infringement Festival: The Linux of Theatre

if04logoby Stan Kristansen

Linux is a free computer operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds with the assistance of developers around the world. Developed under the GNU General Public License, the source code for Linux is freely available to everyone. By using Linux you can say goodbye to hefty software costs, hidden pop-ups, and corporate tracking systems; all hallmarks of the much more common Microsoft system. The choice? 1) Pay tons of money to use a junk system that is designed to exploit you (to pad the wallet of Bill Gates); or 2) Pay nothing for a good system that you can even design yourself.

Unfortunately, most computer-users opt for option #1, even though it is clearly not in their best interest. They are basically paying good money to essentially restrict themselves creatively in terms of computer navigation and design (it is designed for them), while exposing themselves to a constant barrage of spyware, pop-ups, licensing, viruses, and advertising.

The basic difference is this: in the corporate model you pay to be held hostage as a spectator to an endless meta-commercial, in the human model you are free to express, inter-connect, and create, sans cost or interference from the corporate powers-that-be.

Admittedly it is a bit harder to learn a new system, but the payoffs are very rewarding. Instead of the corporate help desk, there are millions of networked programmers. Instead of paying twice (once in licensing and once in being clobbered with advertising), there is no cost. Instead of inhabiting restrictive corporate environments online, you can create your own spaces free from corporate-influence, and visit other grass-roots areas designed and run by real people.

The Linux principle is being applied in many areas: free school instead of corporate universities, co-ops instead of multinationals, social housing instead of condos, etc. As people reclaim their communities, they develop better critical facilities, enjoy a sense of human solidarity, and ultimately gain a better standard of living. Instead of being spectators sitting alone in the dark watching some endless commercial play, empowered, they play in an exciting critical and interactive environment. Their actions are good for humanity, because they inspire others to reject the oppressive systems that are responsible for the inequalities, wars, terrorism, environmental destruction, and monoculture spreading about our planet.

Unfortunately, even the arts, the supposed bastion of free expression and critical thought, is suffering from the corporate bombardments. In Joost Smiers’ book Arts Under Pressure (“the NO LOGO of cultural research”) he grimly notes that as a result of globalization, basic cultural rights are becoming seriously endangered. Offering strong arguments for cultural diversity and human freedom of expression and broadcasting, Smiers displays a deep and genuine concern for the lives of artists across the globe. He notes, for example, that “…corporatization of the market of ideas, images, texts, and sentiments has also caused a shift to the political right. Corporate owners push their favoured interests, and in the decision-making process are less tolerant of anything that places a question mark against existing society and its rulings.” (29)

Which brings us to the “Ste. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival”, a member company of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF). Now in its 14th year, many local and international theater artists and activists are beginning to realize that the “Fringe” isn’t what it used to be. Originally founded in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947 as a people’s festival of theatrical expression, it is now a multi-million dollar event where corporate sponsors with massive advertising budgets abound and even the word “fringe” itself is trademarked. “Talk about driving a good thing into the ground,” said Donovan King, the artistic facilitator at the Optative Theatrical Laboratories, the only company ever to be kicked out of a “Fringe” festival. “It’s a real shame,” he said “especially because I was involved when the festival started in the early 90s, volunteering my time (when not playing in shows) to make sure it was able to successfully support the artists. Now the artists are treated poorly, are being financially exploited, and we are all being put into a very awkward position. With corporations calling the shots instead of the artists, I am not even allowed to cross the fringe border, which raises serious questions of integrity: if the fringe has a boundary, can it realistically be called the fringe? Most artists can see, both figuratively and literally, that the precious fringe we nurtured and played in for so long, is now a Fringeâ„¢.”

This year angry artists and activists have created a rival upstart event – the infringement festival – as a critical response to the corporatization of the “Fringe” (which includes the Bay Street trademarking of the word “Fringe” in Toronto, 1998 by CAFF.) The Infringement Festival is an interdisciplinary festival open to all critical artists. Celebrating Freedom of Expression and designed as a real arts democracy, this festival is, according to the organizers “a critical response to the oppressive neoliberal worldview and all its Billboard Trucks, Televisions, flyers, advertisements, jingles, made-for-TV Wars; and the depoliticisation of people through this diversionary Spectacle.”

Concerning the content of the I.F., the organizers boast: “The infringement welcomes a variety of performances and cultural resistance: theatre groups, performers, street activism, political theatre, musicians, radical performance, marginalized arts, disadvantaged groups, and anyone wishing to artistically infringe on the monoculture that creeps into every corner of our lives. Raging grannies. Culture-Jammers. Entartistes. Performance activists. Guerrilla Screenings. Speaker’s Corners. Interventions. Happenings. Do-It-Yourself. Reclaim the Culture!”
Furthermore they are adamant that there are firewalls and safeguards in place to prevent their artists from being exploited and their festival from being co-opted/commodified:

“Adhering to a mandate that signifies the spirit of the real Fringe, we are returning a lost venue to Montreal. We are starting a global trend and hope all Fringe ™ Festivals will witness similar cultural resistance. To prevent itself from being co-opted, the infringement festival follows a mandate that looks like this:

1) The festival is free for all artists to participate in. Artists must provide their own venues, staff, etc. (although we are working on making some venues available to all participants at a discounted rate). Artists can charge what they like, and keep 100% of profits.

2) The festival will be supported by a central office, whose goal is to help co-ordinate and advertise the events (eg: with a website, press releases, and a central gathering place).

3) The festival will be run on a not-for-profit basis.

4) There must be no unethical or conflict-of-interest sponsorships.

5) The festival will be run democratically.

6) The festival will never discriminate. It is open to all people and languages.

7) The festival aims to emphasize both critical practice in the arts, and artistic practice in activism. It also aims to provide a positive environment that encourages and nurtures critical art.

While many “Fringe” organizers describe the infringement artists as “left-wing radicals”, “nutjobs”, and “people who want to destroy the fringe”, Jason C. McLean, the Chaos Organizer of the infringement asserts that the new fest is “an alternative that is free for artists to play in, without all the corporatization.” Adds King: “I see it as the Linux of theatre”.

The real question that emerges is this: is the trademarked “Ste. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival” actually fringe? Or has it transformed into a marketing opportunity for corporations whose brands want to be associated with “cool”, who want to advertise and market their products to the artsy/hipster consumer focus group?

I started by looking at the financial history of the CAFF and its “Fringe” franchises, and learned that recently there have been several major financial scandals, including the Enron-like implosion of the Seattle “Fringe” which, according to National Post reporter Kelly Neestruck “went bankrupt, leaving $63,000 in debt to artists”. Another disturbing financial scandal is connected to Edmonton, home of CAFF President Miki Stricker. In 2003 Nicole Ticknovich, a former festival cash office worker and ex-wife of former fest director David Cheoros, was sentenced to three years in jail after sending a phony fax from The Fringe Theatre Adventures Society transferring $110,000 out of the festival’s account. It was withdrawn by an unnamed seventeen-year-old girl and paid to a man named Theodore Pemberton, who disappeared and is, according to one source “presumed to be dead”. Add to this the Car Stories debacle at the 2001 Montreal “Fringe”. Briefly, the Montreal “Fringe” defrauded the group Optative Theatrical Laboratories by refusing to pay them the ticket sales (over $1000) they received from their activist show Car Stories after the producers kicked them out on the orders of their corporate sponsor: right-wing media conglomerate Can-West Global’s Gazette. In a serious conflict-of-interest position as both the media and financial backer, the paper stopped reviewing all shows and threatened to withdraw $15,000 (according to Jeremy Hechtman, producer of the Montreal “Fringe”) after a playful altercation with the Gazette’s then-theatre critic Pat Donnelly (where characters in the show tried to charge her for her ticket, then wrote a satirical letter to her editors when she refused). Following their expulsion from the “Fringe”, they were promptly banned from all future “Fringe” activities. Despite having a sold-out run for a week before getting canned, the OTL never received a single penny in ticket sales.

Artists not getting their ticket sales, even though the festival promises “%100 of the box office”? An entire fringe theatre festival going bankrupt? Debts in the tens of thousands of dollars left to artists? Fraud? People presumed dead?! Wasn’t the “fringe” originally a simple collection of artists who wanted to express themselves after being snubbed by a corporate festival? Are these three isolated incidents, or is there a culture of corporatization that is embedded into the CAFF?

According to J. Kelly Neestruck the “Fringes” are in the big leagues financially; the Edmonton Fringe alone has an impact “estimated at $8.2-million a year”. Matt Radz describes the Montreal “Fringe” as a “$300,000 production… [with a] legion of volunteer helpers”. Where does all this money go? I should say straight up that all attempts to examine “Fringe” accounting books have been met with cold stares and stiff resistance.

With this information in mind, I decided to do a little local investigation by asking the artists themselves at both the “Fringe” and the infringement what they thought – is this situation “normal”, or exploitative? While many people did not wish to address the topic at the St. Ambroise/”Fringe” beer tent, several artists did speak, many on condition of anonymity, citing worries of harm to their careers as the central reason to their identity being hidden. At the I.F. the artists were relaxed and more than happy to discuss the topic. Having assembled my notes from the “Fringe” and infringement artists, I compiled the following list of practices artists generally felt were exploitative towards them:

1) The charging of fees in the range of $300 – $700 to play in the theatre and be associated with the “Fringe” trademark. This is called “pay-to-play” and is considered unethical in most arts circles.

2) “Service charges” of $1 – $3 are added on to every ticket sold; despite the fact that the festivals promise that artists keep all (“% 100”) their money from ticket sales. The “service fees”, collected by the “Fringe” raise overall ticket prices, discouraging spectators searching for affordable theatre, and ultimately hurting the artists.

3) The artists are put into a very awkward position because the festival associates their fringe artistry with unethical sponsors – some within the CAFF matrix include Starbucks, Diesel Jeans, General Mills Foods, MAC Cosmetics, and a host of corporate media. A search on the festivals will undoubtedly reveal a lot more. These sleazy corporations are advertising their products off the backs of the artists without consent or compensation. Artists are paying money to support corporate advertising. One disturbing example at this year’s Ste. Ambroise “Fringe” is the corporate presence of Diesel Jeans. According to the Media Watch “Endorsed Boycott List” the Diesel Jeans and Workwear boycott began in ’96 “because of their ads that have things like a woman tied to train tracks, a dog imagining a woman’s crotch, and lately images of couples enjoying the rich life adjacent to peasants living in squalor and extreme poverty.” One artist suggested: “It is disturbing that “Fringe” artists are, through the advertising/sponsorship deal, automatically associated with an unethical company that promoted sexism and violence against women. I imagine they use sweatshop labour too.”

4) Conflict-of-interest sponsorships mean that if any artist wishes to artistically criticize a sponsor, the sponsor will always take precedence, leading to censorship or in some cases actually having acts removed from the festival.

5) The corporate organizers of the festival, originally owned and operated by the people, have co-opted it and transformed it into cash cow, contributing to the commodification of the arts and the gentrification of various neighbourhoods, all the while destroying an exciting community arts event.

6) Many artists are actually banned from participating in (and even entering) the fringe festival – they are literally stopped by security guards at the Fringe border.

7) Because the festival is run on a corporate model, the artists have no more say in their festival. It is all conducted behind closed doors and without their input. The democracy that was once there is no longer. The festival has been privatized without the consent of the artists.

8) Artists who use the word “fringe” to present their performances are subject to lawsuits for copyright infringement.

9) According to one speaker in the internet chat room: “Firstly it should be noted that the Montreal St. Ambroise “Fringe” is the only “fringe” named after a corporate sponsor. It is a symptom of corporatization. Not only are all the venues “sponsored”, but the entire festival is. Perhaps organizers will reserve the right to impose corporate sponsors on individual acts, or why not the individual artists themselves?

In doing this, St. Ambroise sends out a message that it is on equal footing with the concept of “Fringe”. Good advertising strategy if you’re trying to be “cool”, but it backfires when that “cool” is exposed as exploitative towards artists, meaning brand damage.”

When I asked CAFF President Miki Stricker if she had any comment on all the financial scandal plaguing the CAFF, she said only that “the situation has been dealt with through the judicial system.” Stricker, CAFF President since November 2002 didn’t wish to discuss it further, but did say that she would “love to see a Fringe in every city in North America…”

Infringement organizers are in agreement: “We’d love a fringe in every city in the world,” said King, “but unfortunately the CAFF cannot provide that. Their marketing ploys, exploitation of artists, and unethical practices are bad for communities, artists, and are un-fringe to say the least. The infringement model would be a much better one to adopt in cities around the world. In the 21st Century we need spaces free from monocultural interference to work and play. While we would love to encourage the CAFF to clean up its act, we are skeptical that they will listen to the real fringe artists. Until then, the infringement is desperately needed.” And just what demands are the artists making? According to the OTL website:

• The word “Fringe” must be un-trademarked or placed in a public trust.

• An accountability mechanism must be created to uphold the mandate.

• There must be Fiscal transparency.

• Conflict-of-interest sponsorships must stop.

• Democratic principles in organizing the festivals must be implemented.

• Artists who were defrauded by Fringe Festivals™ must be reimbursed.

It’s little wonder the CAFF and Montreal organizers either offer no comment or try to dismiss the infringement artists – having looked at the facts, it is pretty hard to deny that there is a culture of corporatization in the CAFF model. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though – one only had to read Kevin Connolly’s article in EYE Weekly of Toronto back in 1998:

[Former] Fringe producer Nancy Webster… was instrumental in the formation and direction of the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF), which has registered the Fringe trademark…the corporate approach has…raised some eyebrows. “The Edinburgh producer was here a few years back to do a little session about how she does the Edinburgh Fringe,” Webster recalls. “She thought the idea of a Fringe trademark was appalling — so against what the Fringe was all about.”Webster says she could relate on a purely emotional level to the woman’s reaction, but insists that the move to a formal trademark was made solely to protect the artists and the integrity of the festivals. Webster’s background in corporate fundraising also made it easier for her to pursue corporate connections. “I guess I’m a little more comfortable with the people artists normally refer to as ‘suits’ than some of the other Fringe producers.”

King muses “I guess that’s what happens when you let the fox into the henhouse. We should have been more vigilant. With the CAFF making record profits off the backs of artists, Webster’s assertion that the trademark was made to protect artists and the integrity of festivals rings even hollower now than it did back in ’98.”

Luckily in the 21st Century, with increased inter-communication and the internet at our disposal, we have more options, even in regards to our theatre now. So think about it. Microsoft or Linux? “Fringe” or infringement? You decide.

One Response to “infringement Festival: The Linux of Theatre”

  1. OTL Blog » Blog Archive » Judy Rebick launches “Transforming Power” - essential reading for activists! Says:

    […] organizations such as the infringement festival. By following the same grassroots principles as LINUX, existing systems can be challenged and replaced with more viable and less oppressive […]

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