Symbiosis: last vestige of authentic festival culture or hippie theme park?

Its now popular to attend a transformational event like Burning Man, but some say the spirit of rebellion has been lost can smaller festivals recapture it?

Youll find your way.

The woman with long, multicolored braids and a white fur coat slips a wristband over my hand and gestures into the darkness.

Sorry, where do we go? Its 1am on Friday night at Symbiosis Gathering, a festival in Oakdale, California. After a day at work and a long drive, my friend and I are hoping to pitch our tent as soon as possible. Just go that way, she says, vaguely. Youll figure it out. We lock eyes and her gaze is gentle but insistent. It says, Youre here now; its time to chill the hell out.

Symbiosis Gathering takes place on a reservoir a hundred miles east of San Francisco. It sits, oasis-like, in the middle of baking hot farmland. Youll find your way could be its mantra; the site is a tangle of peninsulas and coves and even with a map youre guaranteed to get lost but that seems to be the point.

Were trying to create a sense of playfulness, of awe and wonder, says Kevin KoChen, the festivals co-producer. During your life you dont have a lot of opportunity to engage with new ideas youre making dinner, cleaning the house, looking after the kids. Were trying to create time to be in the moment; to swim, hang out, dance, learn, do whatever your heart desires.

This year nearly 20,000 artists, musicians, DJs and revelers gathered in the temporary Symbiosis city. Its a hot, dusty place where residents don harem pants, swimsuits and leather hip bags; where crowd-pulling electronic artists like FKA twigs and RL Grime share space with ecstatic dance workshops and solar cooking classes; where people are more likely to be seen carrying a spinning staff than a cocktail.

Now in its 11th year, Symbiosis is a rising star in the world of transformational festivals issues-driven campouts that encourage personal development through movement, art, music and talks. At any given moment you could be doing meditative yoga, discussing the benefits of psychedelic drugs, or dancing topless on a floating stage. The point is to get involved, and leave better than when you arrived.

Nearly 20,000 people came to Symbiosis Gathering this year. Photograph: Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny Photography
Theres an undeniable appetite for this kind of experience. Symbiosis began with 600 participants and this year had its largest turnout ever. Similar festivals take place across the west all summer long, including
Lightning in a Bottle, Desert Daze, Dirtybird Campout, Sunset, Further Future, and the godmother of transformation festivals, Burning Man, which began in 1986.

But aside from a chance to dress up, chill out, and see something wild, what are people here looking for? I asked around and one word kept coming up: community.

Intimacy will happen if you provide the venue for it, says KoChen. We designed this festival as the event we always wanted to go to. And people have come back year after year.

Im here because of the community of people you meet and the connections you make old friends, new friends, says Progress, 40, a wine broker from California. I go to two or three festivals a summer, it helps me connect to my artistic and expressive side.

Community is an easy thing to promise, but harder to deliver. As festivals get bigger and more famous, participants with differing expectations and intentions start to rub shoulders. Call it the Burning Man trap. This year at Black Rock City, the backlash against turnkey or plug and play campsites seen as out of step with the festivals radical values came to a head when an exclusive campsite was allegedly burglarized.

Smaller events pride themselves on recapturing the spirit of festival culture as it once was, but I was curious whether that was true, or if they too are becoming theme parks for hippie tourism.

Its definitely gotten far more mainstream, says Steven Jones, a journalist and former editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who was attending Symbiosis for the second time. Thats diluted some of the early power of counterculture festivals that used to feel more rebellious. I think the moment is passing where festival culture can elevate into something that truly has an impact on society, that goes beyond hedonism.

A performer at Symbiosis Gathering. Photograph: Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny Photography

Jones wrote a book, The Tribes of Burning Man, based on years of reporting on the festival. These days Burning Man is on everyones bucket list, he says. Thats also triggered a lot of the same class conflicts that we see in society.

At Symbiosis, organizers have worked hard to create a flat hierarchy. Theres no high-end camping area, no corporate sponsorship, no VIP lounge for performers. But tensions exist here too.

At festivals like this there is no correlation between the generations, says Jerome Manet, a 46-year-old PE teacher from France who now lives in LA. Jerome is here with friends to go dancing at night, but spends most of his day on the quiet beach near his tent. Young people come for dancing and drugs, to take pictures of each other to put on Facebook, he observes. They forget the older people completely.

Is it possible to transform a group of strangers into a loving, egalitarian community for a weekend? Maybe the truth is that its possible to try, and to live with the paradoxes. Because for some, it really works.

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