Fes­ti­vals: the other side of the cur­tain

A crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of the is­sues re­lated to the fes­ti­val scene, its com­mu­nity, and mov­ing for­ward.

Living Now - - Editorial - by Baron de Merx­hausen

A crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion of the is­sues re­lated to the fes­ti­val scene, its com­mu­nity, and mov­ing for­ward.

This piece comes from a po­si­tion of hope and de­fence, ex­pe­ri­ence and dis­ap­point­ment, and an ea­ger de­sire for change.

It was writ­ten partly in re­sponse to Jules Suther­land’s ex­cel­lent and in­ti­mate piece on fes­ti­vals last month. While hers was very much an ex­pe­ri­en­tial and so­cial piece, mine is more crit­i­cal of broader is­sues re­lated to the scene, and is stri­dent in its opin­ion.

I have been work­ing in the fes­ti­val and party scene since I was very young and for well over a decade now. I have worn numer­ous hats, so to speak (or gloves as it were), from waste man­age­ment to serv­ing al­co­hol to op­er­a­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, to work­ing in a harm re­duc­tion ca­pac­ity, sup­port­ing peo­ple hav­ing chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, to teach­ing and pro­duc­tion, and fi­nally co­or­di­na­tion and or­gan­i­sa­tion.

It is from this po­si­tion that I have seen and ex­pe­ri­enced the pro­found pos­i­tive im­pact fes­ti­vals can have on peo­ple’s lives and the even greater ben­e­fit they could pro­vide our so­ci­ety in the fu­ture. I want to talk to some of the is­sues that face the fes­ti­val scene.


There are per­cep­tions among the broader com­mu­nity that dif­fers from the re­al­ity of the fes­ti­val scene. There is a per­cep­tion that fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers make lots of money at the ex­pense of the com­mu­nity. This may be true for large com­mer­cially spon­sored, metropoli­tan­based events that op­er­ate li­censed bars. How­ever, re­gion­ally-based fes­ti­vals have sig­nif­i­cant over­heads, spon­sor­ship isn’t sought, and there are fis­cal and so­cial ben­e­fits ex­pe­ri­enced by the lo­cal re­gional com­mu­ni­ties who host them.

The fes­ti­val scene is also of­ten crit­i­cised due to the per­cep­tion that they pro­mote drugs. The per­cep­tion is that the pres­ence of drugs equals a dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ment, and this per­cep­tion leads to a spec­trum of be­hav­iour such as (at worst) an out­right dis­missal of a cel­e­bra­tion and the re­jec­tion of per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions, or (at best) a pa­ter­nal re­ac­tion – you need to be saved from your­selves so we’re go­ing to sit here and watch you to make sure you’re safe. This is far from ideal.

Even the best out­come here is enor­mously bur­den­some, and I do not agree with of­fi­cials that it is en­tirely be­nign. There are au­thor­i­ties and other or­gan­i­sa­tions that di­rectly ben­e­fit from the in­creased scru­tiny of events that time-and-time again are shown to be about as safe as any pub­lic event can get. In­cit­ing safety fears pro­vides user-pays ser­vices, like polic­ing, with lever­age to in­flate their fees.

The vast ma­jor­ity of in­ci­dents at fes­ti­vals are very mi­nor and mostly re­sult from a lack of shoes and sun­screen – sprains, cuts, sun­burn, etc.the other dif­fi­cul­ties for the gen­eral fes­ti­val goer that re­quire care are those re­lated to some­thing I have a more in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship with, mostly al­co­hol and other drugs. As a harm re­duc­tion worker for some years, our most com­mon is­sue was drunk­en­ness, a more so­cially ac­cepted but fairly dan­ger­ous and dam­ag­ing form of over­dose.

The additional layer of pro­tec­tion pro­vided by a harm re­duc­tion ser­vice has an in­cred­i­ble im­pact on a com­mu­nity’s safety, and it is am­pli­fied fur­ther by the most sig­nif­i­cant pro­tec­tive fac­tor in any group en­vi­ron­ment: the at­ti­tudes of shared care and con­sid­er­a­tion that the com­mu­nity pro­vides. It’s why peo­ple re­ceive such rapid care in the fes­ti­val con­text, and more im­por­tantly, why they don’t need emer­gency care in the first place – peo­ple are look­ing out for each other. That com­mu­nity spirit of care is in­creas­ingly rare in an ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, where alien­ation and iso­la­tion can be com­mon traits, and where we as­sume that in­sti­tu­tions and ser­vices are an ef­fec­tive re­place­ment for be­ing in­ter­ested in some­one’s well-be­ing.


A wise friend once said to me that tox­i­c­ity is sim­ply a mat­ter of dosage, and any bio­chemist will con­firm the truth in that, so pro­vid­ing drug ed­u­ca­tion at fes­ti­vals is es­sen­tially about re­lat­ing two concepts: take your men­tal set and your en­vi­ron­men­tal set­ting into ac­count be­fore us­ing any sub­stance, and be as

We need more peo­ple stand­ing up for their ev­i­dence-based be­liefs and call­ing out the prob­lems of con­ser­va­tive think­ing when they oc­cur.

ex­pert with your dosage as you pos­si­bly can be. Nowa­days I re­alise that th­ese points are as true to food as they could be to al­co­hol, heroin, or LSD. It might seem a stretch to com­pare heroin and food but obe­sity is ex­pe­ri­enced by 63% of the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion and is the third great­est bur­den on our health sys­tem. Per­haps dosage is a term we may need to re­con­sider as be­ing only re­lated to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

There is a strange irony re­lated to the per­cep­tions ver­sus the re­al­i­ties of harm in a fes­ti­val con­text and this is the re­jec­tion of drug testing fa­cil­i­ties, a glob­ally recog­nised, tried-and-tested mea­sure for im­prov­ing safety in our so­ci­ety. A sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to drug re­lated harm is the in­abil­ity to know the strength or qual­ity of the sub­stance be­ing taken with cer­tainty. There is a cer­tain amount of rhetor­i­cal am­mu­ni­tion gained by keep­ing this ser­vice il­le­gal, and that is by the hon­est ad­mis­sion that not know­ing what you’re tak­ing is risky. If those risks were taken away, the prime crit­i­cism against psy­choac­tive sub­stance use would be un­der­mined – if peo­ple can know how to do some­thing safely, why shouldn’t we let them? How can we em­power peo­ple with re­spon­si­bil­ity in most other facets of their lives, but not this one? Sud­denly the con­ver­sa­tion is about moral­is­ing and not about fac­tual health con­cerns. Once upon a time we had to push to have the in­gre­di­ents pub­lished on the pack­ets of our food. Is it such a stretch to do it for other con­sum­ables?

While work­ing for Eng­land’s Home Of­fice’s Drug Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil, Pro­fes­sor David Nutt re­ported, to his peril, that ec­stasy use was less dan­ger­ous than horse-rid­ing and that it should be de­crim­i­nalised. For his ef­forts he lost his job.

I for one, am proud of his mar­tyr­dom be­cause I have seen first-hand what can hap­pen when peo­ple with good in­ten­tions and a fair de­gree of sense fall vic­tim to a bad batch of some­thing. We need more peo­ple stand­ing up for their ev­i­dence-based be­liefs and call­ing out the prob­lems of con­ser­va­tive think­ing when they oc­cur.

I im­plore you, dear reader, to do your own re­search on this topic, be­cause the ev­i­dence is easy to find and in great sup­ply. It has be­come al­most com­mon­place for re­tired top po­lice brass to rec­om­mend harm min­imi­sa­tion as the most ef­fec­tive strat­egy for drug-re­lated is­sues in our so­ci­ety. Whether through hind­sight or a newly-found free­dom to ex­press what they could not while on the job, they ar­rived at the same re­al­i­sa­tion that we all should: drug use is not go­ing away; we need drug testing fa­cil­i­ties to save lives, and we need to sup­port peo­ple who use drugs with their is­sues rather than stig­ma­tise them.


My feel­ing is that the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment among our fes­ti­val mak­ers is not hugely coura­geous. In de­fence of our fes­ti­val scene, we can’t re­ally af­ford to be. Too much con­tro­versy can be very dam­ag­ing or even dis­as­trous to an event group that ex­ists at the grace of Lady Luck each year. Even the largest and most well re­spected fes­ti­vals in this coun­try are in­cred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble sim­ply be­cause of the na­ture of the pro­duc­tion, let alone the shift­ing winds of po­lit­i­cal and pub­lic opin­ion.

Gen­er­ally, if a fes­ti­val or­gan­i­sa­tion’s event is can­celled this spells their doom and they will be bankrupted. Many have been far too close for com­fort. The ill-fated Maitreya Fes­ti­val 2016 is a com­plex case study in this re­gard.

To my dis­may, this po­si­tion has caused many fes­ti­vals to oc­cupy a po­si­tion of fin­ger pointing as they try to dis­tance them­selves from the prob­lem­atic events of other groups, rather than de­fend­ing their in­dus­try as a ro­bust and fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant part of our so­ci­ety’s steam-re­lease valve that is also eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial, rel­a­tively safe, and which en­cour­ages pos­i­tive so­cial be­hav­iours and norms.

So nat­u­rally, the weak po­si­tion of con­stantly ‘ try­ing to get away with it’ has caused our cul­ture to be cau­tious in their ap­proach to pub­lic is­sues and pol­icy. Per­haps it also af­fects the sus­pi­cions of lo­cal gov­ern­ments when they won­der what kind of light will be shone on their own com­mu­nity.

Stud­ies show that peo­ple are rapidly los­ing faith in their so­cial in­sti­tu­tions, and even democ­racy it­self. Th­ese sta­tis­tics are even more damn­ing when analysing the younger cross-sec­tion of our so­ci­ety. Now more than ever we need or­gan­i­sa­tions that claim pro­gres­sive val­ues to em­body the ideals they put on their web­site so they’re not just buzz­words or slo­gans. Nowa­days peo­ple can cut through hol­low New Age tripe like a hot knife through but­ter, and if they don’t be­lieve they won’t be­have.

We need fes­ti­val or­gan­i­sa­tions to col­lab­o­rate in their as­ser­tion of le­git­i­macy be­cause oth­er­wise the idea of ‘ trans­for­ma­tive gath­er­ing’ will be co-opted by the only things that can sur­vive an ex­pen­sive bu­reau­cratic labyrinth: ma­jor com­mer­cial in­ter­ests.

By work­ing to­gether and claim­ing our space we can eman­ci­pate the ideas of the party-with-a-pur­pose, the fes­ti­val as a so­cially (or even en­vi­ron­men­tally!) ben­e­fi­cial core com­po­nent of a flour­ish­ing modern so­ci­ety.

We need in­di­vid­u­als to sup­port and de­fend our cel­e­bra­tion in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly our vi­brant fes­ti­val scene. Check your favourite event’s blog, see the dif­fi­cul­ties they’ve been fac­ing (if they’re brave enough to ad­mit them) and see if you can help. Even writ­ing a let­ter has an in­cred­i­ble im­pact.

Along­side this joint ef­fort, we can stand our ground and fight the false stigma of dan­ger and deca­dence. The fes­ti­val in­dus­try is in a unique po­si­tion that can fight with cre­ativ­ity, com­mu­nity, and com­fort be­cause it cher­ishes beauty, it fa­cil­i­tates con­nec­tion, and it pro­vides a safe space. ■ The Baron de Merx­hausen is an event co­or­di­na­tor, cel­e­brant, group-work fa­cil­i­ta­tor, and the cre­ator of the newly founded Eth­i­cal Fes­ti­vals As­so­ci­a­tion. He has lec­tured on phi­los­o­phy at the Mel­bourne School of Con­ti­nen­tal Phi­los­o­phy, built a li­brary for the Oc­cupy Move­ment, been caught in a Mid­dle Eastern revo­lu­tion, and gen­er­ally lies around eat­ing soft cheeses, as be­fits a per­son of his ti­tle. Con­nect with other read­ers & com­ment on this ar­ti­cle at www.liv­ing­now.com.au

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