpse beyond its borders since it always produces a repercussion in the norm. For instance, exceptionalizing freedom of expression inside the borders of artistic creation risks to undermine and implicitly accept that outside them freedom might be different, and every granting in the form of an exception seems to corroborate the norm’s prescriptions. Here the exception appears not only in its potential but in its danger.
With the participants of the school we analysed the possibility of a second model, in which the idea of exception refuses to reinforce the norm. We read for instance a short text – On the Palestinian Refugee Camp as a Permanent Temporary Solution Regime– delivered by Eyal Sivan and recalling the political strategy of refusal by Palestinians in several camps in Lebanon and Jordan to make architectonical improvements, for this would have slowly normalized a situation that is politically crucial to maintain exceptional and thus transitory. In this dramatic situation –continually precarized by the outside–, one might say that the semantic of exception as unstable position is used to refuse to become norm.
Finally, during the school, we analysed the possibility of a third model, encountered in a reading about the special economic zones of Dubai, Shenzhen, in a conversation between Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, Manal Al Dowayan, Parag Khanna, and Turi Munthe published by eflux in 2013. In the conversation, the four scholars argue that areas such as Shenzen can no longer be considered exceptions accepted in order to corroborate the norm by way of contrast (e.g. capitalistic exceptions reinforcing the Chinese classical economic model). On the contrary, they show the use of the exception as laboratory bulbs of what might become the norm; a norm germ, or a Trojan Horse infiltrating the norm in order to conquer it and take its place. In front of this cartography, mapping different relationships between norm and exception, a question suddenly pops up: does the possibility of deactivating this duality exists? Every norm has an exception: isn’t this a norm itself? And what is the exception outside the paradigm between norm and exception?
In short text written in 1925 and titled Naples, Walter Benjamin and Latvian actress and director Asja Lācis introduced a category that could be pivotal in this context. By describing his experience of the Parthenopean city, Lācis and Benjamin acknowledged the impossibility of distinguishing between private and public space: the courtyards let public life into the family domain; the houses and their customs exceeded their limits to occupy the public space. A porosity
they define it that is continuously inhabited; that lacks the subtle clarity of a demarcation line, but that becomes a space an in-between space capable of neutralising the division between the inside and the outside. Maybe this space between norm and exception could function as exception to the very paradigm; maybe only an intermediate position, unable to be defined as norm of exception, can deactivate the duality. The porosity described here is not affiliated with the post-modern concept of fluidity, or the possibility of being everywhere and thus nowhere. On the contrary, the space of porosity is demarcated, and yet we can’t say whether we’re inside or outside.
What can be porosity for a festival? It can mean rethinking its spatial configuration, or the semantic it often uses. For instance, a festival is often a host, inviting multiple guests: the artists, a committed audience, international professionals. While reclaiming the interesting aspect of this term, and trusting today more than ever the value of hospitality, how much do these terms risk to underline a territorial idea of a festival? How can a festival be simultaneously a host and a guest in its own context, being at the same time inside and outside itself?
A second line of reflection from the same term might be: how can porosity become a tool to reflect the proliferation of social and participatory projects of the last decade? While underlining the importance of such project, a large debate happened these last years on the danger of instrumentalizing artistic creation; being requested to take the place of politics, becoming an instrument useful for filling a responsibility gap. The image of porosity seems to suggest a third possibility: exceeding the border, without occupying another space; art continuously bending beyond itself remaining in position. It is an exception off balance, and such movement opens up a porous space undermining the clarity of threshold.
There is one last point on porosity, described as the space between norm and exception able to lose the margins and thus deactivate the dichotomy. Porosity is not only a characteristic of a space, or of a fixed place. On the contrary, it can also be an attribute of the body. Usually, the carnival is inscribed in the genealogy of event politics and a festival could be included in the tools for reinforcing the norm. Usually, the day after the carnival is the one resetting at best the norm rules, as a repercussion, through behaviours. And yet, maybe on the first Lent day, once left behind the festive time, I preserve the pleasure of transgression in my body: it is over and at the same time, archived as potentiality inside me. The body carries the flavour of the exception into the norm. It is a constant form contamination, carried by the bodies, and somehow never as topical as today.
As spectator, I inhabited the threshold and I might be remembered of the danger of carnival existing only to re-establish the norm. At the same time, it is there that I discover that sometimes carnival can be transported within the rest of the year. I inhabited the threshold and I become the threshold; the body is the space between norm and exception transporting continuously one to the other and questioning their dichotomy. My body is the archive of the excess and the experienced exception and, after the last night of carnival, I might transport these exceptions into the norm, contaminating it. I walk through a porous city and I suddenly discover to be potentially part of this porosity myself.
Daniel Blanga Gubbay is a Brussels-based curator and researcher. He is currently the artistic co-director of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts. He has worked as an educator and an independent curator for public
programs, among which: Sonic Dawn, Homo Novus 2019; Can Nature Revolt? for Manifesta, Palermo 2018; Black Market, Brussels 2016; The School of Exceptions, Santarcangelo, 2016. He has worked as
co-curator for LiveWorks, and was head of the Department of Arts and Choreography (ISAC) of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. He graduated with Giorgio Agamben at Università Iuav di Venezia and he holds a phD in Cultural Studies from Palermo and Berlin. Recent articles appeared in Makhzin (Beirut), South as a State of Mind (Athens), Mada Masr مدى مص(Cairo) and Performance Journal (New York).