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The Ringmaster

What does a festival director do?

I see my role as a festival director [at the Edinburgh International Festival] as part ringmaster, part lion tamer, part circus clown – call it what you like – but also a person who is asking questions about how we can see the world around us.

I gave a radio interview as part of the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival, and a Scottish lady rang up and said: “What are you doing to my festival, including content from Asia?” And we discovered, as she was talking to me, she was drinking tea from a porcelain cup. And I said to her: “Now, you’re criticising me for including Asian content in the Edinburgh Festival, and yet the two things that are closest to your hand – where do you think tea came from? And what about that porcelain cup that holds it? They were invented in Asia.”

It was at the moment that I pointed that out when she started to become intrigued.

The question is, through European eyes, how can we see a world that is increasingly global, but not monotonous? Global, but not banal. Global and unique and specific, where one place does not equate to another.

In doing that, I am mindful of times of history, times of politics, times of geography, times of technology. All of those things come into play in various configurations, dominating or receding, depending on the question you ask. But they are all forward-looking. They all suggest a festival can be entertaining, it can be enlightening, it can be informative, it should also have a soul, it should have a spirit, it should have integrity. I think festivals at their best are intriguing.

What is a festival?

A festival does not need to be a cultural celebration. There are many, many festivals in times other than our own that are either religious or ritualistic or purely frivolous, and about the provocation of frivolity. It is essential in any codified society to have such pressure releases, and a festival provides that.

Perhaps the most ancient festival in the world, and certainly the best attended, is the Mela in India, which happens in a different city every so often and has many millions of people attending it.You know that you’re being part of something bigger than yourself.

In August in Edinburgh, there is not one single nook or cranny where you are not aware that a festival is happening. The festival is not only a series of events. It is a reading, a reimagining, and reconfiguring, through performance, of the very fabricof the city itself.

In the case of Edinburgh, it also turns social order and social customs on their heads. A town that is otherwise quite sedate becomes quite radical. A town that is very genteel opens every corner, every back alley, every pore of its skin, and allows an extraordinary exuberance to occur there.

So a festival is not just a collection of artistic experiences, it’s also those artistic experiences mapped on to, or aligned to,the unique contours of a city.

How do you decide on what to include on a festival program?

If you think you know what an audience wants, that’s the wrong question for a festival director.

It’s a question of how can you take what you know of your society in a direction that you think they’re ready for, but will still be surprising to them. A festival is only useful if it is continually reinvented. You must never rest on your laurels. You must never assume because you have a certain success or primacy that you can ever be in any way self-satisfied or complacent.

If festivals do not surprise, they never can delight. If they don’t delight, they can never be sustainable.

A contemporary festival might be about entertainment, it might not be particularly religious, it might be indeed secular; but one still needs to search for the journey. And for me, the journey is an idea that is intrinsic to the way artists think, but beyond them at the same time.

The questions that I ask are never, to begin with, automatically artistic questions. Do I like Beethoven? Is Bono great? Do I like the Bauhaus? Those are not the questions to ask.

The question to ask is: how are we living? What are the forces that are shaping our world? How do we experience and engage with the world?


The Content

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The Content
Rectangle Sir Jonathan Mills

What was the focus of your Master of Architecture, which you completed at RMIT in 1999?

I was invited to RMIT in the 1990s as part of a radical theatre collection called Going Through Stages, which was being hosted by the School of Architecture.

I was invited to contribute a music element to a performance piece based on the ideas and architecture of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, the American architects who won the international competition to design Canberra.

I was searching for equivalence in a musical realm to the deep experience that the Griffins had as architects.

It sounds at first weird, but if we start to understand that cities are occupied by people and people perform in those cities, we have our own theatrical life in our own city. When you observe the way people map and occupy space, it’s actually not very far-fetched at all.

Rather than create a narrative of the Griffins – some kind of biography of the ups and downs and the turbulence of their lives – we were looking for a different kind of performance: a performance of evocation, a performance of subliminal layers, a performance that insinuated the idea of how an architect makes work, the material through which the architect expresses him or herself.

It was all pointing to ways of thinking about architecture research that is experiential, not theoretical, and is multi-sensory.

Following the success of the project and its production – and it had its detractors – I got to know Professor Leon Van Shiek.

We realised if we were to push designers into another way of thinking, we had to ask a very simple and rather obvious question, but a profound one nevertheless. If one is designing space, what are the sensory dimensions in which one thinks?

An environmental design can never be achieved in one sensory dimension alone. Unless you have interplay between at least two of our senses, sound and sight, the sculptural, the tactile, you will not achieve anything that remotely comes near a sustainable design. In engaging with the senses you actually have to think far more deeply about space.

It is very important to acknowledge that this work continues in certain contexts at RMIT, like the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory and in the work of people such as Associate Professor Lawrence Harvey, who took over when my career took other turns.

You received an honorary doctorate from RMIT in 2013 at the graduation ceremony at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. What was that experience like?

I thought RMIT’s graduation ceremony was fantastic. For me, graduating for the second time from RMIT was an eye-opener.

I thought the graduation ceremony was fantastic because it was an occasion. It is very practical. Because the date is set a year in advance, people from Australia and all around the world can come and make an occasion and celebrate.

It’s wonderful because it is a true ritual and it’s a very contemporary ritual. It is located in a very important place in Melbourne, in Docklands, in a sense our modern meeting place, where the sporting contests occur. It’s a wonderful reinterpretation of that vernacular.

The whole experience – for me it felt at times like a rock concert, and at other times a papal mass.

It was very unexpected and very meaningful to receive the honorary doctorate from RMIT.

It meant a lot to me because my relationship with RMIT started in an unsuspecting way and the things that emerged from it were genuinely successful. It was recognition not only of the genuinely open-minded journey that I was part of and others were part of, too, such as Professor Leon Van Shiek.

If more of us in our lives had that level of informality and lack of expectation about what truly inspires us and makes us curious, I do believe the world would be a better place.

“I thought RMIT’s graduation ceremony was fantastic. The whole experience – for me it felt at times like a rock concert, and at other times a papal mass.”

Shape Line

Sir Jonathan Mills AO

Pictured: Sir Jonathan Mills AO at the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival. Photos by Eoin Carey and Stuart Armitt