Kambe Events’ Kate Burgess discusses how festivals can create change with audiences both during an event and beyond.
Independent festivals have both the joy and responsibility of carving out space for diverse, like-minded people to get together and participate in a temporary world. Festivals can become the playground for testing out big ideas and modes of being; they can be a brief adventure in utopia.
As the creative director of Shambala Festival, Sid Sharma puts it: “Festivals are the perfect microcosm to experiment with ideas that encourage better social and environmental interactions. People are more receptive to new ideas, experiences and are in essence, totally immersed without the distractions of their everyday lives.” Events, then, have immense change-making potential and it’s perhaps our “civic duty” as events organisers to showcase the wider change we want to see in society.
Perhaps this sentiment seems couched in idealism, but the numbers speak for themselves. In 2016, Shambala went ‘Meat and Fish Free’ after thorough research pulled up the undisputable fact that a diet based predominantly on meat and fish is much more carbon intensive, with devastating effects on the planet. Indeed, last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has confirmed a move towards plant-based diets is needed. The change was a big one to implement in a year, and while there were a large number of naysayers on announcing the initiative, post-event, 33 per cent of the audience reported reducing their meat and fish intake since the festival (not counting the 30 per cent already veggie or vegan).
Tracking the initiative’s impact since its inception, Shambala has found its audience has become increasingly receptive to the idea of cutting out meat for the weekend and beyond, with 94 per cent in 2018 voting to stick with the initiative post-event.
This increasingly unanimous support may be indicative of wider trends in people thinking about how their plate impacts the planet, and how our habitual behaviours might affect the Earth. Recently, we saw the success of Glastonbury implementing a plastic bottle ban and refill scheme, something the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) member festivals pledged last year in the Drastic On Plastic campaign. When we see such huge and iconic festivals taking cues from lower impact festivals, and a packed out Pyramid Stage going wild for David Attenborough, we can begin to see there is an appetite for honest conversations about our environmental impact taking centre stage; the audience is increasingly receptive to and appreciative of it.
So how do we, as event organisers, honour a growing inclination in our audiences to have fun in a conscious way?
A conscious party needs to be curious, creative and supportive at its core
It is important to constantly strive towards improving event delivery – whether it be in public facing initiatives, tweaking your supply chain, focusing on operations, or giving space to bigger ideas and more creative content. This is how festivals can begin to become genuine reprieves from the real world and inspire folks to do things a little differently when the site gates close for another year.
Carving out space for the event team to get together ahead of the busy festival season to reflect and innovate together can be one way to ensure questions of improving, pushing boundaries and encouraging change remain front and centre. At Shambala Festival’s annual team weekend camping trip, a workshop helmed by author Ed Gillespie enabled a headfirst dive into the wilful blind spots held as an event. Which difficult or uncomfortable aspects were being ignored? Where would the buck stop when thinking about event sustainability, event inclusivity, event wellbeing and so on?
Thinking through “wilful blindness” encourages a way of thinking that connects the dots around your event and insists on a value-led approach (What are we for? What are we against?). When we think with these tools we are put in a better position for creating our temporary worlds. Festivals can be an act of utopia writing.
For example, The SanQtuary, Shambala’s queer clubhouse, tackles certain blind spots the wider society has around the LGBTQIA+ community head on. Camille Barton, speaking to the venue’s creation, talks about The SanQtuary as a celebration of queer, trans and BAME ancestors who played a central and instigative role in the Stonewall Riots and subsequent milestones in LGBTQIA+ rights. The SanQtuary pays attention to and “elevates their legacy,” which is often “unacknowledged in mainstream Queer history.”
It is a seriously thoughtful venue made from a creatively repurposed Nissen Hut (temporary structures used in WW2). As Camille says, “it’s beautiful that The SanQtuary has transformed a space originally used to serve war, into a space for healing.” Housed in this structure, the venue is a “safe(r) space” that engages with serious subject matter and is focused on wellbeing, yet also hosts an incredible array of queer performers, running late into the night. It’s an example of where thinking seriously about difficult things doesn’t have to ‘kill the mood’ – creativity, care and critique all coexist in a venue that puts on a seriously good Queerbaret!
It is important to be assertive as an event in implementing policies that protect the environment and concretely show a commitment to diversity and safety. The AIF’s 2017 Safer Spaces campaign, Shambala’s travel policy – which involves ring fencing a proportion of festival tickets strictly for coach travel – and festivals like Boomtown now flirting with the idea of ditching meat, are all examples of clear initiatives where the audience is encouraged and expected to follow ‘the rules’. Notions such as zero tolerance, compulsory carbon offsetting and recycling bonds deposit schemes all represent clear, hard-line approaches which deliver safer, more sustainable events. However, creating change needs to be holistic not didactic.
Shifting the focus: generosity, inclusions and abundance
Festivals, year on year, have the opportunity to create a narrative or a story around the positive vision they put to practice over an annual weekend of revelry. They have the chance to do this with a returning audience while welcoming new festivalgoers into the fold.
Taking inspiration beyond the events industry can provide new insights into how to create change-making festivals. Extinction Rebellion’s emphasis on regenerative culture has certainly offered an exciting framework for the Shamabla team. Regenerative culture focuses on fostering supportive, sustaining relationships within a group; it is a commitment to kindness that puts into practice the change you want to see in the world. Rebecca Solnit calls this a “politics of prefiguration.” It’s all about growing a people garden in your wider festival community, where your audience and team can feel at home and feel like they have a stake in making the event what it is.
If we run with the horticultural metaphor, a good garden needs tending year round. In partnership with Kambe, Boma Community has been developing an app built on block chain technology (and creating a festival app that doesn’t harvest its audience’s data). The Boma Community App is audience-focussed and bespoke, offering events the chance to create an app that really tunes in to user experience. Shambala has been exploring the possibilities such technology could open up year round for its audience, working with Boma to create a community listings functionality which could sustain an In Real Life (IRL) Shambala community beyond the event.
This is a huge step towards integrating new tech into Kambe’s vision concerning the change-making possibilities of well-produced, environmentally conscious, creative events. The app, then, becomes a tool to continue the spirit of the festival beyond the festival weekend every year – where the audience can link up with their peers to meet and help with community interest events, charity fundraisers, tree planting schemes and more.
In its inaugural year this community listings function is an exciting and generous proposition to the festival community at large. It asks: how can we carry on the good vibes, together?
About the Author
Kate Burgess works as marketing assistant for Kambe Events, covering their events Shambala Festival and Starry Skies Camp. She joined the team in 2018, offering a helping hand in all things marketing and communication for the festival, and runs Shambala’s Adventures In Utopia blog.
Headed for a part-time Masters degree in cultural studies, Kate, like Kambe Events, is passionate about where culture, creativity and community can intersect to bring about more ecological, sustainable futures. www.kambe-events.co.uk/ firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
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