World Fringe Congress Report #1: First Impressions

I have arrived in glorious Edinburgh, Scotland, in the midst of both a strong downpour and the world-famous Fringe Festival. The city can only be described as beautiful, with its mediaeval architecture, quaint pubs and shops, and surprising nooks and crannies in every winding lane. While it’s tempting to just soak it all in by wandering endlessly through the ancient town, I have a mission and limited time. I am here for the World Fringe Congress, which begins today, representing the infringement festivals.

My first impressions come from the documentation I picked up at the Tourist Information Centre in Edinburgh Airport. Comparing the programs of the Edinburgh Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival that it originally protested against in 1947 is an interesting exercise, especially when it comes down to the sponsorship pages. Both programs’ sponsorship pages look very similar, each having a whack of questionable corporate “supporters”. Studying both sponsorship pages, it is very difficult to differentiate which is which.

Remarkably, there is even some corporate sponsorship overlap between the two festivals: a dodgy bank called “Virgin Money” actually sponsors both events simultaneously. Meanwhile, the original festival includes seriously problematic corporations like British Petroleum, responsible for the never-ending oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, whereas the Fringe promotes corporations like Deuchars beer, criticized for selling out a local Scottish brew to multi-national corporate interests and then destroying competition by flooding the market with its product.

The Fringe program also includes a message from the elite-sounding Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, the current “Chair of the Fringe Society’s Board”. She claims that the Fringe “can only happen with the wonderful support of corporate sponsors, public funders, and…generous individuals,” ignoring the fact that the first Fringe Festival of 1947 had none of these questionable and monied supporters, and yet still succeeded on the wits of the artists alone. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists such as David Icke allege that the Baroness has been involved in scandals and cover-ups.

Whatever the truth, one thing is certain: red flags are going up at the Fringe regarding the people and corporations entrusted with financing a festival that was originally a grassroots effort without any funding whatsoever.

Fortunately, this year also sees a more critical perspective coming from corporate media outlets, spurred by long-time Fringe performer Stewart Lee complaining in The Guardian that the Fringe is suffering a “slow death” due to excessive commercialization. Other notable arts journalists such as Siobhán Kane of The Irish Times have picked up the same theme in their analysis, reflecting on the corporatized Fringe as evidence of the “cultural bankruptcy of late capitalism.” Still, both journalists also suggest that there is hope and Lee believes the spirit of the Fringe is still out there somewhere, however hard it may be to find.

On a more positive note, organizers of the World Fringe Congress have been extremely helpful, friendly, and welcoming. They have put me up in a nice student flat (apartment) on Riego Street, complete with a kitchen, washer/dryer and internet connection. Nearby is the imposing Edinburgh Castle, looming high above on a rocky escarpment.

I will be sharing the space with a few other Fringe Festival representatives, but they have not arrived yet. I have spent much of the night creating infringement information to hand out at the World Fringe Fair on Saturday, and, despite a lack of sleep, I look forward to the opening of the Congress tomorrow.


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