What are festivals all about? Do they offer a profound experience or are they just one big, trashy party? What is festival culture, and what can we do with it?[Photo by Leela Sky Photography]
As the weather begins its alluring crossfade into autumn, I pause a moment to reflect on the past few months. Many call it summer. For me, and many others in my circle, it’s more commonly known as ‘festival season’.
Whether you’re a festival freak or phobe, well might you wonder: what are these festivals all about anyway? And what draws people to them in droves? An escape from the daily grind? The temples of our time? Modern day ritual? A platform for activism? Or are they just one big, trashy party?
Arguably, the answer is ‘all of the above’, depending on your perspective. And it must be said that there is no one-size-fits-all festival. The spectrum of gatherings that fall under this banner is as diverse as the colourful humans who frequent them.
All flavours of festival
This past summer I’ve attended a range of different festivals; from the delightfully unpretentious Folk, Rhythm and Life, to the 130,000 good folk of Woodford Folk Festival, to the glorious electronic mayhem that is Rainbow Serpent, among others. Also, I’ve been privileged enough to ponder my fascination with festival culture from three different vantage points; that of an MC, a workshop presenter and a regular punter. And all have impressed upon me the tremendous power that is present wherever people are gathered for a common cause.
This is hardly a new phenomenon, I realise. Since time immemorial, we humans have been congregating en masse for different purposes; religion, sport, war, politics, etc. We’re well aware of the power of a crowd. Yet, as I stood on the stage at Woodford, observing the sea of humans, gathered primarily for the purposes of entertainment and celebration, I got to wondering; are these superficial reasons to get together, or just as sacred and powerful as any other?
The elephant in the room (or on the dance floor)
Of course, every individual has their own motivation for going to a festival – or avoiding it like the plague. I’m aware that many people’s impression of festival culture is that it’s a haven for people to take drugs and get messy. And that does happen, no question. So let’s just address that elephant a moment before we move on.
Let me just say first up, that I am by no means advocating drug use, or wanting to be flippant about the seriousness of drugs or their risks. It’s a huge subject; too big to do justice to in this article. So I will only share from my own perspective.
Personally, I don’t take drugs. It’s certainly not for any delusions of moral high ground. In my twenties I had some amazing experiences while enjoying the occasional indulgence. But as I’ve gotten older, my body’s natural discernment has increased to the point where the ratio of fun to subsequent stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off just ain’t worth it for me. I have no issue with people who do choose to partake, as long as they respect others’ choices, and take care of themselves and each other.
So substances aren’t my thing. But that doesn’t mean missing out on any of the fun. Festivals for me are as much about the sense of community that they foster, and about the rampant outpouring of creativity that they catalyse. Immersed in both, I’m like a pig in (glittery, cuddly) mud, and I don’t suffer from any lack of peak experiences – lucky for me, I’m a total hussy for a contact high.
I’ve always been sensitive to creative energy as a living, visceral experience. Certain pieces of music can arouse me to states unfit for a PG time-slot. If you met me after a great night at the theatre, you might swear I was off my trolley. Art is a big, fat turn-on, and I’m nuts for it.
So a big part of my motivation for going to festivals is to immerse in the palpable alchemy of an environment where the artistic juice is flowing thick and fast, via many a medium; music, dance, performance, workshops, talks, visual art, lighting, decor… not to mention the glorious array of ways in which each individual chooses to express their unique creative flair. Whether that be , through dress, walk, smile, costume, body and face paint, and of course, how they move. Which brings me back to the dance floor. Where the crowds gather.
Whether it’s a live band or a DJ, the dance floor in full swing has always for me been my happy place and my temple. Possessed by the rhythm, surrounded by others deep in the groove, inhibitions disappear and I enter a state of ecstatic transcendence unmatched by any of my experiences of drugs, Tantra, breathwork or meditation. For me, this is ritual, fully charged. And, while to the naked eye
I might be throwing myself around like a madwoman tripping, you’d better believe I’m dropping conscious intentions into that potent field thick and fast, baby. Because I have great faith in the power of collective energy, especially when its embodied and infused with passionate celebration.
And this is the essence of a world I want to live in
One where each of us feels free and supported to express our unique experience of life in our own way, and to share it through celebration and creativity. Not just on the literal dance floor or in workshop space, but more and more regularly in our everyday reality.
“Tell her she’s dreaming.” OK, I hear you. I respect the understandable viewpoint that this may sound like a far-fetched pipe-dream to some. For those who appreciate a good oxymoron, it’s utopic as Hell.
But festivals being a platform for skill-sharing and creating foundations for a better world is far from a new idea. ConFest, which I was chuffed to share a 40th birthday with last year, was originally designed as, and continues to be, a gathering primarily for the sharing of practices and experiences of what it’s like to live in freedom and sovereignty, as a community of self-empowered people. Whether this, or other festivals like it, has had a profound impact on society at large is a matter of opinion.
The Newkind Festival, which launches a few days after the time of this writing (and has happened already now when you’re reading, dear reader!), is taking yet a deeper step in the direction of merging of festival and conference culture. It has the expressed intention of creating a social movement, capable of precipitating tangible change in everyday reality, not just within the alternative reality of the festival site.
It’s expected that this year’s iconic Burning Man Festival in the USA, as well as the Global Eclipse Gathering in Oregon shortly before it, will be brimming with all the more passionate calls to action for social change, given the current political climate in the America.
I’m very inspired by the efforts of these and other festivals across the world to harness the potency of festival culture and channel it in practical ways for the betterment of our planet.
What it’s all about
Like so much in life, the way I see it, this all boils down to one key element; connection. Whether it’s to change the world, to be surrounded by our kinfolk, for ceremony, to be entertained or purely to party, festivals offer a haven to deepen our sense of connection; to our unique selves, to each other and to the world around us.
At the opening and closing ceremonies of Rainbow Serpent Festival, I was deeply moved by the sense of connection I felt. The warm ‘Welcome to Country’ and heartfelt embracing of the festival offered by our indigenous brothers and sisters of the Wadawurrung people brought me to tears. Here I felt no ‘us and them’ division, nor was there any judgment being passed on anybody for their motivations for gathering at the festival.
As we were treated to displays of the traditional dance and music, body painting, art, tools and rituals of our native people, it dawned on me: There has been festival culture on this land for 40,000 years or more.
C – C – C
Whether or not we succeed in ‘changing the world’, the call to come together to connect, to creatively express and to celebrate life, is, I believe, a profound human instinct. It has been going on for a very long time, and long may it continue to stir us to gather.
As I stood on the Woodford stage, taking in the thousands of people before me, my body tingled, my heart sighed and I felt a rush of resonance with every individual and with the crowd as a whole; this giant, powerful organism. This highly privileged subset of humanity, that I’m blessed to be a part of.
There is power here, no question. And with power and privilege comes responsibility. So may we honour our responsibility by taking every opportunity we can to let ourselves be lit up with our passion for being alive. Regardless of whether festivals are your thing or not, may the festival of life call us all to connect to, embody and express the miracle of our existence through all our actions.
Shake, pour and share generously, friends. ‘Tis potent medicine indeed.
Jules Sutherland is a lover, artist, dreamer and realist who passionately believes that humans are pretty awesome. Her business, Perpetual Mojo, is the lovechild of her long-term love affairs with human connection, embodiment, consciousness and self-expression. Jules and Perpetual Mojo are devoted to bringing sexy back to self-empowerment through passion, presence and play.
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