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divendres, 22 de gener de 2010

Urban festivities: From celebration practices to festival engineering

Western urban cultures are characterized by their festival engineering, typical of our cultural industry, and by the intervention from Administrations or NGOs in the creation of celebrations wherever and whenever there is none. Such fact has propitiated a comparison between what some call "authentic" celebrations and "designed" festivals, although what would expected is to distinguish those celebrations that actually take place from those that do not. A celebration, after all, is an event around which people congregate and nothing more.
In any case, the theoretical distinction between "celebration practices" and "festival engineering" shall be of use. The first refers to those events which make people celebrate spontaneously; and the second defines all the public events that have been deliberately designed, no matter by whom.

Tradition: divine and profane
Festivities are, among other things, ceremonies. They hold large series of profane and magic-religious rituals, activities that are reiterative and very well defined and understood by the performing community. The interpretation given to these signs conditioned by history or, more precisely, by those events that the communities identify as their own. The information transmitted by these ritual signs communicates a series of norms and expected behaviours that are recognized inside the community; thus in time it is the very form of the ritual what prevails over the content of what it communicates. The repetition of all this process is what is commonly called tradition.
Tradition is invented as everything in human culture. It is not immutable and yet there are rituals that prevail beyond their original meaning. Such resemantization is common to all traditions and rituals, and it often takes place in festivities. Even though, for example, the fire during the night of "San Juan" is indispensable for the celebration, it does not have the "purifying virtues" it used to; there are not spellings with the water anymore, nor are vegetables utilized to "get a pretty face" or to "get a boyfriend". Something similar occurs when celebrations are held away from their original setting: Ramadan in Tunisia does not seem like that of Madrid for an illegal alien; Christmas with the family is not the same than Christmas during the military service. Celebrating festivities away brings in new emotions that make us perceive it differently.
This leads us to assume that it is possible to generalize a sort of festive resemantization, to re-think and re-create a new common ritual and symbolic space that allows new identifications; such space I shall call new traditions without placing any contradiction whatsoever.
New rituals just as new myths are typically contemporary urban events, shaped in the paradigm of social complexity: the urban society. New urban ceremonials fill in the communicative space: the end of the millennium, or the Olympic ceremonies, are examples of great events which meaning transcends by large what they represent as a great exercise of collective imagination.

Provoking festivities to visualize conflicts
The need to bring a conflict to the surface in order to critically approach it has been generally accepted. A popular saying describes this as "holding the bull from the horns". Celebrations bring about a momentary dissolution of the established order. The complex mechanisms that intervene in the pacification of social life have been passionately debated, difficult objects of analysis. Were we to joint both assertions, and we would have the following result: visibility of the conflict in a moment of dissolution of the order.
In times of festivities social categories dissolve. Such undifferenciation propitiates a space for pacification among pairs and taints the context to pacify conflicts and favour tolerance. In the end, this is what we call today "to be cool".
Festivities are commonly times of truce, of peace for alliances and reconciliations between families to take place. Why not to use them as settings to approach conflicts between different cultures?
For two communities to co-exist in harmony in the same territory, they must first "recognize" each other. Mutual recognition is the first step to co-existence, and this usually entails overcoming prejudices, to see the other has he or she is, leaving stereotypes and stigmas behind. Such knowledge of the other does not mean to merely accept him. When I claim to visualize a conflict I literally call for spelling the problem out. It is of no use for public instances and cultural managers to avoid situations of conflict between different cultures by mere fear to face those conflicts, for unattended conflictive situations always rise suddenly and with violence. Thus the object of cultural management must be understood as the design of strategies and cultural policy projects from a multicultural perspective.
To find common cultural features, to recognize differences as an added value to plurality are strong ideas that too often seem utopian. Co-existence does not mean to "live together", let alone complicity. The contact between bodies, to find each other, to celebrate together, are thus useful instruments to promote coexistence between different people who nevertheless share what is essential: their humanity.

Festive hedonism and generalized reciprocity: a communitarian culture
We should not forget that one of the main functions of all festivity is "to have a good time". Hedonism, so criminalized by the unconfessed neopuritanism of western postmodern societies, is an essential aspect of any celebration. Unfortunately, mass media tends too often to hold diminishing or criminalizing attitudes about them. Some examples are:
"Mortal carnival in Sri Lanka. At least seven dead and two hundred were injured due to an explosion at the city of Kurunegala (north-east from Sri Lanka) where the crowd celebrated carnivals" Diario Metro, March 2001.
By analyzing the imprecise note, one can see no connexion between the celebration and the explosion. The article does not let the reader know whether it was an attack or an accident with fireworks, making the tragedy look as a simple dreadful coincidence.
Some other examples of headlines are:
"Most of the 18 daily car-thefts in Barcelona take place in partying hours". Barcelona y más.
"Wholly week claims eighteen highway deaths". Metro directo.
Let alone the news in San Juan celebrations: fireman activities, firework injuries statistics, car accidents on the highway, etc.
Once this has been detected, festive hedonism should be seen as an extremely necessary social value for our times and our social environment. For one alone cannot throw a party; two or more are needed to have a good time.
Celebrating means to share emotions, which entails immediate gain for all the efforts used to set it on. Efforts are important because there are no festivities without collective work. As any form of work provides certain economical satisfaction, festivities automatically pay those working in their organization with joy. This implies some reciprocity in the effort and shared benefits for everyone involved. Nobody suspects that others will take advantage of the benefits, and there are not foreigners but guests. Such exercise of common sacrifice-hedonism bases the generalized reciprocity. Just as family members cooperate in order to have a good time with their group, knowing that in the end everyone comes out winning. There we have an expression of communitarian culture.

Art, tradition and people. Cultural standards during festivities
Feasts, as exercises of collective imagination, require creativity: the brief art of decorating a garland with recycled paper, the capacity of transforming an everyday public space in a gentle, natural and magic corridor, the theatrical COMPARSA of Carthaginians and Romans, the chorus-like movement of Muslims and Christians, of demons spitting fire; the plasticity of fireworks painting the skies with light, colour and shapes, these are but the expressions of art over and over imitated by the great creators since the beginnings of times. These events have established a constant, back-and-forth and mutual interaction between the popular and the courtesan. Musicians, painters, choreographers, sculptors, theatre directors, poets, they all have found in popular culture a source of inspiration for their oeuvres and, in turn, they all have reverted their creations to it: Miró, García Lorca, Picasso, Mozart, Dario Fo, Brossa, Maragall, Machado… they all understood festivities as the ultimate frames where their inscriptions could be moulded, the breathtaking experience of leaving in a symbolic world of cognitive domain. The visual literacy of colours in a festivity are only explainable from the artist’s perspective: plastic or poetic, they identify by themselves the cultural context where the celebration is framed. Music and dance are also expressions typical from feasts; they have wandered the back-and-forth trajectory from the popular to the courtesan and vice-versa, understanding them as the two faces of the same coin, needing and complementing one another.
The versatility of the festivity, its capacity to change and adapt to the moment, can only be understood by its condition as a social, collective work that evolves with society. That is perhaps the property that grants it its transversality, that is, its capacity to transgress the social, cultural and standardizing categories through chaos.[1]
Thus the transversality of festivities allows smoothing fixed behaviours and an individual permeability that opens the way to communication and to the circulation of ideas. Moments of catharsis facilitate the introduction of new ideas, new ways of behaving, new relationships, new cultural or gastronomic habits, etc.[2]

Festivities as instruments of cultural change in contemporary society
The outspreading of festivities under the slogan of "diversity", either intercultural or multicultural, demonstrates how significant this issue is in our days. Given its importance, we must be warned about the dangers of "exotization" in the proposals from foreign cultures, as there run is the risk of stigmatizing. Cultural initiatives should be given maximum attention and should be carried out with most dignity; the same for gastronomy, cosmetics, music, choreography, etc. It is not about showing eccentricity or exoticism, but about dealing with these themes as naturally, normally and proudly as our times advice.
Concretely, it would be convenient to take into account the following conceptual parameters as limitations to overcome when scheduling festive activities:
• Non-stigmatization of differences, by avoiding unnecessary ethnifications in the presentation of the agents and participants of the event. The "Floclorization" of a non-local group may have the unexpected effect of stigmatization.
• An excessive differentiation of population sectors in the activity list does not favour interculturality but rather separates the groups and hinders the dialogue between internal cultures (age or gender groups, ethnicities, sexual options, etc.)
The following actions, on the contrary, could explore other potentialities:
• To promote actions directed to the family group. Immigrant cultures tend to hold as frame societies that hold the family as their central core, especially in Africa.[3]
• To promote the participation of contemporary cultural proposals coming from the original settings of the immigrants and performed with maximum dignity. Cultural dialogue takes place as long as there is mutual recognition. To concede importance and prestige to the culture of the minority and let local citizens know it can be a good start.
• To favour the active participation of the organizations that gather the communities of immigrants, integrating them in the production arrangements.[4]
• To schedule festive spaces to perform actions rooted in local traditions.[5] The presentation of signs, symbols, rituals and myths from an open and integrating perspective makes symbolic identification possible by connecting, uniting and reinforcing the sense of belonging to a cultural community, especially among children. The creation of a single collective memory from a kaleidoscopic reality as it is within urban celebrations may favour the prestige of cultural diversity as an influence of mixed and valuable identities, whilst facilitating the identification with a community that is in constant re-creation.

Festivities as reflex and booster of social life: sociability and participation
It has been said that festivities are a reflex of what happens in society. However, their attractive and prevalence suggest something more: a celebration is a real and effective factor of social dynamization.
By focussing on what happens, say, in the kitchen before and after the event, we will see all the great implicit complicities and reciprocities between the members of the community. Feasts always entail communitarian work, collective creation, taking on and distributing responsibilities, prestige and power.
Preparing dinner among street neighbours carries an implicit generalized recognition; the sense of gathering the youth and the elder, kids and adults, reproduces a form of understanding internal differences within the community; differences become oblivious for a few days by those sharing the table, dancing, playing or cooperating, shoulder by shoulder, in the collective creation of the ephemeral fantasies at a year neighbourhood celebration.
Such collective creation grants itself the category of ritual, where those celebrating invent new myths, recreate events that bond themselves to the community, plastically reproducing all sorts of ephemeral fantasies in the form of ornaments and garlands which momentarily transform the urban space and turn into real the utopias of the Jauja Lands in their Carnivals, or recreating the myth of the minotaur in the bulls feast, the myth of the Amazon in Santa Agueda, the horn of abundance during Christmas or the mythical egalitarianism from ancient times of humanity, in every neighbourhood meal.

The specific symbolic dissolution of order. Chaos and creation.
If the image of a popular celebration here evoked seems too utopian for the reader, is because I have presented what it means in terms of social representation, and because this take-on focuses on the perception of reality from a symbolic world.
Carnivals have been referred to as arquetypes of celebrations where the established order is inverted. The fact remains that every festivity means a punctual dissolution of the order, a parenthesis for catharsis where all the members of the community celebrate together in an exercise of collective hedonism that allows social relations to permeate.
Festivities can be understood from this standpoint, as a door for social interaction of classes, genders, age groups and ethnicities.
Chaos and creation have thus been coupled to ancient myths in various religions. The new myths of artistic creation and individual transcendence of the author use to be coupled to chaos anew. Through her creation the contemporary artist should seek a new order to face the chaos of post-industrial civilization.
If we assume that chaos is but a concealed form of order, let us ask whether art can find in festivities the code needed to unravel it.

[1] We should bring forth the theory according to which chaos isn’t but a concealed order.
[2] Squaters’s parties, multicultural meetings, scientific or ecological fairs can be framed in these examples.
[3] Immigrant, single young workers away from their families do not usually participate in the festivities, but rather look at them from the outside.
[4] Little actions like decorating the streets, cooking a typical communitarian dish, a multicultural parade, a dance or children tales can be channels of participation.
[5] In the case of Barcelona, there is a number of activities from all the territories of Catalan culture and language (Valencia, Catalonia, Baleares) which evidences that the construction of identities is also heterogeneous.

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