A Distanced-Distributed Festival Field

Signe Banke

The festival space is usually where the festival is found, and not least where my fieldwork inquiry would typically start. As an anthropologist, fieldwork means observing, participating and not least living with the people and materials I study; staying in a tent for the duration of the festival, being part of a concert crowd, chatting in the food truck queues, drinking (a) beer, shielding from a rain shower under a rain poncho, and communal showering not least at the festival space. At Tønder Festival this space is a green field, just a short walk from the town centre.  

This year’s Tønder Festival was scheduled for August 27th to 30th, but like any other festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. This year this festival space was in fact just a green field, though of much longer than usual lush grass, only holding significance in peoples’ memories and hearts. Despite this, I soon learned that the festival’s cancellation however did not result in its disappearance. As this year’s celebrations of Tønder Festival around the town of Tønder testified, the field did not disappear, rather it scattered. The festival – or these festival-like celebrations – was there, but where?  

In the following excerpt from my fieldnotes, I walk the streets of Tønder, trying to locate and experience the distanced-distributed festival field on Saturday afternoon August 29th, 2020.  

The festival space of Tønder Festival; green and empty

As I leave the supermarket Kvickly the sun is once again shining. Walking, I feel the Tønder Festival beers against my hip through the tote bag. I bought the beers in Kvickly, when I escaped from a short rain shower. The path to Heidi’s garden party takes me through the neighborhoods of Tønder. I prick up my ears as I walk here, look over a few hedges to get a peek; is someone hosting a party at that place? Or that one? No. Coming here, I would have thought there’d be more parties going on; that I could walk down any neighborhood street of Tønder and feel the festival permeating the town this weekend. Now and then I hear some music playing in the background, but I’m unsure if it’s just the spectacle from the city square that I hear here at a distance. Tønder isn’t that big a town after all, and the music there is quite loud. Far into the backyard of a house I pass, I spot a party tent; could that be another garden party? I hear no one. It’s almost 2 o’clock pm and I wonder if some of the garden parties have gone to Schweizerhalle to experience the extra support concert at 2 pm? 

My GPS tells me that I’m approaching Heidi’s house. Talking about how to find my way to her house in our e-mail correspondence, she jokingly told me to simply follow the noise as she guaranteed they’d be noisy. Standing in front of her house, looking at her mailbox with her name and house number, I however still cannot hear a thing. I walk past the two cars parked in the driveway, into the backyard where the sight of 3 tents meets me. There are two smaller igloo tents and a 4 people tent large enough for you to stand up inside. I peek across the tents and see people eating lunch under three pavilions at the back of this long and somewhat narrow city garden. I feel that moment of potential trespassing is over as this must be Heidi and her party. As I passed by the tents, minding my steps not to trap in the guy ropes, the garden party notices me and I wave and say ‘hi’. 

A peek from Heidi and Jesper’s house into their garden in which they are celebrating Tønder Festival

Heidi and her husband, Jesper, get up and greet me, and I say that I’m sorry for interrupting their lunch. They tell me not to worry and find me a seat at Jesper’s table. As we get seated, Jesper points to a spot under a tree right next to us and tells how they had to move the music inside again due to the rain. I think to myself that this was probably the same rain shower I sheltered from in Kvickly. A small portable Bluetooth speaker is playing in the background and I get seated next to Jesper, sharing a cushion with a colorful flowery print with him. We’re sitting 6 people at this picnic table set. Next to Jesper is Henning, a man in his 50s. On the other side sits a couple about the same age as Heidi and Jesper, in their 40s. Right across from me sits a guy in his 20s, a son of someone here I feel. Generally looking around, we’re 20 people or so in the garden, roughly making up two generations; parents and their children. Jesper tell how they’re all part of the same volunteer group at the festival. He and Heidi however no longer volunteer, as they want to be able to experience the festival in full, not having to work. Wanting to sustain the volunteer group, they’ve passed their volunteer responsibilities onto their children, who’s now in charge. 

Heidi comes over, asking if I want a drink? ‘Yes, thanks’ and she brings me a Guinness beer and a bottle of dill snaps to choose from. It’s quite something to choose from I think to myself, just as I sense from Heidi’s laughtertell her I prefer the snaps, thinking to myself I’m glad I recently learned how to enjoy snaps. As she pours me the snaps in a disposable shots glass, I explain how I tasted the Guinness yesterday at Hagge’s, finding it ‘a sort of special beer’. I laugh and Jesper understands my limited enthusiasmsaying how some just love the Guinness and find it to be part of the festival, pointing to Henning’s beer, while others as himself likes more of a regular beer. 

— 

The pandemic’s safety demands of social distancing distributed the festival into its parts. Festivalgoers here and there to be found, music acts likewise, tap beer, festival food – the local delicacy ‘solæg’ not least as seen in the below picture, “unemployed” volunteers, tents, merchandise, and I could go on. Scattered across town, Denmark in fact, making fieldwork a scavenger hunt of sorts, starting from behind the desk weeks before ‘the festival’, making contacts with people such as Heidi, as well as in the streets, walking with pricked up ears, peeking across hedges.  

Example of ‘Tønder Festival parts’ at another garden party; festivalgoers wearing this year’s Tønder Festival support bracelet as they assemble the local delicacy ‘solæg’, which is a festival tradition to consume.

Signe Banke

Doctoral Researcher, The University of Southern Denmark, Odense 

Distortion Festival, Copenhagen

Guest blog by Thomas Fleurquin, Distortion Festival Founder and Director

Here is a blog entry where I try to lay some of our core values, a few historical landmarks and anecdotes from our wild journey… 

THE BEGINNINGS 

Copenhagen Distortion started in 1998 as a radical experimental festival. Our tagline was “A Celebration of Copenhagen Nightlife” already then – but really it could have been “move fast and break things” (a slogan Mark Zuckerberg made up for Facebook, ca. 10 years later – a good way to describe the angry-ass attitude of the restless entrepreneurs that won’t accept any norms). For many years, I didn’t pay sincere attention to our music profile: it had to be fresh, of course, but all I cared about was the setting of the party – and its energy. I felt my mission was to break the boundaries of the traditional music / clubbing experience. From the very beginning the idea was to create the perfect night, including preparty, dinners, transfers, breaks, peaks and afterparty, into one choreographed multi-location experience. The format of the “music venue” (which I found almost as boring and static as the “art museum”) had to be disrupted. From the start, we included intermezzos in the streets, bus shuttles between venues, boat parties in the canals: The whole city became a playground! 

Also, I had an intense, almost revolutionary energy to democratize the arts: the original Distortion enemy was snobbery, pretentious aficionados who sucked culture of its essence for “social distancing” from the masses. I was radical with the purpose of music and arts: to unite people, and that the (otherwise popular) idea of anything “exclusive” was pure evil. Of course, the horrible snobs whose purpose in life is to distance themselves from normal, uneducated people hardly exist – most people just want to have a good time – but having a defined enemy helped me in my quest to give a platform to underground noise labels as much as to the more mainstream dance parties. These are all things I am saying now, looking back, trying to analyze – I had no self-consciousness on any level, back then. In fact, it was just about having as much fun and behaving as untamed as possible.

EARLY DAY ANECDOTES 

We were the embodiment of the fearlessness of the youth. For example, on the day of the very first Distortion, in 1998, we crashed a pirate party in a Burger King: that is, we sent our guests to a record release party that happened at a Burger King without Burger King’s consent – nor the organisers of the pop-up event. In the same period, at one of our first mobile events, we rented two double-decker buses: one to be hosted by a bunch of drag-queens / kinky cabaret, the other with some kind of “action-theatre” on the theme of trucking & white trash. But we did not sell enough tickets – so instead of running the show with two half-full buses, we decided on the spot to merge the two buses, including respective crowds and entertainment. The “Truckers & Fuckers” Bus became legend thanks to: trucker-poetry, giving bondage of the ‘Little Mermaid’ (the national symbol of Denmark AND an iconic statue for anti-establishment vandalism in the art world), which happened to get recorded by some national TV show from Holland, the Fuckers incited an interactive games with the audience: “steal a dildo from a porn-shop” on Istedgade (red light district), there was trucker-strip tease – and a real fight between the Truckers and the Fuckers over the microphone. I don’t even know if it was real or if they both played roles, in fact. Ah yes, my mother was in the crowd and a Mexican guy who became my best friend some years later, dressed as a Mexican Gladiator, was putting the heavy action on her (which I only found out by watching the footage on national tv from Holland, months later). In other words: we had a thing with randomness and an “electric chaos vibe”. It is only now, some 20+ years later, I can use civilized words to describe this. We did not consider ourselves experimental or underground or anything like this… We were simply too restless and fearless to let anything “normal” happen. Anything goes! 

2015 Pool Party in the canals outside Christiansborg Palace (the Danish Parliament). This was an event commissioned by Christiansborg to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of an update to the Danish constitution, where women and the poor got the right to vote. 
 
 
Open air after party in 2011, in Sydhavnen, Copenhagen. No respectable rave is without an afterparty from 6 to 12 on Sunday morning. At Berghain in Berlin this is the time where headliners play. 

SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC TOLERANCE 

I will argue for the rest of my life that Distortion could only be born out of the freedom that the Danish egalitarian system affords to society. The Distortion magic really comes from the fact that society and the system can tolerate this type of event: The Police, the neighbours, the politicians… I have a lot of harsh criticism of Denmark and Copenhagen and I am no longer a “blind fan” of the socialdemocratic system (still a fan, like most half-educated Europeans, but no longer blind), but I am certain that this birth was only possible because of the trust that goes both ways between the people and the system. 

Helle Thorning-Shmidt, Prime Minister of Denmark (2011-2015), came to Distortion in 2013 and ended up in the newspaper with the following headline: “Prime Minister at techno party with beer can”.

THE RISE 

And so, our relentlessly childish event was mainly comprised of many similar events with 50-200 guests, and our projects started to include a whole generation of Copenhageners and their creative milieu, with the likes of Henrik Vibskov (a leading fashion designer in the country), Jesper Elg / V1 (main street art gallerist), Bjarke Ingels / Plot (architect of worldwide renown), Onkel Reje (made internationally famous recently for causing an attempted Google ban on national tv broadcaster DR), Hr.Skæg / Mikkel Lomborg (a very famous children’s TV host) was our resident opera singer, WhoMadeWho was our resident street orchestra (they made it big in Germany 10 years later) and we had many international names like Diplo, M.I.A., Hot Chip, Sebastien Tellier, MØ, many years before they became iconic names for their generation. We went viral between 2008 (with ca. 3.000 guests per day) and 2011 (maybe 100.000 guests per day, said Police).  

I believe our success comes from being unreasonable, for as long as we could be: our first priority was – and still is – to make a party that we would ourselves like to go to. We gave it all we had and still do. We did not receive funding from the Copenhagen City Council before 2009 – 11 years after our first festival. I would say we first became professionals in the period 2015-2018, having never had the time or the self-consciousness to look up and realize what had happened, nor thinking about the help we had gotten from the public, the neighbors, the institutions, authorities and the politicians who trusted us despite our lack of “professionalism”… Now of course, I miss the rawness of the early years – the hardest thing for me is to “grow up” and be civilized about the potentials and the cultural value of the event – both to use the commercial potential but also to use the beast to nudge society in a particular direction. I would much rather change the world than to make a successful business – but these things go hand in hand…  

THE EFFECT 

I am still amazed when people tell me how much Distortion has meant to them in their youth. How many couples met there, got married – or divorced – due to Distortion. Many children were born, but most of all, I think Distortion gives pride to people because it is, as was my idea in the very beginning – to show that in Denmark, the system can tolerate disturbances and it is unique to be able to create such a “chaotic” event in partnerships with the authorities. Politically, I would say there are huge implications as well: does equality rise out of freedom – or does freedom rise from equality? The Distortion story seems to point at the latter… On the other hand, in my attempts to nudge society towards a “better world”, I have come to realize that few things are more democratic, give more “power to the people”, create more “progress” for society, than the projects that push freedom to its limits. In the end, our core mission, our moral duty even, is to strive to create “monumental memories”, as a curator once elegantly described our work, and to make them available to as many people as possible. But controlled and well-intended social-democracy is in over its head when it comes to creating human electricity: No randomness = no magic! And so, 22-years later, the balancing act continues – and we still don’t really know why or how, but we intend to keep pushing on limits. Many thanks for the space. 

Thomas Fleurquin