Reflections on Virtual Festival Fieldwork in Ireland (Pandemic Lockdown, 2021)

Sarah Raine and Aileen Dillane

University of Limerick, Ireland

Sitting on sofas in different cities with our phones clutched in our hands, the 2021 Cork International Choral Festival playing on our laptops, was not what any of us had in mind when planning for festival fieldwork in pre-pandemic days. Having not yet met in ‘real life’ due to lockdowns and restrictions, our team dynamic has been up to this point fostered over Zoom and shared documents. On the last weekend of April into early May 2021, instead of soaking up the festival atmosphere, exchanging notes on our embodied experience of a particular city and a number of venues, and taking a moment to sit together and chat at the end of the day (maybe over a pint), we are sat at our respective homes sharing our thoughts over WhatsApp. And in this we are not alone.

For five days over the May Bank (public) Holiday weekend, choirs and choral music fans from across the world immersed themselves in the virtual offerings of Cork International Choral’s first digital festival. Perhaps they too chatted via messaging with friends or choirmates, sharing their critiques and their favourites to win each competition. For over a year now, people across the world have increasingly relied upon technologies and mediated interactions in order to access culture, community and a world beyond their immediate circumstances. For those who do have access to internet and devices (and the technical know-how to use them), digital intimacies and a feeling of togetherness whilst physically apart have developed and become a central part of our everyday. Festival teams are searching for new ways of connecting with their audiences and their performers; audiences are fashioning a new sense of togetherness and shared experience; creatives are reimagining their work in a new digital space; and researchers are trying to make sense of it all, to ask useful questions, and to consider what society more widely can learn from this period of disruption and uncertainty.

That is not to say that we have not travelled anywhere this year. Indeed, as our individual physical worlds have contracted our imaginations have expanded, transporting our minds (if not our bodies) to a range of imagined places and virtual experiences. With increased reliance upon virtual meetings, many of us have noticed an increased level of international collaboration and cooperation, with new networks developing and essential practices shared as we all attempt to cope with a previously inconceivable reality. Some of us have even made new friends, met new partners, gained new teammates online, developing different ways of getting to know each other and to make things – festivals, research projects, family parties, first dates – happen in a way which makes them meaningful. This year has really pushed the idea of ‘community’ to an extreme. Yet here we are, stubbornly creating communities and redefining what we mean by publics, public space and cultural encounters.

As an ethnographic research project, our understanding of these emerging digital intimacies begins with our own. The 2021 Cork International Choral Festival was not the first virtual event for either of us, not by a long shot. It came at the tail end of year of digital festivals, conferences, industry panel discussions, and Arts Council webinar series, varied offerings which had been exhausting and liberatory in equal measure. We had already experienced a whole world of talks and performances ripe for engagement and analysis, but forever from the four walls of our homes. Yet this festival was different – the first fieldwork event for our new team and an opportunity to get to grips with how a choral festival could be translated to the digital with, as Fabian Holt has pointed out “a new type of festival cinematography…with marketing videos for social media consumption” (2020: 241). As audience members, we explored the platform and waited patiently for each event to go ‘live’, we scheduled our meals and dog walks around the programme, and we eagerly anticipated the awards ceremony and chose our favourites. As researchers, we undertook short bursts of textual analysis, shared notes on initial insights and questions to ask the festival team, and we jotted down quotes from a variety of expert speakers (judges, performers, industry professionals). At the intersection of these two roles, we got to know each other as people, sharing jokes and little snapshots of our lives and interests beyond work. In real time but over WhatsApp, we shared our emotive responses to beautiful pieces of music, all the while conscious of the fact that we were just two members of an international audience. These moments created an opportunity for digital intimacies. Between the two of us as a newly formed team, and between ourselves and a wider community made-up of people we knew, names and profile photos we could see on the festival platform, and many others that we had to imagine, their existence revealed by the viewer number which waxed and waned over the five days.

Through surveys and emails, Zoom interviews and focus groups, we will now place these autoethnographic reflections within a wider ethnographic context, and ask what the emerging insights might mean for the future of music festivals and, in this instance, choral music. More importantly, through our work we aim to explore whether and how these practices and experiences have had an impact upon the conceptualisation and realities of inclusion and exclusion at music festivals in Ireland and how these findings may compare in other European contexts.

Like the music industries and festive practices that we are studying, many challenges lie ahead. It is clear that alongside new forms of digital intimacies, new ways of place-making and value construction are at play, complex processes which also intersect with shared notions of authenticity and value, genre and tradition, identity and belonging. Building on our previous work, many past theoretical frameworks may be useful in framing these experiences and in articulating their meaning, yet we must be increasingly reflexive as we attempt to make sense of a confusing and fragmented period. Equally, we need to take stock and ask many important questions. For us as researchers, we are already wondering what a sustainable and adaptable music ethnography methodology looks like, especially in a possible future of reduced international travel, Zoom interviews, and greater resource awareness? And reflecting upon the music industries in Ireland, we aim to ask big questions relating to inclusion and exclusion, and to highlight and problematise a return to the structures and processes that have historically facilitated gender discrimination, ableism, and racism in the production and consumption of music. As Bruno Latour clearly states, this period of disruption offers an opportunity for all:

If everything has stopped, and all cards can be put on the table, they can be turned, selected, triaged, rejected for ever, or indeed, accelerated forwards. Now is the time for the annual stock-take. When common sense asks us to ‘start production up again as quickly as possible’, we have to shout back, ‘Absolutely not!’ The last thing to do is repeat the exact same thing we were doing before. (2020: 2)

References

Holt, F. (2020) Everyone Loves Live Music: A Theory of Performance Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (2020) “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?”. Available at: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/853.html