Sensed Places, Placed Senses

Jonathan Mills

The festival space is a perambulatory environment. In settings less steeped in such ancient rites or traditions, just the ability to walk between venues, encourages a reconnection with familiar locations; buildings, roads, gardens, squares, all manner of public and private spaces; familiar surroundings which we whiz past and too often take for granted, or experience fleetingly through a glance from a car, bus, train or plane window; the details and textures of any urban environment becoming reconfigured as places and moments of great intimacy, and part of a true festival encounter.


John Ainslie: City of Edinburgh, ca. 1780. T. Ainslie Geographer, Map & Printseller, Edinburgh, UK

Whenever I start work on a festival programme, I am always inspired by a wonderful quotation from the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who said ‘just as places are sensed, senses are placed.’ He seems to describe perfectly the reciprocal relationship between the setting and the substance that exists at the core of a true festival experience; the festival as a sensual, visceral assault, which insists that we re-engage with familiar places in forgotten ways.

The festival space is a perambulatory environment. In settings less steeped in such ancient rites or traditions, just the ability to walk between venues, encourages a reconnection with familiar locations; roads, pavements, buildings, gardens, squares, churches, halls, all manner of public and private spaces; familiar surroundings which we whiz past and too often take for granted, or experience fleetingly through a glance from a car, bus, train or plane window; the details and textures of any urban environment becoming reconfigured as places and moments of great intimacy, and part of a true festival encounter.

Festivals are ubiquitous. There is no place, no continent, no country, no community, no culture, no civilisation in which they are not present. Their omnipresence would suggest that they exist to fulfil a profound need in humanity. Whatever their particular focuses, they should aspire to being powerful and memorable events. More than this, a festival can provide a context for ideas and an overriding sense of perspective.


The Oxford Bar, Edinburgh, UK

Harvey’s Furniture Stores, Edinburgh, UK

For all of its rowdy, robust behaviour, the festival satisfied a primal craving for both freedom and control. It was a mechanism in which ceremonial forms of frustration and enlightenment could simultaneously find expression. Surely there was a daring to the life of a traditional society that would hoard a whole year’s food, only to devour it all, in a single orgy of feasting, dance, music, poetry and drama. Given the precariousness of existence of such communities, this really was an extreme form of festivity. In such places, festivals were manifestations of the core rituals of a community; whether they be seasonal or personal; the cycle of life or of a particular life; the rites of spring or the rites of passage.

In such times, less materially fortunate, and certainly less obsessed with consumerism than our own, festivals were paradoxically, moments of social cohesion. Celebrations such as Mardi gras or Boxing Day being the one time of the year when strict social mores were relaxed or even reversed, with, in the case of Mardi Gras, men dressing as women and vice versa or as with Boxing Day, the rich and powerful waiting on, attending to and serving their own servants. Witness the public parade of the social and political elite backwards on donkeys through the streets being pelted with bags of flour or other more pungent potions along the route. Or the grotesque demonstrations of faux femininity during Mardi Gras, complete with extravagant wigs, smudged rouge, clouds of powder and the stench of perfume.

And not just in Rio during Mardi gras could such unorthodox behaviour be seen; in the voodoo ceremonies in Haiti, in Mexico during the Day of the Dead, or the more European celebrations of the Winter solstice, prevailing social order and most crucially time itself, however briefly, stood still. No matter how outrageous, wild or orgiastic these events were, they were all quite deliberately short; contained within quite defined parameters, lest they get out-of-control or worse, become the normal mode of behaviour.


Mardi Gras, New Orleans, USA


Day of the Dead, México DF

Some festivals developed for specific religious purposes. Great pilgrimages such as the Haj to Mecca, or the Kumbh Mela at places like Haridwar or Allahabad along the Ganges River, have festivals associated with their particular journeys, which can be experienced through the music, and poetry connected with each stage of the voyage.

Festivals were also an intrinsic part of the great sporting contests in classical Greece and Rome. The ancient Olympic games were as much competitions among epic poets and singers as they were amongst athletes. Taking their cue from antiquity, the modern Olympic Games from 1912 in Stockholm until the 1948 London Games, awarded medals for architecture, music, literature, painting and sculpture. More recently, festivals became gatherings of like-minded enthusiasts—birds of a feather, flocking together. They usually concentrate on a particular artistic genre such as film, literature, opera, dance, music or even jazz—although they can be as broad as encompassing all the performing arts.

These kinds of festivals can be experienced in Bayreuth or Wexford, Montpellier, Montreux or Melbourne, Cannes or Venice, Hay-on-Wye or Toronto, Spoleto or Singapore, Avignon or Salzburg as well as, or perhaps I should be permitted to say, most especially, in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh Festival is very much an event in this mould. In fact it helped define the mould itself. The Edinburgh Festival was founded in 1947. It owes its origins to the urgent imperative to rebuild a sense of community in a continent that had been torn apart by the tragedy of World War II, to restore faith, to heal the heartache of shattered lives through music, opera, drama, dance, literature, painting, to pick up the fragments of a civilisation shaken to its core by the atrocities of Leningrad or Auschwitz.


Julliard Dance, Edinburgh International Festival, 2012. Edinburgh, UK

In the words of John Falconer, Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the time, it was to be a platform dedicated to the ‘flowering of the human spirit’ whose ambition was to ‘embrace the world.’ Such sentiments were particularly heartfelt in 1947. Here was to be found a genuine reaction to the insanity of the exterminations of the holocaust. It should never be forgotten that the founding ideals of the Edinburgh Festival coincided with an urgency to reach out—especially through the arts—in an attempt to recover what had been destroyed by the ravages of war. What began as an international festival, that is, an occasion for the greatest virtuosi from many different cultures to come together to collaborate on concerts, plays, exhibitions and spectacles, has grown into the largest celebration of the arts in the world.

One can only imagine the huge sense of individual and collective relief that would have existed amongst the artists performing in 1947; by what miracle and by what right did they survive a period of such extreme self-devouring madness?

There are now nine festivals held in Edinburgh in summer. They are the Edinburgh International Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Book, the Film, the Jazz, Television and Art Festivals; the most recent addition to the family being a festival of Politics. Perhaps the most sincere compliment that the Edinburgh Festival has received over the years is the fact that it has been copied almost everywhere else in the world. But if there is flattery in imitation, there is also potential for misunderstanding.


Trapeze artist, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 2013. Edinburgh, UK


Callum Innes: The Regent Bridge, 2012. Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh, UK

Edinburgh’s Festivals evolved in a unique, complex way. They were not created simply for the purposes of encouraging more tourism. They were founded in desperate times, in the worst of circumstances for the best of reasons. When the Edinburgh International Festival started in 1947, rationing of food and other essentials was widespread. Due to the ravages of war, only a handful of cities within the UK remained sufficiently intact to even contemplate such a venture.

Accommodation was scarce. People had to offer visitors beds in their own homes. But through all of these unusual machinations, something worked. Perhaps a celebration of the arts expressed through various different cultures that were brought together in that first festival in 1947 went some way towards filling a deep-seated need in people who had suffered so much trauma. Might it have simply been the opportunity to express a hope and experience an optimism that we thought had vanished?

As to the progress and development of the various Edinburgh Festivals since 1947, the best way to describe them is the results of a process of ‘judicious neglect’. They have not so much been formed by central edict; not so much planned, as conjured. They are remarkable examples of defiance and independence; a motley network of mayhem in a world that is so often lacking in spontaneity.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, 2014. Edinburgh, UK

Closing Ceremony, Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, 2014. Edinburgh, UK

So if I am permitted to offer a small piece of advice, and a word of caution in anticipating your festival-inspired artistic revolutions; by all means explore the very genuine potential of a festival to provide a city with a renewed sense of ambition and civic price; but do so on your own terms and consistent with your own traditions and practices. The degree to which summer festivities in Edinburgh transform and overwhelm every nook and cranny of the town is palpable. Visitors and artists alike thrive on being able to arrive in a city like Edinburgh and immediately apprehend its scale, gauge the totality of the place, behold it all in an instant, possess it and make it one’s very own domain. Any attempt to search for the unique spirit, to get under the skin of any place—physical or metaphorical, is a complex process. Yet such ideas and impulses are at the heart of making a festival.

For the past nine years I have been living in Edinburgh. Visitors come to Auld Reekie from all over the world. Those with civic ambitions of the celebratory kind for their own metropolises, often stare and stare in bemused disbelief, while measuring and cogitating and becoming genuinely perplexed as to why a place with such dour inhabitants and such bad weather should have become such an appropriate and hugely successful place for staging an arts festival.

Mostly they simply miss the point. None of this is about measurements, or systems, categories or quantifying; festivals are illusive. Unless one is somehow attuned, alert, aligned or alive to the spirit of a place; its past and present, its history and traditions; no amount of analysis will make the slightest impact. So instead of perceiving Edinburgh as an amalgam of symmetrical roads and buildings clinging to edge of an ancient extinct volcano, one should be prepared to discover and respond to a city famed for its learning and philosophy, its scientific and technological contributions to humanity; a city in which David Hume and Adam Smith thought deeply about the moral and economic progress and prosperity of their fellow citizens; a place where James Clarke Maxwell and Alexander Flemming discovered dimensions to existence that were unimaginable to previous generations and without whose discoveries of electromagnetism and antibiotics, our lives today would be inconceivable. A city of simultaneous enlightenment and endarkenment; a jumbled juxtaposition of orderly planned streets and dank medieval dungeons; a place whose underbelly is all too easily exposed; and a city where with the turn of one’s head, the view changes from a breathtaking natural landscape to manicured masterpiece of urban planning.


Edinburgh Castle: Ordnance Stores & Hospital, Edinburgh, UK

The eminent Canadian urban activist Jane Jacobs encourages us to look and listen to cities as dynamic systems rather than static collations of physical assets. With her accent on community awareness and ‘eyes on the street’ she proposes an entirely different approach to imagining a city; as something more akin to an ecosystem than an assemblage of bricks and mortar.

Such processes are precisely the ones which we attempt to encourage in Edinburgh every August; in a place with rather rudimentary cultural infrastructure and without an arts centre, because we believe that it is more important to be a centre for the arts than to build something as anonymous, portentous and unsustainable as an arts centre.