Beginning in 2014, I started making the posters for the annual Bicycle Day Parade in San Francisco. The annual event is free – just show up with your bike – and held yearly on April 19th in Golden Gate Park to celebrate the discovery of LSD by Swiss chemist, Albert Hoffman.
Bicycle Day was first celebrated by Thomas Roberts, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University. Read more about him here.
Over the years I’ve live painted at various festivals and events around the country – either by myself or with my wife, Violet. I’ve met a lot of great people, seen a lot of great music, and had a lot of fun. In a bigger context, it’s been twenty years of honing my craft to, over the course of a few days, be able to take a painting from the messy beginnings to the nearly complete finishing details that make up one of my pieces. It might look like jamming, and it is, but it is the result of many hours in the studio, practicing. This is true for a number of artists I know – we create something in the raucousness, the lights and madness that is a festival setting, while also interacting with attendees and inspiring others, while completing something larger than ourselves that is the culmination of all of our practice and dedication.
Live painting at a festival provides a unique kind of artistic interaction with the festival goers. Added to the ‘gallery’ that seems to be de riguer these days, the festivals today have something that the events I went to years ago lacked – a distinct visual component that inspires, illuminates, and, most importantly, provides a safe space of contemplation for the attendees. We have recognized that life and parties are more than simply dancing to whatever DJ or band happens to be on next. As our festivals have transformed from ‘stage vs crowd’ to ‘community experience with multi-sensory interaction’ then we have to reconsider how we treat and value the other elements.
Eventually people wander off from the music, looking for other inspiration. There is only so much to be found in the vending areas where everyone is trying to see something (or multiple somethings). The ‘chill’ spaces are often a bit too sleepy for many people who still want to mingle and interact. The gallery spaces end up being a huge draw. Visual art and the act of painting is as necessary a component of our daily lives as the auditory arts. Creating a space to engage with it at events seems to be an vital part of the structure these days and helps to create something vibrant and inspiring. Crowds gather, entranced by watching painters immersed in their acts of creativity. It’s raw. It’s emotional. It’s very quiet and profound. It’s just arising from that person onto the canvas. It’s kind of wild and it’s kind of inspiring.
Which brings me to why I have not been live painting. When I started, it was a pleasure to just go paint. And, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE TO PAINT. It is a pleasure to make and share art with the world. But the more I was asked to do it for free, or for a ticket, or maybe a hundred bucks tossed my way, the more it felt like I was being used. This isn’t to say all festivals have been like that – some have been incredibly supportive and I’m grateful for them (they know who they are!) but many, more often than not, simply shuttle the ‘visual artists’ into the sideline while at the same time asking them to give their all. I was asked to perform for hours at a stretch for little to no pay for festivals that are not cheap and who pay their musicians very well.
My time is valuable to me. As I’ve gotten older it has become even more valuable (and probably, at least subconsciously, I am aware that I have less of it). Over the years, I’ve continued to sell my work for higher prices, earned a dedicated fan base, and, most importantly, found the health and wholeness of my studio space to be incredibly supportive and nurturing to my artistic endeavors. To take all of that to a festival – to unpack the entire creative process and share it – while certainly a joyous thing – doesn’t feel so good when the festival offers a ticket and, at best, some gas money while using my face, my talent, and my work to sell itself. To be perfectly honest, and I know I’m not alone in saying this, I am too old for that shit.
‘Live painting’ is ‘working throughout the course of the entire festival’. At the very least, over the course of a three day event, it is 12 hours of painting/performing. I’m not playing. I’m working. Think of the musician on the stage: they look like they’re having a good time, and they are, I imagine. But they are working. It takes work to make great art. It’s a full time job. On top of that, there is also planning the piece, and so on. With most events, you are asked to be there from the very start, so there is a day or two of packing and travel to get there, set up, and then another day to leave. So it’s about 5 days to a week of one’s time in exchange for a ticket to an event that you now have to work at throughout. From an economic perspective, you can see that this is actually not a very good business model.
There’s all sorts of ways that promoters and the like try to validate the lack of pay. They will tell an artist that they are building recognition and getting great exposure. Your name is, after all, promoted on the website and you can bring and hang your art in the gallery. You are an attraction! I’ve had people tell me that it was my name and others that inspired them to attend. Art, as much as music these days, has its draw.
Historically, DJs and music producers followed on the heels of bands getting paid X amount so paying X minus the cost of a full band for a DJ or producer didn’t seem like much of a stretch. DJs – not even a headlining DJ – might get $2k – 20k + travel + meals. And they just play for an hour, maybe two. I understand that they put in (perhaps) a considerable amount of preparation for the hour they play. I understand all of this and am not dissing their work or their value. But, as I’ve explained, so does making a painting. What you SEE is the result of hours, days, weeks – an entire lifetime – of constant practice and dedication. This is true for every artist everywhere.
Some promoters and festival organizers validate their reasons for paying visual artists so little by telling the artist that the artist can sell the painting they create without the festival taking a commission. That’s cool – I have a collection of live paintings I’ve made and many sit in my closet. Want one? This is true for many many artists that I know. Again, as well, we can say: how many hours made up that painting? How much work? How long will you hold onto it until you sell it for an amount that feels worthwhile?
Another argument that is often thrown around is that the DJ doesn’t create an asset that he/she can sell later. However, that’s not exactly true. If they do their work well, they create a dancefloor, a photo-op. They created a vibe around themselves. The next festival sees that and it is used to sell the musical act and support the asking price. So those experiences and scenes – they are the assets the musical act walks away with. This is great and every band will admit to the value of these things in selling themselves elsewhere.
But you, too, are a photo op of the festival. You came and created beauty. EVERY festival will show you pictures of live painters, artists, galleries, etc. You, the artist, you validated their event. You helped make it beautiful. You make people want to attend to see that beauty (because it’s more than just light shows). But YOU deserve more than the free ticket. You deserve to be supported in your work.
This is a broken business model. This isn’t working and it isn’t actually supporting the artists you know and love. If you’re an artist, this is allowing the festivals to use you to promote themselves and pat you on the back.
My advice: stop going. Don’t go to events where you don’t get paid. Simple as that. Be very clear. Be very straight forward. Set your boundaries. Tell life where you would like it to meet you. Otherwise, you just allow yourself to be taken advantage of and, in so doing, perpetuate this broken system.
Life is busy. And time is valuable. I love what I do and I love sharing it with the world and inspiring others to joy, happiness, and growth. I have found my studio time to be more and more valuable to me as well as to my patrons over the years. While I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with you and painting at various events, for now, until that is treated by the festival producers as a tangible asset and not simply something to take advantage of, you won’t be seeing me performing at any events in the near future.
I strongly encourage other artists to do the same.
Thanks for reading.
A funny thing about humans (there’s lots of funny things about humans) is their propensity towards building systems. Often systems they build replicate the very structures they once sloughed off.
Some of us constantly seek out environments where we can experience and experiment with new systems and ways of relating. One such environment: Burning Man. What an experiment! Regardless of what they say, there is still very much a free for all going on. There’s so many groups of people trying to work together, camp together, build together, and play together that the radical experiment in this human experience is still going strong. The only thing that contains it is the mindsets of the participants.
Within that experiment has sprung up the idea of the ‘village’ – this big conglomeration of people all pitching together to create not just an amalgamation of various theme camps – but one great BIG theme camp. The village experiment is like a township within a county. BMORG, the county, so to speak, provides a certain amount of infrastructure – roads, bathrooms, a central art project, a cafe – and then the ‘village’ has tended to step in to try to make up for the rest, for the people who camp within it, that is. Often, for anywhere from 200 to 500 people (when does a camp become a village anyhow?), villages provide showers, meal plans, composting, grey water and electrical systems, entertainment, art projects, etc – all for a festival-worthy camp fee, and four or so hours of ‘volunteer’ work.
Whoa whoa there – wait waitaminit – hold the phone – right there – right off the bat – we’ve got it all wrong. Volunteer shift? What is this!? A festival!? Some kind of be-a-part-now-you’re-done shindig? No, it’s fucking Burning Man and the great edict is EVERYONE IS A PARTICIPANT. We’re ALL volunteers. So people get in their minds that they are owed certain things because they paid their money. Some villages, in an effort to raise a bit more money, allow people to pay extra to skip out on ‘break down’ – entitlement in it’s finest!
So I ask: what are we teaching these people? These first timers who come to Burning Man and we think we can share something with them and they come to our village we set up and they pay their dues and get their meals and complain that there’s no soap in the shower (because they didn’t bring any? WTF?) and get bitchy because breakfast was a long line… and o they did their four hours of work already thank you very much.
I had this moment… this moment at Fractal Planet when I was talking to someone late in the week on Sunday who complained that breakfast that morning was so small – crepes? What the hell, she said.
And I thought about how I had dropped everything I was doing – which was: enjoying myself, hanging out with friends, having a good time – you know – it’s Sunday Morning After the Burn – to go make breakfast for everyone – along with the rest of a good chunk of the core crew. I mean, Android was there washing the dishes for hours (one more artist in a long line of Artists Who Are Former Dishwashers, like myself) and everyone else pitching in because if we didn’t do it, who would? And I stood in front of the hot stove for three or four hours pouring on crepes and flipping crepes and sending the crepes to the line. And cooking the crepes and cooking the crepes and blah blah while Moreno made another another another and another batch of batter…
And this person was complaining? I didn’t see them in there at all helping the process go faster.
I went out into the line, after several hours, because I was quite tired of the heat of the stove and said ‘look, we’ve been making crepes for you for four hours!’ (and I pronounced it crepes when really it’s crepes.) ‘But this isn’t OUR kitchen that YOU’RE eating at! This is YOUR kitchen! All these people are waiting in line to eat at YOUR kitchen! At THEIR kitchen. Want to make it happen faster? PITCH IN!”
I went on for a bit. I can go on for a bit if I want to. If I’m feeling it. One person offered to help.
I’d already helped managed the crew breakfast on the Saturday morning of build week. It needed to happen! So I made the potatoes and got the eggs going and suddenly had the spatula and was directing all this stuff for 100 people and that was along with a bunch of others who at that point had worked a lot and by now – by Sunday – were way overworked. So many people never show up for their ‘volunteer’ shift. So many people with so many expectations.
I also built a giant fucking stage for five days. So did a bunch of others. We paid our dues too.
I’m a volunteer. Just like you.
But I learned early on: bring all the everything that you need. You are not here to observe. You are here to serve. To be a part of it. To get your hands dirty. To break your nails. To rise. To fall. To RISE.
I’m afraid that what we’re teaching people isn’t the Radical Self-Reliance of much lore. We are watering down the grand experiment… Instead we’re coddling them into the Burning Man experience with an echo of the festival culture. They have their showers and their meals and their shade and their music and their power. And for them, for their first time, that ends up being the idea of Burning Man that they take home with them. To some, Burning Man ends up looking like an ever so slightly more difficult festival with a whole lot more music and lights.
If we pride ourselves on the things we have to teach people, is teaching them to be reliant on others via the amount of money they paid in, being a volunteer like they might volunteer at any old festival, paying extra to not deal with breaking stuff down… is that worth it? Do we like that?
How is this any better or worse than providing RVs and decorated bikes to those Burner Vacationer types? Hint: it’s not.
So what I see is that the system has been built to a point where it’s simply replicating what we know. There’s nothing new. It’s so hard to shake it. And what we know is Festivals. Festival culture has become an integral part of todays’ music and, in fact, summertime ‘scene’ and there are so many givens that seem to come along with it. As with anything, if you have the money, you can buy into it and be a part of that cool thing. And that money pays for the stage, the lights, the shade, the art domes, etc. So Burning Man ends up with these villages based on festival culture. But the festival culture is not Burning Man. We don’t need camp dues that are the price of a weekend ticket to LIB and end up funding the giant stage, lights, etc – all of which ends up looking like a festival within a festival. It’s nice. It’s interesting. But it’s not what Burning Man is. It’s not why I go to that inhospitable desert that seems to always just want to chew me up and spit me out again.
What we need – the people who organize these huge camps – who have grand visions – is to break it all back down again. Bring it back to square one. Reimagine what we are doing. How we’re framing this thing. Once again, it’s time to throw out the current system and come up with a new plan and a new method. That’s why this is the experiment. There is never anything wrong. It’s always just exploring ways of doing things.
The first-timers are always welcome. But they better bring their own water. Their own soap. Some rebar. And a willingness to get really dirty really fast.
The problem with reinventing the wheel is that you always just end up with another wheel. It’s best to just imagine something completely different.
How else COULD things work?
Under a big tent, sitting on the edge of a stage on the Sunday afternoon of Rootwire, I participated in a panel discussion of artists. Panel is a loose term. About a dozen of us – some of whom spoke, some who didn’t – sat on the edge of a stage fielding various questions in our various manners.
Michael Garfield moderated. He had on his nifty Google Glasses. At one point I was starting to get a bit bored and there’s all these people watching us and I couldn’t just get up and leave so he offered them to me to wear. What a trip! There’s a screen! You can see it! Interact with it! This must be the future! It did take a moment to get it but goddamn! It’s for real and super cool and utterly distracting. I tilted my head back and forth in weird directions, watched the little screen and tried to focus on other things, screwed up the recording stuff, got back on track, and eventually gave them back because I think I was completely not paying attention anymore.
At one point tho, before or after the glasses I’m not sure but I know I wasn’t wearing them, someone asked (to the group):
“It’s nice that you make this art but what are you really doing? People talk about changing the world, about making a difference… how does this help the mother on welfare, or this or that… What difference do you think you are really making?”
Truth be told: I ponder this question all the time. I think about it while I’m driving around running errands and then going home and back to painting. What the hell am I doing anyways?
And here’s what I’ve come up with…
First and foremost – I paint because I love to paint. Period. It is what I love to do – it brings me great joy, this mode of expression that I’ve found, and I’m stoked to do it. So, regardless of how it might or might not be changing the world or whatever, I do it because I love it. When I wake up in the morning, I know that is my path. And if I’m at least one person in the world who is doing what they love, then that alone, I think, is a good thing just by it’s very nature.
So there’s that.
But then I go share it – afterall, I can make all the art I want but it’s really nice to share that dialogue with others – engaging them in their minds, hearts, sprits… having the reflection… To take that vision that I pulled from some deep place within myself and watch it converse with that deep place – that wordless formless space – in others is magical. And for others: to see that form has been given to this mystical experience – color and movement as well – it seems to bring people joy. It seems to make them happy and open something up in them.
There’s not a lot of imagery in our world that does that. Advertising and TVs and all this stuff: it’s just vying for our dollars more than anything else. But it seems sometimes that this thing people call Visionary Art is unique in it’s expression of the mystical experience. But that is another discussion…
So I make art and it touches something in people – it tickles a sense… See, the artwork I create comes from living life a certain way: freely, openly, lovingly, with compassion, with gusto, with joy, with health, with happiness – and learning to do so more fully, on all accounts. So I hope to stir in people a bit of that and inspire others towards a happier and healthier life.
But it’s a mostly insular world that this art is shown in – galleries, festivals, events – things that seem to stay within cloistered social circles. We welcome any and all… but there’s only a few who make it.
Those few who do tho – they have jobs they go back to, worlds they exist in that touch upon all the other icebergs of our society. They plug into all sorts of spots in society. They are social workers, cashiers, teachers, laborers, business owners, all sorts of things… And if they can take a bit of that experience back with them – that sense of openness, health, happiness, joy – if it plants a little seed, if it’s a new synaptic pathway and leads towards being a bit more loving – whatever it is that they might have felt in my work – and they take that and share it with others however subconsciously – the people they interact with, customers, clients, co-workers, students, mothers, fathers – then I think that the art I make does have an effect, however subtle.
It’s one more pass of the proverbial bird over the proverbial mountain with that proverbial silk scarf… and the scarf wears down the mountain ever so slowly… ever so slowly…
Most importantly – my work comes from a place where there is a deep sense of freedom, of openness, of love – and it comes from a place of doing what I love – and I hope that that sense echoes through the brushstrokes. I hope that it reaches others. I hope so much that it inspires others to consider: how can I be more free, more open, more loving… and how can I do more of what I love?
Because, as always, in the end – that’s what it’s about. The love. it’s just love… just love. That’s what I hope to inspire. Take it home with you. Take it into the world with you. Share it. Love – it’s endless. You will always have enough. The more you give, the more you will have to give.
And I hope that answers that question.
Way back in who knows when now – November? – Patrick asked me if I wanted to be involved with Fractal Planet – the final iteration of Fractal Nation – a Burning Man village bringing together artists, designers, musicians, from around the world – and throughout our multi-headed, multi-skirted tribe.
Maybe… I replied, hesitantly.
A few months later, and a bit more talk, and I was agreeing to design the main stage for the village which was ending up on the corner of the 2 and the Esplanade. How’d that happen? I have no idea. But I like big stuff so there’s that.
So on a park bench in Santa Cruz drinking coffee one sunny afternoon, we discussed the reason for the whole thing – the mission, the vision. What’s the theme? Cargo Cult. How does it relate? We – this community – pick through the detritus of religions, societies, science, etc, reappropriating, celebrating, often misunderstanding, the bits and pieces that have washed up on the shores of our lives, creating a culture, a movement, even what seems like a religion, out of all of the myriad things of the past coupled with our own beliefs, dreams, and desires. It seemed so fitting. So I agreed.
Time… It flies by. Drawings sent now and again. To the ‘Team’. Responses. Bigger! Bigger is better! Anyways, I was also finishing a book, dealing with Moontribe and the much smaller deco shade thing we were doing there and then, towards the end of June, Violet and I went to Thailand. Throughout that trip there’s intermittent discussion – from hotels and beaches. I stick to the boundaries of my involvement. See, I’m really wary of getting involved in villages. They are so much work. They always have too few volunteers and budgets that spiral upwards and then suddenly crash, etc etc… This isn’t my first rodeo! There’s a reason Violet and I have been a small camp for the past many years we’ve gone… It’s so intimate and building a small art project with a dedicated team is greatly rewarding and not nearly as exhausting. Bigger is not always better.
So we returned from Thailand on Aug 1 and I was immediately sucked into it all… into Fractal HQ, so to speak, up in Sherman Oaks, CA and there’s a bunch of us – Patrick, Jimmy, Liana, Francios, Angelo, all in and out and working furiously on a thousand details. Some who are involved have never been to Burning Man and it’s so hard to explain that it’s NOT another festival. That they need to rethink how they think about events, festivals, the whole nine yards. That it’s fucking Burning Man and it isn’t going to go like they want and the more they control, the more they stress, the less they are going to be able to inspire others, and themselves. And, really, I think, that is the point. Inspiration through experimentation. And when people say “I don’t care if ‘it’s fucking Burning Man’, I’m tired of that!” Well… they just don’t get it… But they will…
In any case, I designed these big pillars, a general look of the space, the backdrop of the stage with these wheels that were supposed to turn but it turned out the person in charge of making that happen… couldn’t…. Along the way, it gets called ‘Michael’s stage’ and I really do my best to kill THAT idea. It’s OUR stage. I’m not building it all. I’m not raising money for it all… It’s a group effort and I’m just another cog in that wheel.
And then, mid-August I was pulled away again for Rootwire, an awesome festival put on by awesome people out in Ohio. That was a great weekend and, in the midst of it, people went to San Francisco to do all the CNC cutting and pre-building with Rob Bell who also makes amazing art pieces out on the playa – these beautiful onion dome structures…
So Violet and I had driven from LA to Reno, left our Burning Man stuff there to fly to Ohio and then we took a flight back to Reno, with a plan to drop in at the Grand Sierra for a couple of nights. I could go shopping while Violet finished a paper for school. It turns out that our early early arrival tickets aren’t happening so we have to wait an extra day. Then our car window got smashed. Thieves made off with a couple bags of grocery items, a camelpack with random shit and Violet’s long time poetry journal, an entire bag of climbing gear – our harnesses, rope, quickdraws, EVERYTHING, and our car registration and insurance card. The motherfuckers.
So that set us back another day. We finally arrive on Thursday. Spend the next day setting up camp – it’s possibly one of the most important things one can do at Burning Man – setting up camp that first day. Having a home space is of super importance. Our situation isn’t elaborate: a 10×20 carport and the starpod – our little shade space where we circle our tents around for our little camp – for Amanda, Jimmy, Imagika, Patrick, Brian, Elena, and others who joined us – Jill, Jess, Francios, Valentina, Trey, Aalex, and more… It makes for a sweet sweet space. And a sweet bubble in the midst of all the craziness. This is our community within the community. Trust, love, support, all of the things…
After that, on Saturday, the truck with the stage materials finally arrives. By then, the truss is up, the bamboo for the total shade is up, etc. So it’s build build build. Unload and build build build. Delegate and build build build. Duststorms? Who cares! Windy? Better hold on! Hot? Fuck the shade! Who took our materials? The drill? There was this rash of ‘burglary’ of materials. People would just come by and take stuff. Even stuff that was pre-cut. Without asking. Ever. And if they did ask and I said ‘no’ then they’d look at me like I was a cheapskate. Some kind of miser. Cripes. The sense of entitlement in this community is so very strong.
It’s interesting being in charge of building stuff like this – everyone else can come and go but the leader needs to be there, on point, the whole time, even if I was totally light headed and hungry and maybe going to fall off the ladder if I wasn’t careful. Because even at 1am, people would come up and volunteer their help. So I would keep going. Because they kept going. In any case, a huge thanks to Angelo, Falcor, Emma, Ed, Dustin, George, Marley, Hoodie, and the others who all showed up – really showed up – and helped make this facet of the grand vision of Fractal happen. THANK YOU. o so much.
It’s crazy how long this stuff takes… From the DJ booth to the backdrop to the pillars to the stage facade… It’s all so simple looking, and light. But it is an effort to construct. The other thing I’ve learned from this kind of thing is to not have expectations of others – that if you tell them they are free to go, that they should take care of themselves first and foremost, that you speak with people from a place of love and respect – tho sometimes straight direction – and get rid of all the anxiety and stress – people will join in and work their hardest because they see the vision and the vision – it is simply to create more love (and something awesome that reflects that).
Because it really is all about the Love. There’s no money here. I’m not getting paid. I just want to do something cool. And that inspires people in a real way. That, for me, for this Burning Man, was the most inspirational thing – the community that joined together to build all this stuff. Not the people who feel they paid their camp dues, did their four hours of work, and left. I’ll share some thoughts on THAT aspect another time. No, the thing that inspired me was the community of DOERS. The hard working women and men in every aspect – the water, the compost, showers, kitchen, art domes, music, lights, fabric, EVERYTHING built in a week and a half, used for a week, torn down in another week. And so much deep deep love that goes into it.
It all came together… magically, organically, and beautifully. (And, I think, mostly stress-free.)
Patrick said to me at one point – Did you think it’d be this much work when you signed on?
Yep, I said. Because I did know. And that was my hesitancy early on. I am all or nothing. And when I commit – and I’m there to build – I am THERE.
All the while Violet was running around with a walkie talkie putting out fires, helping AJ, doing WHATEVER – and all the while we both looked at each other every so often and said ‘Fuck Villages’. Because, man o man what a lot of work and drama… For a huge community with a huge sense of entitlement…
In any case… It all Happened. Then the heat, the stresses on my body – the playa is an intense environment – left me passing out on Thursday morning. My body, spleenless that it is, went into overdrive… and I spent several hours almost forgetting to breath while a strange warm wave tried to pass over me and a friend fanned me and I scraped bottom. With the fine edge of a sword I cut through all the voices, ideas, angers, frustrations, of the past week. Sometimes I forgot to breath. Then the warm wave would pass. And my friend would remind me – Breathe… Just Breathe…
And then, eventually, we went for a walk. Eventually, I was coming back to myself. We talked and laughed with strangers along the dusty windy streets, shaded by a parasol, wandering nowhere. We ended up at the Dr. Bronner’s Tent… had soapy foamy baths… And were revived. And alive.
Burning Man – it’s all the edges, all the facets. It hits so many different parts of us and every place along the spectrum of the human experience. It’s not about how grand or bright or crazy your thing is or how sexy your outfit or how many drugs – but how much you can inspire – play, laughter, joy, sadness… all of it. It’s about the kind of space you can create…. the connections you make… with yourself and others. It’s about the dust and the pinnacles and all the space in between. Like everything else, it’s about how much you can love.
We slept through the night of the burn. We missed the Temple burn. Life goes on!
Then, on Monday, when it came time to tear it all down, that same dedicated team showed up – ready to work. We’d connected all week. There was love and respect between us. Others come and go but you know – when you see the same faces – the same people doing – that these are your people. And, with the same dance… it all came down, beautifully, cleanly, magically.
And, you know, I’d probably do it all over again. Just to play with those lovely souls.
Thanks for the opportunity to share, to participate, to build something great with you all.
Live in love.
I spent some time at the last ‘transformative’ festival thing I went to talking with a few different people who came up to me while I was painting. They were mostly young and, at first, were afraid to be critical. Once you give a person the permission to share though, they tend to open up and feel more comfortable. Since it was supposed to be fun, one person wondered, why was there someone on the main stage droning on and on in a monotonous voice about spirit this or that? It felt, to them, like they were being hit over the head with it. Where was the spiritual thing they were there told about? It felt like some kind carrot on a stick. While offered, it seemed just slightly out of reach. There were workshops and ceremonies and such it all seemed be the very antithesis of fun. They were there because they had been promised a good time and instead felt like they were getting preached to.
The ‘Transformative Festivals’ moniker is a new thing. When I started going to festivals a number of years ago, they were really just called what they were – music festivals. They had exactly what they said they would have and did what they said they’d do. They were festive festivals full of festively funky festivities. And they were extremely fun.
Recently, this idea that they are ‘transformative’ or ‘transformational’ started to enter the picture and then it became the Thing that a festival should be called that. Then what happens, I think, is that the more you talk about the thing, the more you label and structure it, the further away you get from the thing that you tried to capture to begin with.
What has been growing out of it the music festival scene is a desire by many producers to create a pseudo-spiritual container where one should be having some kind of spiritual experience. This is, in essence, how religions are born. They are not born overnight. They take years of development, intentional or not, to turn into ‘religion’ as we know it today. However, they are all born from the spontaneous spiritual experience and the desire by others to create containers and be the doormen for that experience.
The birth we are witnessing right now is a movement that started in the 60s. Psychedelics kickstarted a spiritual movement based on personal grown that became known collectively as the New Age Movement. Within a couple decades, bookstores and healing modalities and a melange of Eastern and Western spirituality created a burgeoning new ‘scene’ with it’s own codified language, symbols, and belief systems – some very practical and helpful, some far out on the fringe and as much myth as Zeus or the Bible.
This isn’t to say it’s all a bad thing. The abundance of organic foods available to us today is due in large part to the Back to the Earth type of movements and it was because of the early Tibetan and Zen Buddhism and Hinduism teachers, who became favorites of the 60s counterculture, that we can find Buddhism and Eastern Philsophy and Spirituality in any bookstore and yoga being taught at a 24 Hr. Fitness in the suburbs. It is because of the people who wanted alternative modalities of healing – outside of modern Western Medicine – that we can have a plethora of therapies to choose from – from Chinese Medicine to massage to…
…resting crystals on your chakras… For better or for worse, it gets kind of out there.
Over time, the rules of this movement have begun to shift and solidify. ‘Channeling’ is so common that anyone with a hokey voice and a decent message can draw two or three hundred people to their stage at a festival. The yoga tent, the healing dome, the crystal download chakra experience is so common at festivals, at least on the west coast and bleeding into the east coast, that it’s “normal” and has come to be expected. While there’s nothing wrong with much of that, inherently – yoga and massage are great! – it’s the kind of reverence that they begin to elicit and the ‘truth’ they purport to teach – a reverence that becomes religiosity – that is where the ‘spontaneous spiritual experience’ begins to be turned into a commodity, a buzzword, a structure, and, at that, a thing which becomes slightly out of reach, if it was ever something to be reached for.
I think that the people who put on events forget sometimes what started them on their paths to begin with. They forget that they didn’t go to some crystal healing chakra chant workshop and have a ‘transformational experience’. They were either a) on or near a dance floor, b) in the woods or nature, c) probably on drugs (most likely LSD, mushrooms, and/or MDMA) and/or d) just off having a good time somewhere without anyone telling them how or what they should be feeling. One way or another, it always comes back to choice “D”.
I was raised a Roman Catholic. I went to church every Sunday, learned all the rules and sins and absolutions. Because of that, I am, to say the least, leery of anything or anyone that tries to put a structure around the spontaneous spiritual experience.
Buddhism, Christianity, and, in fact, every major religion have their roots in the spontaneous spiritual experience. Let’s say there was a person named Gautama Buddha. He was dissatisfied with the general religious structures which were his culture and, to him, they seemed to be missing something. So he went off looking. In his own way, he discovered some core truths about the human experience. It was like finding diamonds locked away in the mind. So he shared these jewels of wisdom. Over time, people began to revere him more than the words he shared. And, after he passed on, he became the object of worship in the typical projectionary guru-worship kind of way that humans seem to be so good at. We are, if anything, experts at mistaking the finger for the moon it is pointing to.
It wasn’t much different with Christ.
In any case, around their ideas about the nature of the human condition, people built religions and institutions and codified belief systems. Along with the religions, so too did the people who desire money and power see that there was a vast amount of money and power to be had there. And so…. and so the birth of a religion.
I see similarities in what is happening today. There is always the space for the spontaneous spiritual experience – the personal experience of the divine. Yet, people are intent on placing structures around it. They dress it up with the detritus of other cultures they borrow from. They prop it up with bits and pieces of dubious science while discounting anything that negates their belief systems.
If you ask some Christian Fundamentalist where they are from, they will tell you they come from a God who created the world six thousand years ago and, perhaps, that they can heal you through the power of their prayer…
If you ask some New Age Fundamentalist where they are from and they tell you the Pleiadies and that they are from some star being and their teacher channels some other star being and that they will heal you with some crystals…
Well, what is the difference between the two?
Each will tell you the other is dead wrong and each will tell you how right they themselves are because of this, that, and the other thing.
Who is right? Who is wrong? It doesn’t really matter. That’s not the point.
The point is that when you start foisting your belief system on others through the guise of bringing them closer to ‘spirit’ is when you start walking down that long long road of building a religion. The point is that when your belief system needs more explanation than the truth it contains, where the things which cannot be explained require more ‘faith’ than practicality is when we start to steer our ships once again away from the thing we claim to be headed towards.
I’ll be honest: I don’t want another religion and I don’t want a religion injecting itself into the festival experience. I’m not going to follow anyone who tells me they can get me closer to God. God is here, now, in my heart and in the heart of my heart. It is at the heart of all things and no amount is spirit channeling, chakra aligning, om droning, is going to change that.
Sometimes I think that the idea of the ‘Transformational’ festival is sucking the heart out the party. It was the party of the heart that got us all good and going and wide open to begin with. We just wanted to experience freedom, to have fun, to be open and awake. We didn’t need to call one thing tranformative and leave others in the dust. To name an event ‘transformational’ is to suggest that others are not. To dub it transformative is to speak to the little part of the ego that just wants to belong to the ‘thing’. Why tell me the story and what to believe? I just want to experience what I can experience without labels and conjecture and belief systems drowning out the good time.
Festivals, by their very nature, have always been transformative one way or another. Anytime you bring together that many different people for that long a period of time and give them that many drugs and play that much music, that much visual and aural stimulation, etc, something is bound to happen to them – internally and externally. It’s inevitable.
I spent so much time through my 20s going to festivals and parties and Phish shows and ALL of it was HIGHLY transformative without ever having to make a big deal about it. The people who put them on knew this: that if you really put your heart into it and just that – your heart, your love – and created a good solid space and played good music and really pushed the envelope on FUN and PARTY then the inevitable would occur: people could let go a little. They could lose themselves a bit. Maybe a little bit of ego would dissolve. And, in doing so, people might find something deeper and more nourishing in themselves and in their relation to others.
I think that some of the people who are putting on events these days have forgotten a bit of what got them started to begin with… they tell themselves too much story and forget that they are just there to hold a space – not to tell people how to feel or think or believe. The more you fill that space with echoes of your own spiritual experience, the more you move away from the defining archetype of all spiritualities: be love and do love. Everything else is auxiliary to that truth.
Enough with the New Age hoke-fest.
I just want to dance.
A brief footnote… There’s a number of things I’ve seen springing up at festivals lately that I think are really really awesome. There’s a services called Sudbusters that brings reusable plates to festival food vending areas, greatly reducing the amount of waste. Tea lounges – with chill lighting and pillows on the floor – offer a calm space to drink tea and have conversations. They’re usually serviced by really awesome and mindful individuals who keep the spaces open and drama free. And, of course, art galleries from people like Tribe13, SolPurpose, and others show amazing works of art, offering a visual space to compliment the sonic space of the music. These things are practical solutions to practical issues – how to reduce waste, create soft spaces, bring more art, etc.
I love that there’s more cool random art pieces that people just bring because they want to share them and that festivals have continued to expand their budgets to include more than just music. Late at night at an event recently, I ran across something that was this… how to describe… there was a screen projected at the end of the space… and some head phones… and this large wood grid with large rectangular holes that you wave your hand through and (most likely via a Kinect) your hands waving through the spaces would create sound baths, harps, chimes… all via this invisible controller. It’s the kind of thing you usually only see at Burning Man because, you know, that’s where it all happens. :) But people making cool stuff, sharing it, playing with it – that can happen anywhere and it inspires me and, I’m sure, inspires others.
We humans are fantastic machines with fantastic imaginations. Why build another wheel when we can imagine… ANYTHING?
I made the artwork for this poster which is available from Conscious Alliance and Sound Tribe Sector Nine this weekend (March 21/22) in Atlanta, GA. The 18″ x 24″ poster is silkscreened and the colors look great! I’m so happy to work with Conscious Alliance again. I think they do really really great work and I’m always happy to support them when I can.
Who/What are Conscious Alliance?
Conscious Allaince is a “non-profit organization committed to hunger relief and youth empowerment.” They bring in money and food donations through posters that they sell through their “Art that Feeds” program at music events. It’s a great model for a really powerful non-profit that helps to provide food to those who are in need.
It makes me really happy to be able to give of myself and give my work to causes like this that do such good work in helping others. It doesn’t stop there, though. The printer as well donates HIS time and energy and materials. The band lets them use their name for free (making it a commemorative event kind of thing) and allows them to sell the poster inside the venue – ALL FOR FREE! All donated through the various individuals involved because we all love what CA does!
Here’s a bit of what they did last year:
• Increase the value of services delivered directly in the field by 25% to a total of $603,800.
• Hosted 84 food drives nationwide
• Provided over 130,000 meals to those in need through food drives and partnerships with natural food companies
• Developed a series of artist workshops for at-risk youth designed to inspire creativity and teamwork
More here: http://www.consciousalliance.org/2013/03/a-letter-from-the-executive-director/
If you aren’t aware of the hunger problem that plagues this nation, this website is a good place to become more informed: http://feedingamerica.org/
More about Conscious Alliance can be found here:
Observations, Experiences, and The Great Convergence in Egypt
Dec. 13 – 25, 2012
“We must be some kind of important,” I chuckled quietly to Violet as the six tour buses of revelers traveled quietly down the twisting desert road away from the Giza plateau and the Great Pyramids and a party so unbelievably perfect that the bus is actually quiet and now here we were led by Egyptian police on motorcycles with lights flashing whisked down down down through the sand and back into the city and decrepit neighborhoods and little fires on the sides of the road, old man looking up and taking note and not a traffic light to be stopped at, straight on through back to the safe bubble of the hotel, six busloads of tired mind blown ecstatic alive and wild people.
Wow, was all that many of us could say.
As I sit now in Alexandria in this spacious high-ceilinged café along the Mediterranean, drinking a creamy cappuccino (possibly the best coffee I’ve had in Egypt, save for those from the night before with Jimmy and Violet) and watching the minibuses and old German cars and newer Japanese cars pass by on the busy Corniche road that runs along the sea, it seems far far away. It seemed so very far away too with each moment that led up to it. Just before Thanksgiving we were invited, along with our good friend Jimmy (founder/curator of the Temple of Visions gallery in LA) to attend – to live paint and display artwork. Once tickets were in hand, the gears were set in motion. We were going to Egypt! It was surreal and real. New passports were ordered and expedited (the old ones were expired). I got really sick and hoped I’d get better. It all worked out. I healed thanks to Chinese Medicine and the passports arrived several days early. Packed and sorted and there we were, meeting Jimmy at LAX and getting on a plane bound for Cairo after a layover in Frankfurt where we ceremoniously ate sausages and sauerkraut and drank a beer.
Landing in Cairo in the night time, we exited the terminal into the thrall of taxi drivers all vying for our attention but my eyes locked with the suit jacketed attendant of a transportation desk in the main lobby. Young and clean shaven he spoke fairly and sported a shiny belt buckle that looked like a berretta. He arranged for a van to take us to the Giza train station where we’d booked an overnight train to Luxor. The cab driver, like most cab drivers, was happy for some listening ears and, in broken English, wanted nothing more than to tell us about Egypt, how expensive the apartments near the airport were (in the Heliopolis neighborhood – a million dollars a piece, in USD), how we shouldn’t trust anyone in Luxor (Not entirely true. You can trust most people most of the time just not all people all of the time so proceed with caution.), and how Egypt is very good, very safe.
Once we circled around Cairo and into the rush hour thrall of Giza not much different than downtown LA. Street vendors and everyone walking driving riding honking. It was just a bit dirtier and a few more halogen bulbs and no bacon wrapped hot dog vendors. Cars passed within inches of each other and at first you think it’s amazing that no one hits anyone else but then you see how every car is scratched and dented and a bit worse for the wear.
“Ah,” said our driver, “Egypt is great but traffic. Traffic is a problem!” A comment heard uttered by many a taxi driver after him.
In the coldly lit office of the young station master in the Giza train station I tried to explain how I’d purchased tickets for the night before because didn’t realize that the time change from the US to Egypt would make us lose a day and would it be possible to use those for today. We went back and forth with the cab driver translating. I was never sure who was pulling my leg. Violet and Jimmy waited in the cab. Finally I bought new tickets. There was no way around it. I’d have to eat the $127. It’s things like that which make people in some countries think that people from other countries are made of money. We’re not. We’re just on different value scales.
The train showed up and our cabbie through much fast talking got us onto a car, into two sleeper cabins, and the cab driver is telling me that he needs me to give him all this money so that he can go pay for our tickets but I wasn’t born yesterday and it’s best to take care of transactions yourself, in any part of the world, so we gave a a handful of US dollars to the car attendant or whatever he was, the cab driver was off the train. The doors closed. The train started moving. Our two cabins had a door between allowing them to open to each other and there we three were, bound now on the night train for Luxor.
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