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"Welcome to the Circus!"
A few days ago, I was in the midst of sipping a cup of freshly made Earl Grey tea at our balcony in my hometown in Croatia, when the relaxing atmosphere of the summer morn’ suddenly became disturbed by the sound of a peculiar little car announcing that the Classical Circus Berlin has just made its arrival in the city.
The city instantly went nuts: Miles and miles of excited crowds were squeezing its way towards the ticket counter under the circus’ colourful tents; the circus crew was parading across the city streets; and the local cafés filled their tables with the circus’ promotional leaflets. The overall atmosphere in the city was surreal.
A few weeks earlier, a similar atmosphere dominated the streets of Zagreb as the popular INmusic festival was about to start. The same enthusiasm floods the streets of Zagreb every year around the time of the festival. Yet, this enthusiasm is common to music festivals and similar sites organised all across Europe during the summer months. Needless to say, festivals of all kinds are practically an inevitable part of our holiday and leisure. But what does actually attract us to these sites and places so much? Perhaps, the answer lies in their topsy-turvy, ‘anything-goes’, uncannily contradictious nature.
The “Other Space”, or Heterotopia
In his seminal essay “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias and Utopias” (1984) the French philosopher, literary critic and social theorist Michel Foucault delves deeper into the nature of these uncanny sites.
Foucault defines them as heterotopias: Spaces which “are linked with all others”, but which, at the same time, “contradict all the other sites” (2, emphasis added). These spaces are “counter-sites” in which “all the other sites that can be found within a culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (2). In other words, heterotopias are spaces which seem oddly common and familiar, yet they somehow add a twist to ‘the common’ and challenge its rules.
Heterotopias, thus, although to a certain degree reflecting familiar cultural traits and sites, are “absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about”, due to which Foucault describes them as places “outside of all places” (2).
Heterotopia I: The Cemetery
In his essay, Foucault uses the example of a cemetery to illustrate the characteristics of a heterotopia. In his view, the peculiar site of the cemetery is “unlike ordinary cultural spaces” (2). If we think about it, the cemetery is a common cultural site and an inevitable part of a city or a village, but it is impregnated with a somewhat uncanny, often folkloric, hue.
In Foucault’s interpretation, while cemeteries used to constitute “the sacred and immortal part of the city”, today, they are seen as “the other” part of the city, where “each family possesses its dark resting place” (2). Because of its ‘dark connotations’ as a resting place, the cemetery is often isolated from the metropolitan or rural centre.
As such, the cemetery, although an essential part of the urban or rural aesthetic (i.e., every city has a cemetery), nonetheless disrupts their socio-cultural configuration by creating a ‘rupture’ in its commonly tacit atmosphere, and constitutes a somewhat dark mirror-image of the metropolitan and/or rural community.
Heterotopia II: The Circus
The space occupied by the requisites and tents of the Classical Circus Berlin parked a few kilometres away from my home adds a similar twist to the otherwise homeostatic atmosphere of a metropolitan and/or rural centre.
In his description of heterotopias, Foucault notes that circuses and amusement parks are “privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis” (2). The circus is a site in which clowns, magicians, acrobats, tightrope-walkers and jugglers dynamically collide. The extravagant nature of these performers imbues the site with a ‘carnivalish’ hue. Along these lines, Foucault describes the circus as a “heterotopia of deviation” in which “individuals whose behaviour is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed” (2). (To get a clearer image, just think, for instance, of the popular freak-shows which swiped the American and English crowds off their feet at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.) The circus, in short, turns the rules of every-day existence upside down with a single toss of the jugglers’ ball.
In his remarkable study Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach (1976) Paul Bouissac also asserts that the circus and similar sites, such as amusement parks, are “a kind of mirror in which the culture is reflected, condensed, and at the same time transcended”, thus emphasising these sites’ ability to simultaneously mirror and contradict the culture of ‘the everyday’ (1).
Heterotopia III: The Festival
All that has hitherto been written about cemeteries and the circus can easily be applied to festivals.
In their study, “Festival Heterotopias: Spatial and Temporal Transformations in Two Small-Scale Settlements” Bernadette Quinn and Linda Wilks observe that festivals “juxtapose several incompatible spaces” (e.g., a stage which celebrates folk music and a stage reserved for local indie-rock bands along, say, a popcorn stand and souvenir-shops) (3). Moreover, by causing a “cessation […] of routine activities”, festivals disrupt and defamiliarise traditional socio-cultural norms (3).
Festivals, in other words, constitute a temporary, “alternative” and “more liberated” space in which we abandon our traditional roles and activities, engaging into a ‘topsy-turvy’ festivity that places us outside of the ordinary (3). They are, in brief, a temporary cessation with our every-day life, and, just like cemeteries and circuses, an uncanny space of deviation which challenges the status-quo.
In the end, cemeteries are just like music festivals: They twist and invert the socio-cultural norms of a given community, while at the same time reflecting and mimicking them. Their “alternative” nature, as well as their possibility to liberate us from our traditional roles of, for example, a student, and allow us to appropriate a new, temporary identity which aligns with the rules of the game designed by the heterotopic space are perhaps some of the reasons why we enjoy spending our summer leisure around these uncanny sites. Through these sites, we experience a temporary break from ‘the common’. They create a rupture in our day-to-day flow of activities.
At the same time, these sites and spaces can also feed our need to escape the ordinary, this way functioning as realms which can temporarily obliviate our dissatisfaction with ‘the everyday’. Whether this ‘escapist effect’ is positive or negative, and what other effects on the society as a whole the heterotopic space may have, however, opens the avenue for an entirely new discussion. For now, suffice to say that the possible effects of heterotopic spaces give us plenty food for thought during our next visit to one of Europe’s summer festivals (or beyond).
In the end, popular music festivals, the circus, and the cemetery next-door are, of course, different sites and places. But despite their differences, they all possess a peculiarly similar atmosphere and enable us to, at least for a moment, escape the ‘all-too-familiar’ flow of the ordinary.
1. Bouissac, Paul. Circus and Culture: A Semiotic Approach. Indiana University Press, 1976.
2. Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité (1984): 1-9.
3. Quinn, Bernadette, and Linda Wilks. “Festival Heterotopias: Spatial and Temporal Transformations in Two Small-Scale Settlements.” Journal of Rural Studies 53 (2017): 35-44.