Festivals and the problem of boredom

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Like all first-time visitors in Bali, I was awed by the lavish display of native creativity in practically all places of the island. All buildings reflect the mandated style of local architecture, which includes the usual decorations of carved deities and gargoyles derived from Hindu iconography.

Locals still wear the traditional costume and perform the morning and afternoon rituals of offering and prayer. Festivals and ceremonies are held daily in different places.

It’s hard not to be amazed by the elaborate details and colors that characterize the decorations and costumes used in the festivals and ceremonies. People have kept the tradition of making beautiful origami out of palm fronds to decorate temple gates and to serve as containers for bits of food and flowers offered to the gods.

The slow body and hand gestures in prayer approximate a kind of meditative dance. The symbolic rituals of festivals turn them into a kind of communal performance art.

I told a friend, a Dutch artist who has lived in the island since 1986, about how it amazes me that art has been so integrated in every aspect of Balinese life and how so small a place could actually produce so much art and continue to attract migrations of artists from all parts of the globe.

“I understand your excitement since it’s your first time to be here,” he said. “But for me, all I can say is that I have been so bored by all these cycles of rituals and festivals that have actually made Balinese life so redundant and mechanical. For example, I pity the women who are tasked to do all the preparations for the morning and afternoon offerings.”

What I see as a life of creativity, he could only look at as daily clockwork. The ubiquity of folk art and architecture only meant to him cultural bondage, or how through legislation, Balinese architects are prevented from exploring forms not tied to the official native style.

We sometimes feel the same sense of boredom with the Sinulog festival. The clichés of invented culture such as the festival songs played in a loop and blaring through the public address system; the predictable moves of dancers wearing costumes of an imagined tribe; the usual mob of tourists and party goers sporting fake tattoos, face paint, and obligatory black Sinulog shirts—all that actually puts in question our claims to creativity.

Some things need not change, of course, like the processions, the fluvial parade, the gozos, and other liturgical elements that remind us of religious origins of the festival. The pilgrimages and folk spirituality belong as much to the Sinulog tradition as the official rites and should be encouraged.

Yet we have also turned Sinulog into a yearly tourist spectacle, with the religious purpose overtaken by the more secular pursuits of maximizing public spending during the event and generating investments in the tourist industry to fill the increasing demand each year for more and better accommodations from the influx of tourists and balikbayans.

This is where we are challenged to be more creative in order to keep the tourists coming. More and more Cebuano residents  prefer  to stay home during the festival than risk a traffic nightmare just to see practically the same thing they have seen before.

And perhaps, like me, some don’t even feel like turning on the television to see live reports of the festivities. I can already guess how live footage would be presented on screen: shots of dancers in the streets mixed with shots of reporters wearing funny hats, face paint, and Sinulog shirts, and occasional aerial shots of the street parade from TV helicopters. In late afternoon towards the evening, the stage becomes a conveyor belt for the usual products of manufactured culture.

Such is the paradox of the modern festival. Ordinary life is predictable and prosaic. That is why we need to have regular occasions by which we can come together as a community to celebrate and showcase our creativity. Yet as we fear the unfamiliar, we turn the festival into a kind of formula, thus becoming the same condition of boredom it is supposed to address.

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