Music by VICE

Boiler Room Open Up About Their Ill-Fated Weekender Festival: "We Need to Organize Ourselves Better if We Really Value Safe Spaces"

Organizers explain what they would have done differently—and how they're making sure last weekend's mishap never happens again.

by Michelle Lhooq
Nov 9 2016, 11:43pm

Tom Keelan

Photos by Tom Keelan

Last weekend, the debut Ray Ban x Boiler Room Weekender festival in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania was shut down prematurely after police arrested an attendee for possession of marijuana and suspected cocaine. Many festival guests and performers criticized the police officers and security guards at the festival for using overly-aggressive tactics to control the crowd, as well as specifically targeting people of color for extra security checks. On Monday, Boiler Room released a statement that also condemned the "unnecessary display of force against attendees" as "wildly inappropriate," adding that they were deeply sorry for what happened after spending a year working towards creating a "safe, open, [and] inclusive environment" for everyone who came.

While Boiler Room's statement helped to explain why they decided to end the festival early, some questions remained—such as what they decided to do with the cameras once the situation with law enforcement escalated. More importantly, what have festival organizers learned to prevent these issues from happening again, and what their plans are for bringing back the festival next year? Read below for our interview with Boiler Room's US Senior Programmer Morgan Steiker and Brand Partnerships Manager Nikki Brown, both of whom were intimately involved in the creation and operation of the festival.

THUMP: In an interview with Paper, Boiler Room founder Blaise Belleville mentioned that [festival site] Split Rock Resort and the surrounding community had never experienced anything like this. Is there a danger in taking a party like Ghe20 G0th1k out of the context and scene that it belongs in—namely, the New York underground—and putting it into a new environment like a rural town that wasn't ready or willing to accept its crowd of queer POC?

Boiler Room: There's always a risk to measure when taking a large portion of people from a cosmopolitan environment to a rural environment but to be clear, we were fully transparent with Split Rock and the local community about what they should expect, and the resort management welcomed it. They had done their research about us, and all the artists, crews, collectives well ahead of time, and didn't outline or identify to us any crowd or event they were particularly concerned about.

We're still in the process of gathering as much information as possible to get a full picture of what transpired throughout the course of the weekend and who should be held accountable for misconduct, but at the moment all signs point towards a handful of individuals from the resort security and local police responsible for the incidents—not an attitude or directive across the board that points towards targeting people of color or queer people.

I spoke to some cops who told us they were happy to see the event happen and welcomed our diversity so I think we need to be careful with painting a picture of a racist police force and hotel staff who had pre-conceived plans of busting certain people. There are good cops and bad cops, let's not forget that. It seems to me like there are a few bad apples that are responsible for ruining the entire event, but we still need more information to gather before coming to a conclusion.

There was a lot of surveillance throughout the weekend via the live streams in every room—did you have video footage of the police harassment and arrest caught on camera? What did you do with the cameras once the arrest happened, and why?

We don't have any footage from our broadcast showcasing police harassment or any arrests—all of it happened outside of performance rooms, which were the only spaces Boiler Room was filming at length. Once the police shut us down and we decided to handle the evacuation, we turned the cameras off and did our best to get every one back to their room as fast as possible. Our number one priority at that point was artist and guest safety, and de-escalating tension as the cops were very close to calling back up.

"Safe spaces are a moving target that require ongoing dialogue and work to establish and maintain."

What does this incident say about the idea of "safe spaces" in nightlife? Are they a myth?

What it says is that there's a lot we, as in the arts and culture community, need to do to advance our agenda of safe spaces in nightlife. We are far behind places like Amsterdam and Berlin when it comes to this, and this incident reminds us that we need to mobilize and organize ourselves better if we really value this issue.

I don't think safe spaces are a myth, but they are a moving target that require ongoing dialogue and work to establish and maintain. We're learning each day how to better work with and for our community to create spaces in which everyone feels safe. What transpired at the Weekender has pushed us to work harder toward that mission and to look to the community for input on how we can get there together.

What have you learned from this, and what would you have done differently? Are there plans to do the festival again next year? If so, will it be in the same place?

Don't think anyone of us will be back to that place, and trying to do again next year at Split Rock would be a mistake. That being said, those few hours at the end should not erase the two days of beautiful cultural harmony that we all witnessed. Our objective was to build something from the bottom up, and support artists, crews, collectives from all over the country and the world to co-exist in an artistic environment as a social experiment that would bring about a ripple effect of inspiration and innovation.

I think we achieved that to a large extent despite the security issues, and it's really important to mention Ray-Ban's role in supporting us in this vision and believing in it from the beginning. The Weekender will happen again bigger and better, especially after the overwhelming demand from people to bring it back, just not at Split Rock.

What was Boiler Room trying to accomplish with this event that it hadn't attempted before? Why try to bring together virtual experience with immersive, real space experience? Where there utopian ideals behind this? Would you rethink that model now?

Our main goal with The Weekender was to elevate our signature event design to a festival level without doing a traditional festival. We wanted to take the intimacy and uniqueness that people associate with Boiler Room in an environment that could welcome 3000 people over the course of 2 days. And to create a social experiment where we can cross-pollinate as many of the most cutting-edge artists, crews, collectives, and creatives in an environment where they could be inspired to learn from each other and share without it being forced or phoned in, and give access to anyone in the world to peek in and watch.

I would say that our ideals are progressive, not utopian. We are humbled to support underground scenes of diverse races, colors, and sexual orientations. This is the direction the world is going, not the other way around, and we want to be a catalyst for that change.

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