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)

Processions Advisory Group – before and after

12.08.2011 · Posted in Carnival

Before:  a barber’s shop in Dorchester.

I have an hour or so to kill before the Dorset Processions Advisory Group meeting so I go for a haircut. The barber tells me she has lived in the area for 16 years.  She asks me what I am doing in town and I tell her I am studying carnivals and that I am here for a meeting. Immediately, she begins to talk about her local carnival:

‘I should support it more and do my bit I suppose,’ she says. ‘It has gone downhill a bit, but the local businesses can’t afford it these days and it shouldn’t be up to us anyway. The council should support it, but they are all a bunch of old farts and it doesn’t matter what the locals say.’

We talk about the recent Royal Wedding celebrations. ‘Now that was great, a chance for a celebration, a party, something to bring us all together,’ she says. I ask her why she thinks the local carnival has declined and she says it is ‘All that health and safety, fear of being prosecuted if something goes wrong. And the insurance costs.’

She tells me that her local carnival is ‘too small, a bit rubbish, really. Swanage carnival is amazing. Huge floats, all decorated.’ She thinks that carnivals are ‘better in small villages where everybody knows each other’ and that ‘the council should support local people more’. She also laments the passing of a tradition of throwing coins at the passing floats: ‘you can’t do that anymore – health and safety, see?’

Our conversation raises a couple of points which resonate in my wider research findings to date:

1: Communities seem to want both independent control of, and local authority support for, their local cultural performances. They want to be supported to do what they choose to do culturally, using vocabularies of their choosing, rather than to adapt to an external cultural agenda.

2: A conflict exists in these events between the need for spectacle, a vibrant crowd and large scale processional elements as features of a successful carnival and the smaller-scale sense of belonging within a community which is created by participation alongside ‘people you know’ in an event for which you share some creative or organisational responsibility.

After: a local view:

I talk to a local arts administrator about the recent history of Weymouth Carnival. As usual, I wish I had left the recorder going for the post meeting chat, where people drop their professional personae and say what they really think.

For this Weymouth local, Weymouth Carnival is a ‘grand event’, which lost its energy when the lorry-based floats were removed from the procession in 2009, largely because there was nothing which could immediately replace them in their role of creating noise, scale and ‘oomph’. She raises the issue of sustainability and environment agendas and the pressure they put on carnival organisers to remove petrol vehicles from their events. I wonder if the reaction in Weymouth in 2009 – the press campaign to bring back the lorries and ‘reclaim our carnival’  – was as much a reaction against perceived authority and a reflection of people’s uncertainty about the current threat to the environment, as it was an expression of some crisis in local culture. Could it have been a reflection of people’s tendency to stick their heads in the sand about climate change, or was it an example of local resistance to institutional attempts to change their cultural practice?

The issue of lorries is a hot potato in carnival circles. In the ‘old days’ petrol vehicles were a novelty which deserved their place in the parade as cutting edge symbols of progress and technology. In the early 1900s, the arrival of large vehicles offered a genuine spectacle for town carnivals where horse-drawn floats were the order of the day. In the floral parades in Bournemouth, cars were dressed and paraded as innovations, garlanded with flowers. I wonder if this was an attempt to ‘naturalise’ these new technologies in public space in a period of tension between mass industrialisation and the ‘old ways’ of the past. Now, the lorry float is both an essential staple of the seaside carnival and a millstone around its neck. Large scale alternatives to these motorised platforms for spectacle have yet to emerge, and yet the insurance costs and health and safety issues surrounding their use are increasingly prohibitive and their status as polluters is a turn off for potential funders for community events, who must abide by new carbon targets and sustainability agendas.

Our talk leads me to consider whether today’s ‘sustainable’ artist led models of carnival practice – walking parades, communal, craft-based approaches to float making, live rather than recorded processional music, elements of circus, theatre, pantomime and music hall  – are also in fact idealised re-inventions of pre-industrial forms of popular culture. In contrast, many of the local seaside carnivals staged by grassroots communities in the south west  feature representations of the popular culture of today – mainstream recorded music, petrol driven transport, representations of stories and characters from TV and Film; X Factor contestants on the seafront stage.  A key question in the context of programmes which seek to ‘improve’  or  ‘develop’ local grassroots events towards more ‘artistic’ approaches ( with the support of funding bodies and local authorities) is:  why are reinventions of the popular forms of yesteryear perhaps deemed ‘acceptable’ and those of today perhaps deemed ‘less acceptable’ within expressions of local identity?

Here we enter the conflict between art and commercial culture, between the democratisation of culture – where local authorities and the Arts Council decide what constitutes ‘Great Art for Everyone’ – and ideas of cultural democracy – where ‘Everyone is an Artist’ and people have the right to decide for themselves what symbolism they adopt as their own form of cultural expression.

Many ‘arts development’ approaches see their rationale as offering ‘hard to reach’ audiences a chance to experience a wider artistic palate of potential vocabularies for such expression. Furthermore, they see participatory approaches as a way of presenting these encounters from ‘within’ community, and hope that over time they might become established as constituent creative practices within their target groups. However, both sides of this negotiation know all too well that there is neither the funding nor the political appetite in today’s economic climate for the long-term, sustained creative engagements necessary for these cultural seeds to grow to such maturity.

Here, we enter the dialogue between insider cultures and outsider cultures; between social classes and their mutual invitations, suspicions and prejudices.  We also encounter the divergent rationales for two different types of carnival or processional event; the negotiation between grassroots, carnivalesque, participatory free expression and Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘official feast’. Perhaps it is the case that on the one hand we have voluntary, open-theme, populist fundraising events organised by local people as an autonomous expression of, and support for, their local communities, while on the other we find professionalised, narrative, closed-theme, socially instrumental ‘artistic’ performances, which are created for strategic policy reasons by networks of arts professionals and social institutions and authorities.

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