The Transformational Festival:
Global music festival culture is growing at an exponential rate. Across the world more and more multi-day camping and non-camping musical events are popping up, definitively fueled by the high rise and popularity of easily staged electronic music. These events carry similar formats and share an inspiration and aspiration for group communal experience, and it is safe to say that the idea of the concert has found its most comfortable and expandable setting in the form of the music festival.
Yet as these events begin to take rise globally, we may notice a variation in the basis for these events, and we can pinpoint that there is a certain kind of festival which takes the want for communal experience to a level of holistic completeness. What I am talking about is the transformational festival, those gatherings that carry with them a full acceptance of new age spiritual goals, holistic living, permaculture and artistic creation.
This summer I had the great pleasure of attending three events that fall (in my opinion) into the transformational festival category. Although without a doubt, it can easily be argued that all music festivals, and concert experiences in general, are transformational and hugely inspirational on some level, these events have certain elements that point them directly toward being intended as transformational. The events I attended were Symbiosis at Pyramid Lake, Nevada, Lightning in a Bottle just outside of Los Angeles, and Sonic Bloom in Georgetown, Colorado. It is funny because I didn’t realize just how different the inspiration and impact of these events were until I returned to my old stomping grounds of Wakarusa. However, in retrospect, it has become obvious that for many reasons these events were bent upon the fruition of transformational experiences for participants.
In order to begin an analysis of the transformational festival (through the lens of these three events I attended), it is important to note geographical particularities and ideational background. First, in the United States, the kind of events I am writing about take place almost exclusively on the west coast, with the majority of the gatherings happening in California. Of course, there is variation in the spirit of the event as a result of such a vast geographic spread of sites. I definitely noticed a difference in the vibes between Symbiosis, which drew a Northern California crowd and Lightning in a Bottle which drew a Southern California crowd. Yet it is safe to say that while there were some noticeable differences in the crowd attending the shows, on the backend, that is to say in terms of production, things were very similar. Another thing to note was that both of the large West Coast events I went to had a distinctly international presence both in the musical acts and in the participants of the events. I remember one absolutely hilarious scene walking down into the healing village at Symbiosis (more on that later) that went like this:
Guy #1 to another passerby: “Hey Man you need any rolls?”
Passerby: “I’m from Australia mate I don’t know what the fuck that means!”
In terms of the spirit of these events, it is important to note that much of the foundation for some of the ideas backing the events comes from Burning Man. It is as if the famous ten principles of Burning Man have seen a serious diaspora into West Coast festival culture, guiding some of the impetus for various elements of these events. Also it is important to note that much of the foundation for these events in terms of their ideological backing comes from new age spirituality, the belief in the great shift, extra-terrestrial presence, the potential for spiritual development, and an intensive helping of astrological knowledge. So in between Burning Man notions coming into play and a heavy presence of new age spirituality we find a different idea for what these events mean to the participant, definitely summed up in the word transformational.
Now moving forward into a direct analysis of salient themes and trends, I will take it in chunks of examination to show just what makes a transformational festival a transformational festival.
One thing that is definitely noticeable as a differentiation in the transformational festival format is the presence of areas that are utilized specifically for ceremony, workshops and yoga. At Symbiosis this took the form of Symbiosis village, a healing village that was a large congregation of art installations that housed ceremony, yoga and workshops all centered around a sacred fire that burned all day and all night. At Lightning in a Bottle this took the form of the Lucent Temple of Consciousness, a hilltop collection of stages for workshops, speakers, a yoga tent, a sauna, a healing center with professional acupuncturists reiki masters and other energy healers, and a sweet meditation temple that doubled as a jungle gym. At Sonic Bloom there was very limited space but there was a lakeside area for workshops and yoga and the Seed Dome, a workshop geo-dome. These areas are what academics would classify as ‘temporary autonomous zones’ as in they create an energetic and experiential haven where one feels unaffected by the world and intimately connected to the higher vibration, which is of course facilitated by scheduled workshops and yoga, which brings us to our next category.
Workshops and yoga:
A definitive trend in the transformational festival that certainly has backing in the new age spirituality movement is the heavy presence of workshops and yoga. The transformational style of a festival provides these avenues of learning and bodily connection to spirit as an attempt at offering a more holistic approach to gatherings. We come to these gatherings not just to dance and to party, we come to experience unity and open our reality to new things, so why not have specific activities that are meant to teach and inspire participants? At Symbiosis, Lightning in a Bottle and Sonic Bloom there was more or less a full schedule of talks by notable authors, healers, extra-terrestrial channels and great thinkers that ranged from permaculture to unified field theory, and throughout the day you could walk to the workshop areas and have your mind blown by these accomplished thinkers. The presence of yoga has certainly made headway into the East Coast festival scene, but the sheer volume of yoga classes at the three events I keep mentioning was impressive, and yoga freaks had a range of styles to choose from. All in all, the focus on learning and active spiritual connection at these festivals was a great boon to the participant, you could fill your day with healthy soberly mind-expanding, engaging activities before breaking out the whiskey or acid for a night of fun. These workshops and yoga classes are specifically transformational and put the gathering’s focus on you having an awakening, which is something extremely important in fleshing out the full potential of what a music festival can be in my opinion.
The Green Agenda:
Here the verbiage of Burning Man gets heavy play, as all of the events I am referencing in this analysis were (supposedly) ‘leave no trace’ (one of the principles of Burning Man). A leave no trace event means that at the very least you leave no trash in the vicinity of the event, and even can potentially mean that you pack out what you pack in and dispose of all your own trash. The green agenda had some major headway at Symbiosis, where to my great surprise and elation the vendors gave you reusable plates and glasses, on which you paid a down payment in return for tickets. Your ticket was redeemed when you took your plastic plate to the washing station, a vending booth that washed the dishes all weekend and then redistributed them to the food vendors. Though I went home with a couple redeemable tickets and a few plastic glasses, I thought the format of the plates and silverware was brilliant and would love to see it more in the future. At both Lightning in a Bottle and Sonic Bloom all the food vendor materials were compostable (well almost all of them) which was also really awesome to see. As music festivals grow into a truly global phenomenon, they carry with them more of the vibe that this is the next step in human evolution and the more the question of sustainability is raised in my mind. While I was participating in the West Coast music festival scene it seemed like the green agenda was present and was cool, but I didn’t realize the true impact of distilling the value of ‘leave no trace’ until I went to Wakarusa and on the last day looked at the campgrounds to see tons (literally thousands of pounds worth) of discarded debris. The transformational festival upholds a transformation for festivals at large in the area of greening events, and I would like to give a big shout out to my homie Eric Giambrone with Ecotopian Enterprises for pioneering the green agenda at smaller events coast to coast.
Mainstage ceremonial activity:
While there is certainly a burgeoning presence of this at festivals across the nation, the propensity for opening and closing ceremonies at the transformational festivals I attended this summer is definitely one of the things that made these gatherings powerful. Having the crowd gathered together while notable space holders guided intention and set the energetic presence for the gathering certainly helps to center the idea of the festival into personal and group communion. The beautiful ceremonies at Symbiosis, Lightning in a Bottle and Sonic Bloom helped to define some of the experiential qualities of the weekend, and actively put the intent of the festival production and the participants in the gathering towards transformational partying. At one opening ceremony at Symbiosis a spiritual theatre troupe did an awesome play of transformational experience upon the stage, with a suited business man being changed into a Mexican blanket wearing hippie throwing sage into a fire. That ceremony ended with Starhawk passing out gourd seeds to the crowd asking us to plant them with intention to grow containers for magic to bloom; I ate mine At Sonic Bloom the wondrous galactivator Adam Apollo performed two opening ceremonies. During the second one he had us create a giant circle and led us into intentional prayer before spurring us to move around the crowd and meet new people afterward. It is this kind of ceremonial activity, which happens upon the same stages where the headliners play, brings the focus of these gatherings into a new age blooming of transformational experience.
Art Art Art!:
The Transformational festival is certainly preoccupied with aesthetically pleasing mind-expanding and truly connective expressions of artistic creation. Whether it be live painting by amazing artists, multiple galleries upon the field, the many art installations that are functional or just meant to be looked at, creation walls, gallery auctions, stage design, right down to the dancers that are constantly present onstage (oh God, Sophia marry me), the vast array of artistic presence at transformational festivals is certainly one of the things that makes such gatherings transformational. Seeing the beautiful creation of many artists inspires personal internal artistic creation within the self, exploration of transformational themes, and a feeling of true co:creativity. The more art the better; the more artistic design on the stages, from live artists, art installations, right down to the clothes you wear, the more expansive the feeling of the festival is. Art is transformational in itself, especially when it carries with it direct and indirect messages of heady bloomings of awesomeness.
Now this element is certainly an outgrowth of the last category, but it definitely bares mention. At the festivals I have attended before this summer, stages all followed a similar aesthetic format. They are carted in by trucks and are rented by the production staff, these stages look like flattened boxes before they go up and look like big boxes when they go up. In fact I think it would surprise many festival attendees to know that there is actually little to no design that goes into most stages at festivals. They are rented to be just what they are when they are erected. Surely they can still be amazing containers for musical creation, but what I thought was possible with a festival stage in terms of design and aesthetic got a serious kick in the ass upon my attendance of some transformational events. At Symbiosis each stage was a finely crafted piece of art, from the gigantic pyramid over the mainstage to the finely crafted wood paneling at the Earth stage where the sunrise music took place to the crazy mandala design over the Sun stage, each stage felt distinctly unique and truly inspired different experiences. I could tell also that each of these stages had started out with that same boxy design that gets carted in by truck, but there had been hundreds of man hours put into crafting different artistic elements of the stages. Similarly, at Lightning in a Bottle, the four stages had their own complete feel and the Do Lab spared no expense at making each of them truly awesome, from the bamboo wings on the Bamboo stage to the gigantic columns of lit up plywood at the Lightning stage, each setting inspired a completely different and extremely aesthetically pleasing tone to the dance party. It is the framing of the party into varied evocative experiences that makes these festivals transformational. Personally, feeling a different emotional connection to each stage was one of the things that made these festivals inspire in me the feeling of personal transformation.
One seriously awesome and distinctive feature of these transformational festivals, more specifically Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle, was the sum of the elements brought not by the festival production and related entities, but by the crowd itself, which can be summed up in the words ‘throw your own party’. At Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle, I noticed numerous campsites with artistic flair, multiple communal spaces and renegade sound. Now this might seem like a small element to the gathering but I think it’s one which definitely makes these festivals transformational, as there is a certain spirit of the party that is created by people throwing their own inventive, interesting, possibly artistic parties amongst all that the festival provides. This element is certainly something that spills over from Burner culture, where the party wouldn’t exist if attendees of the event didn’t throw their own aesthetically pleasing ragers within the event. All in all, seeing people together offer visually pleasing communal spaces in and around their camps was one of my favorite elements of these festivals. It’s funny too because I didn’t realize the importance of this part of the transformational festival situation until I arrived to Wakarusa and a storm stopped the stages from running Saturday night. When this happened there was only one renegade sound system that blasted anything in the entire festival, and rest assured that at any of the aforementioned gatherings there would have been at least five renegade sound camps running parties all night, and probably a lot more than that.
The Feeling of the Shift:
To close out this analysis, I must reference something far less definable, a feeling which permeates transformational festivals and is not limited to any one physical or experiential factor, but rather is the cause and the result of many of them. That is the feeling of the great change in ourselves and in the world that many of us are experiencing right now. As human civilization reaches a dangerous precipice of resource exhaustion and social catastrophe, many are awakening to the possibility of a new way of thinking about what it means to be human and about what it means to live at all. It is as if for some, there is a great reconnection with the spirit, with God [I’m not afraid to say it ] and with the integrated and cosmically connected Self. There is something about all festivals that connects us to this, something about communing over sonic exploration with huge groups of like-minded people that integrates us into this vision, but the presence of this feeling was directly at the forefront of Symbiosis, Lightning in a Bottle and Sonic Bloom, from the marketing of the events to their completion, the production staff and the visionaries behind them certainly believe that their events exist to foster this blooming of consciousness as well as the potential for a new way in which our human civilization can relate socially and personally.
In closing, I really only have one piece of advice: if you can’t make it out West, GO to Rootwire. Papadosio’s festival Rootwire Music and Arts Festival is everything I have mentioned above. It is an amazing family time, and Tribal Council will have the great grace of running a workshop station and an awesome art installation to boot (oh and my band Amarru is playing, check us out!).
I hope that all of your festival experiences are transformational, and that you seek out the events that will inspire in you the kind of next level attitude of personal development that it’s going to provide a basis of love and acceptance that will keep you happy throughout your entire life.
Love and blessings of Work,
-Edwin John Leskin