Society in Its Subjunctive Mood: Reflections on Part One of Curating for Change: The Work Music Festivals Do in the World (by Chris Greencorn)

Time out of Time

What is a festival? In his edited collection, Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, Alessandro Falassi set about answering this question systematically. In the broadest of terms, Falassi defined “festival” as:

a periodically recurrent, social occasion in which, through a multiplicity of forms and a series of coordinated events, participate directly or indirectly and to various degrees, all members of a whole community, united by ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical bonds, and sharing a worldview. (1987, 2)

By design, this expansive definition was meant to encompass festive celebrations from every culture: Falassi wrote of puberty rites, marriages, and funerals, of the Olympic Games and other cyclical sporting events, of Christian feast days and communion, of potlatch, and dozens of other examples. The contributors to the volume examined even more in extensive detail.

Contemporary music festivals share many traits with these classical festivals: they unite communities, foster identity around shared symbols, mark the regular passage of time, provide opportunities for leisure, gifting, and heightened social performances, and suspend certain social norms while modelling others – temporarily, at least.

Music festivals today bear many important differences, too. Not least, few societies are any longer bounded or homogenous enough to boast of “all members of a whole community, united” along various lines in festive celebration, and indeed policies of official multiculturalism support emic or in-group cultural production while at the same time fostering etic or non-group consumption of and participation in these cultural products. Festivals of all kinds have also been monetized in such a way that access to them is rarely extended to “whole communities” even where that is a feasible option.

Acknowledging these caveats, it is arguably still productive to consider the work music festivals do in these terms. Their temporal quality – the “time out of time” Falassi referenced in the title to his collection – is a salient conceptual feature, since their special status reflects the reality that they are in fact limited in time. How do the social effects of festivals persist beyond the thresholds of the event itself? How does the form of celebration shape these effects? Do festivals subvert the social order, or reinforce it? To reiterate a question posed by co-convenor Eric Fillion, how might festivals effect lasting change?

Curating for Change

On August 26, 2022, several dozen academics and practitioners gathered virtually under the banner of Curating for Change: The Work Music Festivals Do in the World to explore these kinds of questions.

Many of the participants in Curating for Change were in fact both festival scholars and festival practitioners, a refreshing feature of the conference that provided an opportunity to both ground theory in practice and extrapolate practical experience to the level of theory. Panels throughout the day covered a wide range of topics and extended well beyond the confines of “music festivals” set in the conference title. Theatre, dance, and other durational arts made welcome appearances.

Presenters articulated the work festivals do primarily within two frames, each diverging slightly in their temporal aspect: first, the work toward change that festivals have done (in the past tense), and second, the work festivals could do (“society in its subjunctive mood,” to use anthropologist Victor Turner’s phrase from his contribution to Time out of Time [76]).

In the first frame, it was clear that festival curators do desire strongly for effecting lasting change through their events and have devised and employed a range of tactics for effecting it; but they have often faced social and structural circumstances that limit their impact. Festivals may be “time out of time,” but they still occur in milieux that for one reason or another are not amenable to the kind of substantial change envisioned.

Amitesh Grover’s presentation on the International Theatre Festival of Kerala highlighted the immediate, practical considerations required for presenting multivocal and controversial material in a context where adverse reaction can seriously endanger artists and state actors may exercise their authority to end proceedings arbitrarily. Marie Zimmerman’s case study of the Hillside Festival, which in 2018 focused on protest music, considered the potential to alienate artists and audience members by leaning more explicitly into didactic messaging even where the event itself has a history of demonstrative environmental activism. Peter Burton’s description of the Suoni Per Il Popolo (Italian, “Sounds for the People”) festival in Montreal and the factors that fostered its growth – cheap real estate, lots of human resources, a strong local scene – highlighted the very material components of festival development that are liable to change over time, with reference to increasing costs of living, personal conflicts, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the second frame, participants also drew attention to the work festivals could do in the world, but perhaps aren’t presently. Hannah Burgé Luviano addressed the real push toward gender equity in festival lineups but identified areas where continuing work might be directed for tangible improvements, like concerted efforts toward workplace health and safety in the music industry. Chris Worden’s presentation advocated for less hierarchical curatorial arrangements and organizational structures in order to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Marva Wisdom discussed how arts funding models, and in particular philanthropy, exemplify a colonial mindset toward the arts and artists, and the need to emancipate them from this relationship. Charmaine Headley and Kevin Ormsby challenged participants to think about festivals as embodied “home” spaces for cultivating diasporic intimacies (and broke up a long day on Zoom with the requirement to move our bodies!). A far-ranging conversation between Alan Greyeyes and Candice Hopkins identified many continuing disparities that exist for Indigenous artists, events, and organizations but also, alongside these, many of the strengths of Indigenous modes of expression and community-making.

Of course, neither frame is mutually exclusive, and many of the presentations combined these frames in compelling ways. Others presented more programmatic or consciously historical analyses. Jonathan Wynn’s exploration of the “festivalization” of urban policy provided several useful models for thinking about festivals in spatial and economic terms. And Kristin Moriah’s excellent paper on the 369th Infantry Regiment and the experiences of African American soldiers at home and abroad during the First World War emphasized the significance of festive events – notably, military parades – in constructing claims to equal citizenship in Jim Crow America.

Experience and Expectations

Curating for Change’s participants articulated in many ways their belief that indeed festivals might effect lasting change. Festivals have the potential to be venues for a kind of speculative social thinking and practice. They are limited in various ways, but nevertheless carry the possibility of seeing the world in a new light.

Throughout this reflection I have adapted the idea of “frames” from ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation (2008), where he outlines “participatory” and “presentational” frames for understanding how we engage in musical events. They are good to think with, in that they begin to organize the many divergent kinds of event under examination.

Unlike Turino, however, I don’t think of the “festivals in the past tense” and “festivals in the subjunctive mood” frames I have outlined above as a simple binary, as opposite poles on a spectrum. True, their elaboration in separate terms identifies a tension, and presentations in both frames struggled with the real challenges to effecting lasting change. But one of the take-aways from the first part of Curating for Change is that these frames are not static – and not a “framework” per se – but instead exist in a dynamic relationship with each other: one that leaves open the possibility for an effective synthesis of experience and expectations.

As we convene again in October, staging our own “time out of time,” perhaps we can return to our guiding question – might festivals effect lasting change? – with this synthesis in mind.


Falassi, Alessandro. 1987. Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chris Greencorn is a first-year PhD student in the Department of History at Queen’s University. His research interests lie at the juncture of social & cultural history, ethnomusicology, folklore studies, and archival studies. His dissertation, supervised by Dr. Lisa Pasolli, will examine the work of women folk culture collectors in 20th-century Canada, and in particular their constructions of “traditional music” among charter, immigrant, and Indigenous peoples in the period leading up to Canada’s official multiculturalism policy.

Chris was Artistic Director of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia (2018-20), and remains involved in industry organizations in several jurisdictions.