Pictured above: Bassnectar at the Power Plant stage at BUKU 2018
These days, you could be forgiven for looking at a festival lineup and confusing it with another festival, as the market becomes saturated with festivals, with each one trying to out-gun the others with massive lineups pulling in slews of headlining artists. As a result, some festivals end up booking many of the same artists as their peers. However, it’s beyond the music that really makes or breaks a festival; the little things that add flare and make a festival truly shine, like set and setting, art installations, location, environment, and the community of people that pull together to make it all happen.
BUKU Music + Art Project is a two day festival taking place at Mardi Gras World, along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, LA, which took place this past March 9-10, 2018. While the festival is often lumped in the same category as other EDM festivals, the BUKrewe always manage to pull together a healthy mix of musical variety, ranging from heavy bass artists like Bassnectar, Rezz, and Snails, to hip-hop and R&B artists Flatbush Zombies and Sza, house artists Green Velvet and Bonobo, and everything in between. While the music in and of itself is a joy, it’s the artistic extras that provide an immersive environment, creating a seamless experience as attendants move from stage to stage and explore the BUKulture.
Much of the BUKU production can be attributed to Raven, a New Orleans-based audio/video vendor that “cultivates a boutique design” for events that they work. The face of the company includes partners Chris Berends and Melinda Cohen, with president James Dufrene playing a more behind-the-scenes role, Marco Apostolico and Will Nemitoff working fabrication, and Jason Starkey and Ben Lewis in charge of production. The company is divided into different departments of Design, consisting of Chris, Melinda, and other architects, and Production, which is responsible for the stages and fabrication.
Raven has been around since 2009, with the artistic aspect having been around for about seven years. The company does sponsorship activations for Electric Daisy Carnival, Hangout Festival, Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, and Voodoo Festival. However, the festival Raven contributes the most to is BUKU. As Chris explains, “We actually met as partners at BUKU in the first couple of years. So our company is almost kind of constructed by the beginning of BUKU.” Expanding on that, “I was a street team member for Winter Circle when I was in college. When they said they were going to do a music festival, I pulled together a group of architecture students and we built some of the art installations for them and it kind of just capitulated from there.” For Raven’s contributions to BUKU, Chris explains:
“For the past seven years, we’ve been designing art installations for BUKU. All the art installations that you see on site, from the totems on the Wharf Stage, to Fort BUKU, the stars out in the field, the tree, all of those are built in our shop. Our team designed them. We also designed the Float Den Stage, the Wharf Stage, previously the Back Alley Stage and provide A/V solutions for a number of the different stages and components. We also started the Graffiti Gallery in year three.”
Many in the Raven crew came from architectural backgrounds, like Chris, who worked internships, but felt that he “had been beaten down by the corporate feel of a lot of architecture firms. It’s pretty depressing. Music festivals gave us an avenue to explore more of the fun side of architecture and build things like the stars and stuff.” Melinda adds that the exciting thing about music festivals, compared to traditional architecture work, is the pace of projects and modular design. Festival projects work on a much faster schedule, so that a design could go from inception to fabrication at a festival in a matter of weeks. On top of that is the extra consideration of mobility. As Chris points out, “It’s a different way of thinking about everything. Everything has to disassemble quickly and reassemble quickly.” The fast pace makes for long days, as in the case of BUKU teardown, a process which must be completed in 48 hours; the festival ends Saturday March 10 (technically Sunday, with the last stage closing at 1AM), and the site must be cleared by Monday night. Raven starts dissembling immediately after BUKU, running multiple teams 24-hours a day for two days; as soon as the festival ends, crews are already working on teardown.
NOLA Projection Mapped Art Installation
The art installations at BUKU are a significant feature that drive the intimacy of the festival, serving as interactive installations throughout the venue. One of the recognizable installations are the NOLA letters, naturally representing the host city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Located outside the Ballroom entrance, near the Mississippi River, the installation uses light projection mapping to illuminate the letters and the area, and often serves as the backdrop for group photos of passers-by. And for much of the weekend, a local band, New Thousand, served their “cinematic booty-shakin’ music” just steps away, pulling in crowds with their violin-infused music.
The NOLA art installation is a solo art project and the creation of Brennan Steele, a New Orleans local. After attending architecture school, Brennan dove into the world of festival art in 2012. He uses his architecture background as a foundation for art projects; it allows him to first design projects on a computer and then fabricate the final work with a solid blueprint.
Currently, art installations serve as a side project for Brennan, but he mentions that he would like to do more of them: “Art installations are something I do on the side. They are a great way for me to develop new techniques and concepts outside of my day job, which has led me to doing commissions, like a small art cart for Burning Man this year.” When he’s not working on festival art installations, he’s working in his company’s studio: “Day-to-day I’m a float designer, and I make Mardi Gras floats for a living. I operate a giant KUKA robotic arm that sculpts props out of styrofoam.”
Brennan’s creations have made appearances at other festivals, like LUNA Fete, a festival that showcases light-based art, like projection mapping and LED art. However, BUKU is a natural draw for Brennan, as the festival takes place at his place of work. He elaborates:
“BUKU’s festival grounds are at my place of work, Mardi Gras World, so it’s kind of hard for me to not be part of BUKU. Like right now we’re having this talk in my office, which is kind of nice because we’re having a bit of respite from the festival. I like doing art and this is one of the cooler festivals in town to do it.”
When asked about his artistic motivations, Brennan comments:
“I’m inspired by a lot of art that I see at other festivals, like Burning Man. I kind of reverse engineer it and figure out how I can do it on my own and in my own style. I like incorporating all sorts of technology, like projection mapping and computer aided design. The robot I operate opens all kinds of possibilities. Really just pushing the envelope and doing cool new stuff, learning all the different trades, and using all those trades to make unique experiences that people will enjoy.”
If fan enjoyment is something that drives Brennan, then he is succeeding, without a doubt. For the entirety of the festival, lines of people formed in front of his NOLA letters, waiting their turn to capture a memorable moment at the festival.
The music never stops at BUKU. You can travel from stage to stage without an interruption in music, thanks in no small part to the mobile DJs, which include setups like a shopping cart and large tricycle decked out with lights, speakers, and DJs. That’s where guys like Graham Holly and Tatum Neill come in, two friends that operate the DJ Trike. The DJ Trike was built by Peter Stanley and is owned by the Organ Grinders, a New Orleans dancing troupe. For the entirety of BUKU, the DJ Trike is operated by Graham and Tatum. Graham got his start with mobile DJing on a shopping cart made by his friend Finn Stormo. It has 10” rubber tires on it, making it possible to traverse a variety of terrain, and it’s the same shopping cart still making the rounds at BUKU, inspired by Graham’s friend Mike Feduccia. As Graham notes, “It’s just kind of run in the family of friends to start doing this mobile DJ thing.”
After DJing on the shopping cart for some time, Graham got the opportunity to DJ on the tricycle, which holds four times the number of speakers. He enjoys it, because it’s “fun to roll up in the street and meet a bunch of people” and “have a bunch of people that don’t know you, just dancing with you and following you all evening,” the best parts being the “serendipitous moments” of running into someone he’s met before in a similar fashion. Describing the scene at BUKU, Graham explains: “at BUKU, it’s fun, people don’t expect it. Most of the time, right now, this year they’ve just been kind of passing by. We’ve had a couple of good moving dance parties, but it’s just something for in between. And we’re having a good time doing it.”
Graham doesn’t stick strictly to mobile DJing. He also followed in Brennan’s footsteps by working on art installations. For other festivals, Graham has built two effigies and participated in a deep-forest rave called Cinema Paradiso at the Louisiana Regional Burn called Engluf. There are multiple light projections in the woods with Graham stepping in as a DJ.
Graham’s effigy building methods stem from his visual effects career. After studying business in college, he later learned post-production visual effects in New York, which led to his work with Flame, a visual effects program, leading to his involvement with effigies and the Burning Man scene. As far as DJing goes, Graham picked up those skills by teaching himself, first using Serato, and then later adding in Pacemaker, an iPad toolset that allows him to DJ mobily, away from his equipment. It adds an extra feature to his performance, allowing him to more easily move around, similar to how a singer might use a wireless mic for extra mobility.
Regarding his involvement at BUKU, Graham notes that he enjoys the festival because BUKU draws a certain crowd of people specifically there for the music. He likes DJing in the streets, which is “what makes it so fun. This is like a concentrated version of Mardi Gras.”
His excitement in DJing comes from the authentic reactions he gets from others when they make a music connection, through curating and sharing. As Graham adds: “when people are pumped about what I’m playing and excited about a set I did, there’s a lot of dopamine released in the brain. It’s like one giant Instagram like. It’s nice to connect with people in that way.” He also adds that the connections he makes with others while DJing translate to confidence in the studio. Graham’s goal is to get more involved in music production, so the positive reactions from his listeners are reassurance that he’s working in the right direction. Of course, it also helps to have good peers. Graham points out:
“My buddy Tatum, he DJs with me, and he’s a great DJ too. He’s kind of why I started DJing, like one of the people in my life that was already doing it. We lived together in New York for a while and I would play with him every now and then. I just found a different way to do it. It’s nice that we can do that. We’ve been friends since we were toddlers basically. We grew up around the corner from each other, so it’s nice to be back in New Orleans from New York. Doing it in our hometown.”
While Bassnectar Ambassadors are not exclusive to BUKU, any festival that books Bassnectar also invites the Bassnectar culture, which often includes Bassnectar Ambassadors. Ambassadors are part of an expansive network created and managed by the Bassnectar Crew, which includes groups like the Bass Network; the new community group Love Here; and Bassnectar Interactive, the new community organization that aims to “catalyze giving back to the world around us.”
Love Here is a Facebook community group created by the Bassnectar Crew as an experiment in positive interaction. The goals of the group are to “Celebrate what we enjoy,” “Share love & kindness” and “Nourish & enhance the Bassnectar Community & the world around us.” Love Here serves as an online sanctuary for Bassnectar fans and the general public to share their love, art, and charity with like-minded individuals. The group has been growing at a tremendous pace; started in early 2018, the group recorded about 7,000 members at the time of BUKU, increasing to currently over 10,500. The success of the group speaks to the eagerness the Bassnectar Community has to promote positive connections.
On a similar note, the Bassnectar Crew recently unveiled its newest community organization: Bassnectar Interactive. Although still in its infancy, expect to see Bassnectar Interactive serving as a platform for making a social impact through some of the social and political groups and campaigns that the Bassnectar Crew are passionate about.
Although Ambassadors are not specifically connected to Love Here or Bassnectar Interactive, there is a lot of overlap of people and goals between the two groups. Like many other features at BUKU, Ambassadors help make a large festival more intimate, while also promoting safety. It’s especially important for large events that Bassnectar is playing, where crowds can be as big as 10 to 20 thousand or more. They promote health and safety by passing out water, ear plugs, and checking in on attendees to ensure that people are in a good space and being mindful of themselves. Ambassadors are tasked with creating projects to contribute, which can include things like art projects, community service, creating connections, and making memories. They are present at every Bassnectar-produced event, like Bass Center and New Year’s Eve. When possible, they make appearances at festivals like BUKU.
Mindfulness of the community is particularly important when it comes to Ambassadors. One of the ways they strove for that goal at BUKU was their Power Plant Stage cleanup; after Bassnectar closed out the main Power Plant Stage on the last night, Ambassadors gathered volunteers to pick up trash and debris that accumulated during the day, ensuring to leave the festival grounds trash-free as they left. The community projects are a regular fixture of Ambassador involvement. Ambassadors reach out into their local communities outside of festivals; they’re encouraged to give back and participate in things like beach cleanups, homeless outreach, and more. The daily practice of looking out for others extends into their festival presence at BUKU, serving as friendly faces in the crowd.
BUKU does a great job of booking a unique and diverse set of artists, ranging from up-and-coming to sell-out headliners, with lots of room to explore in between. On top of that, however, BUKU cultivates a unique Kulture by populating the venue with a number of art installations, interactive environments, and mobile music. While the music in and of itself is great, the extras ensure that the BUKU experience is an immersive one.