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HAVING FUN AND CHANGING THE WORLD: INTERSECTIONS OF PLEASURE AND POLITICS AT A COMMUNITY MUSIC FESTIVAL Erin Sharpe, Brock University Introduction There is a growing interest in understanding leisure as a political act (Hemingway, 1999). Consequently, the recent years have seen a growth in articles that examine leisure’s role in social and political transformation. Examples include studies of activism as a form of leisure (Mair, 2002/03), volunteering as a vehicle for social change (Arai & Pedlar, 1997), and grassroots initiatives toward neighbourhood betterment (Glover, 2003). Although this work has taken our field a long way in understanding the relationship between leisure and political change, I submit that this work has overlooked a fundamental problematizing element of this relationship, which is the experiential character of leisure as a domain of freedom, pleasure, and enjoyment (e.g., Gunter, 1987). In fact, I argue that the central tension of politics and leisure is the tension of trying to ‘do politics’ within a domain that is experientially characterized as leisure. It is important that we explore this tension because most of our contemporary leisure is oriented toward pleasure. Thus, our greatest potential for social change may be through efforts to introduce political aims into this pleasurable context. However, how can this be done? How do pleasure and politics intersect in leisure? Methods This study investigates these questions within the context of a music festival. Offered here is a descriptive case study of the Summersong festival, described as an annual “three-day, five-stage community-based celebration of music, dance, drumming, and the spoken word” (Summersong, 2004). Between 2003 and 2004, I collected field observations at two festivals and interviewed thirteen individuals representing key stakeholder groups (Board Members, staff, coordinators, volunteers, patrons). I also observed the preliminary events of the 2003 festival, which included a fundraising concert, a media release party, some staff meetings, and site set-up. Data were also collected from the Summersong website, message board, and programs. What follows is a description of the festival and its political message, and the ways it expresses this political message within the festival. Also discussed are some of the ways that the leisure context associated with the event limited its political efficacy. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the potential of leisure as an agent of change. Results Festivals are social gatherings convened for the purpose of celebration or thanksgiving. Often ritualistic and convening in specific, bounded locations, they are an ephemeral and liminal “time out of time” infused with gaiety, conviviality, and cheerfulness (Falassi, 1987). The Summersong Festival fit this description in every way. Beginning as a one-day festival in 1984 to celebrate local musical performers, it had since expanded to an annual three-day, five-stage event held on an island at a local lake. The festival was a music lover’s paradise, as it brought together a diverse range of talented artists who existed largely outside mainstream music channels.


Although music was the central focus of Summersong, all who were involved with the festival were quick to point out that the festival was much more than music. This ‘more’ included educational workshops hosted by identity and cause-based interest groups such as youth, environment, women, and First Nations, a food and craft vending area, and overnight camping. Indeed, for most festival patrons, Summersong was a “total experience” (Abrahams, 1986). For the festival organizers, the ‘more’ also referred to a set of closely-held core values that shaped how they went about putting on the festival. These values were articulated differently by different members, but they revolved around the ideals of community, diversity, and environmental responsibility. Thus, while Summersong was similar to other festivals in that it staged a music-based leisure event, it attempted to do this in a way that differed from what is typically seen in a leisure domain that has become increasingly commodified, escapist, and detached from the local community (Seiler, 2000; Waterman, 1998). To the festival organizers, adhering to and expressing these values through the staging of the festival made Summersong a political entity, as its goal was not only to deliver music, but to also communicate a political message to its patrons. Politics in the Processes One way that the political message of the festival was communicated to patrons was through the processes of staging the festival. For example, the festival expressed its environmental ethic by running one stage using a solar powered generator, recycling and composting waste, and serving food on plastic plates that were collected and washed by a crew of volunteers. In terms of supporting the organizational value of community, the festival chose local, independent businesses as sponsors and food vendors rather than global, corporate entities. One Board Member talked about how these practices both enhanced the quality of experience and made a political statement: You don’t even find a French fry at Summersong! You find excellent food. You find it made by people who live in your town. I don’t even think there’s Coke. My point is that it doesn’t feel corporate at all. And that’s…on purpose. And sure it’s been more of a challenge, but it’s paying off big-time. First of all, there’s a quality that I know that people feel that makes it special. They dig it; they can feel it’s different. They know it’s different. So it is a political statement. I think in this day and age, when you can try to eschew the corporate influences and keep it not only to a dull roar but almost gone. The practice of embedding politics in the practices meant that the festival was able to work toward its political aims without disrupting the festival atmosphere of pleasure and celebration. In fact, one longtime festival organizer noted that at times, the political message was so subtly presented that at first glance it was easy to miss; instead, it tended to be discovered through the course of the festival: I’ve had news crews come around and say, “Well, it’s just like everywhere else. You’ve got the food. You’ve got the crafts. You’ve got the music.” Well, yes we have the food, but it’s not the same food. We make rules about the food. For example in the food, we have plates and we have dishwashing. We have a whole crew of volunteers who wash the plates and send it back…I think specifically if you’re a news crew looking for sound bytes, you probably wouldn’t notice. But if


you spent some time there, “Hey, look at what they’re doing over there. That’s kind of neat. Wait a second; they have a solar powered stage. That’s different.” Politics on the Periphery Although the festival processes implicitly communicated a political statement to festival patrons, there were also explicit political messages within the festival as well, specifically in the activities of the special interest groups. For example, women’s empowerment was an underlying theme of the women’s workshops, and a sustainable living ethic shaped the choices of merchants and facilitators within the environmental tent. However, these more explicitly political aspects of the festival tended to be spatially located on the periphery of the festival space, and in tents that helped to bound the activities within a private, enclosed domain. Thus, by keeping overt politics on the periphery of the festival, and in domains that had to be actively entered by festival patrons, the festival was able to expose its patrons to a political message without infringing on the leisure characteristic of freedom of choice. As one coordinator described, the tents work because “It makes it the patron’s choice. Instead of the patron sitting there listening to a beautiful song, and this [person] coming up and shoving a piece of paper in their face…[That is] forcing it on them, that’s intrusiveness.” Overall, what the festival aimed to do was to serve as a catalyst for social and political change by presenting a model for a different way of organizing social and political life: We’re letting anybody out there who goes to see us that this is the way we would like the world to be. We’d like you to clean up your mess, we like to reuse stuff, we’d like people to support and love each other and enjoy and be together…But we’re not actively out there saying, “This is.” It’s more of a “Come here, look at what we can do, and look at what people can be together.” Yes we’re on an island and that’s probably why!! As one coordinator described above, the festival aimed to be a “prefigurative community,” in that it attempted to create and sustain a community that ‘prefigured’ and embodied the desired society (Breines, 1982). Further, this coordinator hinted that the socially transformative potential of the festival was facilitated by the liminal quality of the event (Turner, 1982). The Limitations of Leisure Although the festival positioned itself as a political and transformative entity, the leisure context of the festival likely limited the actual political efficacy of the event. One way that the leisure context limited the festival was that participation was a voluntary pursuit; the festival could only transform those who chose to attend. And, a concern among the festival organizers was that the festival only attracted patrons whose personal politics were already aligned with those of the festival. As one coordinator described, the challenge was to attract those to the festival who would experience it as a transformation: Every Summersong Festival, the local papers will take pictures of the 25 percent of the people who are dressed in their hippie outfits, with their flowers painted on their face, and that’s what the makes the cover of the local newspaper. I consistently say, “Please go and take pictures of the families with the strollers,” because the people with the flowery dresses are coming and they’re already like-


minded. And do you say, “Hey, you know, you should be taking the bus” and they’ll say “We are taking the bus.” Well great, I’m preaching to the converted. What’s the point?...I would like an event that draws in people that are not the usual suspects, they’re not the converted. So they can be exposed to what is truly alternative. Discussion and Application What happens when pleasure and politics intersect? What we learn from Summersong is that the potential for leisure as an agent for social and political transformation is likely tempered by the voluntary nature of leisure, as the freedom of choice in leisure means that political messages can easily be disregarded by those for whom they are intended. However, what we also learn is that leisure events are inherently political in terms of the values that leisure organizations choose to uphold and express in the delivery of their products. Perhaps what we learn most from Summersong is that the greatest potential for leisure to effect political change may be within the processes of delivery rather than the products being delivered. When we look for ways to deliver leisure differently, we may find avenues that foster the social and political transformation we hope for. References Abrahams, R.D. (1986). Ordinary and extraordinary experience. In V. Turner & E. Bruner (Eds.), The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. Arai, S. M., & Pedlar, A. M. (1997). Building communities through leisure: Citizen participation in a healthy communities initiative. Journal of Leisure Research, 29(2), 167-183. Breines, W. (1982). Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press. Falassi, A. (1987). Festival: Definition and Morphology. In A. Falassi (Ed.), Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival. (pp. 1-12). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. Glover, T. (2003). The story of the Queen Anne Memorial Garden: Resisting a dominant cultural narrative. Journal of Leisure Research, 35(2), 190-212. Gunter, B.G. (1987). The leisure experience: Selected properties. Journal of Leisure Research, 19, 115-130. Hemingway, J. L. (1999). Leisure, social capital, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Leisure Research, 31(2), 150-165. Mair, H. (2002/03). Civil leisure? Exploring the relationship between leisure, activism, and social change. Leisure / Loisir, 27(3-4), 213-237. Seiler, C. (2000). The commodification of rebellion: Rock culture and consumer capitalism. In M. Gottdiener (Ed.), New Forms of Consumption: Consumers, Culture, and Commodification. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Turner, V. W. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.


Waterman, S. (1998). Carnivals for elites? The cultural politics of arts festivals. Progress in Human Geography, 22(1), 54-74.


ABSTRACTS of Papers Presented at the Eleventh Canadian Congress on Leisure Research May 17 – 20, 2005 Hosted by Department of Recreation and Tourism Management Malaspina University-College Nanaimo, B.C. Abstracts compiled and edited by Tom Delamere, Carleigh Randall, David Robinson CCLR-11 Programme Committee Tom Delamere Dan McDonald Carleigh Randall Rick Rollins and David Robinson

Copyright Š 2005 Canadian Association for Leisure Studies ISBN 1-896886-01-9

Festivals as a means of Community Change  

There is a growing interest in understanding leisure as a political act (Hemingway, 1999). Consequently, the recent years have seen a growth...

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