Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. 1
The lyricism of marginality may find inspiration in the image of the ‘outlaw’, the great social nomad,
who prowls on the confines of a docile, frightened order. 2
Everything we do is steeped in magic. Even our most mundane, trivial activities sustain a history of ritual practices that affirm our place in the social constructs to which we have aligned ourselves, within which we are immersed. All social orders are bound by ritual. They consolidate and give authority to the social contracts we draw up. These determine how we interact with one another, the nature and extent of our power in relation to those around us, and ultimately how we define ourselves – who we are. The intricate social niceties and anxieties that are expressed through toilet design across the globe are as telling as the food we consider fit for breakfast or the many complex rituals that have evolved around how, where and when we shop.
All his emotional needs, his sense of self, were satisfied by this huge retail space. He was naïve and enthusiastic, serving a novitiate that would never end…The enclosed geometry of the Metro-Centre focused an intense self-awareness on every shopper,
as if we were extras in a music drama that had become the world. 3
How then are the conspiracies of society sustained? How are its fantasies constructed, its myths and stories circulated? How does it work its magic? Where music in its role as court entertainer, shaman or intellectual icon is concerned, within the realm drawn up by our current social contract, the most powerful and compelling story tellers are those in service to the bloated giant over whom the Kingdom of the West and All its Dreams is now ruled:, the volatile and capricious monster we have come to call Late Capitalism. And what propitiation do we place at the feet of this voracious beast? What sacrifice do we offer? What is it that most feeds its greed? Capitalism thrives on our own anxiety, the boundless quest for acknowledgement and power on which we are driven by our innate sense of inadequacy. And in this realm, it is by sustaining the market that the general good of society is deemed to be maintained. Now, once upon a time, the market was fuelled by people’s desire for the tasks they performed to be executed with increased elegance, efficiency or ease. And in a world where conforming to society and participating in its constructs gave us a sense of purpose and belonging, the tasks we performed were for the most part an expression of our sense of duty, be it domestic, social, or political. But in the 1960s and 70s, when a significant number of people began to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’, this relationship between the individual, the state and the market got messy. To begin with, the liberation of the individual self that began in the 1960s was a political act: by encouraging the inner self to be expressive and free, a new type of human being would emerge, liberated from the constraints of Capitalist society, which was inextricably entangled in the machinations of the market place. With the emergence of this wiser, stronger, more independent individual, a better society would be born. What in fact emerged from this revolution was an isolated, greedy self, more vulnerable to manipulation by both business and politics than it had ever been before. We could now be controlled, not with the blunt weapon of repression, but by a necessity for our insatiable desires to be fulfilled. Cast adrift from the solid ground of social conformity, we began to seek refuge in the very marketplace our break for freedom was originally intended to liberate us from. Instead, it was the market itself that would define and shape, provide the colours, contours, smells and sounds of our non-conformity, happy to oblige our anxious and insatiable quest to set ourselves apart in order to belong.
Music has always been instrumental, not only in defining who we are and how we interact with one another, but also in casting the spells, creating the illusions within which we live. Music channels the fantasies fed to us by the market, reinforcing the fiction of one brand of individuality or another, whilst at the same time affirming our membership of its various tribes of individuals, outcasts and mavericks. We conform though our non-conformity. And the more we aspire to use music as a way of extricating ourselves from the web of social constructs we inhabit, the more entangled we become. The more we speak in hallowed tones, elaborate myths, get hooked and fetishize, the more we fall pray to the gimmickry that has extended far beyond the music (or any other) industry to permeate all corners of our private and public lives. The marketplace is everywhere; its strategies delineate the shape of our existence. And of course, it delineates and confines the space within which music must exist. The impact on musicians can be catastrophic. They become stifled, repetitive, reified and bored. They become slaves to the audience’s expectations of fulfilment, which in this age of the individuated self are high. We are all musical junkies, always on the lookout for the next high, the next hit. They become slaves to love, admiration and power. We are all victims of our own identity. Strutting the appearance of individuation or rebellion in the form of one musical fashion statement or another is the fearful alternative we take to braving the existential threats that would await, were we to tear ourselves from the incubating womb of the Capitalist beast whose umbilical fluids sustain us. We are all plugged in. The music that lies beyond our own definition and understanding of ourselves – our liberated, broad-minded, open-hearted selves – is thrown high over the wall that encircles our camp. The ideas that cannot be unified, categorized, packaged and exchanged are cast into the wilderness. In the endangered seclusion of our own thoughts and minds, this may of course not be the case. But the social structures we have created within which music can be exchanged – the shops, websites, compact discs, books, magazines, concert series, festivals, etc – all these vessels and vehicles are shaped and driven by the market. And the publicly funded arts are no exception. Where then does this leave a festival like Borealis? What have my goals been in the past five years? And how do I see the future of the Borealis festival in the light of everything I have written here?
Borealis, like other festivals with the majority of their funding provided by the government, must still package, promote and justify itself in terms defined by the marketplace. Be that as it may, despite the limitations of bureaucracy, funding restrictions and other political expectations, I have in my six years as Artistic Director, attempted to provide a context for musicians, artists and thinkers to roam free. To provide a margin of fertile ground in which they might prowl the confines of this, our docile, frightened order. Confronted with the impossibility of making a stand (which would simply mean replacing one slogan with another) against the Capitalist platitudes of personal fulfilment, uncritical celebration, unity and pleasure, I have tried instead to create a current in which the over-simplification of category is troubled, if not washed away altogether. Of course, at Borealis we have parties, enjoy one another’s company and dance together. But my aspiration has never been for festival audiences to raise their collective arms in the air. The individual is not “a multitude of one million divided by one million”.5 Melodies are not tools for hooking listeners. Promoting an artist does not have to be the same as fetishizing them. Borealis does not contribute to the soundtrack of people’s lives like some banal, sonic wallpaper. It is a beautiful thing to be in, and to enjoy one another’s company without critical engagement. But to feel that we are sharing experiences is not the same as actually doing so. The problem is that the persuasive power of music would often have us believe otherwise. And it is this quality for which music is most used and abused.
Even experimental music is a victim of the market forces of tribalism, novelty and fetishization. In making a stand against these, I am happy for Borealis to feature artists that might be contradictory, difficult, incomprehensible and even repellent to some. And likewise the festival’s identity. I have attempted to create a festival that any public relations woman would have a difficult job getting her slippery fingers around. Of course, if the festival’s boundaries were clearer and the steps it took for change incremental, it would be much easier for us to design and locate our target audiences. But in so doing, we would also have to promote the festival as being something we know people know that they want – entice audiences with promises of fulfilment; solutions to ontological and intellectual problems we cannot in fact provide.
But instead of plastering over the wounds of our existence with the temporary solace that we might take in the superficially shared experience of music, I have attempted with Borealis to take full advantage of the fact that a festival is, above all else, a collection of people moving through time and space, and for this reason capable of absorbing a high level of complexity and change. Of all the media through which we experience music, a festival is perhaps capable of the highest degree of internal contradiction. Artists with very different approaches to their work can be programmed alongside one another, in venues that provide distinct contexts for the experience of listening. Music can be discussed as well as heard. Artists and audiences can co-exist, eat together, talk to one another, and share ideas. When Borealis works best, it functions as an engine, fuelling those participating in it as artists, as volunteers, as audience, in whatever capacity, rather than as a frame within which they must operate. Because we commission and give first performances of many new works each year, we have to take our lead from artists in shaping the festival around their developing projects. This is an exciting process because when the day finally comes for their work to be presented at the festival, we can never be fully certain – and sometimes have very little idea at all – what it is our audience can expect.
To engage with us in these unpredictable acts of creative venture, our audiences need to be both courageous and generous. But instead of enticing audiences to Borealis by simplistically promoting to them such ideas of themselves (If you’re bold, come to Borealis!), we have instead often gone in search of audiences wherever we can find them, taking music and ideas to homes, schools, and offices; recycling stations, courthouses, racetracks, and crypts. This peripatetic approach to the festival brings a spectrum of musical thinking to people who might otherwise reject it outright. It also allows us to re-hear music, freed from the confines of conventional listening environments, and thereby also to reconsider sound, music and silence in our lives. In the end, I have attempted to create Borealis as a portal, an aperture through which artists and audiences can pass. And it is as a breach in the fabric of our expectations that I hope it continues to thrive in the years to come. By the absence of qualities such as unity, clarity and tangibility by which objects are defined and marketed, Borealis can provide a haphazard space in which ideas can move, expand, develop or dissolve.