By Clay Davis
Have you ever circled the Ka’aba in Mecca, attended Christmas mass at St. Peter’s alongside the pope, or helped a crowd-surfing guitarist at Bonnaroo? If you’re nodding your head to any of these, you’ve shared similar personalized experiences with thousands of other people. However, some of you may think one of these experiences couldn’t relate, in any way, to the other two, either because of differences in religion or a lack of religious emphasis altogether. Well, pilgrim, I’m no John Wayne, but, despite differences in worship, there are clear parallels between music and arts festivals and conventional religious pilgrimages. Both types of experience involve a collective journey drawn by spiritual force, or energy, made special by the distinct architecture of their organizations.
In New Orleans, known for its ostensibly religious pilgrimage during Mardi Gras, two relatively new crowd-alluring experiences have emerged: the BUKU and Voodoo Music Festivals. The growing industry and cultural impact of music festivals draw performers and faithful fans from all over the world to share in the sensory adventures of BUKU’s and Voodoo Fest’s music, food, art installations, and interactive environments. Each year, these music festivals are unique and unpredictable for attendants and staff alike. What make these events special, attract large crowds, and draw more the next year, are the awe-inspiring artistic features and environmental characteristics, deriving distinction and value from their transitory nature and finite timeframe.
Jake McGregor, a graduate of the Tulane University School of Architecture, as well as a guitarist and singer, has combined his musical talents with his architectural education, working with the Raven Production Management Group, an event-specific design company, at the BUKU and Voodoo Music Festivals. I met with Jake at the barbeque-infused din of the Black Label Icehouse to fill up on brisket, as well as learn more about the operational side of these New Orleanian music festivals.
Music festivals are fundamentally born on an initial investment and sustained by profit made during the festival. However, profit is determined by a set of interdependent factors, which exist in the reactionary dance between managerial and artistic creativity and consumer response. According to Jake, the success of music festivals lies in developing “not only an attendance list, but a following.” Not far off from the purpose of a religious organization, as well as the official Voodoo Fest slogan, “Join the Ritual,” this idea of establishing a character and identity to a festival that is fused with the appetites and energy of its attendees requires a serious degree of planning, work, and adaptive pragmatism. Festival owners seek to blow the minds of visitors, connect with them emotionally, and bond their souls to the heart of the festival. These efforts, in turn, encourage future business through the return of customers and, very much like Christian missionaries, spread the good word.
The key factors for designing a successful festival and establishing a following in such a volatile industry, aside from the essentials of talent attraction and marketing, are efficiency and safety in controlling the crowd’s optimal experience. Jake noted, “What everyone is trying to do is streamline the festival process” and create what is known as a “turnkey festival” in which structures can be set up and struck down efficiently and quickly. So structures designed by people like Jake at Raven PMG must simultaneously blow the minds of festivalgoers and practice safety and efficiency during both festival setups and cleanups. Likewise, they must work within the controlled environment of the festival, which after years of trials and errors, contains a pragmatic template of “compounds,” such as stage and restroom blocking. These auxiliary structures serve to direct visitor attention and eye lines, as well as manipulate crowd traffic. Designers like Jake endeavor to “see where there is an opportunity [within the limits of the festival perimeter and compounds], keeping in mind human habit.”
According to Jake, any festival designer’s interests travels one of two ways, designing “either something for people to look at and stand in awe in front of, or something for people to interact with. I’ve always sided with the stuff that people physically interact with.” His preference for interactivity, which actively changes peoples’ perspectives and positively manipulates their senses to create an optimal experience, is exemplified in his work on several projects for BUKU and Voodoo Fest.
Jake’s claims that “festival owners want peoples’ minds to be blown” and that “architects are the next in line for the bar being raised” are evident in his work. At BUKU, Jake helped the Raven PMG team design a structure dubbed, “Fort BUKU,” which consists of two shipping containers positioned in a V-formation with a giant triangular hammock suspended in between that fans out from a high to a low point, slanting towards the stage. People can stand either on or inside the containers (where, inside, they can interact with black light graffiti murals) or lounge on the hammock. Now, going on its fourth year at the festival, people can still occupy this structure’s space, as it directs their attention towards the stage and provides alternative options for entertainment inside the decorated containers. Another structure Jake helped create at BUKU dealt with crowd control problems at a narrow section between a line of food vendor tents and the Mississippi River. The issue regarded a need for seating and trashcans for people eating their meals from the vendors amidst a constricted and busy space of crowd movement. The solution was a “paradise cove seating area,” composed of five 10-by-10-foot square hammocks that alternate in suspension between wooden benches, held up by 55-gallon steel drums supporting plants that cascade down over the hammocks. This structure fit in the slender area, creating a traffic block like a roundabout, in which people naturally kept right in a counterclockwise flow. Both the people eating their meals and the people passing by were satisfied with space to move, eat, and enjoy the experience.
Jake helped solve another problem at Voodoo Fest when the festival’s owners wanted to increase their merchandise sales: the Raven PMG team’s design involved a “double fronted solution,” centered on visual direction. First, the team positioned the merchandise tent, coined the “Merch Church,” in direct eye line from the entrance. Rows of private vendor tents, lined on either side of this boulevard, channeled crowds towards the tent. Overhead, they lined lights in a zigzag pattern, using forced perspective to direct people left and right of the vendor tents while also leading to the “Merch Church.” This design met with record sales that year.
The festival experience, the impermanence of its sensory uniqueness, and the culminating feeling of the weekend are what establish a festival’s identity. This identity, spawned from organizational influence in the environment constructed, is ultimately forged by the responding energy of its attendants. The creative designs of auxiliary structures, which may not appear to be a primary aspect of festivals, are a relatively new concept of art. However, they are fundamental in the determination of the crowd’s experience. Directional efficiency and the manipulation of attention help foster an environment that ushers people with ease and purpose. Jake hopes these designs “evoke an emotion of someone passing by or even ten years later when they’re looking at a photo of that festival.” After all, they help form the character of the festival, modeling an energy that is the lifeblood of its continuance, albeit for a short period of time. However, their memories will live on in the souls of their numerous followers.