The last three years have been nothing short of a major challenge for the wider cultural industry, especially for music festivals. The COVID-19 pandemic itself, and the public health regulations implemented to contain it, but also the uncertainty of the future – including the audience’s individual plans, artists’ possibility of travel, governmental recommendations and orders for safety, and even organisers’ own health – made it difficult to plan any major cultural event, especially one gathering dozens of artists and thousands of viewers on a campsite. And this was the case with Pol’and’Rock Festival, the biggest music festival in Poland. After my two previous posts about the event’s ways of dealing with the pandemic situation – first almost completely online, then by limiting the audience capacity – it was finally possible to be on the festival campsite in person, listening to live music and experiencing all the elements – both pleasant and not-so-pleasant – that make up the experience of this unique festival. Even though the shadow of the pandemic, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine, was hanging over the concerts and their viewers, it is hard to deny that Pol’and’Rock Festival 2022 was an intense celebration of a “return to normality” after two editions in limbo.
This unique situation of the “return to normality” lends a very strong argument to applying the perspective of ritual studies to the 2022 edition of Pol’and’Rock Festival. While this framework is widely used in analyses of cyclical cultural events, this year’s case is arguably even more suitable than usual. The festival is no longer only a break from the everyday, a fertile ground for anti-structure to emerge in unusual circumstances, but a genuine mark of returning to a changed reality, a re-integration into the structure – even if the structure in question is the carnivalesque fun time outside of everyday chores. In a way, a two-fold relation of normal and exceptional, mundane and celebratory, structural and anti-structural can be seen in the 28th Pol’and’Rock.
On the one hand, corresponding to the usual perception of music festivals in anthropological research, Pol’and’Rock is still a liminoidal situation (Turner, 1982). People gather in a secluded area to have fun away from their day to day chores, to celebrate being together, and even to suspend the usual rules of being in society – the mud baths again appear the most obvious example of this last aspect. On the other hand, however, it was apparent among all of the participants in the event – audience, organisers and artists alike – that they viewed this year’s concerts as a break from a long lasting and much less pleasant, but still liminal situation of the pandemic years. In this sense, the possibility to have fun, be carnally close to others, appears as a celebration of the normal, of what people want their usual existence to be (Pielichaty, 2015; Turner, 1983). From this perspective, the 2022 edition of Pol’and’Rock was a carnival situation par excellence – a festive, anti-structural, liminoidal occasion, that is essentially a celebration of the sordid everyday. The experience of finally being able to dance without fear of touching was the celebrated normal after two years of awkward handwaves and mediated communication.
None of the above should obscure the fact that if the 28th Pol’and’Rock festival was a return to normal after a liminal period, the normal returned to was a changed one. Even though the festival, as with all open air summertime events in Poland during the pandemic, has been treated with a relative leniency – in comparison to meetings in a closed space during the autumnal flu season – some marks of lasting changes in people’s attitude towards public health were still visible. The influence of the COVID-19 pandemic was still present in the way Pol’and’Rock 2022 was organised, although once again, in a very carnivalesque way. The most obvious example of it was the occasional person walking around the campsite, mockingly telling people to cover their faces or keep the 2 metres distance from each other. This can serve as a prime example of reliving the traumatic event through turning the order of the abnormal / normal couplet upside down, something very much in the spirit of carnival. Other influences of the pandemic were, however, visible in a generally heightened awareness of health issues for all participants, even if not directly referring to viral contractions. As far as this last aspect is concerned, perhaps the only notable change is the presence of disinfectant gels in the campsite’s Lidl shop. Across the event’s social media there were regular reminders to cover one’s head and stay hydrated, as the temperatures during the event were very high. Perhaps the most notable change caused by the pandemic is the way in which the definition of festival community has altered. This is because people watching the online transmissions of concerts were embraced as a valid part of the audience, even if this was acknowledged mainly by a discursive distinction between the people on the campsite and those staying indoors.
Another major change was an apparent increase in ecological awareness related to the problems music festivals often cause in this regard. The action “It’s getting clean” (Zaraz będzie czysto, a variation on the festival’s password of “It’s getting dark”), even though first organised in 2018, was particularly visible this year. Not only does it encourage people to chip in on a crowdfunding action to cover the costs of cleaning the campsite, it is also targeted at simply asking people to clean up after themselves, once again showing the organisation’s reliance on people’s individual responsibility. This visibility is well illustrated by the Instagram filters – besides the yearly variation of the festival’s theme, there was also a mini-game where people could “catch” falling junk.
The 28th Pol’and’Rock Festival was organised in a new location of Czaplinek in north-western Poland, which, according to the main organiser Jurek Owsiak is going to remain its partner at least for another year. As always, the festival had a year’s leading theme present throughout the advertisements and merchandise. This time, the call was timely indeed – “No War”, and the expression of support for Ukrainians were present both on the stages and among the audience. Despite the lingering awareness of global problems, the artists, audience and organisers of Pol’and’Rock tried to maintain as joyful an atmosphere as possible, allowing people to once again experience the nothing short of a carnivalesque ritual of having fun together, distancing themselves from if not reversing the concerns of their everyday lives.
Even while the 28th Pol’and’Rock Festival can be seen primarily as a “return” for long-standing participants, it is also worth acknowledging that for many people it was the first time they attended the festival. To a certain extent, this has been historically part of the event’s ethos, because of its itinerant nature. Since the festival was – again, after last year’s low fee meant to cover the sanitation costs – completely free, and also took place in a new location, new people could attend this big happening. For many of them this could have been simply a matter of age, as three years ago they were simply too young to attend. Ending this short description of the 28th Pol’and’Rock Festival, one group for which the event was less a celebration of freedom than a shock from the organisational issues needs to be named and congratulated for their perseverance in helping others have their fun – the railway workers. Faced with singing across the train, occasional inebriation and spilled beer, and perhaps most shockingly the very number of people arriving in Czaplinek and nearby towns, they tried their best to accommodate them with more frequent trains and by checking the tickets of people as quickly as possible.
On the whole, the 2022 edition of Pol’and’Rock Festival fits in with many characteristics of a ritual of return, of reintegration into the normal. Even while the shadow of the last two years was still hanging over the organisation, accompanied by arguably an even more worrisome aspect of war, it was evident that people went there to once again feel a part of the joyful normality.
Pielichaty, H. (2015) Festival space: gender, liminality and the carnivalesque. International Journal of Event and Festival Management, 6(3), 235–250.
Turner, V. (1982) Celebration. Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Smithsonian Institution Press.
Turner, V. (1983) Carnaval in Rio: Dionysian Drama in an Industrializing Society. In F. E. Manning (Ed.), The Celebration of Society: Perspectives on Contemporary Cultural Performance (pp. 103–124). Bowling Green University Popular Press.