Accessibility, Resilience, Sustainability:
Upgrading Our Cultural Infrastructure
Whether art, theatre, music, or film—festivals are vital nodes in the cultural nervous system. It’s where new ideas are first injected into the discourse; where they travel, mutate, and multiply, before they seep into the wider public consciousness. For the devoted audience, festivals are pilgrimages that rejuvenate the soul and reaffirm one’s love for art and music. For those that make them happen, festivals are a way of life—and a constant struggle.
Keeping cultural infrastructure not only intact but vibrant, requires more than keeping pace with trends, audience expectations, and shifting norms. Beyond perennial concerns like programming, funding, and the role of the festival in the ever-changing cultural landscape, there are existential questions about virtuality and sustainability raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. How can festival makers simultaneously build resilience, expand accessibility and inclusion, while minimizing the environmental footprint of cultural production? And what would a future festival that overcomes these challenges even look like?
This much is clear: None of these questions can be answered by one isolated festival. That’s why Future Festivals, a research project funded by the Canada Arts Council, assembled a task-force of festival makers from Canada, Germany, and Mexico to collaboratively imagine how their work might evolve in the years and decades ahead. Under the helm of curator and cultural researcher Maurice Jones, representatives from MUTEK (Montreal, CA), imagineNATIVE (Toronto, CA), Mois Multi (Quebec City, CA), MUTEK Mexico (Mexico City, MX), New Forms (Vancouver, CA), NEW NOW (Essen, DE), and Send+Receive (Winnipeg, CA) will put their heads together to explore what forms festivals can take in the years ahead. The selection is no accident: these organizations can draw on distinct curatorial agendas, communities, geographies, and in many cases decades of institutional memory. It’s not a closed group either: if you and your organization are interested in joining the project, then please get in touch!
Over the next 18 months, starting with NEW NOW in Essen (June 1-4), each participating festival will host a Future Festivals Lab that gathers the group and selected experts around a key challenge. The goal: deeply analyze shared problems and prototype solutions—from immediate, easy to implement measures to more ambitious, long-term proposals.
HOLO will file reports from these sessions in what we call the Future Festivals Field Guide, an expanding companion dossier that follows the project from start to finish. As embedded journalists, we will document the group’s progress, share key findings and outcomes, and bring important guest voices into the conversation. But the scope of the Future Festivals Field Guide goes beyond coverage and commentary: Together with N O R M A L S, a Berlin-based design fiction collective and trusted HOLO collaborator, we will build on the ideas produced in each lab session and ‘act them out’ in speculative scenes—mockups of a future festival—for you to explore.
Needless to say, we at HOLO have a vested interest in the future of the festival circuit and the wider cultural landscape around it that we consider ourselves very much a part of. We look forward to not only reporting from the frontlines of that future, but to actively help shape and contribute to it. Stay tuned!
If upgrading our cultural infrastructure—the declared goal of the Future Festivals group—sounds like a daunting undertaking, try doing so within just 18 months and a group of traditionally overworked festival makers. How do you prototype festival futures with organizations from three different continents, all working at different scales, serving different communities with different needs? How do you settle on issues to tackle when challenges around access, resilience, and sustainability compound and overlap? Where do you even begin?
Thankfully, MUTEK co-curator and Future Festivals project lead Maurice Jones provided starting points and the necessary structure. Between April and May of 2023, he invited representatives of the partnering festivals to a series of online workshops designed to feel out an agenda. Starting from a place of “care, active listening, and generous questions,” festival directors, programmers, and operations team members gathered over Zoom to identify shared struggles and chart pathways to possible solutions. The stated goal: “develop a joint purpose and vision” while “providing space for the specific needs, contexts, and topics of each partner.”
To steer the conversation away from mere group therapy—yes, there was much needed venting about lack of funding, space, and capacity—and to a more productive mode of discussion, Maurice prepared a simple but effective exercise. Drawing on the aptly named Three Horizons model, a methodology first proposed in David White’s The Alchemy of Growth (1999), Jones asked participants think about festivals across different timelines: the present, the far future, and an interstitial in-between. Imagining the latter, Maurice explained, is key to discovering incremental steps that, over time, will pave the way for new modes of cultural production. To identify viable, near-term measures, however, we’d first need to be candid about current challenges and, conversely, dream big.
Unsurprisingly, the group’s critique of present festival realities echoed many perennial concerns within the cultural sector: the existential angst that comes with dwindling (or non-existent) public funds, the loss of affordable spaces to an out-of-control real-estate market, the exhaustion felt by cultural workers still reeling from the COVID-19 system shock (and its frenzied pivot online). Important issues like expanding accessibility, better community involvement, and lowering the environmental footprint become insurmountable when you operate at the edge of precarity.
Asked to counter present challenges with festival utopias, the group pondered everything from universal support structures to simple acts of solidarity. What would festivals look like, if artists and cultural workers could rely on UBI-like financial support that eliminates fears of precarity? And what if, instead of competing with one another, festivals would collaborate, share resources and commit to common goals? And wouldn’t it be nice if festivals were green as a first principle, offered respite from neoliberalism’s obsession with productivity, and were accountable to the public, not just funders?
Over the next 18 months, the Future Festivals group will try and produce concrete proposals that address some of these questions. The following list of themes and speculations will serve as our guide:
Present: The COVID pandemic prompted some overdue soul searching about who has access in the cultural sector. While the recognition of disability rights and experimentation with hybrid programming has lowered some barriers of entry, a lot of work remains to be done.
Future: Venues, content, communication—festivals lead by example when it comes to bringing different people together. They exceed mandated accessibility standards, accommodate the vision and hearing impaired, and include remote audiences with next-generation, mixed-reality formats.
Present: Countless hours of invisible labour go into compiling reports that are privy to funders, not audiences or the public. Direct communication with the community is largely limited to promotion (via stingy social media platforms that throttle visibility) and awkward surveys.
Future: Directly reporting to global audiences and local stakeholders radically increases transparency and community investment. Taking cues from the decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) and community curation initiatives in Web3, festivals create more pathways for direct input.
Present: Compared to industry, culture workers perpetually have to do more with less—less money, staff, time—and largely live project to project. This leads to widespread fatigue and burnout, high staff turnover, and a steady ‘brain drain’ of talent leaving the sector.
Future: With more—and more reliable—support, organizations can chart long-term strategies on how to serve their community better. No longer overburdened and generally happier and healthier, staffers are able to build capacity, and train the next generation of cultural workers.
Present: In the never-ending race for limited attention and funds, galleries, festivals, and cultural organizations tend to view their peers as competition. The result: knowledge and resources are hoarded, leaving communities fractured and both staff and audiences overwhelmed.
Future: Aligned around common values, festivals and cultural organizations team up and share resources whenever they can. Collaborations allow knowledge transfer across teams, and pollination between fields and communities. They’re also a way to play and experiment, and keep audiences on their toes.
Present: The pandemic revealed and exacerbated a growing sense of social alienation that culture—festivals in particular—may just be the antidote for. But who gets to participate in the communities they foster? The truth is: More often than not, festival makers cater to privileged international niche audiences, while sometimes overlooking immediate neighbours and entire demographics.
Future: Festivals double down on local ties, forging deeper and more meaningful connections with the communities they take place in. Children, seniors, families, newcomers—a wave of fresh energy and perspectives flows into the mix, increasing diversity and expanding audiences.
Present: Organizations are in fierce competition over dwindling public funding or at the behest of corporate money. Grants that are progressively project-based (versus operational) tend to increase workload not capacity. Worse yet: skyrocketing real-estate prices force orgs and cultural workers out of the neighbourhoods they have enriched for decades.
Future: With UBI-like baseline support, artists and cultural workers can create without fear of precarity. Festivals and organizations have (easier) access to operational funding and rent subsidies, can generate revenue, and purchasing permanent facilities is feasible. Membership models and (ethical) private sector sponsorship add to the resilience.
Present: From energy and resource-intensive blockbuster shows to flying bodies and gear around the world—the environmental footprint of cultural business-as-usual is untennable. According to a 2020 study, the 184 organisations in the Arts Council England portfolio emitted 114,547 metric tonnes of CO2 in 2018/19 alone.
Future: Environmental considerations shape cultural programming, rather than being an afterthought. As innovators, festivals lead the charge in telepresence, circular exhibition and event practices, and offer pluralistic responses to any of the ugly sociopolitical consequences—migration, xenophobia, ultranationalism—the climate crisis may unleash.
The Future Festival visioning sessions were more than a temperature check and speculation. They provided a rare opportunity for cultural workers to be vulnerable, to speak openly and candidly about their struggles, and share some successes, too. From experimenting with PWYC (pay-what-you-can) models, to next-generation mentoring initiatives, to radical accessibility programs that include seniors and kids—there’s no shortage of promising trials for the group to learn from and build on over the coming months. A critical selection will be catalogued here.
Another lesson we took away from the sessions is the need for advocacy. As vital nodes in the cultural nervous system, festivals have to make a better case for themselves. All too often, the value that culture creates for society only becomes apparent in its absence—when spaces close and festivals die, or during the cultural winter of the early pandemic. Festival makers need to remind the public and stakeholders of their role and contributions in order to secure support and allies. Alain Mongeau, MUTEK’s founder and artistic director, compared building these lasting relationships to taking care of plants. “You need to water them regularly,” he said during one of the sessions. “You have to constantly seed ideas to align people and make them more receptive to your needs.”
Maurice Jones is a curator, producer, and critical AI researcher based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, Canada. As a Concordia University PhD student, he investigates cross-cultural perceptions of AI, public participation in technology governance, and festivals as methodology. He’s the Artistic Director of MUTEK.JP and in 2021 joined MUTEK’s Montréal headquarters to spearhead the AI program and Future Festivals think tank.
Through the MITACS-funded sub-project Festival as Methodology, a collaborative effort between Concordia University and MUTEK, I propose the art and technology festival as a potential site for developing new, more equitable, diverse, and inclusive forms of public participation in the shaping of AI and technology more broadly.
While the Future Festivals project has a far broader scope than my specific research interest as it is driven by our partner cohort, I believe there are two fundamental questions that we all try to understand better: 1) what is it exactly that happens during festivals that makes them spaces of valuable and transformative experience; and 2) how can we leverage these transformative potentials in multifaceted ways to drive social change?
Despite this heterogeneity of partners, the two month co-design process crystallised that there are common concerns and challenges surrounding questions of accessibility, accountability, capacity, funding, inclusivity, and sustainability shared to some degree between all partners. One of the challenges of this project is then how to address these common issues in a practical manner that is aware and respectful of the situatedness of each partner.
Overall the project is centred around openness and co-creation. We already extended our outreach beyond the original partner cohort and are excited for more people to join the conversations. The upcoming MUTEK Forum in Montreal end of August will focus on expanding the conversation even further to the broader public and the about 50+ cultural delegates that come to visit Montreal each year.
A concrete example was the emphasis we laid on diversifying our lineups starting 2018 inspired by international projects such as Keychange and Amplify. For the third edition of MUTEK.JP we initiated a EUNIC-funded project highlighting the underrepresentation of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community on festival stages and within the cultural sector. In a country that just fell again on the gender gap to place 125 earlier this month, pushing these conversations in our conference program and highlighting underrepresented artists on our festival stages continues to mark a stark intervention.
While there are certainly many factors that play into transformation, the impact of our activities on at least our surrounding milieu was felt. Many conversations with cultural professionals were held and lineups of club nights and other festivals markedly took note in diversifying their lineups as well.
Q: Beyond the cultural shutdown (and shift to digital and hybrid events) that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, what other recent developments in the cultural sector make you think Future Festivals is a necessary and timely project?
A: The co-design process found that across the board there appears to be an increasing precarity of cultural work, which was accelerated by the pandemic and really just now comes to the forefront with all COVID-related relief measures waning off. Inflation is rising and budgets are cut. Spaces become scarce. Cultural workers, those who actually remained in the field after the pandemic, are notoriously overworked and underpaid. In many ways this project could also be framed as: Is there a future for festivals?
At the same time culture in the public mind is expected to be vibrant and engaging. It is what makes cities like Montréal so attractive to people. The work and the labour that goes into making these things happen goes mostly unnoticed. Future Festivals then also becomes about finding better ways to advocate for the work that we as festival makers do and why it is important. One such way might be looking at festivals and culture more broadly through the lens of mental health and well-being rather than through a consumerist perspective looking for entertainment.
First, Future Festivals as a platform of sharing knowledge around best practices of festival making. There are many projects and experimental case studies that festivals around the world already engaged in. Without reinventing the wheel, how can we mobilise this sort of knowledge to benefit festival makers across the board. As Naomi Johnson from imagineNATIVE put it eloquently, we should foreground what we can give rather than what we can take.
Second, I hope that Future Festivals becomes a vehicle for advocating for the work of festival makers, for making more present the challenges we face and that culture more broadly doesn’t just magically appear. The HOLO Future Festivals Field Guide plays a crucial role in both these endeavours.
Finally, I believe that the project itself and how it unfolds in an open and exploratory way is already an experiment in prototyping new ways of cultural production—a sort of learning by doing, which will hopefully inspire other festival makers to jump on board or initiate conversations within their own cultural ecosystems.
This dossier is currently in progress. Check back for new entries or receive updates automatically via the HOLO newsletter here.
Future Festivals is a think tank initiated by MUTEK and its partners to jointly prototype new modes of cultural production. From spring 2023 through late 2024, seven organizations from Canada, Germany, and Mexico will collaborate to imagine more accessible, resilient, and sustainable festival futures.
Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Future Festivals is an extension of the MITACS-funded research project Festival as Methodology initiated by MUTEK and Concordia University.
Future Festivals Lead:
Maurice Jones (MUTEK)
N O R M A L S
Alexander Scholz, Greg J. Smith,
Filip Visnjic (HOLO)