How do you organise a socially distanced festival?

by Kitty Drake in June 2020
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Art & design

Every September since 2014, Indiecon has brought more than 100 publishers to Hamburg for a two-day magazine festival, dedicated to print that will “turn your head, frighten you or make you wanna lick the pages”, as the organisers put it. Last year, Indiecon attracted more than 4,000 visitors. Themed ‘Impossible Publications’, the 2020 edition is one of the few events in the publishing calendar that hasn’t been moved online in the wake of coronavirus. In fact, it’s already oversubscribed, with publishers flying in from all over the world. But what does a festival like this look like, now that page-licking poses a serious risk to public health?

In Germany, life is beginning to edge back to normal (sort of). This week, the New York Times reported that a theatre in Berlin has removed 500 of its 700 seats to allow for socially distanced performances. One swimming pool now has a traffic light outside its shower area to regulate the flow of people having a wash. We spoke to Indiecon’s co-founder, Urs Spindler, about his hopes for the festival, and imaginative ways around the two metre distancing rule — like installing seesaws.

How are you going to manage the number of people visiting Indiecon so it works, in our new reality?

We’ve thought about shrink-wrapping everyone? You can bring your own blow-up dinosaur costume? We want to be honest: we still aren’t sure whether this will work. The restrictions are changing all the time so we are keeping the plan flexible. An image I always have in my head is: when you want two people to keep their distance, you can either put up a sign that says “you have to stand two metres apart”, or you can give them a seesaw. Because when two people sit either side of a seesaw, they’re two metres apart. But it’s also fun.

You’re not actually serious that you might install seesaws?

Sadly not. But we do want to have a certain game element to it. We hold Indiecon in a former freight yard right in the city centre. Our neighbours have just opened a drive-in cinema. It’s anachronistic and weird, but on the other hand it’s not at all weird because it’s something you might do in normal times. We’re inspired by that: we want to do something safe, but at the same time, playful. Everything is a challenge: a bar used to be someone handing you a drink over a counter. Now it’s a design problem. Right now we know every publisher will have much more space. And we will manage visitor flow: we’re thinking people might have to apply beforehand for a certain time slot. It’s definitely going to be a lot less people coming through, as in previous years we’ve had more than 4,000 visitors. Perhaps there’s a chance to create something more intimate.

The theme for this year is Impossible Publications. It’s not impossible to make a magazine right now, but it feels more challenging. Were you thinking about that when you came up with the theme?

Well that theme predated corona. We’ve been working on a project called ‘Impossible Library’ in Hamburg, which is a project space featuring an inventory of over 1000 independent magazines and zines. The idea of ‘Impossible’ publications originally came from the idea that it’s virtually impossible to finance indie print — but still so many people find a way. Now the title obviously has a second meaning, because we want to create space for publishers to get together and share how they’re keeping going, in the wake of corona.

This kind of opportunity to connect with other makers is extremely rare now. Is that part of what drives you to make Indiecon 2020 a physical event?

A publication is basically a dead piece of paper if nobody reads it. For us it was always about the relation between magazine maker and reader, and how magazines can help transmit ideas. We thought about cancelling. Many other publishing fairs have cancelled. What we’re doing is not technically “essential”. Is culture essential? For us culture is why we get up in the morning. It’s the glue, the purpose, the meaning. Every publication opens up a small window into someone else’s mind. To me that’s so intriguing on a personal level. Because there’s so much fabulous weirdness out there — last year we had a visitor from Jerusalem, who only made publications on hedgehogs! Everything was about hedgehogs! Those publications let you glimpse his reality. To read something like that widens your world.

Indiecon will take place at Oberhafe, Hamburg, from 5 – 6 September

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