Meaningful experiences

Leaving aside fun, celebration, creating a spectacular and having a good time, what makes a festival significant in a wider sense? The best rituals respond to a deep yearning to be part of a bigger thing. You can take any theme as long as it is given meaning. Here are some ways of doing so in an urban context:

• Bonding individuals and the group. Collectively and selfconsciously sharing experience. Normally it is national events that do this, such as Anzac Day in Australia or National Day in Singapore. In terms of creating urban belonging and identity, the Mardi Gras in New Orleans is an example. It provides a forum for the sense of imagined community to be played out -people feel connected through a collective identity.

• Active not passive. To express self by being an actor on the festival stage. The carnival season in Christian countries is the party before the abstinence of Lent and its variations, like Fasching,

Italy's Carnevale or Mardi Gras, encourage the participation of the many. Such participation consolidates community solidarity.

• Ritualizing and reconciling conflict. The Palio in Siena is a famous horse race where the local contrade (districts) fight it out for supremacy. While it is very competitive, they are at least not cutting each others' throats. The same is true for Trinidad's Carnival. The gang warfare of the 1950s and 1960s was tamed and the energies were turned into making music, masquerading and parading. The names of the main mas camps (groups allied to a particular band) indicate the gang legacy: Invaders, Desperados, Renegades.

• Community self-reflection. The teatro povero ('poor theatre') and its festival started in 1967 and is like a community drama. It has taken on an important meaning in the life of Monticchiello, Tuscany, when it was realized it could help the village to overcome the threat of isolation and social breakdown in its transformation from peasant to modern life. Run by a co-operative and developed in an atmosphere of community solidarity and intellectual purpose, the whole community and surrounding areas are involved as actors and helpers. The theatre has become an important element in raising the village's consciousness in its efforts to understand itself and achieve an identity. They developed the concept of autodramma (performing oneself). Relevant themes about the place itself act as a trigger for self-reflection. The theatre is centred on the Piazza San Martino. The square is the centre of the community from every point of view: the space for social encounter, confession, decision-making and self-analysis. As the natural meeting place for the whole community over the centuries, it is the ideal place to stage autodrammi and is transformed every summer into a stage.15

• The city as a stage. The urban theatre festival in Rome claims the territory of the city, transforming city spaces into stages. It invades random streets and surprises the public, not countenancing indifference. It is preceded by the Estate Romana, from July to September, with nightly outdoor cinema in the best spots in the city, such as Tiberina island, with two giant screens overlooking the River Tiber and St Peter's Cathedral in the background. The Estate Romana was initiated in the 1970s by the politician then in charge of cultural affairs, Renato Nicolini, who pioneered an annual summer arts festival to liven up the city and, to use the feminist campaign slogan of the time, to 'Reclaim the Night'. He argued this was best achieved by designing cultural policies which would encourage people to use the city at night in large numbers, thus providing safety through the natural surveillance of crowds.

• Eliciting primal instincts. The basic elements, air, water, fire and earth, are deep themes of ritual. They have an authentic quality that harks back to origins. All major religions use light: Eid in the Muslim world, Diwali for Hindus, Chinese lantern festivals, Chanukah for Jews and Advent for Christians.

• Bonding across cultures and groups. Invented by Barnaby Evans, WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island is one of the strongest new urban rituals.16 More than 20 times a year, a fire sculpture installation on the three downtown rivers becomes a moving symbol of Providence's renaissance. It centres on a series of 100 bonfires that blaze just above the surface of the waters. They illuminate nearly two-thirds of a mile of urban public spaces and parks, and residents and visitors gather to stroll along the river while listening to an eclectic selection of classical and world music that serves as a melodic accompaniment to the normal sounds of urban life. The fires are tended from sunset to past midnight by black-clad performers in boats who pass quietly before the flames. There is no admission charge. The experience surrounds viewers on all sides and impacts all five senses. The crackling flames, the fragrant scent of blazing cedar and pine, the flickering firelight on the arched bridges, the silhouettes of the firetenders floating by in their torch-lit vessels, and the music from around the world engage the senses and evoke emotions in the many thousands who come to stroll along the river walks. It has a reflective quality, and people who have never met talk. Children, parents, the happy and the sad open out.

• Common experiences in open space. The Cow Parade has become the world's largest public urban art event - cows painted in a maze of colours line the streets. It is a fundraiser for charitable activities and started in 1999 in Chicago, the US centre of cattle trading. At the conclusion of each event, the cows are herded up and many are auctioned, with a substantial portion of the proceeds benefiting charity. The initial Chicago auction raised US$3 million for charity. The average bid price on each of the 140 cows was nearly US$25,000. Over 40 cities have now held the event, from New York, London, Moscow, Telemark in Northern Norway and Boston to Buenos Aires. For those that travel a lot, it creates a thread of common experience that is different from a McDonald's or a Hilton. A similar global event, though with no charitable aim, is Yann Arthus-Bertrand's powerful 'The Earth from Above' outdoor photography show, whose core message is sustainable development. It has around 120 photos on sixty 2x1.5m panels aligned in various configurations in public spaces and has been displayed in places as varied as Dushanbe in Tajikistan, Helsinki, Ljubljana in Slovenia, Seoul, Taipei and Qatar. Since 2001, Berlin has had its 'Buddy Bears', who represent understanding among cultures and a peaceful coexistence. The event has now gone global, with artists making bears in Shanghai, Sydney and St Gallen, Switzerland. Twenty 6-foot Buddy Bears kicked the ball on the pitch of the world's largest table football table to help launch the FIFA World Cup in Germany. The bears raise money for UNICEF and similar charities and had by 2005 raised over a million euros. At a more local level, Hamelin, the famous city of the Brothers Grimm Pied Piper story, has a Rattenfestival (Festival of Rats), last held in 2004. This public art event brings rats back into the streets of Hamelin in the form of 70 individually decorated five-foot rats. In their own way these shows are an indicator of a city's presence in global consciousness.

• Social statement. Piobbico, Italy - 'The World Capital of Ugly People' - holds the annual 'Festival of the Ugly'. 'Ugliness is a virtue, beauty is slavery.' Telesforo Iacobelli, its chair, has spent his life fighting for the recognition of the ugly in a society that places a high value on physical beauty. Iacobelli is considered ugly as he has a small nose in a culture where large noses are considered beautiful. The festival is a reaction against the forces of fashion, design and aesthetics and was relaunched 40 years ago with a new focus on a marriage agency for the town's single women, who claimed they could not find attractive husbands.17 Today the Ugly Club, started in 1879, has 20,000 members around the world.

• Protest and protest within protest. The Love Parade was founded in 1989 in Berlin when 150 ravers protested for the right to party in a city just still divided. It claimed to be a polit ical demonstration for peace and international understanding through music. Now a mass of DJs perform on their trucks, turning Berlin into one big club. At it highpoint, in 1999, 1.5 million people attended and it was copied from Santiago to San Francisco. When it lost its reputation as a political demonstration in 2001 and began to be seen as a mere commercial event, it entered financial difficulties but re-emerged again in 2006. Since 1997 there has been an alternative techno demonstration, Fuckparade, that protests against the Love Parade's commercialization. Zurich's Street Parade is similar to the Love Parade and since 1996 has similarly spawned a counter-parade called the Antiparade. It fights for a vital subculture and sees itself as an antidote to the commercialization of the main event. The EXIT event in Novi Sad, Serbia, now simply a music event, started in 2000 as a response to student demonstrations against the political regime. For a hundred days, the EXIT organization coordinated a continuous programme of cultural and academic events, beach parties, live concerts and performances with a very powerful social dimension. It had one goal: to motivate all social groups, but especially young people, to vote at the presidential elections and remove Milosevic from power. Two hundred thousand people came to Novi Sad during this period to join the demonstration. Two days after the closing night of EXIT 2000, participants went to the polls and many ended up as part of the final 500,000-strong demonstration that physically removed Milosevic from power two weeks later.

• Getting intellectual. Adelaide was one of the first places to have a Festival of Ideas. Started in 1999, its aim has been to celebrate ideas and innovation as central to South Australia's values and identity. Rarely are there public opportunities to be part of a city that explicitly conceives of itself as a thinking city. In addition, Adelaide also has a Thinkers in Residence programme, which invites two or three thinkers to Adelaide each year to live and work. (I was fortunate to be one of these in 2003). The Thinkers undertake residencies of between two and six months, during which they assist South Australia to build on its climate of creativity and excellence. The Thinkers provide the state with strategies for future development in the arts and sciences, social policy, environmental sustainability and economic development. As the competition for ideas is so intense, the Ideas Festival was immediately copied by Brisbane and Bristol.

• A shared humanity. It is perhaps only sports events like the Olympics where for a time we reach across cultures and backgrounds and where a collective consciousness is created with a bigger message such as peace. Or the FIFA World Cup, where you know that you are just one person in a mass of humanity glued to the TV. At a national level, England regaining the Ashes against the Australians in their national sport, cricket, in 2005 provided a mass sense of unity that was positive. During that time, everyone was England, whatever misgivings they might have had about nationalism or cricket. Such occasions provide an excuse to participate in festivities and talk to strangers. Normally if a stranger talks to you, you might consider them as a weirdo. There is almost a tribal group consciousness that is also found in war when people say 'our boys are out there'. Globally transmitted mega-events, which have charitable purposes, like Live Aid or Live 8, recreate a similar feel, because two pleasurable thoughts merge: enjoying yourself is helping others. The same was true for the Pavarotti and Friends concert, 'Together for the Children of Bosnia', with the song 'Miss Sarajevo' acting as a communal hymn. When mega-events are created on a simple commercial basis, such as the mega-operas like Turandot at the Munich Olympic stadium, they lack this quality. Other branded events like Expos find it difficult to tap into emotion in a similar way, although the European Cities of Culture programme on occasion has.

• Alternative views of life. Burning Man is a radical arts festival based in Black Rock, Nevada. 'You belong here and you participate. You're not the weirdest kid in the classroom - there's always somebody there who's thought up something you never even considered.' Burning Man is a temporary town largely made up of art installations that exists only for one week a year. At its maximum it has 35,000 occupants with temporary facilities, from emergency services, a post office, bars, clubs and restaurants to hundreds of art installations and participatory 'theme camps'. The city is then taken apart and mostly burnt, leaving the desert as it was beforehand. Each year there is a theme. 2006's theme was 'Hope and Fear: The Future and the Road to U(Dys)topia'. 'Along the road to a utopia, the science fiction fantasies of the past gave way to traffic jams. The future, it begins to seem, has ran out of gas.' The ten Burning Man principles include 'radical inclusion', so anyone can be involved (you cannot just be an observer); 'decommodification', so there is no sponsorship, advertising or commercial transaction ('we resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience'); 'radical self-reliance', 'encouraging people to rely on their inner resources'; 'self-expression'; 'communal effort'; 'civic responsibility'; 'leaving no trace'; and 'participation and immediacy'.18

• Release of tension and the bizarre. The out-of-the-ordinary has become ordinary as cities search to make themselves known. When it is gratuitous, such as the crab leg-tying event, it has little resonance. But when it has a local meaning, it takes on a different colour. As ever, local resources are key. At the Tomatina in Bunol near Valencia there is a mass release of tension when around 30,000 people throw tomatoes at one another - 110,000 kilos are used in the biggest food fight in the world. It is a free-for-all and anybody is able to throw a ripe or over-ripe fruit at anyone else. Its origin is disputed. One story is that it was a political response in 1945 to the continuing influence of Franco. A less lofty explanation is that it happened by chance after a lorry-load of tomatoes spilled on to the streets of Bunol around the same time. A similar event is Haro in Spain's 'War of the Wines', which lasts for three hours and which began in 1906. In 2005, 4000 people were involved. It commemorates a tenth century property dispute between Haro and the neighbouring village of Miranda. Today anything goes, from squirting red wine on to the obligatory white shirts to pump-action pistols capable of shooting half a litre in five seconds, water pistols, fire extinguishers, buckets and pesticide sprayers. Or consider the 'Moose Shit Festival' in Talkeetna in Alaska. When the snow melts at the end of winter, there are fields full of moose shit. The inhabitants arm themselves with what is at hand for the annual festival. Whatever is left over is used to make jewellery!

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