The Rise Festival and the authenticity of experience

Every now and then I get the opportunity to visit some amazing places while working as a videographer. Last Saturday night I went with a couple to film them at the Rise Festival - a poorly defined event that involves the release of approximately 20,000 paper lanterns into the Mojave desert sky. It was as beautiful as it sounds and quite breathtaking. According to the event organizers, Rise does not have a singular cause or purpose but instead is a personally defined event where each participant decides the symbolic purpose of the lantern release. Rise was marketed loosely as a spiritual event, a place to hope, 'hope' here being left intentionally vague. Rise attracted a variety of guests. Some of which could be described as hipsters, hippies, families, sick or dying people, couples celebrating engagement or anniversaries, new agers, religious. Whatever the case the program was clearly determined to allow for some sort of spiritual experience or transformation.

What becomes readily apparent in these types of events is how structured they are and how the structure quickly becomes an impedance to the organic experience one wishes to have. Any attempt at guiding the crowd of 13,000 people into a certain emotional state comes off wooden and inauthentic. Of course this could be said about the whole premise of this event. Those who are more skeptical about such events might decry the lofty ticket price, between $50-120 per person, or the well-crafted marketing material and souvenirs sold at the entrance of the event as evidence for a sort of scam.

Attendees are without a doubt buying an experience and in a modern capitalist context this should not be a belabored point. For even if we assume that buying an experience is no different to how we experience something organically or freely, there still lingers a taste of inauthenticity when thinking about events like this. It seems that more than ever we struggle with authenticity. With another cultural wave that strives to create authentic experience, inauthenticity seems to be exposed even more. The hipster is often thought to be representative of this type of culture. It is a culture that values aestheticism as a way to achieve an authentic experience. The experience here is not the interaction of self with others or the activity at hand but more broadly as the interaction of the self representing the idealized experience. I would even say that we are extremely conscious of this act as it masks what is indeed a terrifying realization: the acknowledgement that we are not having an authentic experience or worse, that we failed at authenticity.

This was apparent in a conversation I had with an attendee at Rise after the lantern release. The conversation was held in the midst of a logistical debacle that caused us and thousands of others to wait in the cold desert night for a return shuttle to our vehicles. The wait lasted 5 hours as we stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd. By this time, most of the Rise staff had left and police were trying their best to prevent a riot and organize the departure. The exhausted attendee I stood next to remarked upon the fact that this wait for the shuttle had surpassed the time spent at the actual lantern release event. She then half jokingly said to me, "I mean, at least I got my Instagram photo." We both chuckled about it as I thought back to earlier to the time before the event started when my cell phone died. I thought about how I was disappointed that I would not be able to instantly share my experience.  She was aware of what I resisted to acknowledge. The desire was not to share the experience but to actually have an experience of representing an ideal experience. That is, the experience we desired was to perform or represent what we imagined the experience would/should be like.

The aesthetic quality of the experience becomes paramount here. I am reminded of the publication Kinfolk magazine. While we could get into the specifics of how the magazine demonstrates the hipster culture (for lack of a better term), Kinfolk's culture extends beyond the page and this is where we find some cross-over with the community that partook in Rise. Kinfolk has a manifesto posted on their website that reads as follows:

Kinfolk is a growing community of artists with a shared interest in small gatherings. We recognize that there is something about a table shared by friends, not just a wedding or once-a-year holiday extravaganza, that anchors our relationships and energizes us. We have come together to create Kinfolk as our collaborative way of advocating the natural approach to entertaining that we love. Every element of Kinfolk – the features, photography, and general aesthetics – are consistent with the way we feel entertaining should be: simple, uncomplicated, and less contrived. Kinfolk is the marriage of our appreciation for art and design and our love for spending time with family and friends.

see more photos and video at Kinfolk's Website

There is a clear emphasis on the aesthetic, specifically the certain manner in which communities gather. From these gatherings is the production of experience which is found in the form of Instagram photos from attendees or photos and video located on Kinfolk's website. Each are meticulously constructed to produce the most aesthetically pleasing evidence of the event. In fact, Kinfolk has apparently has become an aesthetic descriptor itself as evidenced by the appearance of the hashtag #kinfolkmag appearing alongside many photos on Instagram by users who have no association to Kinfolk. 

Like Rise, Kinfolk gatherings are carefully controlled aesthetically. They produce an experience for guests that falls within Kinfolk's established aesthetic and is meant to promote genuine human relationships. Gatherings become a form of performance art where the experience is felt most powerfully via the documentation of the event or if it is to be felt during the event it is through the mediation of the image as guests self-reflexively snap pictures of their food or place settings.

Despite Kinfolk's efforts to present less contrived gatherings, we are left with exactly that. Aesthetic structure is extremely important for both Kinfolk and Rise.

What is left when the structure collapses? What was particularly interesting about the collapse of organization and transportation logistics last night at Rise was the rare opportunity for the event to be exposed to the unstructured, unformulated, and prescribed mode of experience. An event that was planned to inspire hope and other ideals quickly gave way to discontent guests shouting "Fuck Rise!" As the late night hours progressed, the crowd's cynicism became pronounced as a single lantern was released into the sky accompanied by laughter. On it the word "Bus" was inscribed.

Disappointed crowd as yet another bus is directed not to allow guest to board.  

Fortunately something else began to happen. In shared misery, relationships began to form between strangers in the crowd. Bodies pushed close together to share each others warmth. People laughed, they also shouted. We shared hopeful excitement and embrace as empty shuttles approached us and utter disappointment as they passed us by. Kindness erupted at unexpected times, and bonfires were built by those who rested on the outskirts of the crowd.

Experience happened here. It was not mediated or constructed. Cameras accustomed to shooting selfies were turned outward to document the event, an event that was hopelessly out of our control. It was out of anyone's control. What was missing from this event was the organizer's voice directing our experience like he did earlier during the lantern release. What was left seemed to be an authentic spiritual event, a rhizomatic experience that transpired through the thousands waiting for a shuttle.


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