Festival Culture: the Romanticisation of Informal Settlements?

by Tim Perkin

The show ‘Borderline’, a PSYCHEdelight production, recently took part to an arts festival in the UK. The show portrayed a satirical account of the Calais Jungle, the informal refugee camp in France that hosted up to ten-thousand people. What made the political drama particularly poignant was that many of the members of the cast had lived as refugees in the camp.

Whilst the satirical humour kept the performance relatively light hearted in many ways – especially the fashion show exhibiting some highly impractical items of clothes donated to the camp residents, including onesies, patent jackets, and swimming costumes! – the knowledge that the actors had experienced such atrocities really gave the play a particularly meaningful dimension.

Nevertheless, it is not Borderline that I wish to focus on in this piece but I want to reflect on something that I noticed after the performance. I walked out of the pop-up theatre into a make-shift bar and food area as part of the festival. I was standing in an enclosed space surrounded with wooden paneling to give off a ‘shabby’ vibe, bark was scattered on the floor, and there were pop-up street food restaurants and bars. A sort of make-shift camp had been created, one that reminded me of the conditions of the informal camps in whichBorderline was set. Somehow the wooden huts that people were snuggled under as they ate their East African or Southeast Asian cuisine actually resembled the camp that I had just seen in the performance about Calais, and other informal settlements around the world. Except this one in front of me was ‘cool’, ‘edgy’, and gave off ‘festival vibes’.

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Festival vibe

I began asking myself questions. Why is it that contemporary festivals in the UK try to purposefully create spaces that give off this basic and make-shift vibe? Does the creation of these apparently basic and simple spaces normalise other spaces where squalor is the only option? Is there an extent to which we fantasise about living a make-shift life of street food and wooden homes, without realising what life is actually like for the millions of people across the world whose only option is to inhabit precarious settlements like these? The conditions in Calais were of course far worse than that of this make-shift festival. However, there is a political necessity not to romanticise spaces of informality to ensure that informal settlements, such as the Jungle, are taken seriously.

Whilst Borderline highlighted refugees’ resilience, humour and agency, the camp itself should not become a romanticised space and should not be replicated for middleclass leisure and consumption. Doing this legitimises, and also camouflages, the substandard conditions that people around the world are forced to inhabit when they live in informal settlements, and ultimately it may lead to believe that these settlements are acceptable spaces.


Tim Perkin is studying for a Masters in Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.

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