Envision Festival 2020: A new chapter of transformation and community [Event Review]
At first, the sound can’t be heard over the distant boom of the subwoofers and the muted din of the faraway stages. Even at this distance, the music dominates the sonic landscape of the sleepy beachside forest. But little by little, the Costa Rican rainforest’s alarm clock begins to swell. Around 5 AM, as the party continues on the other side of the festival grounds, the birds are starting their day before the sun fully crests the horizon. A bright red summer tanager alights in the tree above me, and begins an elaborate series of calls and song notes, seemingly a morning meditation as daily ritual. Humans, birds and beasts alike now greet the sun’s powerful rays with exuberance and motion, despite the steaming heat of the tropical jungle.
As much as I worry about the effect that the sold-out Envision Festival has on the local flora and fauna, the actual environmental impact on the rainforest that teems with wildlife seems to be fairly minimal. The eco-team is everywhere, two-pronged grabbers clicking as they snag even the most miniscule pieces of plastic from the jungle floor, and the enthusiasm for keeping the grounds clean borders on the fanatical. Discussions on reef-safe sunscreen and eco-friendly product packaging are heard in many circles, and the number of people proudly demonstrating clothing, jewelry, and shoes made from repurposed material is staggeringly high.
The spirit of “leave no trace” has dug deeply into the collective marrow from the very beginning of the event. It’s an infectious feeling. I was struck with a strange sense of wastefulness even when throwing a banana leaf (upon which all festival-bought meals are served) in the “compost” bin, even though it’s hard to imagine a more eco-friendly approach to single-use dining. All the drinks that the vendors serve are in reusable cups, which patrons then take to the dish area near the food court. I haven’t seen a plastic water bottle once since arrival. Costa Rica, in fact, will become the first country to ban single-use plastics beginning in 2021.
What truly makes Envision unique is a focus on the concept of regeneration — as we’re encouraged to call it during an official press conference — rather than “sustainability,” which implies that current consumption levels are acceptable. In other words, it’s not enough to sustain current levels, but it’s necessary to change the way we think about consumption and waste.
When it comes to the music lineup and this kind of educational programming of a festival, other events tend to put an emphasis on one and pay a token homage to the other. Rarely does such high quality music programming come hand-in-hand with such professional-level earth-based education, community-building, and healing. Come for Tipper‘s face-melting set on a top-quality sound system, stay for the permaculture workshops taught by qualified, enthusiastic professionals. There is, quite simply, not another festival at this scale with such an equal emphasis on world-class music, progressive education, and environmentally restorative efforts.
Under the watchful eye of co-founder Sarah Wu, a staggering 275 hours of educational programming on six stages takes place over seven days of the festival. Perhaps the most amazing part about all of this is that people are really, truly invested in this portion of the event. I meet people who don’t know who many of the music headliners are, but they have rabidly highlighted multiple lectures on their schedule and are particularly excited for certain speakers.
It’s refreshing to see that Envision continues to curate such a diverse community of attendees. Each night, as some festival goers are finally making their way to catch a few hours of sleep around dawn, others are waking up with a cup of warm cacao and making their way to the yoga shalas for breath work or vinyasa to start the day before attending a day’s worth of educational presentations.
Envision is a place of diversity…people can figure out how to fill their different niches; who they are, what their freaky flags are, what their shiny gifts are, and what their limitations are, and how we all fit into our communities. I think it’s a really beautiful experiment and I’m proud to bring it to Costa Rica and Latin America. – Sarah Wu
Another unique aspect of Envision is that the experience is proudly oriented around performers and lecturers as well as musical acts. Performance groups, yoga teachers, and educational professionals are prominently featured on the lineup poster and are talked about with the same breathless excitement by administrators and attendees alike. The sheer number of each is incredible–each day is filled with a massive variety of teachers and presenters, and the nights are packed with acrobatic and fire performances by professionals from around the world.
And what can be said about the music lineup that hasn’t been said or imagined already? On Saturday night, make your way from the end of the world-famous RÜFÜS DU SOL set at the Sol Stage over to the Luna Stage to see Tipper, arguably one of the most influential voices in bass music. How does one even begin to describe what it’s like to see a festival favorite, CloZee, play a sunrise set on the final day in the middle of the jungle? Which is then followed by the legendary Emancipator for the final set on the festival’s vaunted Luna Stage? It is exactly as breathtaking as it sounds.
The bass music isn’t the only impressive part of the lineup. Nahko and Medicine for the People deliver an energetic, heartfelt set on the Sol Stage, only to have Nahko by himself perform a touching acoustic performance later in the festival on the Village Stage. Up-and-coming world electronic duo Yaima play a fantastic mystical set on that same Village Stage, then finish their run on Sunday night with an unforgettable set in the pouring rain at one of the yoga shalas. The Luna Stage finishes out Sunday night into Monday morning with the insane run of heavyweights DRRTYWULVZ, Morillo, Supertask, Soohan, CloZee, and Emancipator.
Even more impressive, the attendees seem very composed and coherent as the sun rises on Monday during CloZee. This festival that takes place in constant near-100% humidity, with temperatures often cresting the 90 degree Fahrenheit mark. After attending for four or, in some cases, seven days in the jungle, it is truly impressive how many people are in seemingly great physical and mental shape by the last morning of the festival.
The average participant that’s here has radically shifted over the last several years. I think it has so much to do with the programming, and that people aren’t just here to party. In our early years, we were attracting a younger, raver, type of attendee that was here strictly to party…now, I was out really late last night, and I couldn’t believe just how clean it is everywhere, and how clean and clear everyone felt. It feels like there’s real collective downloads happening, and you can see it in people’s eyes. – Stephen Brooks, Envision co-founder
All sources point to this event being attended by a group of people who, whatever their reasons for attending, know exactly what they’re about. There’s an almost palpable sense of competence, confidence, and community that positively radiates outward from the attendees and the artists. Not once in four days do I see someone horrifically inebriated to the point of not being able to stand or speak, which is a refreshing change of pace from many music festivals. This is especially impressive given the fact that the programming and the stages often officially go until dawn and later. The crowd also varies wildly in age, spanning many generations, but the maturity level seems to be fairly even across the board, and the different age groups interact breezily and without any hesitance.
What I do see frequently are moments of compassion and growth. One woman lies with her head in another’s lap with tears gently rolling down her face, as her friend strokes her hair and murmurs softly in her ear. An extended hug between two strangers that lasts easily a minute and a half only to have one break away with tears in his eyes and say, “Thanks…I really needed that.” Generosity with food, water, gifts, and clothing happens in a whirlwind all around me. I’m offered essential oils, massages, tea, cacao, reef-safe sunscreen, a scarf, earplugs, tarot readings, vegan curry, and—memorably—a place to stay in Guatemala, should the need arise.
Another word that gets tossed around frequently among the regulars is “heart-blowing,” which, it’s explained, describes the experience of having your mind blown, but instead of being overwhelmingly impressed, your heart becomes overwhelmingly open due to one of these experiences. Multiple times throughout the festival, I come across breastfeeding mothers tenderly looking after their infants, often with another excited toddler zooming back and forth nearby. Here, this feels as natural and beautiful as it should, and the sense of being part of a large family tribe is easy to sink into and relish. Perhaps the real magic that Envision creates has to do with normalizing natural human behavior; breastfeeding in public can be a controversial issue in the U.S., but while immersed in the community experience here, it would seem insane to imagine why it would ever be taboo.
A man I had just met dropped what he was doing, without hesitation, to offer to let me vent about my recent breakup, which ended up taking a good half hour of his time and significant emotional investment on his part. I’ll never forget the way he treated me; this was hugely therapeutic and will remain one of my significant memories from the event. I can hardly imagine most people in a modern American metropolis creating even five minutes to listen to a stranger unload their emotional baggage. But why is this the case? Are we just wary of strangers? And if collectively letting our guard down is so rewarding, why don’t we try it more often?
If festival attendees can leave here, and take this sense of questioning our cultural conditioning—woven into our understanding of how to interact in society from the time we’re children—then it truly is the noble endeavor I’m hoping it is. The administrators talk about the goal of having people create their own communities that bring awareness to environmental and social issues.
That’s really what we’re striving here to do; Envision is an incredible platform to create that spark for people to come and experience, and get a taste of, how delicious life could be. So then hopefully people will start transitioning to living a whole other way; start consuming less, start connecting with nature more, start looking each other in the eye more, and start trying to redesign the way we’re doing things. – Stephen Brooks
But even other festivals that purport to be “transformative” can take place on paved lots, with needling, mentally invasive corporate sponsorships and advertising blasting your subconscious at every turn. As the “sustainability” movement grows, and in tandem the potential to make money off of it, so too will the pretenders who hope to convert the now-popular “save-the-planet” sentiment into profit. One need merely turn on the TV for a moment, to catch wind of a saccharine feel-good ExxonMobil advertisement that coos softly to the viewer about their humble yet noble efforts to go green. Sarah Wu touched briefly on how to balance the business model of the festival, which necessarily exists in a profit-driven world, with the underlying ethos of the operation.
We’re kind of infiltrating into the monoculture, we’re infiltrating the default world, because there is a level of commercialization, and that’s OK. I see commercialization as part of the transitional ethic of consumerism. It’s what we’ve got right now; we’re all consuming, all the time. We’re consumers, we can’t demonize that, but it’s how we do it, and what we do with that consumption, that matters. – Sarah Wu
So who can we trust? Envision administrators admit that we are all consumers. No matter how sustainable your efforts as a member of society, you have to eat, move around, use tools and clothes, etc. Local goods and arts are indeed given a priority for vending, and members of the festival leadership proudly display the clothing and art they have supported their local vendors by buying. Rather than buying from large corporations and getting sponsorships from companies who mass-produce a low-quality product, the Envision team asserts that they’ve done their homework and only accept sponsorships from brands that are aligned with the festival’s values.
However, voices even within the leadership ranks are divided on how best to achieve conscious consumption. Sarah Wu, without hesitation, and in front of a room full of festival leadership and members of the press, names Tipper as a member of the 1% of the electronic music community and outright states that he should be willing to take less money to perform here. It’s clear that even though the mission of Envision is on the right track, there is room for disagreement about how best to get their message across.
What is the best way to balance profit, message, and content? Do festival organizers continue to pay exorbitant rates to top-billed talent, knowing that drawing more people to the jungle is the ultimate goal? It seems as if your diehard Tipper fan, who will go to literally any venue around the world that the legendary British producer plays just from seeing his name on the lineup, could easily and accidentally have a positive life-changing moment down here that lasts for a lifetime. Maybe they discover yoga, breathwork, or the joys of growing their own food. Perhaps they attend an eye-opening presentation on conscious relationships, on oneness meditation, or on native tradition at el Fuego Sagrado, the Sacred Fire. 2020 is, after all, the first year that Envision has sold out, so the strategy seems to be working in that regard.
However, it does seem bizarre that for a group and an event that so values egalitarianism, consciousness, and all walks of progressivism, one DJ can be paid, for a 75-minute set, upwards of what someone living nearby in Costa Rica makes in three years. Sarah Wu is right to question this practice. Whatever the hundreds of local staff are being paid for their labor this festival, the musical artists are by taking the lion’s share.
By the same token: Although Envision’s direct environmental impact seems minimal, the concept of a commercial festival does seem exploitative in a vaguely post-colonial way. Well-off people from all over the world annually swarm this area of Costa Rica, clog up traffic and consume a ton of local time, energy, and resources. The least we could do is give back as much as possible, and that money going into the pockets of the big acts could certainly be used elsewhere. Despite our talk, are we really just part of another class of exploitative faux eco-tourist? Let me let you in on another little secret. In order to reach that top 1 percent status, you need to earn around $47,500 per year.
I’m reminded of the basic three categories of tourist that I’ve seen on my way here: the first being youngish people that look like me, with tattoos, funky jewelry, and clothing, backpacks strapped, clearly headed for Envision. Next, the American retirees, with baggy floral-print shirts, huge suitcases being pulled by local drivers, big hats, and zinc oxide (e.g. sunscreen) on their noses, ready to spend hard-earned US dollars. Lastly, and somewhat unexpectedly, a significant amount of crisp, powerful-looking ex-military types, whose purpose here initially is unclear.
All three groups are going to be consuming, creating trash and using resources while they’re here. The cynical part of me doubts that the a majority of us are going to be spending much time in non-air conditioned accommodations, or taking care to not use plastic water bottles and single-use packaging. Of course, there is also a significant number of Envision attendees that want all of their creature comforts from the first world to follow them. Just because we are at a transformative festival doesn’t mean we are automatically immune to our consumer mindset.
It also quickly becomes clear that the camo-clad travelers are mostly here for fishing, as Costa Rica has banned hunting for sport. I overhear a conversation in the airport between two of these immaculately clean-shaven and well-dressed men on my way back from the festival, with one bemoaning the fact that upon catching them, pulling swordfish out of the water to pose with is frowned upon.
Looking down at my sweat-and-dirt covered arms, fresh off sleeping on the jungle floor for a week, keenly feeling the yawning gulf between my experience in Costa Rica and that of these men, I experience a strange moment of disconnectedness. Are we destined to forever find somewhere exotic and beautiful, only to pave it over and make it exactly like greater Los Angeles? How long until every inch of Costa Rica is filled with air-conditioned hotels and Red Lobsters? Until the howler monkeys have been driven from the jungle to make way for construction and the native birds eradicated by errant pesticide use and gleaming glass windows?
It’s clear that Envision leadership values keeping the land as it is currently, with humans being able to live a regenerative existence on the land, acting as responsible stewards of the earth. I’ve never heard so much about permaculture farms and food forests in my life. People down here are actually doing it—many of the administrators of the event actually live and work in these types of communities. Both Stephen Brooks and Sarah Wu are instrumental in the operation of Punta Mona Center for Regenerative Design and Botanical Studies, located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
The most inspiring aspect of Envision is that it all feels overwhelmingly, almost shockingly authentic. If you’re plagued by the constant feeling that every interaction in the modern world centers around money or some unseen agenda, or that even when you attempt to be vulnerable and connect, there are too many walls up, Envision is the place to find solace. This is a space where native wildlife and traditions are not viewed as obstacles to conquer, but as cherished parts of a sacred heritage. It’s a place where cruelty-free food and packaging are insisted on and celebrated. The magic in the land and people of Costa Rica practically seeps out of every earthen pore. It’s unclear whether simply removing myself from the urban routine and gathering with a group of like-minded people is causing this heart-blowing experience, or whether something truly special is welling out of the ground.
It’s no stretch to say that this event is unlike any in the world. The tireless curation of wholesome activities, the world-class music, the spirit of enthusiastic co-creation that every attendee brings with them, and the passion of event organizers. All of these combine to make this gathering, hosted on one of Earth’s last wild refuges, a truly unique and worthwhile experience. For anyone who may be struggling with the overly corporatized, plastic nature of the electronic music scene, who may want to develop an understanding of your place in the human ecosystem, or who simply want a space where you’re encouraged to be expressive, vulnerable, and free, then Envision is the music festival for you.
Featured photo: Eric Allen.
Beach yoga, bass beats.