From an urban space to a festival city? Observations of Rotterdam during ESC2021

Britt Swartjes and Chayenne del Prado

Britt Swartjes and Chayenne del Prado

Erasmus University, Rotterdam

After more than a year of COVID-19 we are looking back at a year of innovation, of creative solutions of festival organizers and audiences alike. We saw audiences rebuilding past festival experiences, and we saw organizers come up with new ways for audiences to celebrate their festival at home or with distance. Eurovision is no exception. The festival was supposed to be held in Rotterdam in 2020  but due to the measures back then could not be realized. This year, constraints due to COVID are still present. Nevertheless, Rotterdam has found its way to, as it goes in the city’s slogan, ‘make it happen’. Through online live shows, for example by DJ Afrojack at the iconic bridge de Hef or Duncan Laurence, the winner of Eurovision 2019, at de Maassilo, but also through online tours around the city, talkshows, drag shows and online yoga classes the city is trying to show itself to the world and offer their audiences an experience supposed to resemble a festival experience. All of this can be watched by anyone with an internet connection, laptop or smartphone, from anywhere in the world.

Image 1: DJ AfroJack at de Hef (Online)
Image 2: Duncan Laurence at Maassilo (online)

However, Eurovision is not only a well-established event that showcases a host city to the world (see for example Andersson and Niedomysl, 2008), it is often also seen as fostering a sense of belonging and civic pride for locals (Wolther, 2012). But what is happening in Rotterdam that is visible to locals and what image of the city is showcased? Where can we see and feel that a major event like Eurovision is taking place in Rotterdam, knowing that crowds will be largely absent? In this blog, we will take you on a walk through the city of Rotterdam during Eurovision 2021 with these questions in the back of our heads.

The spaces and people that make an urban space a festival city can still be found during Eurovision week. It is not difficult to spot the giant blue microphone made from recycled PET-material from Rotterdam waters at Central Station, or the big purple flags with Eurovision logo’s all across the center of the city. The banners at the entrance of metro stations, the stairs taking you to the platform having been decorated, as well as posters alongside the roads and across Erasmus Bridge cannot be missed. At other places, hardly any visual markers give away the presence of Eurovision. Some festival markers are present around city hall at Coolsingel in the center of the city, such as a car with the Eurovision logo parked at the front, or the banners and flags the  building has been decorated with. Walking alongside the river, you would not notice anything unusual up until getting to the well-known sight of the Erasmus Bridge,  where purple Eurovision flags and banners across the bridge signal the presence of the festival.            

Eurovision is seen as a good occasion to showcase what a city is about. For Rotterdam, as it appears from videos presenting the city in the Eurovision village, this is about innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainability and, most relevant to our project: wanting to show the diversity present within the city. This becomes particularly visible  when we cross the Bijenkorf, where the shop window has been filled with mannequins dressed in Eurovision themed clothing and Angisas (traditional Surinamese headscarfs).

Image 3: Mannequins at Bijenkorf
Image 4: Mannequins at Bijenkorf

These Angisas have been created by Rotterdam based designer Selita Klas and were an essential part of the outfits according to the city dresser Madje Vollaers, who we got to speak to after seeing the designs. The outfits as a whole are meant to emphasize the theme ‘’LOVE’’, which is meant to resemble the diversity present in Rotterdam. The traditional Surinamese headscarfs made by Selita can be seen as an example where the city uses the opportunity to represent and portray elements from different ethnic groups living in the city. This edition of Eurovision could be said to be important for Surinamese representation in particular, with Jeangu Macrooy, a singer of Surinamese descent, representing the country and singing in English and Sranantongo. Even though the celebration of the Eurovision Festival cannot be done as usual, Madje and Selita both stated that they feel more connected to the festival due to their work for the project.

We continue our walk deeper into the centre where we notice a strange absence of the festival at de Binnenrotte, the location where the Eurovision village was supposed to take place and which is highly contrasting to the same location in the digital sphere. Where you see the stage, the bright colours of the festival venue, the small figures resembling people walking around the festival site and hear the festival buzz in the online environment, nothing except some stickers on de Markthal and a digital poster reveal anything out of the ordinary happening there in real life.

Image 5: de Binnenrotte in Rotterdam
Image 6: de Binnenrotte in the digital Eurovision village

The closer we get to Ahoy, the only place where crowds will be allowed at some points this week, the more we start to sense the festival. Not only because the number of visual cues increase, with banners surrounding the metro station close to Ahoy and the mural made of Jeangu Macrooy across Ahoy as well as the art installation made by several street artists in front of the concert venue. The sense of the festival is increasing here with the stimulation of other senses, such as the traffic light playing ‘Waterloo’ when you cross the road and the figure within the traffic light actually starting to dance (as well as some people crossing). We also see more and more people who seem to be engaged with the festival in one way or another: from volunteers wearing Eurovision sweaters, to a woman in the metro wearing a Eurovision face mask and tote bag; from a local bartender wearing a Eurovision face mask, to a small group of guys wearing pirate clothing and delegates from different countries in traditional clothing taking pictures with the Eurovision scarf.

The presence and non-presence of the festival in the city feels striking. We assume that many people will be celebrating this Eurovision week from their homes, behind their computers and tv screens, and we see people taking pictures with the microphone at central station or the banners at Erasmus Bridge.  Without the possibility to draw in huge crowds except for Ahoy with the semi-finals and final, organizers and city officials have been able to move around restrictions while retaining some sense of the festival presence. Allowing for the possibility of online celebration for people across the world and the mostly visual representation of the festival in the city, we could not have asked for better ways to continue feeling the presence of the festival in Rotterdam.


Andersson, I. and Niedomysl, T. (2010) Clamour for glamour? City competition for hosting the Swedish tryouts to the Eurovision Song Contest. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie101(2): 111-125.

Wolther, I. (2012) More than just music: the seven dimensions of the Eurovision Song Contest. Popular Music, 165-171.

Leave a Reply