Editor’s note :: This is a repost from our friends over at Ignite.me.

Photo from <a title="thedimka.blogspot.com" href="http://thedimka.blogspot.com/" target="_blank">thedimka.blogspot.com</a>

Photo from thedimka.blogspot.com, Copyright Dimka
Crowd at Symbiosis 2007

What are you doing this autumn equinox? If you’re lucky like me, you’re heading out to Oakdale, California’s Woodward Reservoir for Symbiosis Gathering.

An art and music festival with a strong focus on sustainability, intellectual development, spiritual growth and human connection, Symbiosis is food for the soul, heart and mind. It’s the kind of event that inspires me to do big things with the time I have left in this body. Pure magic.

The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to ask Kevin KoChen and the rest of the Symbiosis Gathering production team about their motivations, goals and behind-the-scenes stories that make this festival what it is.

1. Please tell us about the festival founders and core crew.

Our partners are an interesting bunch of characters. Some highlights include a Ph.D in Integral Ecology focusing on Community Preparedness and Local Self Reliance, a M.A. in Philosophy and Religion with an emphasis in Rites of Passage and Mystery Traditions, numerous Vipassana retreats and Permaculture Design Courses, over 40 entrances to Burning Man, 300 Phish shows, 15 eclipse viewings (including 8 total eclipse views), multiple Boom Festivals, Universo Parallelo, Rainbow Serpent, and many, many other festivals and club shows around the country.

The Core Crew is an all-star cast of people who have worked around the world in festivals, disaster relief, and all sorts of events, programs, and experiences. We have the best crew in the history of everything, and we are excited to be collaborating on a worthy project!

2. Can you tell the story of the moment eight years ago when Symbiosis was conceived? What was that light bulb moment when you knew you had to start producing this event?

The roots of the Gathering are too numerous to pin down in a paragraph. It was as if the water was finally boiling, and Symbiosis was a bubble released into the universe through the fires of what came before. The many different influences include the Grateful Dead and Phish shows as well as countless jam bands festivals in the mid 90′s and early 00′s, and international venues blasting trance music all night long with travelers from every corner of the globe.

After seeing a Total Solar Eclipse in central Australia and then returning to Black Rock Desert, it was apparent that threads around the world were being woven together in some kind of grand story.

Back in the Bay, there were numerous communities familiar with the dance in the desert that were hosting events in and around SF and were building networks of fantastic individuals who loved to dance and celebrate. Connecting these underground psychedelic communities was the impetus of Symbiosis.

We knew people who loved different types of music from jammy, to bassy, to trancey, to downtempo and eclectic gypsy and others who were into fashion and style and organic foods and intellectual ideas. They were all a part of the counter culture which thrives in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Common among all these folks was a love of community, a reverence for the environment, and a love of celebration of being alive and pushing boundaries. These symbiotic relationships in community and culture needed to be bridged, and so Symbiosis was formed as a festival to weave the patchwork of ideas together.

Photo from <a title="pyramideclipse.com" href="http://pyramideclipse.com/media/presspics/" target="_blank">pyramideclipse.com</a>

Photo by Manifest Media, Photo from pyramideclipse.com
The crowd at Symbiosis, 2009

3. For those of us who haven’t been able to go to Symbiosis yet, can you tell us what sets you apart from all other festivals?

Symbiosis is truly a grassroots event with attention to detail that is usually reserved for great works of art. Our partners and collaborators are fascinated in creating experiences and we are constantly trying to manifest things that haven’t been done before. In 2006 we had a 4-day permaculture course before the event that saw 23 beautiful people become inspired and ignite their passions. One of the participants is now our Communications Director and another created a non-profit and film about environmental devastation in the Amazon.

In 2007, we instituted a reusable dish program where all food vendors used plates which were then washed by Symbiosis staff, reducing our waste by over 60% even though the festival had doubled in size. Last year we collaborated with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to host Pyramid Eclipse where we directed over 10,000 people to witness the magical dance of an annular eclipse, and then we flew to Australia to host 12,000 people to see a total solar eclipse.

We consider Symbiosis to be an international event that happens in the Pacific Northwest. Part of the international flavor happens by hosting trance which is very popular around the world but only moderately popular in the U.S. This brings people from six continents to experience something special. Psy and progressive trance is an important component of who we are and a big reason why we have such an international draw.

We can’t compete with the headline lineups of Coachella or Bonnaroo but that’s not what we are trying to do. We are creating an experience with heart that elicits an appreciation of community and the cosmos we live in. To paraphrase one of our teachers Brian Swimme, we are literally the billion year evolution of stardust, and when we look back at the stars, we are stars looking out and pondering ourselves. That’s the kind of awe and reverence for the universe that we seek to inspire.

Photo from <a title="muchthumpphoto.com" href="http://muchthumpphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/CrewSunStage-16.jpg" target="_blank">muchthumpphoto.com</a>

Photo from muchthumpphoto.com, Copyright MuchThump Photos
The Sun Stage at Symbiosis Gathering, 2012

This year, we will have 4 workshop stages with all kinds of classes from mycology to mysticism, from yoga to making yogurt, and organic farming farming to improv comedy performances. You could get lost in the workshops all weekend and feel very fulfilled. Another crucial component is the art that appears for each Gathering. We truly are a music, ART, and conscious lifestyle event. Inch per inch, we have more art than any other festival in the U.S. besides the great event in the desert.

Being based around the Bay area, we are blessed with a vibrant community of artists, builders, and magicians that test the bounds of what is possible to create at a 5-day event. Some of the most amazing art comes from attendees in random acts of creativity and selfless expressions of beauty.

Of course, much of our draw comes from our musical lineup where we host upwards of 150 musical acts per event. Our lineups focus on up-and-coming talent which, like fine wine, look better as they age. Past events saw the Black Keys, Pretty Lights, Bassnectar, and Shpongle before they headlined major festivals and lengthy tours. Our talent scouts are professional music scholars who are constantly sifting through the river of music and picking out the diamonds in the rough.

And by the way… did we mention that the Gathering is a 5-day event? Music starts on Thursday and goes until midday on Monday.

4. What should we know about Woodward Reservoir?

Woodward Reservoir is an expansive beautiful place with swimming. Trees dot the landscape and so shade is an important component of any campsite. There are thousands of feet of lake frontage and the tent villages will be amazing. The range in temperatures could be 90 degrees in the day time and 40 degrees at night so prepare for extremes however usual temperatures are 85/55. There will be plenty of time for swimming, so be prepared!

5. I just read that the Do Lab will be collaborating on production with you this year, after they’re through with Lightning in a Bottle. How did you end up in partnership together? As attendees, how do you think this collaboration will impact our experience this year? Will we notice anything different about Symbiosis?

We love the Do LaB. A few of our partners had attended LIB as attendees, and we thought they were the production group that most allied with our core values, attention to detail, and proclivity for art. We brought them out to host the lake stage at SG09 (Symbiosis Gathering 2009) and had a great time collaborating with them. They invited Symbiosis out to build the Temple of Reflection in 2010 and we have been waiting for a good time to reintegrate our creative collaboration. They are going to put some effort into making something spectacular. We’re excited to see what they create.

I think for them, it will be a time where they can concentrate on building a specific area and not have the responsibility of producing a multi-faceted event, so I expect them to put tons of effort into creating an art piece at a high caliber, with an attention to detail that they would reserve for their own event and then spend some time enjoying the festival experience like attendees, something that event producers rarely have time for.

6. I’d love to know more about your vision of the future. Symbiosis, in concert with other transformational festivals, is planting seeds for what sounds like a harmonic, magical world. Will you tell us about specific changes you are in the process of manifesting?

“Transformation” has recently become a buzzword in the festival scene. While I can appreciate being considered a transformational event, I have some difficulty in how transformation is being defined. Transformation is a messy business. Transformation is not eaten with a knife and salad fork. People can’t just ‘show up’ to a ‘transformational festival’ and ‘be transformed’.

Joseph Campbell talked about the ‘Heroes Journey’ whereby the hero is beckoned to enter an unfamiliar world. When the hero enters this world, they are met with challenges, hurdles, and eventually a seemingly insurmountable confrontation which is achieved by using skills they picked up along the journey. By overcoming this obstacle, the hero attains new self-knowledge which they can bring back to their people in the ‘ordinary land’ as their gift to the world.

Common themes of ancient mystery traditions are secrecy, death of the ego, participating with archetypal reality, and a rebirth of a new self. The Eleusinian Mysteries took place over almost 2000 years and were shrouded in mystery from the uninitiated. Shamanic initiation often comes with the shaman being psychologically and experientially deconstructed and put back together. Some tribal societies had rights of passage where children are ripped away from the bosom of the mother and left in the bush to learn how to become a warrior. Rights of passage are transformational experiences where the old you is transformed into a new YOU. That’s where we want to take you, and we create the container for that transformation.


Photo from vimeocdn.com, Image captured from Manifest Media video
Women in a circle at Symbiosis Gathering, 2012

What that means is that you may come as a journalist, or a chef, or a bike messenger, or a computer programmer but for the duration of our journey, you may choose to leave that behind to lose yourself in the present in workshops, dance, yoga, and celebration. Transformation is disruptive and disorienting and actually occurs when past beliefs are shattered, habits are broken, and futures are rewritten. It’s difficult to say what the specific changes we are trying to assist, but this letter is why we do festivals:

“I attended your event in May, actually scared to go, leave my creature comforts and give it a go. Used the card and now was committed must find some welding glass, and rather fast. Had to take the bike, a heavy Moto-Guzzi as any quest goes one must commit to the glory as like a Grail Knight I would ride to the lakes eastern side, but delays did occur, missed the windstorm for another night home but when the time to go was shown, off on the bike I did ride to arrive in plenty of time.

It was so strange that so many could gather without inflecting pain, and fights I saw none only grins of contentment and best of all seemed that respect was shown to all. Now this caught me off guard as I have been to so many bars, and county fairs, Halloween in Chico and saw many liberties taken without any love or respect given and saw jealousy and bets become fights and threats so to see so many of you walk your talk of peace and live among each other with ease I soon vowed to follow your lead and not objectify every woman I see.


So when I left I took a little of all of you all too, on my bike across the Sierras back home, and found a ridge running east west overlooking the valley and Mount Diablo in the distance and track the sun I begun started at sunset and moonrise markings it progression from an ancient river bed.

I would bring my headphones and play my medieval trance hip hop, close my eyes and dance and pretend that you all were with me on my ridge marking both solstices with our feet in ancient dust and this is how your event changed me into a sky watcher more attune to the world around than I ever could be and a better human whom is still challenged by the fates but once a light has been shown its hard to turn away.”

That is fucking transformation!

7. Please tell us stories about the most challenging and/or favorite aspects of festival production. What’s it really like behind the scenes?

Sometimes the most fun thing about a festival is planning it. We haven’t yet got to the point where we have people working under us, taking care of everything so we can schmooze and look cool and all that. We’re very hands on. I actually have worked in the parking lot every year. Another partner hardly left the production mod space last year. The event itself has been, on occasion, bittersweet because we aren’t able to experience much of the event we work so hard to produce.

The planning stages, however, are amazing. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but you live in a world of possibility. Who could we book? What workshops are we going to have? A typical production conversation is, “What do you think of this?” “That’s cool!” “Yeah, that’s cool.” “How much?” “Pretty expensive.” “It’s worth it though!” “How about this?” “That’s cool.” “That’s REALLY COOL!” “How much?” ad infinitum. We get to see so many amazing proposals and ideas, and possibilities. We can’t even bring 1/3 of what we see to the event, but the swimming in possibility is so entertaining.

You might not believe how much work is done on skype. Day after day we will just talk for six hours or more on skype about all kinds of things. How many hours are put into the creation of a festival? I have no idea. Thousands? But really, there’s nothing else as interesting as trying to make the greatest experience our budget can muster.

Symbiosis stage, 2012

Photo by manifestmedia.net
Symbiosis Gathering, 2012

8. The success of festivals depends, to a large degree, on the cooperation, response and participation of attendees. What concrete actions and attitudes can we offer you – before, during and after Symbiosis – in order to make sure your work is as successful as it can possibly be?

If everyone would come with the openness and kindness of knowing they may be meeting their new best friend, it makes the entire event magical.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the parking lot. People might not know that the guy getting you to park your car is actually one of the producers of the event. Comically enough, its one of THE MOST IMPORTANT jobs because if you run out of space or if cars block one another in, you can’t park enough people to host the event.

The parkers and the sustainability crew like the dishwashers and people picking up waste and recycling are all just people who have tough if not somewhat terrible jobs. Everyone arriving is so tired of driving and can’t wait to get out of their cars and they REALLY want to park “over there” or “not so close to that car” or whatever. Just remember that the people helping to guide you into your parking spot probably want to see the same music or workshops that you do, they just have to finish their shift! ; ) We depend on the dedication of our staff, the efforts of our volunteers, and the vibe of our crowd. There’s no one at the event just in it for the money. If there was, they would be in the wrong place!

In general, the crowd that comes to Symbiosis is AMAZING! There are a lot of events where they have camps and crews and cliques and such and it can become an impediment to making new connections and creating lasting friendships. The reason I joined on to this crazy crew is because SG05 was a melting pot. I had never seen so many new connections being made, crossing cliques and friend groups, and I really witnessed the development of a new community. It was magical and inspiring, and I’ve never looked back since.


Thank you to Kevin and the Symbiosis team! Please show them some love by leaving a comment below!


Creative Director of SolPurpose, creator of The Human Mandala Project and founder of Digital Empathy Design, a web and graphic design collective based out of Boulder, CO. I consider myself a life artist. The world is my canvas and my experiences, relationships and feeling are the medium.