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

In advance of the hippie-leaning California festival's 2016 edition, Kevin KoChen tells you why corporate festivals won't change your life.

by Jemayel Khawaja
Sep 9 2016, 5:15pm

All photos courtesy of Symbiosis Gathering.

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.

So what's the friction with the term?
We've never called Symbiosis Gathering a transformational festival, although transformation has been in our mission statement from the beginning. The difference in how we perceive our roles in the process is that the event itself is not transformational. Our production staff creates a container for an experience rather than a factory of transformation. You can't make people transform. People have to transform themselves. We really don't care for that moniker because we feel it's been watered down so much. It's bandied about similarly to how "natural" is used in the grocery store––any event that has yoga or workshops is tabbed transformational. If you're calling yourself transformational, that's a crock. That's like calling yourself "spiritual." I don't think there's as much weight behind that.

What is a must-have trait for a festival to achieve transformational qualities?
It has to get you out of your comfort zone. It has to make you forget where you are. For someone to come in and have their lives shifted, you have to suspend disbelief. If you don't buy in, you don't get the full potency of the experience. If you're just sitting around in luxury accommodation with all the comforts of home, it's like doing yoga with a spotter. Or going to get a massage instead! It's like massaging your ego. It's giving you this sense of entitlement, the creature comforts in an environment where other people don't have them. It creates a caste system, a social hierarchy. All that stuff exists in the mainstream world––if you're coming to experience the other, or to get outside of your normal sphere of existence––it's just cheating.

How does the advent of cell phone service at Burning Man this year and the subsequent flood of social media posts from the Playa play into all of this?
We're a culture addicted to phones and information. We have no screens at Symbiosis. That's why we've never had a Symbiosis App. We don't have charging stations. We've had to battle a number of artist management teams because they want to bring screens [in stage production]. Everybody uses screens all the time, but television, it tells-you-your-vision, right? We don't want to be told our visions. We want to have our own visions. It's a quintessential aspect of transformation, to have your vision of the world and how you interact with it. We would much prefer that people not be on their phones and live in the moment. We're trying to create this small moment, let it be five days, where you just step away from the phone and the outside world and just appreciate what is in your immediate.

So a lot of people go to Burning Man but don't really experience any sort of growth...
If you have well-off people going to the Playa in their air-conditioned RV's, having service bring them food. How the fuck is that transformational? If you're not pulling the weight of your existence or stepping outside of your regular roles and relationships, it's really hard to transform because you're living the same pattern as you lived before. You have to break those habits in order for your reality or worldview to shift. People talk about 'transformation,' but what they really want is a massage.

What about SFX-owned festivals like Mysteryland or One Tribe, that have co-opted some of the transformational aesthetic?
This is one of the battles that we have to struggle with. Big, multinational corporations are willing to lose money in the short-term in order to squeeze out all the other, smaller events. But even though those larger companies have deep pockets, they can have all the big name acts in the world, but you can't buy vibes. When a large corporation tries to put on an event that's based around vibes, it's an empty promise because they haven't created the community around it.

Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle are the two most notable alternative festivals on the West Coast. What's the difference between them?
The Do LaB [Producer of Lightning in a Bottle] perfects things. They're on a search for perfection. The attention to detail at LIB is extreme. We're on a search for novelty. For example: All of the stages at Symbiosis are different this year, the layout is different. Also, we have psychedelic trance! It's an international genre of music that's very strong in other parts of the world, but is underappreciated in the Unites States. But it's only because they haven't been trance-formed, brah! But that's the thing! You have to get out of your comfort zone!

Symbiosis Gathering: Family Tree will take place September 22-25 in Oakdale, California.

Jemayel Khawaja had his life transformed at more than one music festival. You can find him on Twitter.