Columba’s Calling: Porous Space: On urban festival-making with Graham Maule

ColumbaFest is fast approaching and Graham Maule, of WGRG and weeWONDERBOX is getting excited about urban festivals and the concept of ‘porous space’. He sees how the setting, with normal city life going on all around it, results in everyday reality seeping into the out-of-the-ordinary gathering, both grounding and inspiring it. He is enthusiastic about the creative possibilities of the gated greenfield festival model (think tents, mud, burger vans, more mud) and the way they can create a finely tuned environment and atmosphere, but he is also drawn to the urban festival, with its fuzzier edges and inherent spontaneity.

Graham muses, “The idea of porous space, in this sense, is that you go into a event and then afterwards you are suddenly back out on the street … and a wee boy almost runs you over on his bike … immediately you are drawn back into everyday life, the insights you have gained become experientially linked to real life.”

An urban festival cannot be enclosed and carefully moderated. You have to appropriate existing spaces and infrastructure and adapt them to suit things they were never intended for. Perhaps a small unassuming courtyard becomes a craft workshop, al fresco dining hotspot, play park and a library of radical literature … all at the same time, while city life breezes past and through it. Graham says, and you can hear the glint in his eye over the telephone, “… the city bleeds into the space you are in – the insights we are gaining are planted in the same moment into the soil of our wider life. There’s an infectious urgency to that!”

A common challenge for festivals and retreats is to maintain momentum when the excitement and passion of an idealised setting are brought home to everyday life. Graham is concerned that we often associate what we have gained from these events too closely with the special location and so we struggle to carry out what we have learned in our own surroundings.

There is a relief about escaping to the country, clearing your head and literally breathing a breath of fresh air. However there is always the risk that we start thinking that the sense of community and belonging they offer can only thrive out in the wild, and would wither back home in our dreich wee neighbourhood.

The porous setting of an urban festival keeps you on your toes in a unique way, Graham reckons. It challenges you when you are still in that state of heightened awareness and engagement. The stark realities, joys, inequalities and challenges of urban life are immediately apparent, perhaps even literally visible out of a window, or on the street when you step out to get your lunch. These sensory reminders give a political edge to discussion and prayer. We are still digesting what we have been taking in while we are confronted with real life in all its compelling incarnation.

For Graham, this idea of porous space works both ways. As the city trickles continuously into the festival, the festival is trickling out into the city. Folk in the street can see that something is going on; festival goers inevitably interact with local residents, shopkeepers and restauranteurs. Porous edges mean people are able to pop their head in, or drift in and out of events spontaneously.

He is excited by the implications this has for the accessibility of a festival, both financially and practically. It is easy for someone to make a spur of the moment decision to come along and public transport links are likely to be in place.

Urban festivals also have the opportunity to create a bespoke experience that suits an individual festival goer’s needs. Perhaps care commitments or shift patterns means they can only make it along to a morning or an afternoon. At an urban festival someone could decide at the last minute to attend an evening concert without the hassle and inconvenience of trying to get somewhere remote.

Graham also points out ruefully that urban festivals have a distinct appeal in a Northern European climate of unpredictable and… inclement weather. He is drawn to the Kirchentag model – an urban festival on a tremendous scale where an entire city is taken over with events happening in a range of venues all over the place, over a number of days.

It is no accident that, in Scotland, the most successful and long-running festivals essentially follow this model – the Edinburgh Festival and Festival Fringe, Celtic Connections in Glasgow and the Mod which takes over different smaller towns each year. The city, more than the bricks and tarmac but the whole network of infrastructures and connections, becomes not only the setting – but also the means by which the whole enterprise works.

The city has been under appreciated in the church imagination in recent times, argues Graham. He feels that much of the imagery in our hymns and liturgies have a tendency to emphasise the pastoral and bucolic and ignore the spikier realities of urban living.

The majority of people in Scotland, and indeed globally, live in urban environments (or live lives inextricably linked to the city, such as for work or access to resources). Graham sees a renewed focus on the city as a renewed focus on social justice. He comments gently but insistently, “The church has failed too often to value the city, to see that the city is where the work has to happen. The place where most people are. The Judeo-Christian story tells us our humanity began in ‘the Garden’, but God’s kingdom, heaven on earth, finds its symbolic realisation and destiny in ‘the Holy City’.”

Romanticising withdrawal from the world as an end in itself is a worry for Graham. He is aware that a desire for a sentimentalised rural idyll can create a sense that spiritual insight and understanding is something detached from the everyday urban experience of most of us.

There are times when we need to retreat, but we are also called to live and embody our values day to day where we are. When we only discuss the confrontations between life and faith at separate ‘special places’, it can subliminally encourage, and reinforce, a sense that faithful folk should be escaping from, rather than engaging with, the world.

Graham is passionate about political and ethical debate and Christian engagement with public life. He believes we need to offer more ways of refreshing, recharging, and renewing one another on a regular basis – so that we are energised for being active in our local communities. A key component of the ethos of weeWONDERBOX is to offer regular opportunities to gather, share, and refocus.

ColumbaFest, weeWONDERBOX’s own new venture into urban festival-making is happening June 9th to 11th and Graham and the team are excited about launching it.

A range of tickets are available here. You can come along for the whole weekend, or a day, or one evening. Tickets will also be available on the door, on the weekend.

Soon we will be announcing the workshop timetable for the Saturday and Sunday so you can start planning what to come along to in more detail. Keep an eye here and on the weeWONDERBOX Facebook and Twitter pages for more information.

Graham Maule was in conversation with James Cathcart.