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Being Human at Glastonbury: the view from the field

Written by Dr Michael Eades, a cultural contexts research fellow, this blog explores his first experience at Glastonbury.

He joined the School in 2013 to coordinate their programming and engagement with the Bloomsbury Festival, funded by a Cultural Engagement Pilot Scheme award from the AHRC. He works on the AHRC-funded project ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia'.

Between 24-29 June, festival curator Dr Michael Eades spent six days at the Glastonbury Festival – supervising an installation created for the School of Advanced Study’s programming for the 2013 Bloomsbury Festival. Six days of enduring mud, crowds, and lightning storms offered the perfect opportunity to reflect upon festivals, public engagement, and what it means to ‘be human’.

My first Glastonbury

Vivienne Westwood doesn’t like festivals. I know this because she opened her appearance at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival with just this assertion. Perhaps surprisingly for someone so closely associated with the punk movement, Westwood began her talk by stating that she’d never really been a big fan of all-night parties and has always been keen to get home to bed. I was glad to hear her say this, as it reminded me very much of my own perspective.

In a previous blog on this site I have commented that, despite having been closely involved with festivals of various sorts for the past few years, I have not generally been that much of a festival person. Perhaps this is why I managed to make it into my thirties without having been to the most famous festival of all: Glastonbury.

In 2014 however, I put aside my reservations about tents, mud, dodgy food and communal toilets (more on which below), and made my first trip to Worthy Farm—all in the name of public engagement.

An opportunity for communication

Vivienne Westwood was appearing at Glastonbury to talk about environmental issues around ‘fracking’. As she noted in her talk, despite her reservations, a festival provides an opportunity for removing the barriers between ‘experts’ and audiences, and for communicating directly with a large, diverse and (for various reasons) receptive group of people. By coincidence, and in a much smaller capacity, I was there for more or less the same reason. I was accompanying our installation Small Global: Extreme Energy, created as part of the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) programming for last year’s Bloomsbury Festival.

The installation, a collaboration between the Human Rights Consortium in SAS and audio-visual arts collective D-Fuse uses a combination of light and sound to create an immersive, informative, and at times purposefully disorientating evocation of controversies around fracking and the damage that it can cause to the environment. Much to our delight, over 3,000 people came to see our installation in the Greenpeace field over the course of the festival—helped in part by the torrential rain and lightning storms driving them to seek shelter in our dome.

Glastonbury: utopia or dystopia?

Anyone who has been to Glastonbury on a ‘mud year’ will tell you that the site can look as much like a dystopia as arcadia. A fairly small amount of rain rapidly turns the fields into a Somme-like quagmire into which wellington boots disappear with alarming rapidity, and through which bleary-eyed party-goers slip and stagger their way from one stage to the next. Looking down into the trenches that serve as mass latrines can prompt some gloomy early morning reflections on the nature of humanity. We had it all during our six days on site: thunder, hail storms, lightning hitting the Pyramid Stage and forcing a site-wide ‘power down’.

In many ways though, it is under these conditions that Glastonbury comes into its own. Another side to the festival emerges: a side that sees a small army of volunteers clearing away rubbish and keeping the site running, or providing free medical, counselling and drugs advice services. It’s a side to the festival that I experienced whilst working as part of the crew, where we shared communal meals, cooked and served by people who would later go out to raise awareness amongst dazed festival-goers about issues that they feel passionate about.

Public engagement: a human festival

It’s something that you begin to notice around the festival site, too: groups of roaming educators can be found amidst the crowds of party-goers. In 2014 these ranged from AHRC-funded researchers talking about the history of ‘Human-Chicken Interactions’, to representatives from the Wellcome Trust-funded science communicators Guerilla Science talking about the politics of sexual diversity to clubbers in Shangri-La. These were people, in other words, using the extraordinarily fluid context of a festival, in which the boundaries and structures of society are loosened, to communicate to people, fellow humans, with whom they would not normally come into contact. There is, almost, a ‘festival within a festival’ here—made up of the people helping to make the experience as a whole inspiring, creative, and informative as well as hedonistic.

As the other aspects of the festival break down, run out of juice, or have to ‘power down’, this ‘other’ festival becomes a bit clearer. It is, to me, a more genuinely communal and indeed ‘human’ festival – one that underlines the fact that a large part of ‘being human’ is about acknowledging not only our rights to individual freedom but our essential dependencies on other people.

Experiencing the Glastonbury Festival therefore underlined for me the capacity of festivals more broadly to open up spaces of possibility. By this I do not mean only the possibility for utopian moments of individual ‘freedom’, in which social constraints are suspended, but for re-engaging with essential aspects of our shared, and social, humanity.

The Being Human festival of the humanities will, we hope, achieve something similar without the need for mud and lightning storms. Our festival is one that will, we hope, tap into the sense of solidarity, shared passion and enthusiasm of those working in the humanities to create a festival that is, in the best possible sense of the word, a ‘human’ experience.