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The Politic Blog

Laboratories of Democracy: Transformational Festivals as Activist Spaces

In the middle of a forest clearing, hundreds gather for morning yoga. A group of families  browse a selection of healing crystals and sample a row of traditional elixirs. As the sun goes down, a giant stage lights up in an explosion of psychedelic patterns, flanked by glowing trees that pulse and change colors with the beat. Giant balloons and bubbles float in a sea of dancing bodies. This world of transformational festivals has been created for conversation—about everything from the #MeToo movement to capitalism’s excesses.

Transformational music festivals, such as Beloved, Lightning in a Bottle, Symbiosis Gathering, and Lucidity, are different from other concert venues; they provide spaces for activism and experimentation with radical new ideas. The transformation not only refers to personal development, but also a cultural transformation in society. Some of the common values espoused in these festivals are community, creativity, and sustainability. Besides music, these festivals are unique in their emphasis on installation art, seminars, classes, and rituals.

Although using music festivals as places for social change is not new, transformational festivals are part of the latest evolution of protest music, a movement started in the 1960s with Woodstock. Woodstock represented a shift from resistance of capitalist overindulgence to a protest against almost everything associated with the old social order: the Vietnam War, racism, sexism, homophobia, and conformity. For the first time, the frustrated, young generation was able to express their discontent and rebel against the prevailing status quo with music.

Since then, the music festival scene has split. Many of the large mainstream and corporate festivals, such as Coachella and Tomorrowland, have foregone their protest roots and chosen to just be fun parties. Other festivals advocate for a specific cause, such as the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, which took a stand against gun violence, and North Carolina’s Moogfest, which was held in protest of the “Bathroom Bill.” And then there are transformational festivals. These are events that don’t necessarily focus on a particular issue, but rather on creating an entirely new way of living through personal awakening and self-realization.

Burning Man, which was started in 1986, is widely considered to be the original transformational festival, guided by ten main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radial self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leave no trace.

Following in Burning Man’s footsteps, other transformational festivals have quickly spread across the country and across the globe, with the Boom Festival in Portugal, the Fusion Festival in Germany, and the Yaga Gathering in Lithuania. Different festivals have each picked and expanded upon different principles originally set by Burning Man, but most still include a heavy focus on community, openness, healing, and environmental awareness.

Morena Duwe, a freelance journalist, has a theory for why young people are drawn to this new type of event. “The millennial age group identity is tied to some sort of cause they should accomplish,” she said.

Duwe recently collaborated on an Eventbrite study that supports her explanation. It found that 89 percent of millennials have attended a live event in the past year and that 79 percent are more likely to go to a music event if it is tied to creating positive change. Duwe explained that with respect to music festivals, hedonism has given way to “partying with a purpose.”

For transformational festivals, such as Beloved, that purpose is no smaller than finding a radically different way to live. In an interview with The Politic, Elliot Rasenick, founder of Beloved, described his endeavor as a “great opportunity for a social experiment, to create a community and create new ideas in how that community functions together.”

Beloved began with a vision to combine two different communities: the older generations that were attending more spiritual events and the younger generations looking to connect at music festivals. Rasenick realized that these two groups were really looking for the same thing: a deeper connection with the divine and the possibility of creating a lasting, improved community.

“We spent some time creating a type of radical activism that was identifying all the things in the world that we didn’t really like,” Rasenick said. “We asked how we could build a more effective resistance and paint a picture of what we want the world to look like.”

In order to create this utopia, Beloved first needed to distance itself from the pre-existing structure of modern society. Hence, the creators chose a remote location—a coastal forest located hours from Portland, Oregon. The event takes place in nature so that attendees connect with the earth and, surrounded by redwood trees and bounding fawns, are reminded of what they stand to lose. Away from the bustle of rush-hour city traffic and the clamorous judgement of others, this temporary oasis provides a space where people can listen to each other and to themselves.

The art installations help to complete attendees’ transportation into a psychedelic dream world. Burning Man is best known for its post-apocalyptic sculptures that emerge from the sandstorm weathered dessert. There, a metal elephant, with flames emerging from its trunk, perches precariously on a rusted demolished car. At Symbiosis Gathering, a mangled tree emits five enormous, yellow glowing orbs.

Reid Godwin, a festival photographer who specializes in a type of light photography, says that the visuals enhance the transformation that the festivals are trying to encourage. In an interview with The Politic, Godwin remarked, “If you walked into a dream reality, you would feel more open to change.”

Although art is a centerpiece of Burning Man, music is often the focus at festivals such as Beloved. While larger festivals commonly use multiple stages to accommodate more artists, Beloved focuses all the attention on one stage, bringing all attendees together to savor the experience. From the first glimmers of dawn to well into the night, people dance together to an eclectic selection, which includes the traditional sounds of Fanna-Fi-Allah Sufi Qawwali Ensemble, the electronic beats of Tipper, and everything in-between. Though to a casual ear there doesn’t seem be any common thread with the lineup, they are all intentionally selected as examples of sacred music—music that is aware of its intention to create a connection. Rasenick explains the choice to incorporate more traditional music was an intentional one.

“We are recognizing that we are in a collision of a cultural and ecological crisis, which is forming an even deeper crisis at the center of all of us,” Rasenick says. “We are asking to find a different way of living and one of the ways is looking at how people lived before the racist, imperialist foundations of the problem that we are facing began.”

Besides music and art, most transformational festivals also include workshops and speeches. At Beloved, the music stops at midday as everyone gathers to partake in constructive discussion on various themes, all relating in some way to oppression. Despite being an event dedicated to celebration, Beloved doesn’t shy away from tackling sensitive subjects, such as white privilege, patriarchy, and racism. At the festival in 2018, the poet Niema Lightseed gave a workshop about how language can perpetuate or disarm oppression and Dr. Evelin Dacker spoke on how to promote consensual sexual encounters.

Rasenick doesn’t see the issue with bringing in such heavy topics, noting the connection between joy and grief. “If we don’t take the time to be honest about what’s happening in the world and take the time to grieve,” he said, “then there is something fundamentally shallow about any joy that we can experience.”

Because of the topics discussed at these sorts of festivals, participation is crucial. At Burning Man, all of the camps, the art, and the performances are created by the attendees, with no monetary compensation.

Godwin, a longtime Burning Man attendee, has been so drawn to the authenticity of the community that he now runs a camp at the festival. “Every person that is doing something for you at Burning Man is not doing it because they got a free ticket, not doing it because it’s their job, not doing it because of marketing,” he said. “They are doing it because they want to improve you, make you happy, and give you a positive experience.”

Of course, transformational festivals are not immune to some of the same criticisms commonly associated with festival culture. One common critique is the homogeneity of the attendees, who are mainly cisgendered, white, and middle-to-upper class.

A large driver of the lack of diversity is the exorbitant price. Most ticket prices start at around 250 dollars with a basic package, but VIP tickets can quickly reach into the thousands of dollars. Rasenick is aware of the contradiction between the cost of his festival and the open-armed messaging. While he says that he is trying to find a solution, he also notes that he wants to adequately support all the artists and the team of people who contribute his vision of the production.  

This lack of diversity in festival attendance often leads to criticisms of cultural appropriation, as tribal themes are running motifs in festival design and attire. In 2013, the Lucidity festival held in Santa Barbara received some backlash over an art design of the Lucidity Totem Pole, which was accused of being culturally appropriated from the Kwakiutl totem pole. The organizers later took down the design and even scheduled a panel discussion at the festival to further talk about the incident. Lightning in a Bottle, one of the largest transformational festivals in California that draws over 20,000 attendees annually, has faced similar accusations of cultural appropriation. After Sarah Barthel, a performer of the headlining band at the 2014 festival, was pictured wearing a feather headdress, the Chumash Indians, who reside on the land where the festival is held, raised objections with the festival organizers. Lightning in a Bottle has since instituted a “no headdress/no cultural appropriation” policy and features a section on their website about respecting Native peoples.

Other complaints, including the environmental footprint, also plague the festivals that are trying to solve these very problems, an irony not lost on Rasenick. “There is a fundamental hypocrisy that we choose to play with in talking about the looming ecological crisis while inviting thousands of people into a remote delicate ecosystem, asking for thousands of cars to drive, establishing a power grid, and bringing a ton of materials and water into this remote space,” he acknowledged.  

However, Beloved and other transformational festivals have made significant strides toward creating truly sustainable spaces, with the introduction of compostable toilets and the elimination of single-use items. The aftermath of these festivals isn’t disastrous as that of Coachella, which generates 107 tons of solid waste each day.

Finally, set up as annual events that only occur four days out a year, festivals raise questions about how social movements such as these can be sustained. Rasenick has no good answers. “I don’t think there is a way to do that. I suppose I could talk about our social platforms as opportunities to create continued communities, but the reality is I don’t understand those pieces.” He does hope that Beloved still “becomes a profoundly defining weekend for many of the attendees and it becomes the experience that they return to throughout the rest of the year.”

While it remains to be seen what tangible, lasting impacts transformational festivals will have on society, their impact on individuals is easier to see.

Godwin says he could spend hours listing all the ways that his experience with transformational festivals has changed his life. Festivals gave Godwin the confidence to experiment with new types of light photography and pursue it as a career. He now offers his light paintings free of charge to all festival attendees. In his daily life, he has adopted a vegan diet and makes sure to shop conscientiously. He also says he has learned how to interact with the police and how to respect others’ space.

More broadly, the transformational festivals have given Godwin hope in a bitter political climate. “There’s a lot going in our world that makes people feel alienated and feel like they are living in a place that doesn’t express what they want to express, and that can wane people’s faith in humanity,” he reflected. “Mine was waning when I went to Burning Man for the first time and I came back with it pretty much infinite.”