In March 2020, as offices and teaching moved online, I left Scotland for my native country of Sweden and haven’t been back since. In my research, I’m looking at the social and economic effects of festivals in Paisley, Scotland. On-site events research is, unsurprisingly, not the best line of work right now.
Being in Sweden has meant a higher degree of normality, as they maintain one of the most lenient restriction policies in Europe over time (brief bouts of ’openness’ notwithstanding, such as the massive ’Farewell Covid-19’ picnic on the Charles Bridge in Prague in July). Here, gatherings of fifty people or less have remained legal, and several events venues have reopened for the autumn season. A sparsity of chairs, seemingly thrown out at random, is a common method used by organisers of indoor events, for social distancing.
Having Covid-19 antibodies, I recently attended one of these recently reinstated events, a folk music concert in Stockholm. The musicians, well-established in their genre, repeated over and over that they were so happy to be able to work again, albeit on small scale. An octogenarian six feet to my right was headbanging happily.
I seized the opportunity, and asked some attendees one of the questions from the questionnaires used in my own research: what did you like best about this event? Most answered variations on ”It’s great; it almost feels like normal”. They had been deprived their concept of normality for eight months and were enjoying the type of Saturyday night they were used to. Several – including the artists – mentioned a fervent longing for the festivals and dance events closely associated with traditional Scandinavian music. This would mean a genuine return to normality. One attendee described missing the trance-like state achieved by staying in a crowded terribly; sweaty dancing barn all night, entering into the outside world in the early hours of the morning.
One of the concepts used in various disciplines surrounding cultural or religious experiences is liminality. It denotes the ambiguity, loosening of norms, and the extended range of possible actions emerging from rituals and festivals. Indeed, it’s a possibility to denounce what’s normal. Described by Victor Turner (though conceived earlier) in 1967, it has become an important tool in explaining the spontaneous change of behaviour and rules humans allow themselves under certain conditions. In scholarship on role-playing, finding Ways of creating widened boundaries of accepted behaviour is considered a basic tenet of play itself.
Interestingly, these people – let’s call them respondents – identified these experiences of liminality as crucial elements of normality, though liminality is defined partially as an inversion of normality itself.
To me, researching the broader public values of events and festivals, it seems like the lack of liminal spaces is one of the great losses in value caused by the Covid-19 restrictions. Do not get me wrong – this is no plea for any loosening or tightening of rules or restrictions. But as my own initial findings, and other studies show: several ’soft’ values score higher than economic factors and the quality of the actual cultural programme! This is even true for business owners and organisers.
Yet, the main discussion of cultural loss in news media is the difficulty that performers experience in terms of surviving in this abnormal situation. I, myself a performer and organiser of cultural events, am equally worried about the difficulty that the public encounter surviving in this year of too much normality, not too little.