How Art Turns a Festival Into a Surreal Wonderland

Article by: Jenna Sessions|@JtheSesh

Thu June 08, 2017 | 13:45 PM

A distinct difference between transformational festivals and traditional music festivals is the widespread presence of art. Wandering the dusty trails, you frequently stumble on incredible works of art you can see, touch, and even climb on – like a museum turned inside out. Have you ever wondered what certain festivals would be like if these creations were absent? Art is such a powerful element of the transformative process; it can change us as people the moment we look upon it, and seeing what our community can create truly inspires us to build a better world.

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An outdoor art gallery at Bonnaroo 2015. Photo by: Marco Sanchez

Art can be so dynamic, just like the festival experience itself. When done right, both feel like magic brought to life, like pure imagination brought into reality. Both festivals and art are out of the ordinary and outside the lines. Among other things, art exists for pure enjoyment, emotional communication, to carry stories, and to give release to the deep sentiments inside of us that surpass words. Artists create because they have to. They need to. And we need to take it all in. My favorite description of art's transformative power is distilled into seven “functions” by authors Alain De Botton and John Armstrong in their book Art As Therapy. They describe these as:

  • Memory – Artists not only preserve a visual reminder of a memory, they record the emotions associated with the memory.
  • Hope – Art reminds us that there is beauty in the world that we can strive to see it, appreciate it, and have it. 
  • Sorrow – Art doesn’t just increase our capacity for joy, it validates our sorrows.
  • Re-balancing – We gain balance through art by taking a moment to observe, judge, and appreciate things we don’t normally see and our responses to them
  • Growth – Art forces you to react and empathize with situations that you’re not accustomed to. This is growth.
  • Appreciation – Art helps us to revisit the value of ordinary things like the pretty colors in a splash of morning light on a tablecloth or the familiar and nostalgic aspects of old beer cans.
  • Self-Understanding – Art helps us to complete our own unformed thoughts and ideas.”

These personal responses to art can be an amazingly beneficial perk to festival life. Gazing on such creations is literally good for the mind, heart and soul. And isn’t that what festivaling is for?

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A sculpture by Marcel de Quervain originally from Afrikaburn, at Rocking The Daisies 2016. Photo by: Rocking The Daisies

In addition to being incredibly helpful to our psychological well-being and personal journey, art is crucial because it’s an expression of freedom. It is the literal and physical representation of permission to express yourself – and one of the main pillars of festival life is freedom of expression. We express ourselves with awesome costumes, playful makeup, and glittering accessories. We get to step outside of our everyday identities – and festival art welcomes us into a new, imaginary world to match. It's a world where we can dance, laugh, hug, cry, kiss, sing, climb, play, swim, and sweat – and enjoy life! The art at festivals provides the gorgeous reminder that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, and that Oz is a lot more fun.

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The iridescent archway at Symbiosis Gathering's Center Camp. Photo by: Galen Oakes

Lots of festivals make an obvious prioritization to include art in their landscapes. At Symbiosis Gathering, you could hardly walk 50 feet without running into an art installation. From the gorgeous rainbow-iridescent geometric archway welcoming us at Center Camp, to the floating succulent ridden garden stage, The Atoll, everywhere we looked there was a special little detail to augment our journey. At Lightning In a Bottle, there's seemingly art everywhere, whether it's the nourishing, vendor-adjacent area for people to sit, meditate, and add to altars; the tranquil lookout emblazoned with a bird sculpture made of found materials atop Meditation Hill; or the living, breathing, interactive installation known as the Lightning Inn, by Imagine Nation.

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The bird emblazoned on Meditation Hill at Lightning In a Bottle. Photo by: Andrew Jorgensen

At Burning Man, as we all know, visual, sonic, and performance art is everywhere – and the bigger, the better. The event collects and supports an almost unfathomable amount of art installations and experiences in one place, through annual grants. Head one block in any direction and you’ll find a unique piece with which to interact. Burning Man 2016 Andrew Jorgensen Art Of Burning Man 16

The Space Whale at Burning Man 2016. Photo by: Andrew Jorgensen

Life Is Beautiful transforms not only its festival but Downtown Las Vegas into an art-inspired playground with the works of some of the biggest names in international street art. Their gigantic murals, stencil, yarn installations and posters installations has the power to redefine Downtown and "encourages a bond to one’s environment as an awareness of the creative potential of the community."

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The Art Motel at Life Is Beautiful 2015. Photo by: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Life Is Beautiful

Even Coachella, which has primarily been a music festival thus far, now has a wonderful collection of pieces and installations each year so music lovers can expand their minds while traipsing around the festival's green acres.

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A Coachella 2017 art installation. Photo by: Lance Gerber for Coachella

Art can also be unbelievably inspiring. One of my favorite pieces I have seen floating around the festival scene is a tall wooden figure with the caption: Nature Loves Courage.

An accompanying quote by renowned ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terrence McKenna read: “Nature loves courage. You make the commitment, and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it's a feather bed.”

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Photo by: Jenna Sessions

The quote is incredible, but it was the arrangement of the wooden form that sparked in me a deeply profound feeling. Gazing at the human figure brought me to tears. It was its stance – that certain thrust forward of the heart toward whatever may come – that touched a part of my soul. I instantly remembered times when I had felt such bravery and dedication to passion, and I immediately craved that feeling again. It reminded me of times when I met my challenges and faced my internal cosmic journey without fear and with intense possibility. I stood there and contemplated changes I could make in my life to find that feeling again. I questioned how long it had been since I’d felt how that figure looked. I can’t quite put into words the extent of my emotional reaction to this piece. And the irony is, that is my whole point. I’m trying to describe what art can do, when what art can do is beyond words.

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The mystic Boom Shaman at Boom Festival in Portugal. Photo by: Jakob Kolar

Festival art offers us opportunities to connect to our deeper, possibly indescribable selves. These works of art create a fantastical environment to find freedom and fun. They speak to something that cannot be spoken to and show us a path to beauty and laughter. Festival art is a testament to the human creative spirit. It gives us permission to let our own creativity out. It is an irreplaceable and rarely predictable element of festival life. And to all the artists out there who took their time, sweat, resources and more, to bring their imaginations to life, we humbly bow in gratitude and simply say: “Thank you.”