Borealis, like other festivals with the majority of their funding provided by the government, must still package, promote and justify itself in terms defined by the marketplace. Be that as it may, despite the limitations of bureaucracy, funding restrictions and other political expectations, in my six years as Artistic Director, I attempted to provide a context for musicians, artists and thinkers to roam free. To provide a margin of fertile ground in which they might prowl the confines of this, our docile, frightened order. Confronted with the impossibility of making a stand (which would simply mean replacing one slogan with another) against the Capitalist platitudes of personal fulfilment, uncritical celebration, unity and pleasure, I tried instead to create a current in which the over-simplification of category was troubled, if not washed away altogether. Of course, at Borealis we had parties, enjoyed one another’s company and danced together. But my aspiration was never for festival audiences to raise their collective arms in the air. The individual is not “a multitude of one million divided by one million”1. Melodies are not tools for hooking listeners. Promoting artists does not have to be the same as fetishizing them. My intention was not that Borealis should contribute to the soundtrack of people’s lives like some banal, sonic wallpaper. It is a beautiful thing to be in, and to enjoy one another’s company without critical engagement. But to feel that we are sharing experiences is not the same as actually doing so. The problem is that the persuasive power of music would often have us believe otherwise. And it is this quality for which music is most used and abused.
Even experimental music is a victim of the market forces of tribalism, novelty and fetishization. In my fight against these, I was happy for Borealis to feature artists that might be contradictory, difficult, incomprehensible and even repellent to some. And likewise the festival’s identity. I attempted to create a festival that any public relations woman would have a difficult job getting her slippery fingers around. Of course, if the festival’s boundaries were clearer and the steps it took for change incremental, it would have been much easier for us to design and locate our target audiences. But in so doing, we would also have had to promote the festival as being something we know people know that they want – entice audiences with promises of fulfilment; solutions to ontological and intellectual problems we could not in fact provide.
But instead of plastering over the wounds of our existence with the temporary solace that we might take in the superficially shared experience of music, I attempted with Borealis to take full advantage of the fact that a festival is, above all else, a collection of people moving through time and space, and for this reason capable of absorbing a high level of complexity and change. Of all the media through which we experience music, a festival is perhaps capable of the highest degree of internal contradiction. Artists with very different approaches to their work can be programmed alongside one another, in venues that provide distinct contexts for the experience of listening. Music can be discussed as well as heard. Artists and audiences can co-exist, eat together, talk to one another, and share ideas. When Borealis worked best, it functioned as an engine, fuelling those participating in it as artists, as volunteers, as audience members, in whatever capacity, rather than as a frame within which they must operate. Because we commissioned and gave first performances of many new works each year, we had to take our lead from artists in shaping the festival around their developing projects. This was an exciting process because when the day finally came for their work to be presented at the festival, we could never be fully certain – and sometimes have very little idea at all – what it was our audience could expect.
To engage with us in these unpredictable acts of creative venture, our audiences needed to be both courageous and generous. But instead of enticing audiences to Borealis by simplistically promoting to them such ideas of themselves (If you’re bold, come to Borealis!), we often went instead in search of audiences wherever we could find them, taking music and ideas to homes, schools, and offices; recycling stations, courthouses, racetracks, and crypts. This peripatetic approach to the festival brought a spectrum of musical thinking to people who might otherwise reject it outright, as well bringing together people who might not in other circumstances find themselves seated together under one roof. It also allowed us to re-hear music, freed from the confines of conventional listening environments, and thereby also to reconsider sound, music and silence in our lives. In the end, I attempted to create Borealis as a portal, an aperture through which artists and audiences could pass. And it is as a breach in the fabric of our expectations that I hope it continues to thrive in the years to come. By the absence of qualities such as unity, clarity and tangibility by which objects are defined and marketed, Borealis can provide a haphazard space in which ideas can move, expand, develop or dissolve.
1 Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940).