Stir Article: Festivals as Micro-Communities
Written in February 2014 for Stir to Action Magazine
At festivals you’ll often overhear someone wistfully commenting word to the effect of, ‘I wish life could always be like this…’
But one of the hard facts of festival life is that it can’t. Festivals, by their nature, are temporary communities and ephemeral in nature. On the surface they are pop-up utopias but behind the scenes veering between the crisis-ridden chaos through to meticulously curated events. Whilst for many years pioneers have spoken about turning these dream-like spaces into permanent communities, few, if any, have succeeded. Festivals remain, in the words of Hakim Bey, “temporary autonomous zones”.
It’s not all bad news, though. Festivals, at their best, offer society and individuals opportunities to explore new ideas, technologies and techniques; they have the potential to act as testing grounds for future sustainable societies; as pleasure parks for the people to express themselves creatively and freely outside the bounds and controls of mainstream society. They are exciting, dynamic spaces where magic happens, lifetime connections are built and from which great projects are born. They are also ancient places where our tribal roots can be rediscovered and ancestral memory awakened.
I have been fortunate enough to co-produce several events that have, at their heart, the principles above and have tried to reflect the belief that festivals could act as a model of a better world. The Sunrise Celebration was conceived in 2006 as a tribal-flavored summer solstice event, putting principles of sustainability first. It was birthed in turbulent fashion through sheer dogged determination and a considerable amount of good fortune. There were two highlights of that event for me: Firstly, the festival was saved at the nth hour by a kind and generous benefactor who bailed us out from some self-inflicted financial wounds and prevented the festival from being shut down — all because of the wonderful time he’d experienced there. The second was standing in the Woodhenge we constructed on the morning of Solstice, after seven days of festival, surrounded by beautiful people celebrating the rising of the sun in the same way we have as a culture for millenia. As well as a feeling of great fulfilment at having achieved at least some of what we planned to do, it was a sense of belonging that stayed with me for years afterwards. Festivals have a wonderful power to reconnect us with those around us, fostering community spirit that we can then take out into the world.
The idea behind Sunrise was always for it to find a permanent home, to build a permanent eco-community integrating the principles of permaculture and sustainable low-impact living. It was clear from an early stage that true sustainability for a festival could only come about by finding somewhere to lay down roots, install infrastructure and, ultimately, live and work all year round. It felt logical that the culmination of our community should be the founding of a homeland where we could live happy festival lives forever.
Sunrise evolved over the years but what remained unchanged was its core principles: positivity, creativity, celebration. We tried to meld the principles of sustainability with a forward-thinking outlook, concentrating on finding solutions to the world’s problems rather than focusing on the issues. We saw Sunrise as a vessel for communicating an uplifting message of hope and inspiring positive action in the world. I’m not entirely sure if we actually achieved those goals — my self-belief in that certainly wavered over the years — but through it I discovered the potential of festivals to inspire social change.
From Sunrise I helped birth another event, Off-Grid. This was our attempt at breaking the festival mold once more, something that had been an intention of Sunrise in the beginning but had, perhaps, been overlooked as we jostled for space in a crowded festival ‘marketplace’. Off-Grid was our attempt to breathe life back into the aspect we held most dearly, community. We noticed that as Sunrise grew and evolved, the impetus changed from being about community and principles, to being a struggle to survive in an environment where money was the only means of communication. Though we still cherished the event, there comes a point, I believe, where festivals lose their intimacy with their audience, and in doing so, lose some of their capacity to inspire and incite.
Off-Grid is part-conference, part-camp, part-festival concentrating on skill sharing, participation, community living and consciousness. The idea was to create an open-space where everyone is a participant, appreciating that everyone had a gift to share. Being small, we were able to play with things that we didn’t dare to at the larger event, with so much at stake. We created our own currency, let attendees choose how much they paid for the event and shared in the making of the event with everyone who attended — somehow attracting the most amazing range of inspired and inspiring teachers for us all. It was and still is a brilliant experience.
One of the benefits of running these two events has been observing the needs of two strikingly different communities; one reflecting a dynamic, vibrant market town (Sunrise), the other reflected a close-knit rural village society (Off-Grid). Most dreams of low-impact, sustainable community revolve around an Arcadian idyll, forged in open countryside away from the interfering eyes and ears of government and society. There are exceptions to this, of course, but these dreams usually falter in the UK because of restrictive planning laws. However, it’s important to seek solutions in all areas of society and larger festivals, with their more urban feel, give us a unique opportunity to see whether harmonious larger communities are possible or even desirable.
Spending a number of years working closely with the Transition Network, one project I initiated was a look at festivals through the eyes of Transition Town principles. And it was fascinating to see Glastonbury Festival through the eyes of Peak Oil and Climate Change. When you look through these lenses, it’s difficult to justify the event — even for its cultural value — given the sheer amounts of energy consumed over the course of a long weekend in pursuit of hedonism. Glastonbury is the Capital City of festival culture, it’s where nearly everyone in the industry is for one weekend of the year. It’s an amazing melting pot but also a horrendous wasteland of…well, waste. Through its existence we can see the good and bad side of city culture, and use it to seek solutions for the problems this part of our society has.
What’s interesting is that for the average Glastonbury punter, life at Worthy Farm is closer to the experience of living in a developing world city than it is for those in London. Cramped conditions, tents laid nearly on top of one another; questionable sanitation facilities; long queues for water, for showers, for basic things that we take for granted in our ordinary lives; rivers of sewage running down the centre of roads. Overall, its rather disgusting, especially in the wet and mud, and there are few who would want to make that lifestyle a permanent part of their existences.
When we stand at a festival and say ‘I wish life could always be like this…’, what we really mean to say is that we wish life could always be this peaceful, this connected, this exciting and interesting and creative and dynamic. We don’t really mean we’d like to live in a cramped tent, having to walk across a field to get to the nearest loo, then after queuing for ten minutes to find the toilet paper has run out. Having worked in many festivals over the years, I have seen that what pervades those who spend perhaps too much time at them, festival ‘professionals’ as they’re called, is a sense of cynicism, a jaded attitude that stops them appreciating the individual beauty of each event. Many of these ‘professionals’ do not even go into the festival more than once or twice, choosing to spend their time with other jaded folk backstage in the crew areas. Witnessing this from so many people began to affect my own perception of festivals and the idealism I thought fuelled them.
I no longer believe that festivals are the ideal communities I once believed they were. It’s remarkable how few festival organisers seem to really believe in social change or understand the power that festivals have to inspire and educate. Most do not recognise their ancestral roots nor pay homage to the early years of this modern festival culture. As festivals grew, and with this the money surrounding them, they became businesses and the ‘festival scene’ changed into the ‘festival industry’. With this came a culture of contrived events, events designed purely to attract ‘markets’. Festival powerhouses grew, churning out four or five big events each summer, competing with each other for the lion’s share of the pie. From their anarchic modern roots, an industrial culture formed behind the scenes. Cocaine replaced LSD as the drug of choice; groups of volunteers and their hippy vans were replaced by forklift trucks and HGVs carrying millions of pounds worth of equipment. Beyond the idealistic utopia they still like to paint, these festivals — the festival industry — became the paradigm they initially formed to reject.
Amidst all this, though, there remain intermittent glimpses of what could be called a new society. Festivals committed to a new paradigm continue to emerge, some flourishing. Most of these are small, forged by groups of committed individuals sharing a common purpose. Often they just last a few years as organisers grow older, have babies and generally realise that the events, whilst fun on the day, aren’t sustaining them in other ways. Still, through their existence we get glimpses of what festivals are meant to be.
Wonderful examples of new paradigm events are the long-established Burning Man Festival in America and its antithesis event, Building Man. Burning Man cultivates a spirit of togetherness through its adherence to a policy of no money onsite. That means no shops, no cafes, none of what the British Festival Culture holds as central. Burning Man has an admirable leave no trace policy, being birthed each year from the blank canvas of the Black Rock desert and returning the event site back to that virgin state after each event. The flip side to this is that Burning Man is a monument to temporariness, to impermanence. Nothing stands. Nothing lasts. The culmination of the festival is the burning of the eponymous ‘Man’ and other incredible structures, built over many months and then gone in the blink of an eye. There’s a beauty and tragedy to the process, a reminder that all life is here but for a short time.
Building Man, on the other hand, is a tribute to permanence, to leaving behind the most positive trace you can, rather than no trace at all. It’s a new style of festival carved around the idea of coming together to build as the name suggests. The event is about eating together, living together, celebrating together and co-creating something with lasting value to the people and place that hosted the event, which aims to be held each time on ‘community-accessible’ locations. Linked to Building Man is the equally beautiful Cloud Cuckoo Land, a small, friendly event curated by an inspired team of friends and family on principles of love, community and sustainability. Like Building Man, it challenges many of the assumptions of festivals, challenging us to get involved in everything. All these events, like Off-Grid, reflect a participatory model of society that is an aspiration for wider society. There are, of course, many more of these small and beautiful festivals.
So could we make a festival permanent? And would we want to? The answer is yes, possibly. Certainly we can take the spirit of the festival and make that incumbent in a more permanent community or society. Certainly we can take some of the tools and techniques and apply them to more permanent settlement building. Certainly we can pick up new skills, crafts, knowledge and wisdom, and take them home with us. The difficulty, though, in making a festival permanent is that, by their nature, they are largely unsustainable. Festivals were always used as nodal points in a calendar, exceptional gatherings where exceptional things happened. They weren’t intended to be something we lived all the time, and this is what made them special in the first place.
Festivals, in their current form, take a ridiculous amount of energy and people power to get off the ground. Even participatory events take a great deal to produce and often leave organisers burnt out. I have sometimes heard the argument that festivals act as a distraction — a block to people actually making meaningful contribution to society. These people believe that festivals are illusory and the amount of energy put into them would be better spent elsewhere. However, I would argue that many choose to spend their time in festival-land because it calls to a part of themselves that the rest of what is on offer simply does not. It’s the same energy that led people to run away (or, more often, dream of running away) to join the circus.
And I suppose that’s it: Festivals are like the circus. They’re wonderful, amazing, colourful experiences to enjoy while they last, but how many of us would really like to live in a circus all the time?
What we can do is bridge the gap to the fantastic in our own lives, bring some of that inspiration and sense of community from the festivals and implement in our lives and actions. I am currently working on a project at Thoulstone Park, an 150-acre eco-project in Wiltshire, that I hope will bring the benefits of what I’ve learnt in festivals to bear in a grounded, lasting fashion. It’s an old golf course that has been abandoned and left to turn wild for the last 12 years. In 2013 it played host to the Sunrise Festival and through this I was introduced to the owner, a seemingly inspired man who had bought the place to turn it into a model sustainable community and a centre for the principles of One Planet Living. I am now fully engaged in this project, creating a micro-festival eco-village for the spring and summer months and finally integrating many of the technologies and techniques I’ve learnt so much in my time organizing and running Sunrise and Off-Grid, but have never had the opportunity to actually implement them. I see this as the culmination of my own personal work within festivals and, I suppose, the culmination of what Sunrise stood for. I find it wonderfully apt that it’s only as I leave the festival organisation business itself that the dream I’ve always had for the festivals is coming true.
Dan Hurring was the organiser of the Sunrise Celebration Festivals