Thursday, April 27, 2006

Plato, Derrida, and the Mountainair Sunflower Festival - Updated

What is a festival? What is a Sunflower Festival? What is the Mountainair Sunflower Festival? Now that it has been renamed to something other than “festival,” will it still be the Sunflower Festival or will the name change turn it into something else? Why does this question or answering it even matter?

Ask people to imagine a chair: nobody will see Plato's ideal chair (the transcendental signified). Everyone will see something different, depending on context, i.e.: a kitchen table chair, an easy chair, a rattan Papa-san chair; a camp chair; a folding chair; an office chair, a Chippendale chair, a Swedish Modern chair, etc. To the extent that the transcendental signified, in this case “chair,” escapes us, the word chair is a floating signifier. Advertisers try to sell us Plato's chair by manipulating the definition. Ultimately, according to Derrida, while we are always chasing the transcendental signified, we can never get to it.

If the definition of "chair" can be difficult to pin down, abstract words are infinitely more so. Everybody’s individual, personal, and idiosyncratic understanding of abstract concepts cannot contain the idea of individually presumed components within itself. These are synthetic judgments "a posteriori,” grounded in context and individual experience.

Likewise, various interests, whether hustling the arts or more mundane transactions, manipulate (hijack) sunflower’s definition to present the event as something that will sell art, promote the town, and most especially bring visitors and their money to town. Each interest attempts to superimpose its own synthetic definition that lacks authenticity or grounding in collective local experience.

“Sunflower Festival” is not abstract in the same way as words like honor, liberty, responsibility, etc. yet lacks context to ground it, nail it down to a single agreed upon definition or description. There are so many Sunflower Festivals, all different. “Festival,” as a general category rather than a specific event, is more abstract but still refers to an event rather than a slippery concept. The Mountainair Sunflower Festival, anchored in time and space, seems sufficiently specific but floats too. “Sunflower” is specific, grounded in context, and shared experience. We all know what sunflowers are, what they look like, and when they take over the East Mountain roadsides and yards. We can even tell the difference between local varieties and the 60 kinds of sunflowers listed in the USDA database. Experience and grounding do that.

Why then does the Mountainair Sunflower Festival float? The referent, sunflower, is concrete, easily recognized, and anchored in time and space: the last weekend in August in Mountainair NM. Where then is the floater? It’s the word and event category, Festival. According to folklorists, cultural studies wonks, and chronic but discerning festival-goers, festivals are bigger, more important, more heavily scheduled than a Day or Celebration. The name implies more. It sails upstream, spawning hype. The Mountainair Sunflower Festival drifts on the ebb and flow of local volunteer energies.

Local residents, not exclusively art folk and other outsiders, enjoy the Sunflower Festival. They decorate sunflower hats, dress funky, look forward to seeing children’s sunflower in storefront windows around town, listen to live music, catch a few demos, check out art exhibits, rummage through the offerings at the library book sale and yard sales about town, and listen to readers at the Poets & Writers Picnic. They do not think of either themselves or the day as existing solely to promote art, galleries, or the town.

For example, each year I add more sunflower accessories to a sunflower shirt commissioned several years ago for festival wear and do as much of the above as I can before the heat drops me. Nor am I alone. Others turn out to wander the streets in varied and often sublimely inspired (sometimes even by sunflowers) attire. Elementary school students make Sunflower Art Projects that are displayed in storefront windows all across Mountainair’s 2-3 block “downtown.” Local artists and artisans turn out sunflower inspired work. Listeners assemble in the shade of the Shaffer Hotel garden to listen to regional and local poets and writers. It’s no coincidence that Dale Harris’ poem, “Manzano Sunflowers,” naturally emerged as a keynote for the occasion, be it festival, fiesta, day, fest, celebration, whatever. Why not just call it “Sunflower” (the day formerly known as a festival)? Let’s speak of “sunflowering,” definition to float, perhaps evolve, and see where it takes us.

Over the past eight years, the name has changed from Sunflower Arts Festival to Sunflower Festival to Sunflower Music Festival, back to Mountainair Sunflower Festival, and, most recently, to Sunflower Folk Art Festival. Only “sunflower” and, by implication, “Mountainair” remain constant. Children’s Sunflower Art, the Poet’s and Writer’s Picnic, and varying degrees of sunflower themed art remain constant as well. Even the sunflowers themselves, real flowers not signifiers, cannot be depended on. The weather may have been wrong and sunflowers peak before or after the festival. More than once, the highway department has cut the roadsides the week before, removing the event’s best natural advertisement. Visitors may take sunflower aporia and erasure as personal affronts, but locals shrug and accept this as just another “Mountainair moment.” It’s still Sunflower after all – whether or not the sunflowers show up.

Name changes add to signifier float, each a layer in the palimpsest. The fault lies less in Sunflower than in persistent efforts to name, own, and promote it as something it is not. Despite hype promising a unique experience, daytrippers may not find advertising sufficiently motivating to warrant a hot, August day trip to Mountainair. Or, if they do, they can be disappointed when the event does not live up to its hype. Residents, old-timers, long term, and transplants, however, enjoy the day: their day, their festival.

Sunflower may not fit the definition or meet requirements implied in the word, “festival.” Many support Sunflower yet agree with widely voiced concerns about appropriating the word festival to add meaning and dimension not inherent in the event – and then advertising to match an ideal, perhaps mythic Sunflower Festival, rather than promoting the reality. The practice promises more than the Festival has, in past years, delivered. Daytrippers go home and tell their friends. Next year, past and potential daytrippers tune out sunflower hype. There may as well be a ripple effect: tuning out other Mountainair events.

No doubt, Sunflower’s persisting informality owes much to its ad hoc origins. Initiated in 1999 by local resident, Adolphine Carole “just because,” Sunflower 1 celebrated the opening of Art Alley. The original event was more happening than organized event. There were no committees, no sponsoring organization, no titles, no formal schedules, no flow charts, or anything smacking of institutionalization. Everybody had a good time; it filled the gap between Jubilee and fall holidays. Everyone agreed: the Sunflower Festival should become a regular event, “improved” by organization, formal structure, and systematic promotion.

The following year, more money and promotion poured into the mix. The controlling idea was to advertise heavily and turn it into a money making music festival. It was still fun, if not either a music festival or quite the success imagined by its handlers and self-appointed promoters. After a few years, the Chamber of Commerce took over official sponsorship, this year dropping it as they had last year’s hot potato, Firecracker Jubilee.

Despite being passed from hand to hand like an unwanted child, somehow Sunflower, like its hardy sunflower namesake, survives.

Whose festival is it? Who owns it? Can any person or entity even own a festival, especially such a floater, with so many versions? The original event had a midwife but no owners. Individuals and organizations assumed, if not custody, then proprietary rights after the fact, usually without consulting festival users or contributors. Now, in the wake of an undiscussed or voted on backroom handoff by the Chamber to the Manzano Mountain Arts Council, Sunflower continues to have many absentee owners (sponsors, exploiters, followers, fans - and just those relishing an occasion to put flowers in their hair, on their hats, and elsewhere). Blissfully unaware of Derrida, floating signifiers, and possibly even Plato, maybe it’s time for the true owners to take back their festival.

3 comments:

Sister Morpheme said...

Can "fun" be a floater in this context? Who possesses this abstract concept? I think maybe the Committees That Be should permit a natural break in the two factions of Culture and Kitsch. Some might prefer one to the other, some would appreciate both, and many would court one exclusively, to seek the elusive "fun". Perhaps all things cultural could commandeer a certain area of town, but leave the main street or courthouse area open for games, balloons, food vending, face painting, and the like. If the Locals are the intended audience, court the children. If the Weekenders are the intended audience, plan a juried art exhibition with a call for artists going out in, say, March. Position it squarely next to the Writers' & Poets' Picnic and enjoy the reek of High Art. Everyone eats, so court notable, reliable vendors with good old fashioned Festival Food. I want to wake up and smell fried things.

I am often confusing my Derrida with my Foucault, and my signifiers with my signifieds, but I could always go for some good fry bread & a freshly-squeezed lemonade.

vanessa said...

We need more of both - fun Kitsch (state fair type eats, activities, dunking booths, mazes, goofy games, whatever) and Kultur (if anyone can agree on a definition).

There is already / always has been a tendency to the break you describe. Naturally occurring, never quite explicitly stated.

However, to harness and make best advantage, kitsch would have to own up to being just that instead of masquerading as high art at the Mountainair Beaux Art Ball.

Likewise, the kultur kontingent would have to hold itself to at least marginally more stringent standards - no more "I feel creative (screw training, talent, skill, discipline)" as the baseline.

The identity "courted" depends on which incompetent local entity is in charge. Overall, the courted have mostly been out-of-towners (mythical daytrippers and, even more fantastically implausible, art collecters in search of Mountainair Art at "studio prices").

Locals are the providential and ultimately logical audience. If an event lacks sufficient interest to draw local visitors, it is less than realistic to expect anyone (mythical or otherwise) to spend gas money.

PS confuse them all you want - disclaimer - any/all use ironically intended

Anonymous said...

Sweet blog, I hadn't come across flaneusecontrariante.blogspot.com earlier in my searches!
Continue the great work!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...