Commentary about Carnival since 2009

With Carnival in the state it's in, and my own hopes for its future prospects sliding downhill rapidly, I find myself unable to muster much energy to rail against the industrious destruction of the national festival.
Instead of writing all that again (I wrote nine pieces about Carnival in 2014 alone, and there's such a thing as flogging a dead horse), I've decided to gather links to the last six years worth of columns, posts and videos on the subject for anyone who's interested.

February 2009 editorial for the Trinidad Guardian.

"The years that the Panday administration and by extension, the Indian community, came in for unceasing vilification in calypso tents followed by the free pass offered to the PNM on their return to power broke a tradition of speaking truth to power that has only just begun to correct itself, inspired by the travails of Keith Rowley and the alleged excesses of Udecott.Compounding this erosion of trust was the decision by tent managers to embrace the support of the State under the Manning administration, which may have been absolutely necessary for the survival of the tent as a venue, but which seemed to potential audiences to be payback for political loyalty"

March 2009 editorial for the Trinidad Guardian.

"In today's Carnival, there is no predetermined route from the end of Christmas to Ash Wednesday. There is no unspoken requirement to visit every Calypso tent, to attend major competitions in the Savannah or even to wear a diaper downtown for J'Ouvert.Instead, numerous business constituencies are making a pitch for the Carnival patron's dollar, selling the perceived value of a particular all-inclusive fete, the experience of a particular costume band and the appeal of marching mud covered through St Clair."

March 2011 blog post with early contemplations about photographing Carnival.

Twenty-five years ago, coverage of Carnival was demarcated by clear zones. Photographers and videographers were here, and the costumes were there. Over time, here became much closer to there as the presentation of Carnival became less about costuming and theatre and more about the body and self and the articulation of individual sensuality to the camera.

BitDepth#668 on Carnival photography, February 2009.

"But the need for a budget on photography during Carnival has always been real.It's probably hard for today's Flickr crazy photophiles to understand, but there was once a real cost associated with every photo you took. "

BitDepth#669, a March post-event summary of Carnival in 2009.

"There have been post-mortems in the past about Carnival, normally billed as seminars or discussions, but they are unified in both their length, wordiness and the absolute lack of interest that anyone with line responsibility has expressed for their proposals and suggestions."

BitDepth#717 foreshadows the Socadrome.

Let’s throw something new into the mix and create a new stage venue along the Carnival route that’s optimised for the needs of visual reporting. A space where all the video crews, photographers and online publications will have access to high speed broadband, space for live video transmission, well-designed lines of sight for capturing masqueraders and the biggest surprise of all for working journalists at Carnival, decent food and bathroom facilities that are regularly cleaned.No judges, no spectators, and security charged with only one mandate. Keep the mas moving from entry to exit. Notify every bandleader about the new venue and let’s see where they go on Carnival Tuesday.

BitDepth#718, triggered by a talk on Carnival by the late Pat Bishop

In considering a work of art, the painter and musical director noted, she asks herself, among other things, to whom it is addressed and to what extent the artis is expressed in the work.Bishop was quick to acknowledge that her own perceptions of Carnival might well seem antiquated to modern tastes, but bemoaned a quite justifiable loss of “our sense of local capacity to do and be” while “looking abroad for validation.”

BitDepth#719 closes out my contemplation of Carnival for 2010

There was a moment, on Carnival Tuesday night, while I was being jostled by young men carrying a rope, being bellowed at by a bandleader’s henchman and being eyed sternly by a red-shirted NCC stage official that I considered the curiosity of all these people claiming ownership of the two feet of public asphalt I happened to be standing on.

BitDepth#770 considers a symposium on Carnival.

The idea of cultural policy also came in for some disquieting review. Marcia Riley explained that “Policy exists in three levels, policy as intention, policy in action, policy as experienced. How does that play out in Trinidad and Tobago?”Pat Bishop deepened that thought, saying that: “A policy may be described as a statement of intent, it is the parameters of doing, but it is not doing itself.”

BitDepth#772 reflects on the rebuilt Grandstand

It’s weird standing here, looking at it. It looks like something that’s gone away forever, but not quite, not really. It’s a ghost wrought in concrete and steel beams.It’s more frightening to think that after 150 years, we may have lost our ability to innovate in the midst of our boldest celebration of creativity

BitDepth#773 contemplates photography at the Grandstand stage

Still cameras trade in fractional slivers of time that now cumulatively record an alternate reality of Carnival, one invented spontaneously by photographers and their subjects that’s representative of their understanding of what constitutes a photograph of Carnival.

BitDepth#822, on modern photography's impact on Carnival

Two generations of young masqueraders have come to understand Carnival without the guidance or example of a curated, thoughtful document like Key Caribbean’s Trinidad Carnival. The disappearance of a considered visual interpretation of the event has fundamentally shifted the self-image we have of the event, its value systems and the way it is recorded and presented.

BitDepth#823, tongue-in-cheek (mostly) advice to masqueraders

Since I have your attention, and can claim some experience on the other side of the engagements that lead to masqueraders getting photographed, I feel it incumbent to respond to the many accusing, slightly hurt looks I am blessed with when I do not; in fact, feel particularly moved by your masquerade.

BitDepth#824, how the NCC almost threw Reuters out of Carnival

"Paying for access to events is against the journalistic ethic, because a journalist or photographer might be considered obliged to report on a story in a certain way if money changes hands, either from the organizers to the photographer or vice versa. We have strict rules against payment for access simply because we do not consider it ethical.”

BitDepth#825, from a speech on curating Carnival's legacy

To recreate the effect of the original experience of engaging with art and culture requires a commitment to understanding the original work and deciding how to recreate and curate its presence online.And to do that, you have to begin by giving a damn.

BitDepth#872 on the troubled relationship between Carnival and commercialism

The Carnival argument has not only polarised opinion, it has stalled innovation. Traditional performance is now a moving mausoleum of old ideas, untroubled by new concepts, new materials and new expression.Commercial Carnival is equally hidebound, constraining itself shamelessly to what sells with no concern about real design and innovation. The blur of feathers on Carnival Tuesday is largely matched by high BPM hum of the year’s soca output in dozens of parties.

BitDepth#873, an open letter to new NCC chairman Allison Demas

Over time, and I’ve had at least one cousin and two people I really liked in the role, it seems that the job has come to mean “facilitator-in-chief,” and that’s simply not good enough anymore.He who has the gold makes the rules and the river of cash that flows through the NCC to Carnival’s stakeholders should confer some kind of leveraging authority over intent and execution in the festival.

BitDepth#874 on copyright issues in Carnival

The single most lunatic thing about everything related to copyright in Carnival 2013 was the realization that nothing is actually being licensed in these agreements. There is no contractual foundation between the person buying "rights" from any of these bodies and the whole lunatic mess is built on a fundamentally absurd business model. Most photographers and videographers are forced to pay for "commercial" or "personal" rights that have no definitions, in advance of any actual use. This happens in no other application of copyright law, anywhere.

BitDepth#875, an interview with CarnivalTV

The most pirated stream was last year’s National Soca Monarch event, which Paul Charles estimates lost roughly US$700,000 in potential income from pirate streams which they worked hard to knock offline.And the piracy isn’t even related to the cost of the stream. When the soca monarch semi-finals were offered in 2012 at US$0.99, an online furore began over the effrontery of “charging for de culture.”

BitDepth#876, reporting on an NCC consultation on Carnival

The NCC is now 22 years old, surely old enough to know better, and the tone of the stakeholder assembly was that the Commission should do more, but nobody seemed clear about what “more” might be and there seemed to be no enthusiasm on anyone’s part to cede any of their, personal control.And it wasn’t just the NCBA, TUCO and Pan Trinbago staking their claims, it was the Carnival Entrepreneurs Association and The Bois Academy stepping up to let the NCC know that they weren’t happy about the stewardship in place. They were hardly the most powerful personalities in the room jockeying for a better position.

Narend Sooknarine of Zorce tells his story of Carnival accreditation in 2014

I explained to her that to fund a print magazine project I would need to raise a minimum of TT$120,000-150,000 inclusive of their fees and that it would be unreasonable to do this in just three weeks. I also explained that it would be a challenge to make arrangements with a printer to work on the Carnival days to have such a book ready shortly after Carnival.

The NCC asked for my thoughts on accreditation. This is what I sent to them.

The simple truth is that these fees have ruined the coverage of Carnival. Imposing hefty fees on people producing documents recording Carnival may seem to be a good idea for the people receiving the cash (no doubt a pittance to the bandleaders who have pressed for it), but it has created a lowest common denominator ethos among those who do produce such publications and broadcasts.There is no room for careful thought, intellectual analysis or adventurous image creation in such documents. They must ensure a return on their investment, who we now have Carnival “magazines” with cover to cover images of half-naked women and little else.

BitDepth#924 revisits Carnival copyright issues

At the heart of all this bacchanal is the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a nebulous product called "copyright fees," a uniquely T&T invention designed to satisfy Carnival stakeholders that they are getting a cut of all the nonexistent money being made by photographers and motion crews off their hard work.

February 2013 blog post on new Carnival coverage developments

"I’m very tempted to walk away from this mountain of crap. But here’s the truth. Carnival is bigger and more important than the stupidity of the people who are appointed to run it. There will come a day when we look back on these decisions and lament the chilling effect they had on serious coverage and documentation, but that won’t bring those lost events and personalities back."

An editorial written for the T&T Guardian for February 26 considering the implications of the Socadrome

But the shift in taste from performing a masquerade to wearing a pretty costume that’s part of an exclusive street party has been happening for at least 20 years now.It’s not the only way that Carnival has begun to fracture. Traditional masqueraders were exiled to Piccadilly Street more than a decade ago to have their own parade on a quiet Carnival Sunday morning and the steelband continue to struggle for relevance on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

BitDepth#925: Five Carnival people weigh in with what they would like to see in the festival.

“What we admire about the mas of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is what we forget about it. They came out of yards, where there was informal training going on.”“The event has moved out of ritualistic expression to a larger commercial activity. There has been unchecked growth and people have been participating in an ad hoc way, based on what they know and what they can rely on.”

The Geography of Carnival, an editorial for the T&T Guardian

The country’s largest annual festival is being convened along roadways that no longer meet the needs of the vehicular traffic they were originally designed for, so it’s no surprise that they are also inadequate to meet the surge in Carnival Tuesday foot traffic.Carnival has simply outgrown its traditional home and like an adult child still being forced to live under the rule of parents, it’s acting up in ways that are proving troubling and downright irreverent.

BitDepth#926 on the stuttering progress of Carnival

The State really needs to decide whether it is an investor in Carnival or its sponsor. When Carnival stakeholders begin to gripe about the lavish freeness expected by representatives of the State during events, perhaps it’s time to admit that you’re a sponsor, and a loutish one at that.Yet the conversation about Carnival is always about investment and returns and earnings, business terms that mean nothing when more than $200 million can be ploughed into the annual festival with no expectation of serious accountability for spending on that scale.

The March 10, 2014 editorial I wrote for the T&T Guardian calls for more transparency in the festival

Hiding judges’scoresheets for a public competition creates wide ranging doubts about what exactly happens when these experts review competitions and offers no insight into the process.Transparency and accountability are not challenges; they are opportunities.At the very least, understanding what’s being rewarded and what’s finding disfavor would more constructively guide competitors in their efforts to craft successful works. In a larger view, understanding the judging process as it exists now might begin a discussion that might more helpfully shape what is rewarded annually as great works of Carnival creativity

BitDepth#927 offers a coda of comment on Carnival 2014

Once the North Stand served a real purpose, along with the open bleachers that bracketed the parade route onto the big stage. There were thousands of people who wanted to see pan and mas and there was a real need to accommodate them.For most of Carnival 2014, though, the North Stand was effectively, when it wasn’t completely, empty of an audience.

A talk given to students of the Carnival Arts at a UWI symposium on the festival.

It's likely to be the secret of all success in Trinidad and Tobago, our most successful creatives, athletes and authors working out of the same mindset. It’s either one person, or one person surrounded by a small supporting and engaged group or a tiny group of people with such synchronicity to their shared vision that they seem to move as one.

Video: My presentation to Carnival stakeholders at the Citizen's Carnival Conversation organized by Rubadiri Victor.
Video: I participated in this two segment examination of the photography of Carnival.
Video: A conversation about copyright in Carnival on Morning Edition with photographer Andrea De Silva.

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