Letting Go by Design: Social Prototyping in Electronic Music Culture
Back in the 1990s, as part of the techno counterculture, my colleagues and I started putting on techno parties and events. But something was missing. We lived and breathed the lifestyle and culture, but there was only so many times we could dance all night long. So early on, we decided to do something that was unique to the subculture at the time. We took the interactive experience of the techno dance floor and applied it to the event as a whole, turning what were simple dance parties into interactive festivals and events. This opened up a well of creative opportunities.
We discovered early on that the more we intentionally designed ourselves (as ‘organisers’) out of the way, and invited people attending the event to participate in the creation of the experience themselves (with their own music, art and skills), the better the energy of the event. People felt a greater sense of ownership in the experience, connecting more with each other and the environment around them.
For seven years my friends and I experimented with this new approach putting on over 50 different festivals and events. Each became increasingly participatory. Then in 2004, we were ready to go all the way. We wanted to know if a group of a thousand people could coexist freely and cooperatively together for five days without any central governing body at all? In the end, our years of experimentation paid off. Mythopoeia (the making of myths) was a five day Interactive Electronic Music & Arts Festival for a thousand people. It was held on the 60 hectare Opoeia property — a live-in artist community and permanent outdoor event space in the Otway Ranges, 1.5 hrs outside Melbourne, Australia.
By designing ourselves completely out of the way, we had built a fully distributed, fully interactive event as a platform, in what can be described as a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). And all of this was done without anyone knowing the full extent of the experiment.
We Want to Trust You
Redesigning the festival started at the front gate. A 1000 people event would normally require managing 2–6 people at a time, with 4 hr shifts day and night over several days. That’s a lot of people wasting time, when they could be in the festival enjoying themselves more creatively and productively. So we got rid of that.
Instead, we built an entrance stand at the gate that was easily identifiable and accessible by anyone who drove into the property. On the stand was a large section with rubbish bags inside and a sign inviting people to take one. A simple way for us to express an important principle of the festival — Responsibility.
Also on the stand was a large sign that read “Go and set up camp, then come and pay at the big kitchen”. This was the next principle of the festival — Trust. Or, more specifically, it was a way for us as organisers to say to people — We want to trust you.
Then as people drove into the property, there was a huge sign you could not miss, that read “If we do not practice trust, trust will not grow”. Again, re-establishing the principle of trust. But this time, saying to people — The onus of trust is also on you.
This turned out to be a welcome surprise for festival-goers expecting to pay at the gate, not knowing we would approach things in this way.
The big kitchen was run by the food cooperative Lentil As Anything. Its restaurants have no set prices — you pay what you feel. But at festivals they would normally charge for food. That meant they were already dealing with money transactions. So we gave the responsibility of ticket sales to the kitchen — and they took a small percentage of the takings. Solved!
When people bought a ticket, they each got a festival wrist-band. Normally wristbands were used to leave an event, so people could get back in. But this time it served as a self-policing mechanism. It showed everyone they’d paid. The principle of — Transparency.
This idea came from Wikipedia, where everyone sees everyone else’s edits. Wikipedia proved that transparency worked as a form of self-policing to ensure cooperation among a very large group of people. So this time we tried it out on a festival. And it worked. Everyone paid. Well, mostly everyone.
The festival itself was made up of different villages, or theme camps, spread out across the property. Each village was invited to set up and run their own creative spaces. If a village wanted to use a sound system, it had to be solar or wind powered. But if they didn’t have the means to go solar in their first year, they could tap into mains power or use a generator at first, so long as they incrementally worked towards an alternative energy system in following years.
A village could be a dance-floor, a stage, a love nest, an interactive art installation, or a theatre space, anything, so long as it was creative, inclusive and interactive. It was important that village crews allowed others to use their space as well. In this way the village organisers let go of control over their own space. This helped to ensure each village expressed Mythopoeia’s overriding philosophy — Limited Governance.
Some villages were more open than others. One village was a stage with a solar-powered sound system. The people who owned the sound system lived in their truck. The truck acted as a backdrop to the stage area with a canopy above and a full setup for bands and DJs — microphones, mixing desk, DJ equipment. It was positioned in an area on the property with a beautiful grass amphitheatre and dance-floor area. And this sound system village simply sat there waiting for anyone to come and use it.
Yet we needed a way to connect each of the villages together that let people know they could utilise the village facilities. For this we included a set of Confest-style workshop boards, which consisted of a series of very large 2m high blackboards, one for each day. Each village was represented on the boards along with a section for each hour of the day. Each of the villages also had their own smaller daily blackboard , with each hour set out on them.
While many people were familiar with some of the aspects of this new experimental event, no one had experienced all of these things together in the one space before. For this reason it was important the entire event was designed to ensure that anyone who entered the festival space, could intuitively understand how the event worked without needing it explained. The principle of — Inclusiveness.
And this included the blackboard system. We wanted to set it up in such a way that anyone could immediately understand how the boards worked and how they could get involved themselves.
To emphasise this concept, we organised two workshops and one band, and scattered them over the first two days — a yoga workshop, a meditation workshop and an electronic music band on the solar stage. This also made sure the boards weren’t empty when people arrived. It also helped set a standard for the workshops and events, as well as be suggestive of the types of workshops, performances or gigs people may want to organise or experience themselves.
So people looked at the boards, saw what was on offer, noticed the empty spaces, and simply understood they were invited them to fill the spaces with whatever type of workshops they’d like to share.
And it took off! People got creative. For example, a few people who attended a belly dancing workshop teamed up with others from a drumming workshop and organised a performance on the solar stage. They spoke with the owners of the rig, arranged to take the 8–9pm slot, made flyers and got people to come to their event. Gradually over time people put on more and more theatre performances, dance parties, kids discos, band gigs, and all sorts of weird and wonderful shows. Eventually every village filled up, and the entire festival ran 24/7 all by itself.
Little did we know at the time, as we stepped back from the organiser role, we in turn opened up the scope for anyone attending the event to become organisers themselves. Everyone got the opportunity to express themselves creatively, not just in art, music and performance, but also in designing and running events. So people who would not normally have the opportunity, could try their hand at being an organiser.
Fulfilling Mythopoeia’s principle of Interactivity
Mythopoeia tapped into the collective wisdom of a crowd. But what does it mean for a festival to be fully distributed, fully interactive? What sort of impact does an experience like this have on people? This is not an easy thing to describe. But I’ll give it a try from some of the feedback I received at the time.
On day four, a festival attendee came up to me to say ‘thank you’. I knew he had a partner and a twelve year old son at the festival with him. As a way to express what the festival meant to him, he said he “he’d hardly seen his son for days, but knew he was completely safe”. He then walked off. I was left stunned, tears in my eyes. He felt so safe and sure that everyone was looking out for each other, that he had complete confidence and trust that his son would be alright.
This may seem concerning for some parents, but remember this was not a typical event. There was something else going here. As a fully distributed event, Mythopoeia enabled us to tap into a collective sense of safety and a collective wisdom of the crowd in ways many of us had never experienced before at this scale. With no one in control, everyone was more in control, and more empowered to care for each other and help create the festival together.
On another occasion, a theatre performer, who normally performed at smaller events, told me she was surprised at how safe she felt at a festival of this size. She found herself going deeper into her characters than ever before, and ended up performing some of her most personally revealing acts normally reserved for more intimate settings. And for us in the audience, we got to watch these incredibly deep and authentic performances.
Then there’s the issue of rubbish, which is another great way to determine the success or failure of an event. For years my colleagues and I prided ourselves on creating events that had very little rubbish to pick up afterwards. We found, the better the event, the less rubbish people left on the ground.
Mythopoeia with its fully distributed, fully interactive design, left no rubbish to pick up at all. Everyone picked up after themselves and each other. Every campsite cleaned up their space, and either took their rubbish home or left it in the designated rubbish areas all without anyone telling them what to do. This showed us that in an environment of trust, inclusiveness and transparency, people can behave more considerately, and feel more naturally compelled to contribute in any way possible.
After many years of experimentation, we discovered a festival’s culture is the sole responsibility of the organisers. For trust to grow between everyone attending the event, the organisers must be the ones to make the first step. It is not the responsibility of the people to first trust the organisers, it is up to the organisers to first trust the festival goers — to say to people ‘we want to trust you’. Not simply by stepping back and walking away, that is irresponsible. But leaving in place a foundation of support and interaction that encourages people to embrace more responsibility for themselves and each other.
Still, Mythopoeia was only a temporary event of a thousand people over five days. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a form of social prototyping for larger possibilities. It was a way to practice on a small level, to find out what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully this knowledge can be shared within a larger pool of experiences, to learn how to grow to scale over time.
- Limited Governance
Mythopoeia II (2005)
The first Mythopoeia was a social experiment. Overall we lost only a small amount of money. Which was fine.
Unfortunately, the following year for Mythopoeia II, the practical voice in the group won out, and convinced us we needed to bring back the front gate to ensure everybody paid — to ensure we didn’t come out at a loss. In hindsight I believe this was a huge mistake — something to learn from.
While the second event was great, I believe it lost some of it’s original soul. We were managers once again. And it seemed the extraordinary sense of trust generated in the first event did not come about as strongly this time round. It seemed the trust was lost, and Mythopoeia simply became a myth.
Years later I discovered we were not alone in our efforts to find ways for event organisers to learn to let go of control, intentionally by design. I have now learnt that these cooperative methods are also being practiced in other social settings such as urban design with a concept called Shared Space; in education with a Gradual Release of Responsibility; and in management with a self-management system for organisations called Holacracy. I wrote more about these methods in a Medium article here.
With Mythopoeia we seemed to have tapped into the zeitgeist of the times. And the use of these principles in recent decades across many different parts of society and around the world, gives me hope in our future. The more we practice creating environments of collective creativity and wisdom, the more we as a people can move towards a world, in which we coexist freely and cooperatively together with little need for authority. So long as it is applied responsibly, and involves letting go, by design.