By Christian Cortes
Gazing at the colorful streams of people flowing into the festival grounds from the outside world, I can already see it beginning. I feel it in my feet as I push through the heat; it takes form as a bead of sweat rolling down my temples; it reveals itself in the bent wheel of my wagon as I push gear, food and water down the grooved and pitted road toward the campsites. My body is already succumbing to it as my shoulders and calves protest my heavy pack.
Want it or not, I am being transformed, and all around me I see others undergoing a similar experience. It began long before we stepped into the container of the festival, and for many, it will continue long after we depart.
Pondering the idea of what it means to transform—and why the word “transformational” has stuck so insistently to the world of small, grassroots festivals—I can’t help but want to explore what it really means and why, in spite of rising friction with the term, we haven’t found another way of describing these events.
Why this word? What does it mean to the people here? What’s being transformed, if anything? Does the word create an expectation—a promise?—or is it just a filtering device?
Is there a better word? Do we even need one?
These are some the questions I hoped to answer as I stepped into Symbiosis Gathering 2016…
Defining the Creative Space
Despite its colossal growth in recent years, Symbiosis remains a different type of festival than the commercial music fests and mega-raves that still seem to embody the mainstream definition of a music festival. When speaking with the inexperienced, I am quick to explain that these small festivals are not like those big name fests and are increasingly defined less by music and more by lifestyle elements like workshops, learning spaces, yoga classes, healthy food, art exhibits and non-corporate vendors.
Instead of bars selling $13 macro beers and boozy mixed drinks, we find non-alcoholic elixirs, tea tents and B12 injections. Instead of overpriced bottled water peddled by food vendors, we find water refill stations and rogue vendors selling hatpins and trinkets. Instead of corporate logos plastered across grandstands and security gates, we find art installations and live painters when we roam the grounds all day and night. The music does not stop, and the division between campgrounds and festival is often so tenuous it doesn’t seem to exist.
At a glance, the mainstream presence that stands watch over big-name events is kept at a distance, and in its relative absence (not all “transformational” festivals being equal), many of us feel that we can begin to shed our prim-and-polished shells and expose the shimmering beings we so often lock inside.
Priming the Canvas
All elements considered, the festival takes on a canvas-like quality, where attendees are the brushes, their personal experiences the paint, and the invisible hands of fate and causation the artist. It is only once we arrive and begin to express ourselves on that canvas that it takes on its first layers.
Yet, as any painter will tell you, every canvas must be primed. Long before setting out from the comfort and safety of home, we begin to fall into the mentality of the festival through our preparations. From gear checks and shopping to networking rideshares and planning our camps, the festival influences us long before we step foot on its hallowed grounds. We take our experiences from each prior festival and synthesize them into new strategies designed to make the most of our time away from the world outside.
How quickly the arduous hike into the campsite, straddled with packs, coolers and gear, faded into the realm of forgotten experiences, but now comes rushing back! The stagnant heat, aching feet and sore shoulders that demanded so much of our attention in the moment become abstract thoughts in the face of time. Yet, always learning from our missteps, we have new a new bag of tricks to mitigate these unpleasantries. The value of rest, fitness and diet is so much clearer this year, and entering the festival well rested and in decent physical shape is a new priority. My cooler that was once filled with beer, champagne and self-indulgent snacks now contains healthy morning meals, rejuvenating beverages, fresh produce, and admittedly, still a fair amount of good beer.
Energy is the new currency, and to keep our bodies in peak performance—this weekend is a sort of performance, with its costumes and dancing and strange faces and novel situations, is it not? — the items we pack this time around are meant to help sustain our bodies and minds through a demanding weekend. Vitamins boost our immune systems as we commune with thousands of strangers from across the globe, herbal remedies treat our aches and ailments as they emerge, hand-picked camping equipment helps us take refuge from the hot sun and dusty daytime winds, and the utilitarian (though often fashionable) accouterments around our waists and on our backs help us carry out into the playground all that we need to thrive for hours away from camp. Everything is here for a reason, be it necessity, desire or comfort, and the superfluous shall become obsolete as our awareness, capacity and intentions change.
Learning from the past, we have refined our approach so we are better equipped to take advantage of the space created for us…
Colored Boxes and Magical Collisions
Looking at the Symbiosis 2016 schedule, I am overwhelmed by the seemingly endless activities available for my sensory, cerebral and mystical enjoyment. I relish the endless potential of paths I can follow through the festival by using the grid of colored boxes in the schedule as my stepping stones.
It is within the potential offered by these boxes that I believe the beauty and allure of a festival of this scale begins to reveal itself. Though the music is by most accounts the glue that holds the weekend at a festival like Symbiosis together, one can pursue any number of non-sonic interests through an environment of this magnitude and still never run out of things to do.
This is not to say that it is easy to take advantage of such endless offerings… However, in our attempts, we open ourselves to what I believe to be one of the most transformative phenomena of the festival playground: random collisions.
In short, these collisions are the unexpected moments and random events that happen from time to time that pivotally alter the unraveling of our festival thread and lead us in new directions. Be it a chance encounter with a kindred soul after taking a left at the fork instead of the right, a solitary moment with nature as the setting sun strikes the water or a meteor tears across the sky, a dance with a stranger to the beat of unknown music on a quiet dance floor, or an altered state brought about by another’s generosity, these moments carry a magic of their own.
At the same time, finding these moments while also reaping the fruits offered up by the people represented by those hundreds of tiny, colored boxes that line the pages of the festival schedule requires a blend of surrender and focus that is often just as elusive as the experiences we initially set out to have.
It is within this balance that I believe the true essence of our festival experiences is drawn. Anyone can buy the ticket and show up, but it is not until we wade into the ebbing and flowing of the landscape that we truly begin to take the ride. By recognizing that every turn has the capacity to shape the moment ahead differently than envisioned, we can begin to glimpse the festival’s true magic and allow it to work for us.
Yet, when we have the discipline to forego the mysteries of being completely without plan, and we actually show up at a performance, workshop or class to see what lies behind the colored box, we only raise our chances for a magical collision. Unlike the aimless wanderer, who still collides with chance on his or her path, we are now among like-minded beings who feel a similar pull to that time and place, and our odds for a collision with someone who will alter our trajectory beyond the present moment goes up.
The Work Behind the Veil
But it is not all fun games of chance and mystery! Let us not forget about the festival worker—the very souls who are fueling the phantasmagoric playground of spectacle and wonder!
As festivals of this nature continue to grow and take shape, there are more people than ever working both on the stage and behind the veil to create an environment where these magical collisions can unfold. Though the division between work and play is often blurred for festival workers—production crew, artists, vendors, media, harm reduction, security and volunteers all have their duties and their time off—make no assumptions that there is not an unsung hero far out of sight at every moment working to keep the lights on, the music pumping, the people fed and the participants safe.
In the most literal of ways, these individuals are the lifeblood of the transformative landscape. Collectively, they are working in tandem with everyone present to not only transform the scenery into a synesthetic spectacle, but to create new ways for us to come together and bathe our senses, stimulate our minds, use our bodies and learn from each other.
As the transformational landscape continues to evolve, I think it is more important than ever to consider the work we each to do to participate in festivals like Symbiosis. Reflecting on each dive we make into these temporary worlds, one easily forgets the moments of doubt and frustration that so often precede the elation and contentment that stands out in our memories.
Try not to forget the hot and sleepless mornings at camp, the dust cough that plagued you for weeks, or the moment you learned a lesson while falling down a very dark rabbit hole. Cherish the sequence of events—surely good, bad and neutral—that brought you to that magical rendezvous with a long-lost friend or twin flame that played such a key role in the story of transformation that is your life.
When I first set out to write this, I hoped to uncover some of the hallmarks of a transformational experience so that I could raise the quality of my own experiences both in and outside of festivals. However, the more I dig into my experiences and discuss those of others, the more I want to surrender the idea that it is even possible.
No matter what we bring to a festival, we are guaranteed nothing other than an experience. How it unfolds, how it affects us (both in the moment and in reflection), what we learn or take away from it, and how it alters the people we are or who we will become depends on countless variables both in and out of our control.
We will be influenced, if by no other vehicle of change than by the universal truth that nothing is static, everything is moving and all matter and energy is constantly in flux.
To the uninitiated, I would say that transformation, should you desire it, may not happen how you envision. The nature of your alteration may be so subtle at first that you do not notice it. Stepping in the realm of a festival is like stepping into an accelerator, where the energy you feed it is returned with an immediacy and amplitude rarely encountered in the world outside. How you use that potential is up to you, but when you surrender expectations and open yourself up to new attitudes, philosophies and tactics for confronting the game of life, you may find your once-blank canvas fills with color, definition and texture faster than ever before.
Seeing how quickly things can happen, it takes only one tilt of the mind to apply the same experiences to the world beyond the festival. Perhaps this change of attitude is the transformation we are truly seeking.
Christian Cortes is a freelance writer, DJ and photographer stationed in Tucson, Arizona. With a professional background in marketing, writing, photography and craft beer, he explores and advocates for his passions for psychedelic music, festival culture, craft beverages and creative fiction through experimental writing and surrealist imagery.