The Role of Celebration Arts
In the world of community-engaged arts, celebration arts have always played a major role. The following is not an exhaustive overview, but a reinforcement of the importance of celebration in historical and contemporary art and cultural practices, through my own development as an artist and the artists who have influenced that work.
Throughout human experience we have created rituals and celebrations to mark and participate in the forces that affect our lives: the changing of the seasons, anniversaries of historic events, celebrations of group solidarity, re-establishing our relationship to each other, the land we live on, defining who we are and how we fit in.
We celebrate with fire, water, flowers, incense, food and music to connect us to the elements. Costumes, parades, dancing, stilt walkers, giant puppets, and flags allow us to step outside of our normal activities, dress up, sing in public, and dance with our neighbours. We celebrate the return of spring, light fires on the darkest days, acknowledge politicians and service clubs in civic parades, give a hero's welcome to our successful hockey teams, honour the dead with silence, and honk our car horns for a passing wedding party.
We celebrate in more personal ways: feasting together to celebrate harvest; passing a baby around the circle to welcome her into her community; turning the soil to begin spring planting; offering the first fish back to the river.
Around the world communities have celebrations, some that date back millennia, that mark the seasons, re-affirm spiritual beliefs, re-assert social hierarchies, and the historical myths of place. In Moravia, the annual parading of an effigy of spring, with a long necklace of hollow eggs, is still practiced; the "devils" of Catalonia still cause havoc in the streets once a year, followed the next morning by nuns sprinkling holy water; the traditions of "Carnival" have traveled the world from Fasnachte lanterns and costume clubs in Basel, Switzerland to the flamboyant carnival in Oruro, Bolivia. For many communities these celebrations are the most important religious, social and artistic events of the year.
Where I grew up, in Edmonton, this was mainly expressed in Heritage Days type festivals, and local country fairs, where the barest echo of rich traditions were acted out in stylized dances and national costumes. But I was neither Scottish enough nor Ukrainian enough to be in a folk dance group, and the parade in my town was Klondike Days, an event far in the past that I had no family ties to. I had a sense of parade and celebration as a social imperative, central to expressing who we are, and giving us a sense of not only belonging, but being of this place, and I longed to make them relevant to my own life. I apprenticed in theatre, but didn't know how to get from theatre as we knew it, to its ritual function as I'd sensed it from my high school study of Greek myths. I was convinced that, when the ancient Greeks were acting out the myth of Persephone, it was not an "entertainment", but a ritual releasing her from her bondage and ensuring the return of spring in the "real" world. It was a need to find contemporary form that would carry the same depth of experience that led me to explore the universal impulses in community celebration. My stated mission was to "revive and redefine community arts, and the artist's role in the community." This also led me to discover that I was not alone.
Parades, Protest and Pageantry: Reclaiming Public Space
The political activism and spiritual yearnings of the ‘60s and ‘70s led to the rediscovery and re-invention of public ritual by the avant-garde of the performance art scene. Some revisited ancient sites and created their own versions of ancient rites, like Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in England; some invented their own traditions like Donna Henes’ Egg Standing on End on the vernal equinox. A collective of artists in New York called The Celebration Group described their work as "re-inventing ritual in our culture to experience community." Some looked to Carnival and other pagan seasonal celebrations, with their traditions of public dancing, parade bands, giant puppets, bonfires, fireworks and political satire. They reclaimed public space with large theatrical demonstrations, happenings and festivals. There was a sense of the "necessity to integrate art and social life" in "an age of de-humanized technology", as Lucy Lippard put it. There was (and still is) a sense that while the 'village customs' of ritualized celebration may have been dying out, the basic human impulses that created those traditions were still strong.
Giant puppets have appeared in civic and religious festivals in Europe at least as far back as the 14th century; they have also been associated with political satire, subversion of authority, and social criticism, and have often been outlawed. (This is still true today: as recently as 1999, in the National Republican Convention in Philadelphia, U.S., when the puppet workshop, called the "Ministry of Puppetganda", was raided by police. The artists were arrested and the puppets destroyed.) For many, our knowledge of giant puppets and their connection to radical or protest puppetry starts with Bread and Puppet.
Under the banner of resistance of the heart against “business as usual", Bread and Puppet Theatre, directed by the brilliant Peter Schumann, has been creating politically radical and poetic theatrical statements since the ‘60s, protesting the Vietnam War, and are still actively training artists of resistance. They devised big, monumental statements that required many people to work together, as in their annual Domestic Resurrection Circus, an outdoor pageant style performance that involves hundreds. The influences of Bread and Puppet can be seen in community celebrations and public protests across north America and Europe.
The Welfare State, founded in 1968 and disbanded in 2005, is often cited as a precursor to community art as we know it today, as well as to popular art events such as Burning Man. Started by a group of visual artists frustrated by the isolation of studio work, the Welfare State artists literally took their work to the streets in an effort to re-establish popular theatre traditions that had their roots in Carnival; the Feast of Fools, the fairground, the mummers and the tradition of subversion as entertainment. They called themselves Engineers of the Imagination, creating spectacle and political satire with giant puppets, pyrotechnics and processional bands.
Welfare State first came to Canada in1980, when they performed their own version of The Tempest on Snake Island, as part of the Toronto Theatre Festival. Though the narrative of the play barely existed, what they achieved was visual poetry in landscape and community participation on a grand scale: Ladies in Louis the IVX wigs having tea; a giant spider puppet manipulated by 8 people with fireworks exploding behind it; a tiny boat in flames cast into the harbour; a country dance; and a procession with open flame torches, live music, and a small model of the community carried along in the ecstatic crowd. The physicality of the form—the pageantry and dancing—made it impossible for the audience to remain in a passive role. There was no 'audience', there was just "us." It was a transformative experience; for the participants, for that community – who went on to form Shadowland Theatre, participating annually in the Caribana Parade in Toronto – and was a major influence in my own work and the creation of the Public Dreams Society.
While Welfare State had introduced me to the transformative power of fire, procession, and group ecstatic experience, it was working in my own hometown that I learned the power and possibility of civic ritual.
Marilyn Wood, a choreographer from New York (and one of the original members of the Celebration Group (who later established the International Conference of Celebration Artists) was invited, along with Evelyn Roth (beloved avant-garde artist well known in Vancouver for her crocheted video tape installations and fibre arts based performance), to create a massive city celebration as part of the World University Games in 1983. In describing her own work, Marilyn has said she feels she is reinventing the ancient public festival; that city celebrations "revitalize a sense of community, reinvigorate spirit of place, renew creativity toward a shared goal, and re-infuse fantasy, colour, imagery, movement, sound and spirit into the heart of a city."
The city had been undergoing tremendous upheaval of new construction and reconfiguration of the downtown core as a result of some oil boom or other, and as much as anything the entire project – the murals, public art, street performers parades and city celebration – was about reclaiming and rediscovering the brand new fresh-out-of-the-box city core. It began with Red Tape at City Hall, a symbolic act that turned out to be the truth. The performance included politicians cutting through a massive web of red tape and, barring that, barred the entrance to the building, with giant pairs of scissors marking the beginning of a week where the artists were given permission to take over and transform the city.
An entire hotel was given over as the international artists village, the treasury branch across the street, with its marble floors and long counters – perfect for rolling out bolts of fabric and nylon for giant inflatables, parade props and costumes – became our Celebration Centre, and the city gave the artists carte blanche to take over the streets and buildings.
We paraded almost every day: giant fish lanterns, led by the divine drummers from Ghana, swam through the birch forest in the river valley where I had played as a kid; dancers from Sri Lanka did back flips down the main street of Jasper avenue with ballerinas from the local dance schools; we grabbed office workers on their lunch breaks and got them to put on costumes or carry giant puppets. The week of events culminated in an event called New Reflections.
On the morning of the event, a giant nylon sun hung suspended from the glinting golden towers of the flashy new Scotia Place where New Reflections was set to take place. The whole week of events had given me a sense of permission and validation and belonging that I had never experienced before—a sense that what I was doing was important, and that the whole city was in the same state of preparation and anticipation of the culminating ritual in our reclaiming of the buildings that had been imposed on our landscape.
As Parade Boss, I led a death-dance parade around the outside perimeter of the event site to make a lot of noise and scare away any bad energy and to prepare the sacred site. My costume included a "Where is Tanya?" poster - for a little girl who was missing. I wore it on my chest to honour her, and to ask the question of my fellow citizens.
Reg Sylvester, writing in the Edmonton Bullet (July 22, 1983), describes the event: "The parade was startlingly primitive - primitive us rather than some kind of sanitized ritual performance from some other continent, brought here and presented as exotica. This was a mystical procession, a reminder that a parade is not necessarily a line up of colourful floats hawking products and organizations. The entire event combined the efforts of community choirs, visiting arts groups, dance companies, fitness groups and volunteers in an event that re-claimed the downtown core, ‘baptizing’ and transforming the landscape, and our relationships to it, forever."
By taking over and transforming public space, we reclaim human space, and bind community, building connections and empowering people to address other issues that affect the life of the community. By repeating the event, it becomes part of the community calendar, and social fabric.
The Role of the Artist in Creating New Traditions
In communities without shared cultural traditions, contemporary celebration artists look for ways to bridge those differences by highlighting what we have in common. Though we don't set out to "fix" things, celebration can be a forum for community concerns and address a fundamental sense of dissociation. In many cases the work comes from the artist’s experience of living in a place, and answers a personal as well as community need.
Foundation and creation myths, the story of who we are and how we came to be here, form the basis of all traditional cultures.
In 1986, when I moved to Vancouver, I undertook to explore what our foundation story was. Journey to the New World took place in Strathcona, an old and multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Vancouver that in the ‘40s referred to their school as "the League of Nations." There was a re-enactment of a creation myth that combined the cultural stories of the participants, with a First Nations family representing the first people, followed by a procession from East and West, to the New World, led by figures representing Asian and European grandmothers. As well as situating ourselves in relation to each other culturally, it also bridged the cultural gap between the older residents and the "crazy artists" in their midst.
As a new resident to the small town of Enderby, Theatre artist and puppet maker, Cathy Stubbington, orchestrated the creation of the Enderby Community Play, where the town told their story of the first animals, first peoples and first settlers. Combining stories gathered from the people who share the town, Cathy, director James Faigan Taite, and the many community participants created a story about who lives there and how the town was founded. By acting it out, they had an opportunity to express, and see, who they are together.
Cathy continues working with the people she lives with. Her latest work is creating agriculture, through four seasonal spectacles with many ritual elements. The winter event, Out in the Cold, included dancing farmers, snow angels, and dog tricks. There was a journey, and the farmers gave each person a hot potato wrapped in tin foil, to carry as a hand warmer. At the end of the journey they ate the potatoes and watched a shadow play of the dreams of the farmers. The event infused the landscape with imagination, poetic metaphor, and archetypes that remain in the shared memory of everyone who was there.
Though the community play in Enderby has often been cited as a good example of community healing and community building through the arts, Cathy emphasizes that whether it is or not is not for her to say: it may be a happy by-product, but community healing is not the initial impulse.
Bringing people together in creative celebration can also bring attention, through casual conversation, to other community concerns; and because people have been working together, gives them the power to act on this concern, as Illuminares, and the lake restoration project that grew out of it.
Illuminares, the first of many lantern events that have become traditions in communities across the country, began as a response to the question, "How do we celebrate together in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual community?" Working with elements that are universal, the lighting of a candle in the darkness, made it possible for people from very diverse backgrounds to relate, and bring their own styles and insights into the mix. The festival brought together diversity, reflected in an observation one year in walking around the lake that eight different languages were overheard being spoken in the crowd. Because we danced around the lake every year there was a greater awareness of the degradation of the water quality in the lake, which resulted in a public restoration project and 20-year environmental plan for the lake.
When Carmen Rosen set out to create what is now the Moon Festival in her neighbourhood in East Vancouver, she wanted to bring attention to and support the creation of efforts towards restoration of the creek that runs through her neighbourhood. The festival incorporates a lantern procession that follows the stream and illuminated installations created by community members and artists. It ends with a spectacle that includes hundreds of community musicians playing a fusion of jazz, Chinese traditional and youth compositions, torch swingers, stilt walkers and dancers. Designed literally to "shed light on" the Renfrew Ravine and stream that flows through their neighbourhood, it celebrates the efforts of the community towards better stewardship of the waterway. By walking together every year along the waterway, the community re-affirms its relationship with the stream.
Some celebrations link us to the seasons, and our desire to acknowledge the sacred in a community without shared religion.
The Annual Solstice Lantern Event in Vancouver produced by the Secret Lantern Society builds on a tradition of marking the longest night of the year that has roots all across the Northern hemisphere. In order to maintain a sense of intimacy and accessibility, Artistic Director Naomi Singer has organized simultaneous events in six local neighbourhoods. These six little festivals are community-based and reflect the individual nature of each neighbourhood. Each is unique and yet works within the common context of creating light on the darkest night, much the same way as say weddings, or birthdays or any common celebrations, vary from region to region and household to household while sharing certain essential elements.
One of the installations at the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival is an intricate labyrinth: six hundred candle-lit lanterns laid out along a meditative path. Before one enters the path there is moment of pause, a liminal area before the transitional entrance through Cedar Boughs. The Labyrinth, adapted from a pagan tradition and originally contributed to the event by Marcel Miro, is recreated each year by Gregory Byrne. People who have walked through the labyrinth describe it as a sacred experience. Having witnessed the powerful effect the labyrinth had on people, Naomi facilitated the creation of a second labyrinth in one of the other participating neighbourhoods to ensure that more people could benefit from this ancient ritual. Creating space with intention is a powerful experience and the effects are tangible throughout the process, from preparing the path, to inviting participants to enter, and until the last candle is extinguished.
The annual Parade of the Lost Souls in East Vancouver was inspired by the Greenwich Village Hallowe'en Parade and my own personal reaction to Hallowe'en. I wanted my children to understand the deeper meanings of that time of year, to re-establish its roots as a marking of the season, and a time to honour our ancestors. The festival has evolved into a giant street party, a testament to people's desire to dress up and dance together in the streets.
But it was the immediate embracing of the shrine to honour our ancestors at Parade of the Lost Souls, and my subsequent introduction to the state of the modern funeral when my dad died, that led me to the belief that artists have a role in reclaiming the important rituals around death and mourning; that, once again, the tradition may have been left behind, but the human impulse to honour the dead had not
At A Night for All Souls, at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, the role of the artists is to create what I call a sanctuary of beauty for people to experience their intimate feelings. Prior to and during the event, the public are provided materials for creating personal memorials. Some people bring their own.
Artists made shrines, flowers, candles, tea, fire and music to create a social occasion for the sharing of personal stories and cultural traditions, and expressions of private sorrow and remembrance.
In all of this work, the distinction between "performer" and audience is blurred or obliterated. Either through participation in workshops and rehearsals, performance, or being "caught up in the moment", rather than a passive experience, it becomes a collective expression. The artist creates a space where everybody is invited to participate, inspire each other; and work alongside artists who inspire us all to greater beauty and depth.
In community and celebration arts the process of creating the event or final "product" is acknowledged to be as important as the end. The idea that "preparation for the ritual is the ritual" has become a guiding principle, from how people are invited to participate, through planning, creation, the day of the event, and how we follow up. The way we create the work informs the work.
The job of the artist is in providing the framework for public participation and creative expression, from planning and public workshops, creating parts of a greater whole and rehearsals for performances, to putting something they already do into a different context (cellists in the forest, choirs on rooftops). While we definitely bring an overall vision to the event, we also act as a conduit for the creative energies that go into creating the whole. Theatre artists, ritualists, therapists, group strategy facilitators and celebration artists recognize their power to transport individuals, to create space for transformative experience, and the responsibility that comes with this role.
Public celebration offers an opportunity for individual creativity and expression within a larger framework of collective expression, and a place where neighbours who might not otherwise have interaction come together. It is a pleasurable, and enriching, way to spend time together; people get involved on various levels – playing in community bands, as torch spinners, creating flower garlands for shrines – because it's fun, or gives meaning, or it beats bowling. It is an ever evolving form, re-framing traditional practices to respond to contemporary realities, borrowing from other traditions as people move from region to region and around the world. (One of my favourites is Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a Robbie Burn/ Chinese New Years' Dinner event created by Todd Wong, or Toddish McWong, celebrating multiple heritage.)
Community based celebrations perform a public service, bringing us together in a collective expression, and maintaining our link with metaphor and beauty. By questioning, inspiring and re-inventing our customs and traditions, we reinforce culture as a living entity. Celebration arts are not decorative entertainments, but are expressions tied to core human impulses, and our needs as artists are meshed with the needs of the community we live in and serve.
Culture is not static: it grows and evolves because it is an expression of, and response to, human experience. Rituals and celebrations are adapted to meet the needs of the people who use them, who need them. Artists will continue to evolve celebration forms, exploring environmental issues, social activism, the spiritual life of the community, and all aspects of our lives together as humans, not towards some distant better world, but creating the world we want to live in right here and now.