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Summing up TradFest’s First Conference

Summing up TradFest’s First Conference

Guest blog by Dr Mairi McFadyen, conference organiser and ethnologist
On the 6th of May, the trad arts community came together in Edinburgh to enjoy a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking day of discussion and debate. The very first Tradfest conference asked, ‘What is the role of the trad arts in the 21st century? What do we have to offer? Are we on the cusp of a new wave of change?’

Guest blog by Dr Mairi McFadyen, conference organiser and ethnologist

Open Fields: The Future of Trads

pic for blogOn the 6th of May, the trad arts community came together in Edinburgh to enjoy a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking day of discussion and debate. The very first Tradfest conference asked, ‘What is the role of the trad arts in the 21st century? What do we have to offer? Are we on the cusp of a new wave of change?’

Funded by TRACS, the day welcomed storytellers, singers, musicians, academics, students, trad arts advocates (and a politician!). Exploring the traditional arts through a mix of different approaches and backgrounds really helped to sharpen the picture.
The broad consensus was that they are thriving in many respects, but there were some very useful reminders that there is a great deal of work still to be done. Issues of access, equality and recognition still remain.

“I came away from the conference thoroughly inspired. The talks individually were very interesting and thought-provoking, but it was the overall feeling of positive discussion that was really great. The invited speakers came from a varied mixture of backgrounds and fields and all had very different perspectives on the matters being discussed. They all however had positive and passionate visions for the traditional arts in Scotland’s future at this time of political and cultural reflection and reinvention. As someone who is beginning a career in the traditional arts, this conference gave me a great hope that my direction is realistic and above all, relevant” Kirsty Law, participant.

You might ask, what are our ‘fields’? Are they open? What does that even mean anyway? In the 20th century, Hamish Henderson’s vision was to establish a ‘new cultural field,’ and a highly politicised one at that. This was to be

internationalist in nature 
positive in mood
questioning in form
inclusive in attitude 
decisive in action
challenging in tone
radical in outlook
rooted in place

Do these ideas still apply? Should they still apply? Are these qualities which we should continue to adhere to in tending our fields? Is the ‘radical’ perhaps missing in our output today? How ‘open’ is the traditional arts community to seeing its work in political terms?

Key themes emerging from our panel sessions included the importance of community (and challenging cosy, romantic notions often held); the idea of ecology and the desire for connection (with each other and with the environment); the power of the arts in the ‘democratic imagination’; the importance of inclusivity and the recognition of cultural diversity. What was particularly interesting was the feeling that the focus of our traditional arts has shifted – or, rather, expanded in scope – from ‘red to green,’ engaging not only with social concerns but also with contemporary environmental concerns about climate and sustainability.

The spirit of the outward-looking ecologist Patrick Geddes was invoked by several speakers, in relation to idea of ‘Place Work Folk’ – of mutual co-operation as opposed to competition; the call to ‘Think Global, Act Local’ and, of course, Geddes’ central concern: how to create the conditions for the flourishing of life and wellbeing for everybody in society.

After turning the gaze in on the trad arts, the final session looked the other way, using the trad arts as a lens through which to look outwards and envision possible futures. What kind of society do we want?

The purpose of the day’s discussions was not about channelling a particular point of view, however. As a natural response to the day’s conversations, our panel came out quite vocally in their support for independence. While it was acknowledged that there will be people in the trad arts community who will not hold the same views, the strong feeling among the speakers was that we all have a responsibility to be ‘open’ about what we think, and why.

“The trad arts discourse I don’t believe is marginal, I don’t believe it is a subsection of some artistic and cultural discussion, I believe it absolutely at the centre, at the heart of what kind of society, of what kind of nation we set out to be.” Donald Smith

“I think there is much we have to offer the cultural scene and the wider political scene in both the substance of what we do and in the way in which we do it.” Karine Polwart

Community and mutual co-operation was at the very heart of this future vision, with an underpinning of dignity and human experience, of ethical ways of dealing with each other, where creative artistic expression was seen as a fundamental right, not as something that is for the privileged few. The ‘future’ is about everyone who lives in Scotland, regardless of their history, where they come from or where they’re going.

And the future of the trad arts is very much ‘open.’

Conversations that took place will contribute to the thematic and theoretical underpinning of an emerging traditional arts discourse. If you would like to read more about the day’s conversations, a conference summary will be available to download shortly.