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Attentive Festivalisation – Rebecca O'Dwyer

Sunday 4th January, 2015

The Visual Artists’ News Sheet January – February 2015 | VAI / DCC Critical writing award


Festivalisation, insomuch as I understand it, involves a specific kind of process or set of tendencies: it outlines a movement whereby singular events are exploded into a multiplicity of forms and platforms. Certainly it bears some relation to the art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s pejorative term ‘festivalism’, which he uses to evoke a contemporary tendency to prioritise temporary spectacle – particularly installation art – within large-scale exhibition making.1 This, he describes as ‘festival art’: “environmental stuff that, existing only in exhibition, exalts curators over dealers and a hazily evoked public over dedicated art mavens”.2 Here, permanence is sidelined in favour of ambitious but temporary projects: artworks that are always already on the point of leaving. 

Logically, then, festivalisation names a process whereby strategies of festivalism assume dominance within the broader milieu; clearly this denotes a set of processes in step with the contemporary tendency towards the short-term ‘project’ in lieu of permanent engagement.3 Contra this, I would like to affirm Saskia Sassen’s term ‘placeboundedness’ as an important conceptual horizon on which to base expectations, and to gauge the success of contemporary festivalisation within the discourse of global art.4 

Festivalisation is of course culturally ubiquitous, and not solely reserved for the visual arts. Partly an economic necessity, and partly representative of quantitative desire – i.e. to experience a lot, in an efficient manner – its effects are broadly felt: this year in Ireland there were more than 200 cultural festivals.5 Clearly, then, the festival is a thoroughly appealing format, something in it presents an invaluable opportunity for the arts. Of key importance here are the whys of festivalisation, and thus, to examine it materially as symptomatic of strategies of globalisation and neoliberal capitalism more broadly. Does the festival format retain any space – interstitial or otherwise – within which to create something new and / or antagonistic, and not merely to reproduce the wider conditions of which it is a symptom? Put bluntly, is the contemporary festival form now irrelevant as a form of exhibition making within the arts? 

The short answer is, of course, no. Globally, some of the best contemporary art is made specifically for arts festival form par excellence, the ‘biennale’ (Documenta, Venice, Liverpool, etc.), and quite simply these events present the most efficient means of seeing a surfeit of exceptional art, not exactly under one roof, but close enough.6 What Schjeldahl terms ‘festival art’, too, is necessarily exceptional in character. Similarly, year-long festivals such as those staged under the auspices of the European (or UK) cities of culture often provide a much-needed boost – both economic and reputational – to the local environment. Indeed it appears as though these events, although of course positive in terms of artistic content, are even more beneficial by virtue of their powers in rethinking and rebranding, by altering perceptions and by imparting a degree of creative gravitas to a place. Indeed, in a sense, the contemporary festival-form could be thought almost as a victim of its own success: in such a way, festivals are wont to evaluate their own achievements not on artistic merit, but rather by the extent to which they have fulfilled economic or political expectation – numbers of tourists, amount of ticket sales, secondary revenue, etc.

As the sociologist Monica Sassatelli writes: “The fact that a good proportion of the scarce literature on contemporary festivals has been driven by economic research focusing exclusively on economic returns, and thus on an instrumental vision of festivals, has also contributed to reinforcing the idea that contemporary festivals are – from a cultural point of view – of little relevance, as they are dominated by commercial, ‘inauthentic’ logics”.7 

Arguably, then, the festival format increases in visibility to the extent by which it recedes in relevance as a cultural from. The more economically successful it is, the more its overall success is gauged solely on those terms. And yet at the same time this is inevitable: how do political departments or other funding bodies – often without real knowledge of art -– gauge its value if not through economic criteria? As a result, a kind of unhelpful dichotomy persists with regard to the contemporary artistic festival: the commercial, ‘inauthentic’ festival, on the one hand, and on the other the festival that resists commercialisation, in doing so opening up a space for some kind of ostensibly valid artistic gesture. This dichotomy, I would argue, is hopelessly inconsequential. It is neither possible nor desirable to enact a festival on the basis of its refusal of the dominant appraisal of value; that is, monetary. Rather, new and supplementary criteria for gauging creative success should be put forward, counteracting the homogeneity of solely economic reasoning. 

Festivalisation, in this light, might be distinguished from biennales on the basis of an engagement with the above dichotomy: the former failing to do so, while the latter – when they are successful – acting to create new forms of value and engagement within the broader conditions of the late capitalist milieu. As such, the latter always runs the risk of slipping into the former, and so of merely unquestioningly reiterating these aforementioned conditions: temporary and cursory artistic engagement serving only to reiterate the self-same strategies of globalised, capitalist engagement. The biennale runs the risk of becoming pure festival, pure spectacle, in the absence of some attendant contradiction of capital. Given the language of sociality and exchange that pervades the socio-economic milieu, the contemporary festival fails to offer a point of intrinsic contradiction; structurally, it instead reiterates the grounds on which a contemporary understanding of (social, immaterial etc.) capitalism is predicated. As Peter Osborne writes: “Art is a privileged cultural carrier of contemporaneity, as it was of previous forms of modernity. With the historical expansion, geopolitical differentiation and temporal intensification of contemporaneity, it has become critically incumbent upon any art with a claim on the present to situate itself, reflexively, within this expanded field”.8 

Understood within such a horizon, the festival functions as an agent not only of neoliberal capitalism, but also of contemporaneity itself. Boris Groys describes the contemporary as a period of doubt and hesitation, indicative of a desire for “a prolonged, even potentially infinite period of delay”.9 Traditionally the festival is to be conceived analogously, by offering a means of subversion or a halting of daily quotidian life: a “time out of time”.10 Thus, both the concept of the contemporary and that of the festival foreground the possibility of the present moment as a point radically at odds with the homogeneity of time. As Groys affirms, in both, “the present is a moment in time when we decide to lower our expectations of the future or to abandon some of the dear traditions of the past in order to pass through the narrow gate of the here-and-now”.11 The contemporary, then, reiterates the traditional festival’s operation. Indeed we might think of it as being inherently festivalist, but purged of the utopian impulse on which the latter was traditionally founded. The contemporary festival, then, does not inherently offer a break or rupture of the existing milieu, but only its formal intensification. 

Here in Ireland there have been both successes and failures in negotiating this particular bind. To illustrate this, we might contrast two recent large-scale art exhibitions: Dublin Contemporary and Eva International. The former was founded as a quinquennial in 2011, like Documenta; the latter, a Limerick-based biennale, was first staged in 1977, with its latest iteration taking place in 2014. In their differences, we can perceive the importance of placeboundedness within contemporary large-scale exhibition making. The problem with Dublin Contemporary was that it illustrated very little of it, aside from the actual physical setting of the exhibition, and the presence of some Irish artists, it remained only nominally place bound. Eva, by contrast, consistently appeals to a more local context, whilst retaining the ambition and rigour present within the highlights of Dublin Contemporary.

Given that Dublin Contemporary was staged during the 2011 Venice Biennale, it also badly needed a point of differentiation to foreground its necessity; largely failing to do so, it not only estranged tourists, but the local Dublin context, too.12 Eva feels more vital, more entrenched within its context and, although possibly more economically urgent or necessary in Limerick, does not appear to be predicated on only these grounds. Dublin Contemporary – due perhaps to that fact that it took place within the capital rather than on the periphery – seemed indicative only of a desire to do something. Arguably, this ‘something’ failed to differentiate itself and was as much a result of branding than any concerted effort to engage with the problems and inconsistencies inherent to Dublin, as opposed to anywhere else. 

Certainly it is no coincidence that festivals – and in particular biennales – predominantly take place in cities. Indeed, under current conditions it is specifically creativity that has become the preeminent driving force in capitalist expansion and growth, not only in cities, but in regions and nations more broadly.13 This is apparent in cities like San Francisco and London, but also Dublin. Recent dizzy hyperbole surrounding the Web Summit, for example, served only to emphasise creativity’s unparalleled valorisation as a force for contemporary growth. It is into this discourse that any conception of festivalisation must necessarily inhere. Understood this way – as a particular symptom and vehicle of economic growth – the festival format is almost naturalised as a product of global capitalism. What is crucial, though, is the means by which this creative growth forms within the particular format, avoiding a situation that sees the festival estranged – as with Dublin Contemporary – from its own particular conception of place. Here, San Francisco’s blacked-out tech buses, transporting workers from their city homes to Silicon Valley, function as a fitting analogy. Capital has no responsibility to place; it has instead an ever-diminishing sense of ‘placeboundedness’. In opposition, the arts and its attendant festivals might instead offer an engagement that is inherently fidelitous to place, seeking to affirm a “strategic terrain for a whole series of conflicts and contradictions”.14 These conflicts and contradictions of place might not all be productive – or at least not in economic terms. 

In Forgetting the Art World (2012), Pamela M. Lee offers a trenchant affirmation of the ineluctable bondage of the ‘art world’, to the world ‘out there’. She says: “To speak of ‘the work of art’s world’ is to retain a sense of the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates: a world Mobius-like in its indivisibility and circularity, a seemingly endless horizon”.15

For Lee the ‘work of art’s world’ is inseparable from the wider conditions of its making. Thus the city is of course the perfect site for a contemporary large-scale art festival – as it is for any kind of global capitalist exchange. The difference is that the latter necessitates no real engagement, aside from one purely economic in nature. Festivals, though symptomatic and indeed catalytic of capital, should engage neither transitorily nor parasitically, but with a productivity that seeks to sharpen and foreground the gaps and inconsistencies of place. 

One means of tackling the problem of placeboundedness would involve utilising our already-existing artistic institutions, in supplementing and extending a project’s legacy. This, I feel, would also create a greater support for such projects, in that it would necessarily involve a greater amount of people permanently invested in the city. Similarly, these institutions could formulate new formats for presenting art that would appeal to this festivalist-desire – admittedly, this would be a tricky line to walk, but it would be possible with some sensitivity.Here, the recent staging of Gracelands at IMMA as part of the Summer Rising festival is a case in point. Such a festival would feel less artificial than its temporary, bombastic counterpoint: a result of permanent, engaged structures, rather than some after-thought or misguided exercise in branding. 

New criteria and evaluative tools must be put forward; at the very least, some engagement as to why, in fact, people will travel and spend money on art. Recent political furor has foregrounded the possibility that Irish politicians do not even want to understand art, let alone know why they should fund it.16 But if art and its attendant festival form are indeed lucrative then surely politics needs to understand why, ensuring increased differentiation and thus revenue in the future. Declan Long, writing recently in the Irish Times, asks a pertinent question: “In light of Scotland, and more particularly Glasgow’s artistic achievements, is it possible to think that an Irish city might be thought of in similar terms in the future?17 What would need to happen for this to take place? Festivalisation – thought about specifically, with attentiveness and with the involvement of our permanent institutions – might be one way of achieving this, neither negating nor appeasing the economic rationale that gives rise to it, but instead seeking to problematise its relative demand on place. To what purpose is art being instrumentalised? And to what ends?


*Published here with the permission of and thanks to Visual Artists Ireland



1. Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Festivalism’, The New Yorker, July 5, 1999, 85

2. Ibid

3. For more on the cultural significance of the ‘project’, see Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, 2013, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass & London, 4 – 6

4. Saskia Sassen (1998) Globalization and its Discontents, The New Press, New York, xxiv

5. For more information, see: This figure does not include specifically commercial events, e.g. music festivals

6. I use this term loosely: Documenta, for example, happens every five years

7. Gerard Delanty, Liana Giorgi, and Monica Sassatelli (eds.) Festivals and the Cultural Public Sphere, 2011, Routledge, New York & London, 17

8. Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, 2013, Verso, London & New York, 27 

9. Boris Groys, ‘Comrades of Time’, e-flux no. 11, December 2009, available at:

10. Alessandro Falassi, Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, 1987, University of Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1–10 

11. Lane Relaya, Your Everyday Art World

12. Certainly the local critical reaction was ambivalent at best. For examples, see Declan Long, ‘What Else? On Dublin Contemporary’, The Irish Review, Issue 45, Winter 2012 and Francis Halsall, ‘It’s Hard to Satirize a Guy in Shiny Boots’, Paper Visual Art Journal Dublin Edition, November 2011

13. Specifically, this is the divisive argument of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002 and Cities and the Creative Class, 2004

14. Ibid, xxv 

15. Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, 2012, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass & London, 8

16. In particular, I refer to the recent furore regarding John McNulty’s appointment to the board of IMMA, and the particular breed of political cynicism (or antipathy) suggested by such a move. The notes from the ensuing debate are highly illuminating in this regard, in particular Senator Marie-Louise O’ Donnell’s words: “To me modern art has no explanation and at times we have hundreds and thousands of psychologists, sociologists and culturally aware people trying to explain it. When one has to explain things one is losing, as we know”. The debate can be found online in full here:

17. Declan Long, ‘The artistic vision of Scotland’s golden generation’, the Irish Times, 19 August 2014, available at


Rebecca O’ Dwyer is an art critic and PhD candidate at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. Forthcoming and newly published texts include: A Rethinking of Place (December 2014) Niamh O’ Malley, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; A Seductive Union (2013) in Caoimhe Doyle, ed. (2014); Weaponising Speculation, New York, Punctum Books; Mother’s Annual 2013 (2014), mother’s tankstation, Dublin; and An Interview with Gedi Sibony (2014), Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin.

Rebecca O’Dwyer was the recipient of the DCC / VAI Critical Art Writing Award for 2014

The DCC / VAI Critical Art Writing Award was launched in 2011 and was devised as a developmental opportunity for writers as part of Dublin City Council Arts Office and Visual Artists Ireland’s commitment to encouraging and supporting critical dialogue around contemporary visual art practice. Previous winners were: James Merrigan (2011); Joanne Laws (2012/13). Rebecca O’Dwyer has been awarded the 2014 DCC / VAI Critical Art Writing Award. This year, applicants were invited to consider the subject ‘Festivals and Cities’.

The award comprises: an honorarium from Dublin City Council Arts Office of €800 (a €500 commission for a 2000 – 2500 word article on ‘Festivals and Cities’ for the Visual Artists’ News Sheet and a €300 commission to write a shorter text in relation to an aspect of Dublin City Council, The LAB’s 2014 / 2015 programme; as well as editorial support and mentoring from the Visual Artists’ News Sheet editorial / production team. Details of the 2015 DCC / VAI Critical Art Writing Award will be announced later this year.



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