Monday, June 14, 2010

Mass Publics and Spectacular Citizenship: The American Music Festival

So it is probably a little wanky to start off a blog on urban rhetoric by thinking about music festivals, but I am presenting a paper on the subject next week end, so as I fine tune, I will think out loud.

Hakim Bey argues in Temporary Autonomous Zone: “Like festivals, uprisings cannot happen every day—otherwise they would not be ‘non-ordinary.’ But such moments of intensity give shape and meaning to the entirety of a life. The shaman returns—you can’t stay up on the roof forever—but things have changed, shifts and integrations have occurred- a difference is made.”

The festival is a non-ordinary, elongated moment of intensity that can potentially structure and give meaning to participant’s lives. An intangible “difference” is made both by the festival itself and the imagination of the festival.

In this paper I will investigate how the spectacle of the music festival, represented visually (and second order) in press photographs, and its imagined component (which is the lived-in plus cathected-onto element) that participants carry around with them relies fundamentally on temporary existence in a mass public. I ultimately argue that the affective charge attributed to participatory spectatorship, both in the temporal moment of a music scene and in the scene-making and encounters that occur throughout the duration of the festival indexes how music festivals perform alternative models of democracy: anarchic, participatory, and simultaneously mediated and immediate. However, in the material practice of festivals: entry fees, vexed gender relations, relative absence of racial diversity, the empirical difficulties of maintaining equality among a diverse collectivity emerges, revealing some aporias fundamental to mass publics.

Festival iconography varies, but I will argue that it settles into a few registers: that of fantasy, collectivity, and individual liberation (with a specifically gendered inflection) which of course are interpenetrating and multiple, but seem to emerge as conventions.

The utopian impulse activated in festival imagery is a salient part of public culture that ought not be condemned as nostalgic consumption but a legitimate articulation of investment in an alternative social future . Therefore, analyzing both the generative elements and unproblematized exclusions at work in concert photos as a genre provides a way to create a theory of utopian visuality that is sensitive to its limits and multiple potentialities. Reading festival photos exposes a tension between radical individuality and unmediated community, sutured over by the visual trope mass belonging. My primary working assumption is that the spectacle of the festival should be understood as an image-event—a rhetorical activity that uses categories of expression, persuasion and other extralinguistic means to create, define (albeit loosely) and mobilize a public . Although the structure of festivals and their persuasive appeal does not follow formal logical categories of instrumental argument, it falls into the category of rhetoric that is subject-creating (constitutive rhetoric) —the identity of the festival goer, and a festival participating public, is called into being through images, sound, and touch. The category of public that I suggest is birthed through the spectacle of the music festival is one that has Michael Warner’s elements of a counterpublic; invoked through imagination , invested with a sense of stranger-sociability , constituted through shared attention not ascriptive identity , relative diffuseness across time and space, investment in an idea not a thick or continual model of identity, a social space instantiated through circulation and citation . Affect is a generative resource in constituting publics and binding to image, image-event, and other individuals. Like the icon, festivals as spectacle create a utopian energy that rejuvenates democratic culture .
I will first theorize spectator citizenship, and then analyze photos from Burning Man, Rothbury, and Bonarroo, seeking see how they perform self-conscious visuality, exceed that frame, and raise questions about publicity and longing for a more affectively charged model of politics.

Spectator Citizenship:

A large amount of spectacle studies suggests that spectatorship implies alienation, disempowerment, and passivity, making the notion of a “spectator citizen” seem like an oxymoron. The formation of audiences in festival mass publics belies this belief. Instead of the performer dictating all of the audience’s moves, pontificating while they are held in rapt attention, there are horizontal networks of amorousness, kinship, fraternity, sorority, and playfulness that function to add a syncopated rhythm of attention to whatever the “main event” is. It is not uncommon that dancing will be interrupted with drinking, or taking a substance, or eating, or lying down to nap, depending on the hour of the day the show is happening. Precisely because one is in a crowd, unorganized and energetic, it is difficult to discern hierarchy. Membership is enacted through participation, either by dancing, yelling, singing, holding up a banner, hooping, or posing. The mere presence of the spectator is a kind of participation because to be a spectator in the first place one is a member of the festival community, as a camper, a vendor, someone who makes a home and might decorate it, share food, emit noise, and share a gaze.

The imagination of the crowd, reflected back in the jumbotron, and in press release photographs, creates a mediating band linking the individual to the collective, generating a sense of intelligibility even if it is at the level of fantasy, memory, and affect. The poses that one might strike while being more or less still at a concert; stretched out with a straw hat over one’s face, sitting cross legged, smoking a cigarette blowing smoke up so it does not go directly into the eyes of nearby festival goers, lying intertwined with other bodies, these bodily movements are not new or natural but are the complex result of sedimented cultural knowledge and popular myths. Mimesis, or repetition, in this instance is not merely a less-authentic version of some original Woodstock version of a reposed individual. Citizenship housed in the bosom of the festival spectacles is based on a model of expenditure and aesthetic energy. In other words, citizenship is enacted not just by recognizing and paying attention to pre-given spectacles (set concert times, yoga classes, an sustainability meetings) but by generating ongoing spectacles of habitation, encounter, and daily performances (spontaneous drum circles, fire spinning, dancing, singing, jewelry making, pirate flag hoisting, and so on). The mere act of getting dressed is a kind of performance because as a citizen of the temporary festival city one’s mere presence is a kind of moving architecture.

While the festivals are ephemeral, usually a week long at most, it does not mean that they are purely spontaneous. There are internal structure, generated architecturally (paths, do-not-cross signs, bag inspections, divisions between workers and non-workers in camp sites, pre-existing shower units, and fixed art installations that offer ongoing sources of pause and aggregation), and chronologically (set lists, meeting times, yoga, drum and dance classes, fireworks), affectively (the excitement of beginning, exhaustion in the middle and pathos of termination), and normatively (unofficial conventions for dress, a heavy emphasis on tolerance and non-interference, relative knowledge or at least appreciation for music). However this structure does not demand the total energy extraction implied in a 40-hour work week. Instead, as Hakim Bey might call it, a kind of “Paleolithic” existence is enacted.
“what we like about Paleolithic life has been summed up by the Peoples-Without-Authoritiy School of anthropology: the elegant laziness of hunter/gatherer society, the 2-hour workday, the obsession with art, dance, poety & amoursness, the “democratization of shamanism,” the culturivation of perception- in short, culture”
The festival landscape, in part produced by festival goers, is an attempt to create a “map that can include…desires” where “zero work” or minimal work based on creativity, investment, generosity and love, not calculation, coercion, and the pure impetus of accumulation, can be carried out.

Mediating Imaginaries:

While the ideal of spontaneous and ongoing expression, decentralized power, and liberation from the restrains of moralizing capitalist production is to a degree carried out empirically at festivals, clear elements that belie that ethic (commercialism, the festival goer/festival worker binary, sharp performative distinctions between locals and visitors, and entry barriers both economically and racially) need to be mediated by the image of a simultaneously heterogeneous and unified crowd. Some of this work is done at the festival grounds itself: atmospherically, through the architectural layout of the festival, decorations, lighting, reconstructing mobile space to settled places, but some is done through the work of publicity, circulation and representation. I will go through some festival press releases to work through the way that the image of the crowd, imported from Woodstock iconography, functions to suture contradictions in an ideology of utopian, decentralized democracy that underwrites festival imaginaries.

II. Fantasies of Collectivity

A persistent category of festival images that circulate are representations of cohesive collectives. Large groups of people bound together through shared objects of attention constitute the conventional spectacle and potentially the primary definitive core of festivals. The above photo from Burning Man 2008 provides a typical depiction of a crowd watching and listening to a performer. We know that since it is Burning Man the individuals in the crowd are also participants in fabricating the spectacle they are watching or others, they are unified by their commitment to the temporary gift/barter economy engaged in during the week long experience of shared labor and artistic production. Some of this is decipherable from the image itself: the fact that the majority of the crowd is sitting, with bodies relaxed either cross legged or hugging their knees, smiling or hands on cheeks. The color palette, warm reds, yellows and browns creates a sense of warmth and calm, further settled by the dark sky, and elegant burning lamps. While the Burning Man collective bespeaks a sense of familiarity, contemplation, and inclusion it stands in marked contrast to the frenzied screaming, agitated bodies, and packed crowds at Rothbury and Bonnaroo (watching the headliner bands in the hot summer of Tennessee) where the crowd is a participant in staging the spectacle of audienceship but not in fabricating objects of contemplation.

The adjacent photos is of acrowd at Rothbury watching Snoop Dogg perform—at four in the afternoon on July 4th. The photos are taken for local newspapers, one in a tourist online publication, and the other in Detroit The images participate in a tourist economy, functioning to convince the viewer that Rothbury Michigan is a desirable locale, where ecstatic crowds throng. In the top photo hands wave, many holding cameras, demonstrating the investment that festivalgoers have in mimetically locking down their experience through camera fragments. To be a part of a crowd at a concert is to be part of a conventional spectacle of collectivity.

In this Bonarroo stage-ground entrance shot the landscape is made up of faces—the terrain is that of thousands of bodies. In this sense the visual representation is accurate and even necessary in helping to explain the physical texture of the festival experience—it is fundamentally constituted by the primacy of the body (dancing, sleeping, standing, smoking, drinking). There is no event without a plurality of bodies. In the dense photograph we have many faces but they are not particularly expressive or distinct—they are not asking us the viewer for anything but rather provide a tactile surface on which to orient the impending musical experience.
Indeed, there is a desire to lose oneself in something larger that is actualized, even if temporarily, in the festival experience, where it is a certainty that one is part of something larger than oneself for at least an hour and a half. The performer(s) is an object of public attention, talk, and orientation, providing a framework for stimulating affective charges, friendship ties, and performing fandom.
Aerial crowd shots are conventional means for portraying the concert as a coherent spectacle, emphasizing the design elements of outdoor festivals. It is in these shots
that the festival takes on a sense of legibility; the crowd can become de differentiated and coherent. They provide a sense of the way that the crowd, collectivity, is the terrain.

Again, in this crowd shot at sunset in Tennessee the picture is bifurcated between the mass of bodies, and the tree line and sky. Nature and humanity achieves an uneasy balance in this photo insofar as individuals are rendered miniscule by virtue of being part of a multitude. However the mass of people threaten to bleed into the landscape, to contaminate pure nature. Even as a dream of collectivity and inclusion is being enacted it is fragile—each individual in the crowd is bound to the other by a contingent tie—interest in the music, in the scene, at any moment subject to breakage by a change in preference (and isn’t this the core problem in liberalism as well?). Even though formally a group is represented the internal structure of the scene is rendered unstable by the ultimately liberal impulses each individual is capable of enacting.

III. Individuality and Gender
One of the primary tensions in play in music festival photographs is the concentration of crowds versus the radical displays of spontaneity, individuality, and rejection of mainstream norms of decorum. I argue that these icons of release rely heavily on essentialist notions of gender where liberation occurs through the body of sexualized woman—suggesting deeper ambivalences in the promise of the music festival to liberate the participant from the dictates and judgments of dominant culture.

This photo, from Bonnaroo plays on some of the visual tropes from Woodstock ( —muddy bodies, laughter, play. A topless woman smiles in the background, it is unclear if the mud encrusted men are in dialogue with her or not, but the image title, “Dirty Hippies” sums up how essentialized notions of liberation, with an intertextual reference to the 1960s also mobilizes discourses about gender, sexual availability, and sexual divisions between clean and dirty. The concert space is evoked here as a place where traditional strictures of hygiene are temporarily suspended, and participants can return to a natural materiality—literally return to the earth.

Another Bonnaroo photo again displays how self-expression—body painting, recycling, free love, is recaptured through its commodification and intense awareness of its dominant iconology.
( 2008/04/11/bonarroo.jpg)

Here a woman gesturing openly towards recycling cans is confronted by four men. The beer drinking, fanny-packed, paisley shirted and trucker-capped men have rather rigid postures, and one aims the camera directly at her breasts. This photo teaches the viewers that the turquoise woman’s performance of liberation is not done only for herself but necessarily has a secondary audience that is male, white, and heterosexual.

This final photo, of a girl ecstatically running, streamers in hands,


escapes some of the problems the earlier photo falls prey to. It depicts her experience as being one where delight is found in motion, the pure exhilaration of running, of being in an event where the time of the festival is not marked by a particular concert but rather in the temporary community created through the human meanings inscribed on the festival grounds. While subject to a critique of gender essentialism where the woman is the quintessential figure of a return to Nature and Simplicity I find that the power in this photo is derived more from the radiant smile on the woman’s face against the bluest blue sky. Most of her body is in shadow, and cameras are not present. The photo engages in a fantasy of authentic experience that needs no second order representation (even though it obviously has been given one).

IV. Visual Contradictions

Music festivals imagine a radical form of citizenship by enabling a public culture based on spectacles that provide entry points to elaborated dialogue, participation, and collective meaning-making. The photos of music festivals incite desire to join in the collective image-event precisely because they leave a great deal to be imagined. However, what else is being left out of the frame? I have already suggested that there is a tension between radical individuality and unmediated community, and that this difficulty is often sutured over by the visual trope of the free, natural, available woman. Individual liberation from the strictures of quotidian bourgeois life is figured through the half-naked woman. This visible image does not represent the underside of that image which is the fact that the free festival culture is sometimes taken as a license to rape, which is not to say that female sexualization necessarily is a causal factor in sexual violence but that the kind of citizenship constituted through the concert-spectacle is one that uses an visual economy that empowers individuals differentially on the basis of sex. Similarly, color is absent from the festival scene. Even though there is an ethic of collectivity that is being embraced it comes with a steep admission price, leisure time, and automobility. Returning to the photos of collective audience it is a blindingly white mass of faces that stare back at us. The fantasy of a return to authentic and spontaneous sociability is primarily a white, middle class one. Indeed, the fantasy of liberalism is not radically challenged but is fundamentally reinforced by the collective-individual dynamic at work in festival photos—one can be part of a collective as far as the performance lasts but identity is fundamentally individual. The festival is a supplement to the self, not a challenge to the autonomous individual.

The ethic of "zero-work": ongoing, relaxed cultural production, is belied by the realities faced by concert workers, security personnel, beer distributors, Green Team volunteers endlessly recycling, bartenders, musicians who all are in fact working their asses off.

High costs and equipment demanded for long-term camping means that a certain level of affluence, or conformity with total work is a prerequisite to entering the festival space.

Finally, the fact that marketing photographs exist and often precede, forming a kind of lens through which participants might implicitly interpret and carry out their festival experience, exemplifies just one way where a presumably equitable and unmediated experience of community, music, and nature, is interrupted by market relations. Across from the bar where I worked at Rothbury last summer was a Budweiser tent, covered in red Bud icons, where rising talent would play before shows and patrons could charge their cell phones. Adjacent to it was an American Spirit tent where if you showed photo identification you could sign up for American Spirit promotions and receive several free packs of cigarettes, a metal water bottle with the American Spirit logo, and a recyclable ashtray. Around the corner, at the edge of Sherwood Forest, was a ClifBar sample site, affiliated with a recycling campaign, ClifNotes, where you not only got free granola bar samples but could sign up to participate in other events at othe festivals. These are just a few examples of Rothbury being fully integrated into non-exceptional and non-ephemeral capitalist exchanges, which is not to say that it is inherently evil (I took refuge in the Budweiser tent during a particularly intense downpour), or doomed, but rather as an empirical matter it does not find some space wholly outside the realm of capitalist production. What is interesting is the way that many of these companies, Budweiser in particular, recode themselves to fit into the ecology of the festival scene, using the language of culture, sustainability, and community, in order to elide their totally instrumental goal of money-making and publicity generation.

V. Spectacular Energy

Despite the substantial problems with class and race based exclusion evidenced by white collectivities I think we should understand both the event of outdoor festivals and their photographic representations to be resources, complex indices of the state of public culture and its latent potential. Using Hariman and Lucaites’ emphasis on the affective power of the icon, and its democratic potential, we can think of how festivals use the construction of spectacles as opportunities for creating new communal bonds, mobilizing desire productively and amicably. Mobilization of sustainability and participation discourse in Rothbury and Burning Man suggests that in contrast to claims by Debord and Foucault that the spectacle enacts a form of top-down control, distraction, and ultimate violence, it is also a resource for reinvesting local places with meaning, creating a spectacular civil contract that is based on shared attachments to collectivity, heterogeneity, and creativity. It is a non-ordinary experience that has the potential to meaninfully reconfigure the ordinary lives of many participants, even if it is to a minimal degree. Spectators are also participants, in different respects and to different degrees, but still are quite self-reflexive about their role in making the total spectacle a reality. The desire for representation through festivals is already being channeled into different styles of ethical consumption, citizenship, and activism. What is important about photos of such activities is their fragmentary and incomplete nature. They cannot fully map out the varying individual understandings, attachments, and motives while depicting the scale and number of individuals involved, producing a sense of the festival as human bazaar: disorderly, chaotic, and incomplete, which challenges dangerous mobilizations of spectacle as a totalitarian, complete, top down, supermarket model of politics.


Hakin Bey, “Temporary Autonomous Zone”,
Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed- Iconic Photographs, public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. The University of Chicago press: Chicago, 2007, p. 17. Hariman and Lucaites observe that citizenship should be understood as activated through emotional identifications in addition to calculated interest.
Kevin Michael Deluca. Image Politics- The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism, The Guilford Press: New York, 1999, p. 14-15.
Deluca 15. Indeed, I think that the music festival draws on the resources established by radical environmental confrontation movements in the 1960’s and 1970s insofar as the image-event of the festival is used to “…deconstruct and articulate identities, ideologies, consciousnesses, communities, publics, and cultures…” posing a challenge to “…the association of rhetoric with a notion of discourse as limited to words…image events are the central mode f public discourse…for alternative grassroots politics.” Further, the public that is called into being is based not on polemic or argument but an intertextual layering of multiple participatory identities—the festival pubclic is a social produced through reflexive circulations of discourse, “infinite axes of citation and characterization” (Warner 90-91)
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Zone Books: 2005, p. 8
Warner 73
Warner 74. This is particularly important in the context of the festival event—the crowd is united through orientation to a shared object of attention—the performer. All that is required is active uptake, not membership all the time, unlike the nation state that saturates identity, and it is “historical, not timeless belonging…active participation rather than ascriptive belonging…it even allows us to attribute agency to a public, even though that public ahs no institutional being or concrete manifestation…” (Warner 89). Indeed, “ the appellative energy of publics buts a different burden on us: it makes us believe our consciousness to be decisive. The direction of our gaze can constitute our social world.” (Warner 89). This also bolsters the importance reading festivals through images as they are the mediating vehicle between event and secondary observer.
Warner 90
Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed- Iconic Photographs, public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. The University of Chicago press: Chicago, 2007, p. 3
Hariman and Lucaites 251 07/rockin-at-rothbury/ o_2008.html 2008/04/11/bonarroo.jpg

1 comment:

disstress said...