Research Explorations in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site PhD Reflections on 'The Practices of Carnival: Community Culture and Place' (Jon Croose) and 'Stone Exposures: photography, landscape change and anticipatory adaptation in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site' (Rose Ferraby)

Introductions: Carnivals and the Jurassic Coast.

11.10.2011 · Posted in Carnival

Hello and welcome. My name is Jon Croose. I am a PhD student in Geography, studying carnivals in the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. I have only recently become a geographer. My background is in professional theatre, festival and performance. I work as a playwright, performer, workshop leader and stage manager. So what am I doing in the Geography department at Exeter University, what have carnivals got to do with geography, and why is the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site interested in these local events?

moving tidesThe answer to these questions reflects the Jurassic Coast’s commitment to bringing together earth scientists, artists, academics and local people to find out what this stretch of coastline means to them, how they encounter it and how they might express it through local, regional, national and international culture.

Geography is a broad discipline that spans earth and climate science, human organisation and cultural activity – it speaks to a range of different disciplines and situations, from geology to archaeology, performance studies, history and politics. Geography is about places – literally it means writing the world – and places, like the coastal towns of the Jurassic Coast, are spaces in which local communities express their identities in relation to landscape and society.

So what has this to do with carnivals?

processionja-07The Jurassic Coast has a strong tradition of local town carnivals, from Weymouth in the East to Exmouth in the West. These popular events bring thousands of people out on to the streets for one day a year in a riot of colour and noise that allows local people to claim public space, raise money and have a good time.

In processions, the floats and costumes made and worn by local community groups are symbols through which people project their celebratory identities to the world. For one day a year the bank manager dresses as Elvis, the kids take over the streets with parades of sea monster puppets, mermaids or pirates, and the world is turned upside down. These events stop the traffic, disrupt the everyday life of the town, and offer an excuse for being silly. They are a chance for good-natured competition with your neighbours, or to create a symbol about something you want to protest about. Some people love their local carnivals, and some feel excluded from them or disagree with the artistic forms they take. Carnival is an ancient activity which links people to the places in which they live, and around which a host of community experience is expressed, argued and organised.

The purpose of my research is to explore how and why people in East Devon and Dorset are involved with carnivals and processions during the period of the 2012 Olympics, and how these events are related to local landscapes, places and communities. I have spent the last year reading around the subject and I am now out and about conducting interviews with all sorts of people who are involved with carnivals and processions, from small local, voluntary events to the large-scale, professional Battle for the Winds performance scheduled to open the Olympic sailing events at Weymouth next July.

banner2The Jurassic Coast Arts Programme sees local carnivals and processions as key cultural activities through which people may be engaged with the World Heritage Site. The Jurassic Coast Team have contracted Activate Performing Arts  to run a series of workshops and conferences designed to support local carnivals. They want to encourage local cultural performances like these, in order to engage people with the World Heritage Site and what it means. Part of the Creative Coast project is a desire to encourage new types of artistic content in local carnivals – to bring artists and community groups together to celebrate the Jurassic Coast geology and landscape as part of their local celebrations of place, and to forge links with carnival cultures in other parts of the world.

But this project is not without its tensions and difficulties. Local communities are rightly proud of their carnival events, which are longstanding expressions of local ownership and identity. Often, local people spend many hours a year in voluntary work to organise these events for the benefit of people in their own communities. They set their own creative agendas, raise their own funds and may just want to celebrate their place, with their people in the way they wish to organise it. Some are understandably wary of anyone who comes along and tries to change things, whether it be from within their community or from outside it.

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So how can local people and organisations, like the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site or the Olympics, work to support each other and to share these celebrations of identity while maintaining the chaos and local energy of carnival? That is what I am trying to find out, for the benefit of all concerned, by allowing local people, artists and policymakers to speak for themselves. My research methods include observation of carnival meetings and rehearsals, interviews, audio and video recording of participants, and, where possible, participating myself in community performances. That will be the fun bit – wearing silly costumes and dancing in the parades!

All of this is taking place in the context of the Olympics, a global event that throws an international spotlight onto this little corner of South West England and the cultural performances of its towns and villages. Spectacular carnival processions are a powerful tool in the hands of the Olympics, local authorities and governments, which use carnivals, circus, street performance and processions to encourage urban regeneration, for commercial promotions and for official ceremony.

We all remember the amazing opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics with its massed drummers, amazing fireworks and military precision. Some observers pinpoint it as the moment that the world sat up and took notice of China’s real power in the world. In 2006, more than one million people saw the spectacular performance of The Sultan’s Elephant by the French company Royale De Luxe – a huge animatronic elephant which spent three days winding through the streets of Central London. In 2008, the Labour Government introduced cash rewards for local councils who met certain annual targets for increasing people’s participation in the arts. Outdoor performances, carnivals and processions were the perfect way for these authorities to reach hundreds if not thousands of people, who might otherwise never visit a theatre or art gallery. As a result, carnival, outdoor and site specific arts have achieved a central position as features of state-sponsored national cultural policy, policies which are now being brought to bear on many local events.

moving tidesTo sum up then, my research brings Performance Studies and Geography together to listen to the voices of people involved in Jurassic Coast carnivals. I want to find out what these events mean to people, how they relate to places and landscapes and how they present local identities to the world. This is an aspect of Human Geography – a way of ‘writing the world’ through performance. I want to understand the reasons why official organisations are interested in outdoor arts and processions as ways of encouraging people to support their aims. Finally, I hope that my research will offer insights and encourage methods which promote local creativity and celebration, respect longstanding traditions and allow shared space in Jurassic Coast carnivals.

I’d love to hear from local people about this, so if you have a comment, question or suggestion, please contact me at jfc208@exeter.ac.uk.

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