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Symbiosis Gathering Co-Owner Wants to Ditch the Term ‘Transformational Festival’


The word "transformational" has developed certain connotation, especially when paired with music festivals. Jemayel Khawaja of Thump talks to the co-owner of Symbiosis Gathering to discuss the term's implications.

This article originally appeared on Thump

In just over two weeks, Symbiosis Gathering will welcome electronic music luminaries like FKA Twigs, Seth Troxler, Claude VonStroke, RL Grime, and Warpaint to the finger-lake peninsulas and vast horizons of the Woodward Reservoir in Central California.

Alongside them, alt-everything, neo-hippie masses drawn from all corners of the West Coast will come together celebrate the event's final edition in California before moving north to Oregon in 2017 to coincide both temporally and longitudinally with a solar eclipse taking place in the skies above the festival in August. As you might gather, it's an event that aims to provide something a little more special than your average music festival.

With its wildcard lineup of acts from all over the dance spectrum, a lake dotted with art boats (like a Delorean speedboat), and endless surrealist environments to lose yourself in, last year's iteration of Symbiosis played something like Burning Man on spring break. Or more simply put, it was one of the most unique and memorable festival experiences of the whole year. Alongside the Do LaB's Lightning in a Bottle, Symbiosis has developed into a crown jewel of the so-called "transformational" circuit, a network of grassroots alternative festivals driven by Burner themes––sustainability, self-reliance, progressive politics––set to the beat of electronic music. It runs whole West Coast, from Desert Hearts outside of San Diego to Lucidity festival in Santa Barbara, up to Shambhala in British Columbia.

The music on display at these events ranges from indie-pop to house, techno, crunchy bass, psytrance, and myriad voicings of experimental esoterica. But it's the inclusion of extra-musical elements like yoga, lectures, workshops, environmental awareness, surreal installations, and social vibes defined by a mix of progressiveness and tribalism that make a given event a "transformational" one. Traceable back to a TED Talk by a guy named Jeet Kai in 2011, the phrase "transformational festival" stems from the idea that attending these festivals can lead you to become a more enlightened, educated, open, and/or awakened individual between (or during) all that get down on the dancefloor.

The only problem with the phrase "transformational" is that nobody who actually puts on transformational events seems to like it very much. As the of festival becomes more popular, the umbrella has expanded to include both half-hatched attempts at and corporate appropriation of transformational elements. SFX's ill-fated One Tribe festival last year advertised "yoga, spirituality, and wellness" on a lineup headlined by Kygo before its eventual cancellation, and "transformational" has developed into a branding buzzword that belies its initial meaning. To unpack whether the misuse of the phrase is an existential threat or just a matter of faulty rhetoric, we wrangled Symbiosis co-owner Kevin KoChen away from the festival site in Central California for some insight.

THUMP: What is transformation all about?

Kevin KoChen: The process of transformation involves a shift in worldview—a shift that comes with a rupture of past behaviors, rights, and responsibilities. The one undeniable transformational "festival" that happens yearly is Burning Man. It's the major influence on festivals on the West Coast, without a doubt. It has changed the entire culture. Having your own camp at Burning Man gives you permission as an entertainer, a sense of ownership in the event. It's democratized art. It's encouraged people to be part of the experience, to engage with their surroundings in an active way.


Read the full interview by Jemayel Khawaja at THUMP

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