The B:Fest: Pedagogy and Public Spaces
Robin Saklatvala and Janey Gordon, Research Institute of Media, Art and Design, University of Bedfordshire
CETL, festivals, learning spaces, arts, events
The Bridges CETL at the University of Bedfordshire supported a project to initiate an arts festival to showcase and focus the work of the Media, Art and Design students. The festival, which was named B:Fest, was piloted in May 2008 and ran again in May 2009. It was considered to be an overwhelming success in terms of its innovative pedagogical practice, student and community participation and the learning experiences gained. The coordinator, herself an MRes student, ensured that the festival was ‘authentic’ as defined by Getz (1994, 2007). In part this was due to the students and festival participants taking over public spaces within the town of Luton to use as spaces to demonstrate their learning and recently acquired skills to public audiences.
‘Bridges’ CETL University of Bedfordshire
The Bridges CETL at the University of Bedfordshire is examining the links between Further Education and Higher Education and from Higher Education into employment. It is investigating and supporting the ‘Bridges’ that exist between these areas and the way that an HE establishment can facilitate and enhance them (see www.beds.ac.uk/bridgescetl). Each department across the University of Bedfordshire was asked to make a bid to the CETL for the support of a major project that was ‘student-centred, innovative and sustainable.’
The department covering Media, Art and Design wanted a project that all their disparate subject areas would be able to benefit from and which would reflect the practice-led nature of the areas of study. It was decided to initiate an arts festival to showcase students’ work to potential employers, to literally build a bridge from their student work and a wider audience. The festival was eventually called ‘B:Fest, Luton Arts Festival’, and piloted in May 2008. It has been infinitely larger and more successful than had been anticipated and involves students from all areas of Media, Art and Design, students from other areas of the university and members of the local community as participants and members of the various audiences. B:Fest literally took the students outside the university perimeters and led them to colonise public spaces within the town as teaching and learning spaces.
B:Fest – the context
What makes a festival? What gives it its identity and a presence beyond the schedule of activities, celebrity visit and performances? A successful festival is surely more than simply a curated collection of events? Getz (1994, p. 409) used the term ‘authentic’ to question whether the impending Millennium celebrations at that time developed consciously for gain of some kind, risked losing the celebratory aspect, the very quality that makes a festival ‘authentic’.
According to Getz (1994, 2007) and other authors including Klaic (2002, 2006, 2008), Waterman (1998) and Quinn (2005), there are a number of attributes that are useful benchmarks for determining the authenticity of an arts festival. To summarise: the event will be a celebration with the artistic agenda at the heart of the plans; it will feel spontaneous and unpredictable, evoking emotions in both the participant and the spectator; it will be a true reflection of the community whose culture is on display but not be limited by traditional boundaries of genres and disciplines; it will mobilise that community to take part and crucially for the students who took part in B:Fest, an authentic festival will make use of its public spaces to host the events.
Historically Luton has been an industrial town. In the early 20th Century it was renowned for its hat manufacturers, the local football team is still known as ‘the Hatters’. In the 20th Century this had given way to Vauxhall Motors and other manufacturing interests. In this century the town’s major employer is the London Luton Airport. These factors contribute to Luton’s diverse ethnic mix, including Italian, Irish, Greek, Asian, African Caribbean and most recently eastern Europeans. There is also a great deal of cultural and artistic activity in the town. Luton Carnival is now arguably the largest international one-day carnival in the UK and the UK Centre for Carnival Arts is currently being built in the town centre. The Hat Factory is a multi-purpose arts venue and creative industries incubation unit. There is considerable talent and artistic activity within the university itself. However research showed that there was a lack of a central identification with these initiatives and it was concluded that a festival could address this as well as fulfilling the goals of the CETL and enhancing the teaching and learning processes of the students who would be asked to show their work and some of the products of their assessments in the public spaces of the town and to a public audience.
Mobilising the students
Students from the university are crucial to the success of the B:Fest, they are the core group from which volunteers, individual event organisers, participants and audiences can be drawn. In order to involve and attract students in the first year, 2008, they were approached in a number of ways, through tutors, peer groups and email. Large group meetings were used to speak to the students and explain what other students and universities had achieved. Students were then invited to take part in focus groups to brainstorm and answer the question, “What does an arts festival mean to you?” A student focus group also determined the name. ‘B:Fest, Luton Arts Festival’. Once a name had been agreed a logo competition was held amongst the students, and the winning entry was chosen for its flexibility, originality and because it was felt that it best represented the artistic nature of the event.
B:Fest – the outcomes
B:Fest, Luton Arts Festival 2008 took place over 26 days and consisted of over 40 events of different genres and sources. The participants included media, art and design students from the University of Bedfordshire, Barnfield College Foundation Degree students, other interested staff and students, alumni, community groups, feeder schools, potential students, potential employers, friends and family of existing and potential students and Luton residents.
Funding came from a wide range of local organisations including the University (in addition to the CETL funding) and the local council. In kind support was achieved from local organisations. This was mainly from venues, including non-traditional ones such as a local bookshop. In kind support also included staffing, box office management and promotion, such as the showing of a promotional film in a cinema complex and at the London Luton Airport.
With reference to the evidence that the authentic arts festival will make use of public spaces, the B:Fest events utilised outdoor spaces such as an amphitheatre and a public square, situated at each end of Luton’s pedestrianised high street, there were also events in the Arndale Shopping Mall and London Luton Airport, the local library, church and bookshop and the Hat Factory Arts Centre The benefits of this were that the local community had the opportunity to participate in the festival without having to be proactive. They just walked into it.
Another attribute of an ‘authentic’ festival is that it is not limited by traditional boundaries of genres and disciplines. B:Fest events included mainstream artistic activities such as photography and fine art exhibitions but also included ‘Speed Date the Professionals’ (an opportunity for students to meet potential employers), interactive radio, showings of specialist, student and experimental films, poetry readings, animation displays and workshops, a fashion show and a computer games conference as well as choral and acoustic music, hip hop and modern dance. From the outset it was felt that B:Fest should be inclusive. The rationale being that no member of the community should be excluded and in order to truly test what would work it was felt that this first B:Fest needed to be open to as many possibilities as feasible.
Crucially the festival must also be viewed in terms of its benefits for students and new alumni of the University of Bedfordshire. Students were heavily involved in the development and marketing of the Festival. Over 100 students contributed to the Festival Development and there were some particularly noteworthy examples of good practice and successes.
In terms of the festival organisation, a group of students formed a focus group (with input from Festival Coordinator and Communications staff) to discuss the main corporate festival image. One of the students then took on the responsibility of designing the main identity and working with the staff to produce a diary date postcard. The final programme leaflet used the student’s design but was laid out by a professional designer. The combination of student and professional worked extremely well. Two other students who had recently completed an events management course at the University, volunteered to help with the organization of certain events and were given a high level of responsibility. Similarly two other students from the MA in Arts Administration also became involved on a voluntary basis. This is a prime example of how the Festival can give students the opportunity to translate theory into professional practice.
The festival website (www.lutonartsfestival.org) was another example of best practice, demonstrating how the festival can assist the careers of current students. A web design and development company had been setup by a current Art & Design student and a Computer Science student. As a new company they wanted to develop their portfolio and so were happy to produce a highly professional website for a minimal fee. A further three first year Art & Design students volunteered to take a photographic record of each event. These photos were displayed in an exhibition in The Arndale Shopping Mall and in marketing the festival with the press.
B:Fest also demonstrated the university’s commitment to supporting and developing its alumni. The festival was offered the opportunity to have a promotional DVD shown at London Luton Airport and Cineworld. The DVD was produced by a company formed from some of the university’s Media Production graduates, who benefited from the wide exposure of their film. The Bridges CETL also regards one of its functions to ‘bridge back’ and to encourage young people to consider the benefits of higher education and consequently support was also given to the Animation lecturer who wished to trial using the festival as a recruitment tool. Two animation displays were organised in the Mall and at London Luton Airport. These were used to encourage interested potential students to attend a hands-on workshop at the Hat Factory. A number of potential students showed interest and this is to be followed up to explore whether it has increased student recruitment.
Students’ work was also widely exhibited. There were some key examples of success and good practice. The Lutopia Exhibition at the Hat Factory Gallery showcased the work of a second-year photography student; he organised the exhibition, obtained sponsorship for some of the costs, devised marketing materials and organised a private view. As a result of this he sold seven pictures, including work to the local council. The exhibition then moved to London Luton Airport. Following this a second exhibition at the same venue, Fake Modern, gave other second-year students studying Fine Art, Art & Design, Digital Photography and Video Art at the University of Bedfordshire the opportunity to curate an exhibition and showcase their work. They promoted the event and held a private view.
The last event in the festival calendar was a fashion show where the fashion students showcased their final projects. This was attended by over 150 people, many of them potential employers. The Fashion Show was sponsored by the local Arndale Shopping Mall who are interested in continuing and developing this support.
The B:Fest only deviated from the initial vision of the Bridges CETL project by being much, much larger. Anecdotal evidence from sponsors, volunteers, participants and local press points to the fact that the community welcomed the festival and there is a general assumption that the event will continue into the future.
Ironically the festival was initially ‘artificially’ planned, its goals set out to benefit a small and distinct group of students and the vision was being led from the ‘top-down’. Despite this, the coordinator determined that only an ‘authentic’ festival would be successful and sustainable and clearly laid out of what an ‘authentic’ festival would feel like and how it would function. The coordinator’s role became less that of a curator and more of a facilitator enabling the pilot B:Fest to grow far beyond its original blueprint.
However, first and foremost the ‘B:Fest Luton Arts Festival’ is a pedagogical project. From the perspective of the Bridges CETL at the University of Bedfordshire it must be considered in terms of the extent to which it was student-centred, innovative and sustainable as these are the criteria for their support and funding.
In the first year over half of the festival volunteers were current students, a quarter of these were regularly committed to activities. Four lecturers actively organised events and a further 70 students were involved through their tutors’ involvement. Others were involved in a single event or in supporting their peers and friends by attending activities. The CETL and University regarded this outcome as very satisfactory and plan to encourage further student participation in forthcoming festivals by forging links with student assignments and assessment and by giving recognition for general volunteering.
B:Fest was envisaged as a ‘space’ for the students of the department of Media, Art and Design, to showcase their work to potential employers. Future research will track this element closely. Through B:Fest the University was showcased in a much more fundamental way to the whole community of Luton, in particular by the colonisation of public spaces as arenas to showcase students skills and learning. In terms of the ‘bridging’ goal of the University of Bedfordshire’s CETL, B:Fest built bridges to many sections of the local community including young people, employers, businesses and local people. It may also be seen as promoting the worth of higher education generally, the university and the whole town.
Robin Saklatvala was awarded a bursary by University of Bedfordshire to do a practice-led Masters by Research. She co-ordinated B:Fest, Luton Arts Festival 2008 and has over ten years experience of event management. She has worked as a freelance events manager since 2002 for organisations including The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, King's College London, University College London and the Housing Quality Network. Her research interests centre around festivals and other cultural events; determining attributes that make these successful and examining their cultural legacy.
Janey Gordon is a Principal Lecturer and Associate CETL Fellow at the University of Bedfordshire in the Institute of Media and the Creative and Performing Arts. She teaches radio broadcasting and her research interests are in the areas of community radio, mobile phones and media pedagogy. She has published on radio, mobile telephony and media pedagogy, including "The Wow Factors: The assessment of practical media and creative arts subjects", (2004) in the ADCHE Journal. She has recently edited Notions of Community: A Collection of Community Media Debates and Dilemmas (2009), published by Peter Lang. Her research comparing Australian and UK community radio stations was funded by the British Academy and her subsequent report, commissioned by the BBC World Service Trust, aided the implementation of community radio in Georgia. Janey is a member of the Radio Studies Network steering group and is Chair of the Media and Communications Reference Group of the ADM-HEA.
References and Bibliography
Getz, Dennis (1991), Festivals, Special Events and Tourism, USA, Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Getz, Dennis (1994), Event tourism and the authenticity dilemna in Global Tourism: The Next Decade. W Theobald (ed) Oxford, Butterworth-Heinemann.
Getz, Dennis (2007), Event Studies. Theory, research and policy for planned events, Oxford, Elsevier.
Klaic, Dragan (2002), The Future of Festival Formulae, Background paper Holland festival symposium, Amsterdam, www.efa-aef.eu/newpublic/?p=home&q=efrp&-session=s:4E92EC49164482FBCEuOm1D138A8 (accessed 12 September 2008).
Klaic Dragan (2006), ”Festival”, Lexicon, Performance Research, 4, 11, 2006, pp. 54-55 www.efa-aef.eu/newpublic/?p=home&q=efrp&-session=s:4E92EC49164482FBCEuOm1D138A8 (accessed 12 September 2008).
Klaic, Dragan (2008), Urban Impact of Artistic festivals (notes taken at a conference), Helsinki, 11-12 April 2008, hosted by the City of Helsinki Culture Office.
Quinn, Bernadette (2005), “Arts Festivals and the City”, Urban Studies, Vol. 42, No. 5-6, 927-943 (2005).
Waterman, Stanley (1998), “Carnivals for elites? The cultural politics of arts festivals”, Progress in Human Geography, 22 (1), pp. 55-74
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- copy of email bulletin sent to members of ADM-HEA JISCmail list