By Thomas Shevory and Patricia Zimmermann
codirectors, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Why mount a festival during the worst global economic turmoil since the 1930s?
Corporations, universities, colleges, non-profit media arts centers, museums, foundations, restaurants, schools, and civic organizations are scaling down, cutting back, freezing up, toning down. They are slashing travel subsidies, bonuses, new construction, cocktail parties, and cost-of-living raises. The global system of trade is now facing threats that were previously either denied or unimagined. The economic crisis implies things are out-of-sync.
Conventional bailout plans loan capital to failing businesses to stave off bankruptcy, insolvency, liquidation and foreclosure. But creative economies thinking proposes another kind of bailout plan, leveraging other forms of capital that produces new wisdom about sustainable, collective joy.
Each day, toxins ooze through financial systems of capital accumulation, banks, balance sheets, and trade: toxic securities, toxic assets, toxic mortgages. Civic, non-profit, and for-profit institutions confront massive, unprecedented budget cuts that venomously rattle core values and vision.
Each day, job losses across all sectors swell in startling proportions--Ithaca, China, Mexico, Iceland. Shanghai-based new media artist Laura Kissel points out that in China, 20 million migrant workers are unemployed and families recycle e-waste in their homes for a subsistence living.
Each day, employment insecurities, work speed-ups, job reorganizations, and foreclosures jolt lives into panic, paranoia and pain. An economic syncopation of epic proportions, destabilized markets throw everything and everyone into imbalance.
A flat budget is the new increase. Gray is the new black. A cup of fair-trade coffee is the new business lunch, an iPod is the new rock concert, heading to the grocery story replaces the five-star restaurant, going to the movies is the new weekend getaway.
We are living through a time of extremities: economic meltdown and previously inconceivable environmental degradation. Horrific political destabilizations around the globe destroy lives. Indisputable climate changes shake the globe, extending from polar bears in the arctic with less ice to thrive on, to Pacific Islanders losing land with rising oceans, to indigenous groups and farmers from Africa, to Asia to Latin America confronting seed and crop problems of epic, life-threatening proportions.
It’s difficult to chart a course through this current volatile historical moment swirling like a perfect storm with global economic collapse and uncertainties about the future. These precipitous financial downturns threaten non-profit public media and arts organizations with intense challenges.
Arts advocates hold on to tentative expectations that the new administration in Washington, D.C. will push an expanded vision of the role of the arts to drive economic recovery.
All sectors have realigned. Yet new spaces break out between these vectors, openings for hope and action. Anticipating redirected vectors and new cracks, this year’s programming streams for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) consider arenas defined by movement, fluidity, interaction, and change: spice, syncopation, toxins and trade. To open these cracks a little more, this year FLEFF launches a new initiative called FLEFF Lab, an interactive, user-centric convening where you participate rather than observe, and where everyone imagines prototypes and possibilities.
Although the global media economy has swelled through incessant acquisitions of platforms, markets, and intellectual properties, the miniaturization and price reductions of new technologies have diffused access. In fact, we put out a call on Facebook for international brainstorming for this essay.
While the US has deindustrialized, the creative class, creative cities and creative clusters have emerged as significant sectors for economic revitalization, sustainability and cross-sector interactions in decentralized nodes--- beyond arts headquarters like New York, Los Angeles and London—in places like Troy, N.Y (EMPAC), North Adams, Mass. (MASS MoCA), Jamaica (reggae tourism), Beijing (Daishanzi Art District), Brazil (carnivals), Senegal (music industries).
The creative economy—that sector of designers, musicians, crafts, recreation, sports, film directors, writers, graphic designers, ad agencies, event managers, film, gaming, visual arts, new media, traditional cultural expressions, internet, television, radio, music, festivals, heritage travel, tourism, museums—constitutes a rapidly growing part of the US economy. Constantly moving, it blurs borders between a range of different practices.
According to a recent UNESCO study, the creative industries also represent the fastest growing sector of the global economy, outstripping the service and manufacturing arenas. The creative economy looks different from old formations of capital: freelancers and entrepreneurs migrate from gig to gig, operate in microbusinesses, shift between different locales, work on portfolios and projects rather than jobs, and convene around big, risky, ideas just like a festival.
Creative economies public policy has been enacted in countries around the globe to link the arts and expression in all of its myriad forms to economic sustainability and viable development. Initially launched in the United Kingdom and Australia, the creative economies model has now migrated to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Brazil, Vietnam, Senegal, Jamaica, Turkey, and all of Europe.
And now, in the context of staggering economic uncertainties, communities and arts movements across the United States are beginning to embrace this model of leveraging assets to stimulate arts, community building, and economic development. It’s a new kind of new deal—ground up, local, collective, energizing. It knits together unexpected partnerships and cross-sector collaborations that insist on moving forward with others rather than waiting for policies and money to trickle down from above.
In Ithaca, FLEFF’s signature live music and multimedia collaborative projects have been propelled by the confluence of film historians, art cinemas, professional new media producers and sound designers, environmental researchers, and a local music scene that’s both academic- and community-based.
This year, opening night on Monday, March 30 kicks off with Choros Spectacular, with percussionist Dane Richeson, violinist Susan Waterbury and composer/marimbist Gordon Stout in Ford Hall. On Thursday, April 2, at the Unitarian Church downtown, the Sheherazade Trio with pianist Jennifer Hayghe, violinist Waterbury, and cellist Elizabeth Simkin performs the groundbreaking Ravel Trio in A backed by projections.
Clarinetist Rick Faria, bassist Nick Walker and pianist John Stetch play to the vampiric toxins of Nosferatu on Friday, April 3, downtown at Cinemapolis. Fe Nunn and Friends jazz up how we think about trade by making music for Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate on Saturday, April 4, at Cinemapolis. And closing night, FLEFF regulars and electronic soundscapers extraordinaire Robby Aceto, Chris White and Peter Dodge accompany Ernst Lubitsh’s rarely screened The Mountain Cat for our closing night celebration at Cinemapolis.
When the possibilities of shutting down and shutting up leach like toxins, festivals insist on discovering what is sustainable, valuable and necessary. Festivals demand that diversity and the joyous dislocations of syncopation fuel recovery. Festivals, in fact, are syncopated counterpoints to the mundane realities of economic necessities and daily life.
Festivals regenerate immune responses to the terrors of toxicity and trade. They restore syncopated rhythms and carve out breathing spaces to catch our collective breaths. Festivals show a way out of economic meltdown and social catastrophe. They create liberated zones to imagine brighter futures with investments in social and cultural capital.
Festivals provide a context and atmosphere for conceptual innovation, gathering people from different sectors for what matters most: intense, immersive, and fun conversations and experiences with others. As Switzerland-based curator and writer Marcy Goldberg contends, festivals are seismographs of what is emerging and erupting. Festivals are the places where the macro and the micro collide. Festivals incubate innovation. They transform despair into hope, isolation into community, loss into fun, myopia into dialogue.
Festivals sustain local businesses and stimulate regional economies through tourism. But they also present living experiments in convening heterogeneous stakeholders and interlocutors to debate and discuss urgent, unresolved, unrestrained, unfolding ideas. Festivals function as anti-toxins to despair, isolation, and inertia. They build audiences and communities for obscure films, challenging installations, edgy music, daring digital art, and necessary conversations. As historian Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, festivals stimulate "the production of collective joy."
The UNESCO Creative Economies Report 2008 identifies five forms of capital: infrastructure, social, cultural, intellectual, human. We can confirm this model materially and viscerally from our 100 interns, our 65 plus faculty collaborators, the myriad Ithaca College staffers and administrators, our funders, our local business and community partners, our national and international collaborators, the Cinemapolis and Fall Creek art cinemas and our audiences who mobilize and materialize FLEFF.
Although the first form of capital--financial resources--buttresses everything from how many pages grace our catalog to how many guests can be invited, we at FLEFF are struck by the fact that the last four forms of capital can easily trump the first.
And that simple convergence of the other four intangible capitals is, in the final analysis, exactly why we need every sort of festival imaginable during this economic catastrophe. Festivals offer a bailout plan that exceeds money. Festivals propose a bailout plan to build a zone for what is necessary, urgent, and vital. Festivals detonate a bailout plan for imagination, for community, and for collective joy.