Edinburgh’s Pandemic Festival

Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, does many things from banking to beer, but its combined annual arts festival defines the modern city as much as than anything. Started as the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama in 1947 by Rudolf Bing, a British-Austrian opera impresario, it is now an amalgam of ten festivals, driven  by the monstrous Edinburgh Fringe. Most of it  happens in the summer, and it attracts a lot of people. In 2019, the last normal year, over 1.2 million visited,  more than twice the city’s resident population. By most measures, it is the largest arts festival on earth, and it makes a lot of money. One excitable analysis published in 2019 indicated that the Edinburgh Fringe alone was worth £1 billion to the Scottish economy.

Rudolf Bing saw the original festival as a direct response to trauma. Its purpose, he thought, was the healing, through culture, of the wounds of the Second World War. That purpose had its signal moment in 1947 in the appearance of Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, reunited with its pre-war conductor Bruno Walter, exiled during the war after Nazi persecution. Edinburgh’s centre had largely escaped the aerial bombardment suffered by other British cities during the war, and if somewhat austere and battered in 1947, it still could provide the festival-goer with an image of a healed world. That sense of culture as amelioration of trauma has always been strongly present: culture as a de facto good.

If the 1947 Festival was a response to the trauma of the war, the 2021 iteration of the festival was a response a different kind of trauma, the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic could not have been better designed to attack the social bases of the festival: travel, crowds, spontaneous encounters, all in the early stages of the pandemic, impossible. In common with almost all global cultural events that year, the 2020 festival was cancelled altogether. On its return in 2021, the language of healing was much in evidence. 1947 and the recovery from the Second World War were frequent reference points for both the festival organisers, and the news media.  

But inescapable this time around was the sense that culture itself was not only wounded, but was newly in question. The peculiar nature of the pandemic had made normal cultural events impossible, so the restaged version of the festival bore the physical signs of trauma. It was an uncanny event for those used to its previous existence, for there was, by comparison, nobody there. If the social logics of the normal festival had been the crowd, this one was all dispersal. Venues spread right across the city: there were pop-up venues at an-of-town office complex, Edinburgh Park, and a suburban beach at Silverknowes, and problematical indoor venues were replaced with a sort of artsy camping. Edinburgh University’s Old College had a marquee in its iconic courtyard, its audience and performers largely open to the elements.

The 2021 festival could be compelling in its weirdness. At Old College one lunchtime, without really meaning to, I stood and watched the arrangement of chairs in the empty marquee for half an hour as a piano tuner did his painstaking, repetitive work. And I wasn’t alone, as if this – watching an empty venue – had in fact become the new normal concert experience. But sometimes you were just reminded of what had been lost. In the gardens of George Square, in normal times the social hub of the Fringe, the familiar crowd seemed to have been displaced by a grid of empty tables. At times, it was less a festival, than the stage set for one.

The Book Festival managed a successful compromise, staging a hybrid version of itself in the grounds of Edinburgh College of Art, with access possible no less than three ways – streamed online, in person in two socially-distanced halls in the College, or watching proceedings live on a giant LED screen. Mostly, thankfully, it was possible to visit without prior planning. Anyone could walk in from the street and hear and watch proceedings from the deckchairs scattered around the grassy courtyard, or from inside one of the temporary gazebos. It was a rather luxurious experience (and an unavoidable one for this author, whose office overlooked the big screen). It could also be unnerving because of the sheer emptiness. The festival crowd was always somewhere else.

As a festival visitor you were never far from reminders of the trauma that gave it its shape, whether it was the mandatory mask-wearing in venues, or the electronic logging of personal details, or the deliberately antisocial arrangements of venue seating to keep audiences from  mingling. To enter each new festival space was to be reminded again of just how much the pandemic has changed everyday life.

And it could be, in spite of the heroic efforts of the organisers, an anxiety-laden experience. Some of that anxiety was realistic, to use Freud’s terminology, for it was reasonable to experience fear at re-entering the crowd after the pandemic year – the masks likely hid some of that. But some of it was undoubtedly cultural. The university’s Talbot Rice Gallery ratcheted it up with The Normal, an exhibition of dire futurology in which anxieties about the pandemic were linked to worries about climate change, sexual violence and racism. A spectacular exhibition making full use of the grandeur of the gallery’s eighteenth century interiors, its message underlined anxieties already circulating in the local media before the pandemic.

It was increasingly said that the festival was too big, a monster that had taken over the public spaces of the host city. It was moreover unsustainable, especially in the amount of air travel it generated by both audience and performers. And the festival was exclusive, of its often impoverished host citizens (a complaint dating back to 1947). The festival’s official pitch in 2021 was correspondingly cautious: its return, post-pandemic, was tentative, a recognition that there could be no return to ‘normal’, whatever that had been. And it embodied a recognition too that the trauma of 2020-1 had been about in many ways about culture in its industrialised form, as well as the pandemic. If there was no straightforward healing in this festival, it was because there couldn’t be. As the festival’s organisers said publicly, the pandemic had exposed some of its faultlines, as well as those, more generally, of the voracious culture industries. The future, they said, will be smaller, quieter, and more self-reflexive. That may be no bad thing at all.  

Published in New Associations, the magazine of the British Psychoanalytic Council, Autumn 2021.

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