Staging the Sublime

Gisela Williams

Top: Ezera Skanas festival.
Bottom: A music ritual at La Granja Ibiza, focused on electronic and world music.

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It all started with the words, “Let’s burn a man.” On a summer solstice evening 30 years ago, a bohemian drifter named Larry Harvey spoke those words to a dozen friends, torched an effigy of a man, and watched it go up in flames on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2018, Burning Man attracted almost 70,000 participants, some of whom camp out and live in complete freedom for more than a week in the Nevada desert. The only rules are based on the festival’s 10 Principles, including “radical self-reliance,“radical inclusion,” and “leaving no trace.”

Festivals are no longer just about listening to live music and celebrating the seasons. The influence of Burning Man and other alternative festivals has helped spawn an almost spiritual movement of ideas and culture across the globe. It also taps into a growing community of lifestyle travelers who, in a time of increased mobility and digital connectivity, increasingly embrace a nomadic lifestyle that blurs the lines between life, work, and play.

What is it about Burning Man and like-minded festivals that inspires a nearly religious fervor? When asked to describe what Burning Man is, Larry Harvey often defined it as an experience that is about “transcendence and connecting with something bigger than you are.” Brett Leve, one of the five founders of Summit, a series of festival-like conferences about ideas, which have taken place in Tulum, in Utah, and on a ship en route from Miami to the Bahamas, says that most of us in the Western world have “lost all our rites of passage. My bar mitzvah was not a rite of passage. There is no related understanding of self or adversity or pilgrimage involved.” He points to Burning Man, or the Camino de Santiago, a network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe that come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, as a communal ritual that fills the void. “Burning Man is like a modern rite of passage. You travel to a remote place, set yourself in a harsh climate and then have to be self reliant for at least 36 hours.”

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To get to the Ezera Skanas festival in rural Latvia, most people leave Riga at midnight and drive more than 100 kilometers, mostly through forest, to the remote Kala Lake. Small groups start arriving around 2 a.m. Silence and solitude is encouraged, especially once people get into small boats (their own or rentals) and push them out on the dark water, the bright stars above their only source of light.

“Entering the water in the dark is such a dramatic event that it changes one’s state of attention,” said one of the three founders, Reinis Spaile. “People are disoriented. It’s like entering a dream.” Eventually the sky lightens and you can see the shadows of other surrounding boats. Music starts to play and as the sun rises, it peaks. You can finally see the musicians that are performing on floating stages. “You wake up communally to a new day and a new place,” described Spaile. “It is like a modern ritual.”

Started in 2012 by about two dozen friends as more of an off-the-grid happening than a festival, Ezera Skanas has since developed into something bigger than the founders ever imagined — in 2017, despite no promotion, there were about 3,500 visitors from around the globe. They have rejected offers from corporate sponsors, instead paying costs with ticket sales and support from the local government, explaining that “commerce takes the attention away from one’s experience.” In the summer of 2017, they invited designers, video makers, artists, and choreographers to set up camp two weeks before the event in order to add the additional disciplines of performance art and dance to the festival. After a yearlong pause, Ezera Skanas festival will return in the summer of 2019.

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The burning obsession with transformative festivals has created a new niche in the world of travel. Like surfers chasing the ultimate wave, techno music lovers follow DJs around the globe, flying from Ibiza to Las Vegas. For those pursuing that next big idea, events like TED and Summit will lure them wherever the latest guru of innovation might be. For these travelers, the journey is less about the destination and more about the content and the crowd. At the same time, it’s often the destination that makes the festival. The more dramatic the setting the better. As Spaile said, “Nature is the stage. We found that the major star of our festival is the landscape and then it’s about how we add to it.” Modern communication technologies enable and inspire these plugged-in modern nomads, be they festival goers, tech workers, or digital commuters, to seek new experiences around the globe. They’ll spend a few months in Berlin and then a few in Bangkok, couchsurfing or finding a temporary rental apartment.

“Nature is the stage. We found that the major star of our festival is the landscape and then it’s about how we add to it.”
“That’s why people are spending more money on experiences rather than material objects, And that trend will just grow.”

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The founders of Summit, and owners of Powder Mountain(10,000 acres of land in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains), haven’t yet built a hotel, but they have already broken ground on an “Alpine town 2.0,” according to Elliott Bisnow, one of the five founders. Powder Mountain will be home to several boutique properties, co-working spaces, a recording studio, and a handful of laid-back cafés and restaurants. The most important element, though, is the community. Already, the town has a committed crowd of dedicated guests and collaborators that includes Richard Branson and the spoken word poet IN-Q, who were converted to the cult of Powder Mountain by the founders’ long running Summit events. “The common ground is that they are people of integrity that view their work as transformational,” Brett Leve describes.

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In the summer of 2016, Dan Blackledge, creator of the alternative Hideout and Unknown festivals, debuted what is essentially a festival island on the previously uninhabited Croatian isle of Obonjan. Call it summer camp for adults. Guests and visiting artists stay in a variety of low impact accommodation, from luxury tents to “forest lodges”; on offer are events like night walks with resident astronomers as well as meditation sessions and concerts throughout the day and night. Blackledge points to social media as one of the reasons why the festival scene has grown so quickly and claims that platforms like Instagram have actually inspired people to get out into the world and experience the things they see others doing. “That’s why people are spending more money on experiences rather than material objects,” he said. “And that trend will just grow.”

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If that is true, then Kfir Levy and Eduardo Castillo of Habitas are on the right track. The two have already taken their traveling, invitation-only event around the globe, from a farm in California to a remote beach in Thailand. They have found that their community is so moved by the gatherings and experiences that they curate, they are now trying to implement them into unique hotel properties. In 2017 they opened Habitas Tulum, a beachside resort of stylishly bohemian tents, where check-in guests are asked to first meditate on the purpose of their trip. Currently building several more hotels, one in Namibia and another in the Bahamas, Habitas has also launched a membership club in New York and in Venice Beach, California. Up next: one in Mexico City. “We want people to constantly be in a child-like state of wonder, always discovering things,” said Levy.

Thierry Teyssier, of the cultish Maison des Rêves properties in Morocco, has always pushed the envelope in terms of embedding moments of wonder within his projects. He recently launched 700,000 Heures, a new travel concept that involves pure theater set within stunning natural landscapes. The name refers to the number of hours, on average, that make up a human life. Teyssier’s goal is to make sure none of those hours is wasted, at least when it comes to travel experiences. So just as he once moved theatrical performances from one secret garden to the next when he directed a theater company in Paris called Midi-Minuit, he now transports his nomadic hotel every six months to a different location, starting in Puglia, Italy and then popping up in Cambodia.

Top: Habitas curates one-of-a-kind gatherings and installations for the spiritually curious
Bottom: Ezera Skanas festival

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In many ways, transcendent experiences are now to hospitality what contemporary design and architecture were in the late 90s. Today’s most forward-thinking hotels harness this desire for meaning and use it to build communities.

In the meantime, the Burning Man Project (the non-profit that administers the festival) has purchased a 3,800-acre ranch in Nevada and, in a full-circle moment, is starting to build an experimental community at Fly Ranch that is funded entirely by donations. In the notice that they posted on their website, they asked the question: “What if we had a place to experiment with and apply the 10 Principles, 365 days a year …?” At Hotel Burning Man, the festival will never end.

The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 editionof Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movementsunderway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect theway we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spacesboth physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime.

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