RMIT alumnus Sir Jonathan Mills AO was appointed Director of the Edinburgh International Festival in 2006.
Before that he was artistic director of a number of Australian festivals, including the Melbourne Festival, and completed his Masters of Architecture at RMIT (1999).
Find out what Sir Jonathan says about curating one of the world’s biggest cultural events and what he thought about receiving an Honorary Doctorate from RMIT last year at Etihad Stadium.
What does a festival director do?
I see my role as a festival director [at the Edinburgh International Festival] as part ringmaster, part lion tamer, part circus clown – call it what you like – but also a person who is asking questions about how we can see the world around us.
I gave a radio interview as part of the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival, and a Scottish lady rang up and said: "What are you doing to my festival, including content from Asia?"
And we discovered, as she was talking to me, she was drinking tea from a porcelain cup. And I said to her: "Now, you’re criticising me for including Asian content in the Edinburgh Festival, and yet the two things that are closest to your hand – where do you think tea came from? And what about that porcelain cup that holds it? They were invented in Asia."
It was at the moment that I pointed that out when she started to become intrigued.
The question is, through European eyes, how can we see a world that is increasingly global, but not monotonous? Global, but not banal. Global and unique and specific, where one place does not equate to another.
In doing that, I am mindful of times of history, times of politics, times of geography, times of technology. All of those things come into play in various configurations, dominating or receding, depending on the question you ask.
But they are all forward-looking. They all suggest a festival can be entertaining, it can be enlightening, it can be informative, it should also have a soul, it should have a spirit, it should have integrity. I think festivals at their best are intriguing.
What is a festival?
A festival does not need to be a cultural celebration. There are many, many festivals in times other than our own that are either religious or ritualistic or purely frivolous, and about the provocation of frivolity. It is essential in any codified society to have such pressure releases, and a festival provides that.
Perhaps the most ancient festival in the world, and certainly the best attended, is the Mela in India, which happens in a different city every so often and has many millions of people attending it. You know that you’re being part of something bigger than yourself.
In August in Edinburgh, there is not one single nook or cranny where you are not aware that a festival is happening. The festival is not only a series of events. It is a reading, a reimagining, and reconfiguring, through performance, of the very fabric of the city itself.
In the case of Edinburgh, it also turns social order and social customs on their heads. A town that is otherwise quite sedate becomes quite radical. A town that is very genteel opens every corner, every back alley, every pore of its skin, and allows an extraordinary exuberance to occur there.
So a festival is not just a collection of artistic experiences, it’s also those artistic experiences mapped on to, or aligned to, the unique contours of a city.
How do you decide on what to include on a festival program?
If you think you know what an audience wants, that’s the wrong question for a festival director.
It’s a question of how can you take what you know of your society in a direction that you think they’re ready for, but will still be surprising to them. A festival is only useful if it is continually reinvented.
You must never rest on your laurels. You must never assume because you have a certain success or primacy that you can ever be in any way self-satisfied or complacent.
If festivals do not surprise, they never can delight. If they don’t delight, they can never be sustainable.
A contemporary festival might be about entertainment, it might not be particularly religious, it might be indeed secular; but one still needs to search for the journey. And for me, the journey is an idea that is intrinsic to the way artists think, but beyond them at the same time.
The questions that I ask are never, to begin with, automatically artistic questions. Do I like Beethoven? Is Bono great? Do I like the Bauhaus? Those are not the questions to ask.
The question to ask is: how are we living? What are the forces that are shaping our world? How do we experience and engage with the world?
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