Why the Conversation About Further Future Matters so Much to the Festival CommunityArticle by: Eamon Armstrong|@EamonArmstrong
Fri May 06, 2016 | 00:00 AM
Speaking at Further Future , Bob Pittman, founder of MTV echoed a mantra of the tech world: “Fail fast, iterate and move on.” In spite of making terrific improvements from year one, the producers of the festival were given some powerful lessons in their second offering. The event suffered from four months of rain in a single night, the natural growing pains of a bold new concept, and some negative press immediately after the event.
My experience of Further Future was of joyful connection, generosity of spirit, brilliant people, and expertly curated programming. There were certainly things that the second-year festival didn’t pull off completely but it did create an environment that cultivated moments of intimacy and vulnerability. Along with some dynamic and affordable programming in wellness, education and music, I came away with a very positive experience and new friends. Yet when I returned friends and colleagues in the festival world were already sending me articles trashing the event.
Beatport published a snarky takedown that, in the words of one friend, was the “most scathing review” he’d ever read. By the festival’s own admission, some of Beatport’s observations about production errors were on point but they were delivered in such a mean-spirited fashion that it felt like a takedown piece against festival culture generally. The article was finished and published while I was still at the festival and it felt like the author didn’t engage with the event at all. The writing clearly showed that the author didn’t understand or feel the community element that was important at Further Future.
Then there was an article in the Guardian that framed the event as a party for out of touch elitists representing the worst depiction of Burning Man in the mainstream media. The piece felt rushed and incendiary, with some completely fabricated quotes. Russell Ward, who was widely quoted in the article, runs a PR company, The Confluence, that supports beloved events in the west coast festival community from Shambhala to Envision. The author did not only mischaracterize him, her facts were completely off. Ward is no festival runner nor did he develop any of the festivals that his PR company represents. Ward told me how hurt the team was to be misquoted by someone they considered a peer.
Both of these reviews were written by outsiders with an agenda to use outrage to drive traffic. They didn’t reflect my experience or those I spent the weekend with and to me they felt like attacks on our whole community. Yet they picked up a lot of traction within and outside of the festival world. Why were people so eager to heap their ire upon Further Future? How much of the criticism from production to ethos was warranted?
Is Further Future Burning Man for the 1%?
Burning Man operates as an open-source code for temporary intentional communities. Aspects of its code appear in many festivals. It has most directly spawned the regional network of global events officially sanctioned by the event. Beyond that, the events that most resemble its creed are the so called transformational immersive art and music festivals of the North American West Coast and the evolved psytrance parties of Europe and Australia. Its ethos and art have crept into aspects of commercial event culture from Coachella to Bonnaroo all the way to Glastonbury and Roskilde , giants that likely influenced Burning Man equally.
Further Future is hosted by Robot Heart, a popular theme camp and mutant vehicle from Burning Man, and it takes place in the Nevada desert. Like many event producers inspired by That Thing in The Desert, Further Future’s organizers benefit from certain aspects of burner culture to encourage attendance and acceptance of the event. However intentionally, the aesthetic is closely aligned to Burning Man’s. This may infuriate cantankerous burners, but it isn’t wrong to iterate on certain elements of Burning Man whilst shunning others. This is how our constellation of festivals is growing.
It is no more a commodification of burner culture than any other event in the transformational scene. The Robot Heart team told me they have a great relationship with the Burning Man organization and have always gone out of their way to respect the org's wishes. This includes turning down gigs at Coachella and TomorrowWorld and other opportunities to capitalize on the popularity of the iconic Robot Heart bus, something the Burning Man organization has never asked for. The issue that many people have is Robot Heart’s notoriety for elitism within a culture that values inclusivity, but is this reputation deserved?
Is Robot Heart Elitist?
Since becoming an iconic fixture on the Burning Man landscape, the Robot Heart collective has been accused of being elitists – an accusation that has dogged Further Future and made people quick to judge the presence of luxury options and access codes as being radical exclusivity. The reality is more nuanced and is more the result of scarcity, experimentation with vibe curation, and issues with communication. I sat down with four representatives of Robot Heart team – Benjamin Alexander, Jason Swamy, Rob Scott and Justin Shaffer – who broke their creed of silence and allowed Fest300 to help tell their story.
The people behind Robot Heart have always had a policy of eschewing the personal spotlight, preferring not to reference themselves in the context of the success of their collective. They first came to Burning Man in 2008 and gradually the famous sunrise sets on the Robot Heart bus became renowned, drawing thousands to that event each day. The spacious genre often referred to as Playa Tech became popular on the West Coast with DJs like Scumfrog, Lee Burridge, and Damian Lazarus.
In addition to their iconic art car, cherished sunrise sets, and finely curated taste in music, Robot Heart also developed a reputation for being elitist, which dogged the collective before Further Future. Needing to manage a “one on, one off” safety policy for the bus meant that some people were excluded. Though by their own admission, the Robot Heart team would occasionally let friends cut the line.
As they became well known, their fundraisers and events in New York came across a problem many event producers face: how to remain as inclusive as possible with limited capacity and a desire to maintain vibe and good party principles. Many events modeled after Burning Man’s principle of radical inclusion face this challenge, as does Burning Man itself. As Robot Heart’s unadvertised events in New York grew in popularity, they started using access codes to try to keep new entrants to their events coming through existing connections. While this isn’t radically inclusive, it’s an attempt to solve a problem of scarcity. In some ways the approach to their off playa parties were more like Berghain, where a strict door policy keeps the vibe inside and the inclusivity is complete when you get through the door. When I asked my friend Joshua Lonetree about the first Further Future last year he said, “once you were inside it was honestly the most inclusive party I’ve ever been to.”
When Robot Heart announced that Further Future required access codes to buy tickets for the event people decried the move as counter to burner values and there was an immediate withdrawal of support. The team later explained that the access codes were a way of creating a dialogue with their community not a barrier to entry but by the time they spoke publicly about it the narrative had stuck and Further Future was already being characterized as a private party.
At the end of the day, the team curates its community like it curates the speakers or the wellness offerings or the rising DJs who grace the bus. However, spending time with them, I didn’t get the feeling that they felt they were better than anyone else. Rob told me that in all this time of using codes they’d only turned down a dozen requests. But their staunch lack of public communication about their vision has certainly exacerbated this problem. The way in which they communicate with the broader Burning Man community is something that they are intent to develop.
Justin, who was new to the collective, acknowledged that he was aware of this reputation when he first considered joining the group. “What I found was the most spectacular, high integrity group of nerds I’ve experienced in my whole life.”
Of Clicks and Whispers
Members of the festival community and beyond quickly pounced on the Beatport and Guardian articles with outrage and schadenfreude. In spite of their glaring inaccuracies from the perspective of those of us who were there, there are reasons why the pieces were shared so much and sparked such passionate conversation. Both articles were published when many of the attendees were still at the festival, and by the time we returned to our homes, the event we had enjoyed so much had become the subject of a disproportionately large attack from Burning Man haters and purists equally.
The Chinese Whispers effect, a tedious and dangerous result of the need for click quotas, meant that the inaccuracies in the Guardian article and the “Burning Man billionaire” tone of the Beatport article were replicated by thirsty lifestyle and music blog around the web.
Struggling For Perfection
In my 2015 TEDx talk at Playa Skool I discussed the inherent failure embedded in any festival’s attempt to pursue a utopian vision. The very nature of the project is doomed to failure but that failure is only the beginning. Real year-round communities are created by trying and failing together. We come into community by both validating and calling each other out, but not by walking away. The Robot Heart team and enthusiastic Further Future attendees are part of our global festival community and they deserve our support. I am proud of the conversations I saw on Facebook following Further Future. They raised a lot of very important points, some of which I shared with the Robot Heart team when we met.
My conversation with Robot Heart for this article was earnest, vulnerable and at the same time engaged and positive. They recognized and owned their failures but they were determined to move forward. I’ve never seen a creative team more excited to iterate and learn from its mistakes. In our meeting we spoke about a few other criticisms I’d heard. Some people felt the festival lacked a feminine element and that the depiction of women was objectifying. It turns out there are many women on the team, and that the contentious, Photoshopped image that created the event’s aesthetic was entirely designed and shot by women. We discussed sustainability. The glaring issue of waste sorting and trash on the land hurt Justin personally.
At the same time there were successful policies to promote sustainability that went really well. For example, every attendee was given a refillable stainless steel water bottle. Waste sorting and other elements of sustainability are a huge priority for 2017. I asked about philanthropy, and they bashfully spoke of their support of a charity for people suffering from autism and asked me not to print it as that would be out of the spirit in which they gave. Overall, I had the impression of bright and actually incredibly humble people.
Like other event producers in our scene, the Robot Heat team is learning from its audience and is in turn helping to teach and refine the festival community’s understanding of itself. I believe that Further Future is a bold but unrefined concept that deserves a place in the pantheon of world festivals. We will keep the festival on our list of the world’s 300 best events and support its organizers by helping them tell their story and assisting the community in sharing their feedback.
I don’t fault Further Future for a partially flawed execution of their utopian vision. What was the production level of Lightning in a Bottle in year two? But what about the hubris of Robot Heart, you ask? They’re trying something different. There’s a luxury component but the base ticket started at $250 and was actually a really good value. Rather than condemn, the festival community should help Robot Heart iterate. Let’s discuss this vigorously and be in conversation with each other and loving as we do so. Let’s defend our peers who are being tormented by outsiders who have no interest in learning about our culture and reporting it to the mainstream, but rather want to grab hold of a public perspective of our world that is toxic and use “Burning Man” and “1%” to get clicks in an era of desperate attention grabbing.
Either go to FF03 or don’t, but don’t judge what this festival has to offer based on the perspective of those who published their opinions from an arm’s length away. What I found at Further Future was a warm and inclusive community of brilliant people interested in sharing their ideas and being generous with them.
This whole experience has given me a deeper respect for the Robot Heart team. At the end of our lunch Jason told me, “In a weird way it’s almost a blessing that Beatport and the Guardian wrote those articles. The whole point of the event is to create a better future. I want to thank Beatport and the Guardian for writing that because it helped us provoke thought. If we’re going to be serious about thought leadership, then this opened up the journey, the official journey of Further Future.”