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Don't stop the party: COVID-19 generates new forms of public celebration


Foto: Patrick Robert Doyle / Unsplash

The health emergency has led to imaginative solutions for enjoying events, festivals and celebrations that not only amplify the use of spaces but also increase the potential for participation.

From the Seville April Fair to the Merc festival in Barcelona, local authorities are looking for solutions that will allow these celebrations to go ahead in a post-COVID-19 context, which requires compliance with a strict framework of restrictions. As explained by the director of the UOC's University Master's Degree in Cultural Management, Alba Colombo, just as in other sectors, the health crisis has led to major cultural events across Europe being "cancelled, restricted or killed off". While there is no doubt that certain areas, such as music and sports have been dealt a significant economic blow, the repercussions of the pandemic on the social and community spheres also need to be considered. According to the expert, a whole host of local cultural festivals are also suffering the effects. Colombo, who is currently the principal investigator of the European events and public spaces research project known as FestSpace (Festivals, events and inclusive urban public spaces in Europe), highlighted the existence of a number of trends that she feels are "enriching" and that point to new ways of celebrating events in a post-COVID-19 scenario.

Despite the difficulties involved in organizing festivals and events in the midst of a health emergency when crowd sizes are severely limited, the "community response" has been to look for other imaginative alternatives and solutions. According to Colombo, it has been society – the neighbourhood communities and groups across towns and cities everywhere – that have decided "they are not prepared to miss out on traditional local festivals or significant celebrations," and have, therefore, opted to adopt different formats and initiatives. To that end, alternatives have been sought to enable experiences such as the Seville April Fair and Pamplona's San Fermin Festival to be celebrated, albeit in a different way. "What happens in this new context is that the community modifies the event, transforming the space and the forms of participation. This has been seen on terraces and balconies; private spaces that have become public and participatory," explained Colombo, who is also a professor at the UOC Faculty of Arts and Humanities. These new formats have emerged as a result of the changes forced upon traditional events so that rather than being lost, the celebrations are adapted to other spaces that make them compatible with the situation presented by the pandemic.

Colombo views the creation of events on balconies as one of the most interesting aspects of the crisis which also has the potential to be carried over into a post-pandemic scenario, saying: "New events are being created involving the participation of different private clusters, generating this public space; a space that either didn't traditionally exist or wasn't inhabited or shared." Examples of this phenomenon have been numerous and, in the case of Catalonia, new formats have been adopted for local festivals in places such as Ripoll, Celr, Figueres, Llagostera, Linyola and Trrega, where "private space has been converted into public space". Colombo explained: "As a rule, balconies, windows and terraces have traditionally always been private spaces to see or be seen but, as a result of these initiatives, they have now been converted into public spaces where those involved share and participate in a common activity."


The need to feel a sense of community

Colombo also stressed the fact that COVID-19 has required festivals and celebrations to be reinvented, with the creation of new and imaginative events, primary among which is the balcony phenomenon. She said: "Collective gatherings, or spontaneous actions such as an individual going out onto their balcony to sing an operatic aria or a musician playing a song from their house for their neighbours: that didn't exist. It's the result of an individual and spontaneous initiative which has brought a community together and is a social response to a latent need." These situations have been conceived to alleviate the isolation in order to "feel a sense of community". The pandemic has created this "closeness and bonding among neighbours", particularly in big cities, where people often don't know each other despite living in the same block.

These events have developed around the communal applause that has taken place at 8 pm every evening to express support for health workers. This nightly ritual has led to "everyone gathering in the same place at the same time, which has, in turn, generated other initiatives and events that have evolved over the months," explained Colombo, emphasizing its value as "an immediate response to an extreme situation" that has taken place away from the internet. The expert predicts this experience will leave its mark, principally serving "to open people's eyes to the fact that things don't always have to stay the same". Holding events and celebrations in a way that permits broad participation may result in the increased inclusion of previously marginalized groups, such as people with reduced mobility or disabilities, those who are dependent or elderly, by enabling them to participate in festivities and celebrations in a different way. According to Colombo, the pandemic has shown that innovation is possible and can be integrated once the health emergency is over.


Technological inequality

Beyond the digital experience, Colombo also highlighted the offline events that had been organized as a result of the pandemic in order to bring people together, which she views as important as "there are a lot of people who aren't connected and that's a reality we need to take into account; the technological capacity in an average household in many of the neighbourhoods of Barcelona, for example, is very low". We also need to be aware, particularly over the coming months, of the risk of a second quarantine period being required. In light of that possibility, Colombo believes that government administrations need to be capable of articulating proposals more quickly in the sense that, during the easing of lockdown, actions to allow people to go back to bar terraces have been quicker than those which would enable them to participate in cultural events. "A cultural event is more difficult to control and a social gathering is more likely to get out of control than a group of people sitting in one place; there has been a lot of fear about losing control of this kind of situation," the expert explained. As such, local authorities have also established specific regulations for this year's San Juan midsummer festival.

For now, the health emergency means that celebrations will need to be decentralized in large cities like Barcelona. Thus, for example, during the festivities for La Merc, the pyromusical fireworks display which traditionally draws huge crowds to the areas of Plaa d’Espanya and Avinguda de Maria Cristina, may have to be divided up and held at a number of different points so that people can watch from anywhere in the city.


The project Festivals, events and inclusive urban public spaces in Europe (FESTSPACE) is funded by the Spanish Minister of Sciecne and Innovation, with the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) under grant agreement 769478.


Photograph of Alba Colombo Vilarrasa

Alba Colombo Vilarrasa

Expert in: Cultural economy; cultural policy; cultural strategies and cooperation; cultural institution, organization and event planning; culture theory; sociology of culture.

Knowledge area: Politics, economics and cultural management.

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