Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The festivalisation of culture penetrates all areas of the arts. No longer is it possible to offer a string of Mozart concerts. Nowadays it has to be a Mozart festival. hidden europe probes the issues of authenticity surrounding Europe's growing festival calendar.

article summary —

The hidden europe postbag brings an improbable range of advertisements for what promoters euphemistically call ‘new destinations' - a formulation which we take to mean that a marketing man in London or Los Angeles has received a fat consultancy fee to ‘package' a community in a glitzy promotion designed to woo the tourist dollar. The New York Times, we are told, has decided that Basilicata in southern Italy is a hot new destination for 2007. Italian millionaires and American film directors are evidently rushing to open boutique hotels in Basilicata's hilltop towns. Probably anyone with an ounce of nous has already booked their flights. We are also intrigued to find that our home city of Berlin features on The New York Times hot list for 2007. "Berlin is like New York City in the nineteen-eighties," preens the newspaper, giving thanks for the fact that places in the eastern part of the German capital that were once mere squats or art studios are now happily metamorphosing into smart retail showrooms. Consumption is of course much more important than art, and the homeless can always be moved on around the corner - out of sight of visiting tourists.

The plugs that the advertisers use to promote destinations need not bear any relation to reality. It helps of course to have a couple of impossibly expensive hotels, though on closer examination such premium brand hotels often turn out to be clones of their counterparts across the globe: five star comfort in Berlin is identical to Barcelona, Barbados and Beijing. But the real trump card is the festival - which can be promoted as the antidote to the bland homogenisation that otherwise underpins the subtle art of destination promotion. Festivals have the capacity to become a city's distinguishing mark: what is Pamplona without its bull-run, Edinburgh without the fringe and Bayreuth without Wagner?

Many festivals build on local cultural capital - ‘gypsies' come in handy in adding a splash of colour to any carnival. And many import a few cultural assets that are designed to appeal to the finer sensibilities of would-be visitors. A Midsummer Night's Dream is as pleasing and undemanding at the Aspen summer festival in the Colorado Rockies as ever it is to the punters at the Ohrid festival in Macedonia. A glass of chilled white wine, a lakeshore setting and a little Shakespeare or opera - preferably all done and dusted in good time to allow the visitors to move on to a late dinner in some exquisite restaurant: such gentle evenings that blend culture and consumption have become the mainstay of many European summer festivals.

If the evening is reserved for high culture, then the daytime must ooze local colour, and if the spectacle can contrive to provide peasant dancing, a few taboo-breaking parades (with extravagant juxtapositions of the beautiful and the bizarre), then our festival has all the makings of a first rate tourist attraction. Whether it is even remotely connected to the local culture is another matter. The illusion of authenticity and historical roots is critical.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 14.