Today’s writing follows a few days of online activity over the May bank holiday weekend, when I signed up to virtually ‘attend’ two well-known festivals, both usually held in the picturesque town of Hay on Wye.
No naming or shaming here, though it doesn’t take much to work out which festivals I am referring to. They are of course very different, so their online presence inevitably reflects that. As a newbie to both, this is an outsider perspective. I have not attended either of them in the past, in the real world. I don’t work for them, know any of the organisers or have any insider knowledge. This account is from the perspective of an attendee and written from that position. I shall explain, because the context matters.
One of the reasons I choose to live in a remote rural place is that I am not fond of crowds of people – especially when they all descend in swarms at otherwise quiet places. So it goes without saying, that I don’t go to Glastonbury, Womad or other music festivals, despite loving live music and fields. I find passing through Hay on Wye on a sleepy Sunday afternoon delightful – so pretty, with lovely walks along the river. But I’ve never attended their cultural festivals. I’ve often looked at the programmes and been tempted, but the thought of packed cafes, no parking, staying in crowded accommodation, puts me off.
I’m not antisocial by any means. I love experiencing culture with others, but preferably in quiet places with three or four people at a time. Which probably makes me easily tolerant of social distancing! I’m just not wired for mass activity. Carnivals, street fairs, football matches, music festivals, protest marches – anything that involves coachloads of people and massive queues, they’re just not my thing. I love arts events such as Venice Biennale or Documenta, because the venues are spread out and take me to new places constantly. They also run over a long period of time, so one can choose the quieter times.
But if there is a choice between queuing to get into somewhere, or having time to stare at a river, I know which I prefer.
So a weekend of cultural seepage into my home during lockdown was very appealing. I scheduled what I wanted to see, when, leaving space for garden time and walks. This smorgasbord of delights suited me well.
I found myself comparing the experience of the two different festivals, not just in content, but also in the physical experience and audience interaction. The focus of this writing (mostly) sets aside the content and refers specifically to my experience as a visitor, and observations on audience interaction. I say mostly, because the truth is I did observe different behaviours from the audiences which related to the content, intention and purpose of each festival. So of course the content is important, as it informs the programming. There are crossovers, the arts and sciences are never far away from each other, but they do use different framing, languages and protocols of engagement.
For me it is a learning curve – I wish to understand the strengths and weaknesses of how the online events were presented. I have no desire to put the events in competition with each other, though the fact that they hold their events at the same time is of slight concern to me – whether live or digital. Because as an audience member, whilst I rather enjoyed being able to flit between them online, I presumably wouldn’t be likely to do so if I was in the town?
The thought of that reminds me of being a teenager and witnessing stand-offs between different ‘gangs’ of bikers and skinheads on a Friday night in the town centre. I put the word gangs in brackets, because really they were youths from nearby pit villages, flexing their testosterone and bravado. Always a social butterfly, I would chat to people on one side of the square, then cross over to the other to talk with people I knew on the other side. That was not really acceptable and often left me on the outside, as I didn’t ‘fit-in’ on either.
When you attend things, there is always the issue of whether you will ‘fit-in’, feel part of the tribe. It is inevitably a shared interest in the content and subject that connects, but as I described above, some people, like me, are curious about everything. To be honest, switching between the online events, I felt a little like an outsider at both. The constant visual and aural attention that was needed made me feel a little voyeuristic. Of course, no-one at either camp knew I was flitting, and nor did I know them. I was a flaneur.
It surprised me that both festivals were online the same weekend, one of them extending for another week. I didn’t realise this is how it ‘normally’ happens, in real (as opposed to online) life. In terms of cultural tourism, that seems a slightly odd thing to do. One festival has been around a lot longer than the other, therefore more established, and it, alone, has always packed the small town to the hilt. So I can imagine visitors, and staff, finding accommodation must be very challenging, a bit like playing sardines. When demand exceeds supply, prices surely go up and the event becomes more exclusive? Would it not be wiser to spread them around the calendar a bit more, making it more accessible? Those things need further thinking through.
At one festival, I paid for a festival pass and could have paid more for ‘inner circle’ events. I would be interested to know whether inner circle events were primarily for funders, press people, reviewers and the ‘in-crowd’- I wish I had paid to enter one and find out. Clearly, due to the extra fee, they were only available to a certain type of audience, and I wasn’t one of them.
The other was entirely free.
Whether free or paid was obviously a strategic decision for each. One clearly had sufficient reserves to afford to make it free, whilst the other didn’t. The free festival had invested in, and capitalised on, the marketing opportunity for every single event. They had a powerful visual identity, strong selling opportunity and ways of donating to the festival as a thank you. The programme was easy to navigate and when you clicked to book you could connect it with your online calendar. That provided a link to follow on with when the time came to watch, and you got reminders too. Great.
The other adhered to the layout of a physical festival – the language of the venues identified as structures such as tents and tables. Apart from the cinema, which was not called ‘cinema’, which I found utterly confusing. The navigation to events emulated the notion of moving from one place to another through geographic space. Unfortunately, there were no diary links or venue links from each listing. This resulted in quite a complex process to get it copied and pasted into my diary. The menus were so confusing I opted to keep two page open in my browser – one for the programme, where I could find out where the event was, and the other for the venues. A little baffling there wasn’t a hyperlink on the event listing to the venue.
In terms of visual experience, the platforms, time keeping and quality, they varied. One had rather a lot of technical hitches, I suspect that was down to capacity to afford professional help. But it was also going out live. Easy to forget that efficient websites cost a lot more to produce than those on a tight budget. The technicians were fantastic and did their best to communicate through the chat rooms while audiences waited, which added a human element which was actually rather engaging, it felt quite ‘real’.
Which brings me onto the opportunities for the audience to interact with the speakers. And much of that depends on the way the online platform operated, the programming and, when it came to the chat, the different audiences.
Let’s start with the platforms. I have to declare here that I had a personal preference for attending presentations that involved dialogue, rather than lectures. Though I did enjoy both.
As we are all learning very rapidly about using online platforms for multiple occupancy and debate, it has become obvious that there has to be a strong chair or presenter, and participants must have a clear understanding of protocol. Some people attempt to transfer board-room dynamics into online portals. Whilst that controls the dialogue, it does change the dynamic of the space and involves a lot of muting. Muting is not a good tool for discursive conversation. On occasion, the ‘chair’ acted as such, on others they behaved liked chat show presenters and the worst, (to my mind), was the one who used his convener status to put down all the other speakers and flout his own opinions, talking over others constantly and holding forth. This is where the chat window became part of the interactive system, and at one of the festivals was the most interesting place of audience interaction.
I wish I had noted audience numbers at the events, but I didn’t. So my reference to engagement scale is consequentially vague. In all fairness, this was intended to be a fun experience for me over the weekend, so I wasn’t in work mode.
The chat windows – wow, so different. I’ll split this into three sections, arrival, during and departure.
On arrival one site began to fill up quite early and a constant stream of visitors greeted each other – Hi from New York! Hello from London, greetings from Aberdeen, hugs from the Cotswolds…….they streamed and streamed. Some people clearly knew each other, but this wasn’t really interactive, it flowed very fast and no conversations took place. This was time-filling while the marketing and fundraising went on prior to the event starting.
Over at the other festival, people came into the chat slowly, steadily, clearly much smaller audiences. This was more discursive, people, introduced themselves as if at an academic conference, name, where from, specialism. They had come for the conversation with the other attendees. The tech support popped up sometimes to apologise for delays, while the technical glitches were ironed out. And there were quite a few, but the chat members used the time to have conversations in quite a rich way.
Flipping back to the occasion mentioned above, of the convener bringing the real-world dynamic onto the online platform. Conversations within the chat called the host out for mansplaining, getting quite heated and annoyed, whilst the female speakers on-screen had that glazed, clearly angry-but-hiding-it looks on their faces. The chatters empathised with them (which, of course, the speakers were not aware of), while the convener continued on, entirely unaware of the stream of fury that was flowing past on-screen. There was a very human thing going on there.
This is an important point – the convener, and the speakers being unaware, and the audience unable to communicate with the presenters, or vice-versa.
We take our experience of offline interaction into the online. When we are in the role of performer/speaker, we find ourselves presenting to camera in a private cell, created by the frame of the window within the screen. We face forward as if looking at the viewer, but we are actually looking at a grid of people on the screen doing the same. Eye contact is impossible, either with the others participating in the debate online, or with the audiences. We are all detached, untethered from our physical worlds. Those on camera try not to shift about in their seats or seek to quieten their dogs while they snuffled under the desk for attention. In their homes, viewers wriggle about uncomfortably, having sat staring at a screen for hours. Viewers can get up and go to wash up, make a cup of tea, nip to the loo. The speakers are trapped in the grid-cage.
This makes the speakers vulnerable, their home lives and offices made visible, their private workspaces where they think, write, create are laid out for all to see. Lots of bookcases evidence their depth of their minds, their commitment to thought. Each cell of the presentation browser window is a one-way-window on their lives. Observed, but unable to observe themselves.
Meanwhile, the viewers potter around in their pyjamas, picking up socks and having their lunch, unseen. As we have learned to do in our lockdown life. We watch others, but they can’t see us watching them.
Presenters that copied the lecture model sometimes showed visual presentations, which were completely illegible on a small screen, as opposed to the lecture theatre projection they had been designed for. Most frustrating were the occasions when someone gave a solo talk, freeing me up to leave my hard office chair and go and flop onto the sofa. But suddenly a slide would be shown, so I had to leap up and change my specs to try and read the text on the screen. Awful experience at my end. I sometimes gave up or just listened.
There is little to say about departure from these events. Because I didn’t really ‘meet’ anyone. Unlike a real event hanging out in cafes and bars, apart from the chat window we didn’t really talk much. There were no visual clues of the other people present in the audience. One chat conversation evolved into someone sharing their email address with me, suggesting we discuss the issue later. That felt a bit strange, a bit like an online hook-up. I didn’t follow through on that, maybe I should have done.
Now if this all sounds very critical and negative, it is not intended to be. We are all doing our best to learn how to communicate in this lockdown world. It is hard, very hard. We need to understand how audiences experience the events, find ways to involve them. When presenting, we need to reconsider the style we present in. There are times when lecture-mode works well, but there are other times they are as boring as being at a conference and a keynote reads aloud 50 pages of their Phd thesis without looking up. Those performances might be better pre-recorded.
We must think about these things. We need to plan carefully, especially when we are discussing sensitive things in the public domain. Maybe we need to tone down our opinions, encourage debate, find a way of exchanging things? One festival did this by providing online social spaces afterwards, where the audiences could talk and discuss the presentations, that was good. But there is a difference between sitting in a tent, next to people in a social physical environment, then hanging out in a bar talking, compared with switching from one virtual venue/platform to another. It doesn’t translate well.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I also delight in gaining access to things previously unavailable to me, as a rural dweller with limited funds.
The outcome for me is still being processed. It makes me wonder whether I would like to go to a festival in reality when/if they survive and come back. Social distancing could inevitably mean that events have to scale down, be for fewer people at any one time, but needing more events, more programming, more planning. What can we learn from these experiments?
I’m working on that.