Toronto has plenty of festivals in the spring and summer, but come February, when we’re all desperate to get out of the house, the city feels like a frozen expanse of closed doors and people hurrying home. And yet, at the very same time, businesses are looking for ways to get people out of their houses after the Christmas rush and bustle. To kill two birds with one stone, I’m hoping to organize a new type of festival, for this February or next, but I will need a little help.
The basic idea is this:
Businesses and institutions — anything from a barbershop to a coffee shop, a clothing boutique or a library — will make space available to people with good ideas who want to run free events. People — artists, parents, teenagers, teachers, whoever — will find participating businesses and pitch their idea for an event.
And that’s virtually the entire plan. Individual businesses would agree to participate, and they would get posters and materials and be listed on a central website, but they will largely control how they choose and schedule events. People could approach them directly or be put in touch through a central organizing committee with a list of participating spaces and their size and specifications. An open-mic night? A lecture? A photo exhibit? Let’s make it happen. A dance class? A wrestling tournament? A mini-rave? Some shocking performance art I can’t even imagine? We’ll give it a shot, if we can figure out the logistics.
The idea isn’t quite as unusual as it might seem at first: the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival does something similar, but with a focus on photography. The main difference here is that we don’t want to limit events in advance to a specific category (the best ideas might be something no one has ever thought of before) and we want business owners and local people to meet face-to-face and talk about what should be done with their underused space rather than having some form of central festival planning.
The concept behind the Festival: Trying to say ‘Yes’
Urban space is one of our most valuable cultural resources — it’s both a site and raw material for new cultural practices, community-building and human fulfillment. We’re pretty good at using urban space efficiently in our quest to grow our economy — but when there’s no profitable way to make use of a space it just lies empty, because most of our planning and management revolves around turning a profit. And that’s a real shame, because people can connect with each other in a million and one ways outside of the market — religion, politics, art, learning, subcultures, sport, being silly, just hanging out. So we need to start doing a better job of making space for non-business activities in our neighbourhoods. Businesses aren’t really the problem here, but the way in which they exclude other types of activities is. The upside is that business owners are people too, they’re not only interested in profits, it’s just that we’re bad at thinking and planning for other types of activities, because we rarely practice this type of planning. Yes, businesses need to make money, but space is a wonderful thing, because two things can, and often do, happen at once. The festival would provide an infrastructure and logistical support to make alternative events happen, business owners would provide space and local people would provide good ideas and inspiration. This festival is based on one of the Foundation for Indoor Public Space’s key concepts. The public-ness of an indoor space is on a gradient: a space becomes more public the more the people managing the space try to say ‘yes’ to the ideas and needs of the people around them. As this would be a festival of public space, events would be free and businesses wouldn’t be allowed to require that participants buy something — but, in most cases, the increased foot traffic at a slow time of year would be good for business.
What do I mean by ‘Trying to say yes‘ ? Public space is about difference and being in public space is about learning to be comfortable with, and even enjoy, difference. Trying to say yes is about thinking deeply about difference and what you might learn about yourself and other people by saying ‘yes’ to something that seems weird or slightly uncomfortable at first. Trying to say ‘yes’ requires you to think about what your most basic principles are, about which things are so important to you that you would have to say ‘no’ to another human being. It doesn’t mean to abandon one’s principles, only to put them up for consideration and negotiation. By trying to say ‘yes’ the people who own and manage businesses in our neighbourhoods will have the chance to grow and rethink the way they relate to their community — it might even lead to a new weekly poetry night or free tutoring that runs all year round.
A Festival Needs a Name!
I have yet to come up with a satisfying name and I’m entirely open to suggestions. We would need something short and satisfying that communicates a little bit about the idea of publicnessand being open to new ideas and activities. I see some potential in a play on the double-meaning of ‘premises’ (such as Open Premises or Shared Premises), but I’m not sure it’s catchy enough and might work better as a slogan or explanatory phrase. Send me name ideas by email (email@example.com), blog comments, twitter or facebook!
Organizing the festival would likely have two phases. The first phase would involve getting spaces to sign-up and publicizing their participation in-store, online and through the media. There would have to be an application form where potential participants explain their ideas and how much time and space they will need. There would be a specific date, maybe a month before the festival, where we would cut-off applications and businesses would choose and schedule as many events as they wanted. The second phase would involve promoting the chosen events and helping people choose which ones to attend.
To do this city-wide would be a huge amount of work, so it might make the most sense to do the first festival in just one neighbourhood as a pilot project, possibly with the help of a resident’s association or BIA. How we do it, will depend a lot on how many people are willing to volunteer their time and skills to help organize it. I know that I do not have the event planning, project management and web development skills to make it happen on my own. If you’re interested in getting involved, please send me an email: