Every festival is created with a similar goal: to bring its own vision of Utopia to life, if only for a long weekend. From Woodstock 69’s iconic legacy to Burning Man’s totally unique Black Rock City, festivals have taken on an almost spiritual status in the cultural imagination.
In early June, I went to a tiny festival hosting no more than 3,000 people. Perched on top of a remote Bulgarian mountain, Meadows in the Mountains is difficult to get to, suffers unpredictable weather, and you’ve never heard of any of the acts. That’s not a critique of your music taste – the festival’s schtick is that they only feature unsigned and underground artists – an eclectic mix of techno, drum and bass, experimental jazz, and the occasional poetry reading.
It was a concentration of classic festival tropes: intensely hippy aesthetics mixed with bougie comforts (the late-night bar only served prosecco) and back-to-basics facilities. There was a sense of pride among the festival’s regulars in picking Meadows over one of the millions of festivals that are easier to get to, maybe, but less beautiful, less self-consciously alternative.
Every festival is created with a similar goal: to bring its own vision of Utopia to life, if only for a long weekend. From Woodstock 69’s iconic legacy to Burning Man’s totally unique Black Rock City, festivals have taken on an almost spiritual status in the cultural imagination. And for many festival goers, the micro-societies they produce are as much of a draw as the lineup. Festivals provide a stage on which visitors can play-act as their most free-spirited alter-ego. They may not be willing or able to ditch the rat race permanently, but these events provide an opportunity to ‘microdose’ the alternative lifestyles they’re drawn to. At Meadows, the bikini-clad ravers and meditating yogis had day jobs as IT consultants, baristas, and PR assistants, but for five days on top of a mountain, they could belong to a loving, eccentric community.
This same fantasy of bohemian freedom is behind the popularity of ‘Van Life’ influencers, tiny house tours, documentaries about life in a commune, and viral TikToks of people undertaking extreme journeys. These are groups of people who are living truly non-conformist lives – forgoing the comforts and constraints of mainstream society in favour of the freedom and uncertainty of living on the margins. Exposure to these lifestyles challenges our ideas of home, relationships, and community. We’re drawn to the sense of adventure and connection we perceive in those spaces, but don’t necessarily want to make permanent, life-altering decisions to get a taste of that freedom, so we seek out more transient ways to dip our toes into it.
Humans have always been drawn to the concept of Utopia, creating art and writing manifestos depicting different visions and dreams for society.
Back in the 70s, Spanish architect José Miguel de Prada Poole constructed a series of inflatable ‘Instant Cities’ in Ibiza. Designed to inspire artistic creation and imagination, these were ever-changing structures which adapted to the journeys of their inhabitants and ceased to exist after the last visitor disappeared. Without leaving their hometown, people were exposed to an alternative vision for society and forced to confront how they moved through their surroundings.
The point of depicting utopia, however briefly, is to explore the ways in which we live by comparing it to something radically different. The ‘Instant Cities’ were designed to disrupt the mundane and routine by turning the scenery of the everyday on its head. So many of us fall into the trap of believing that different, better ways to live are only available to us ‘elsewhere’, but the desire to escape doesn’t mean the way we live is inherently wrong, only familiar.
Using events, art, and travel to ‘microdose’ adventurous or alternative lifestyles isn’t a pale imitation of the ‘real thing’, it’s just another way to build a life. We may not have the means to build a permanent utopia, but we’ve found ways to create microcosms, pockets of space where it can exist for a moment in time.