A Secret Transformational Event for Brilliant Minds on an Italian Island
What happens when you take your know-how, hundreds of hours of study in a specific field, millions of data points and you co-design an actual product?
In 2 words: crazy shit.
The best way to predict the future is to create it. Lincoln
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Aristotle
I met Enrico Gentina (TEDx curator, expert in organizing events where entertainment and education merge) through Maurizio Goetz (travel experience design professor) and it was love at first sight. Don’t ask me why and how, but our collaboration was — to say the least — unconventional. He made me explain Burning Man to a nun, on our first meeting.
Enrico bought our research on Burning Man and transformational festivals. An amazing, and just as unconventional, conversation started, which ended up in a secret event for brilliant minds on an Italian island.
As they say, the best was yet to come. Roberta Giardina (communication expert) and Pierpaolo Alessio (creative strategist) completed the unpredictable and diverse picture. Tireless doers and out-of-the-box thinkers that were ready for… pretty much anything. A dream team, and additional help of some amazing people, like the local GULP.
Together, we provided a concept, a loose structure, and our ready-for-anything attitude. We created the ecosystem, choosing the right place (I’d call it comfortable wilderness) and the right people (no spectators, only people crazy enough to turn up at a secret event and actually make it happen).
Around 100 brilliant minds (the Pioneers that we chose and accepted to participate to Totem number zero) brought the rest: the experiences, the content and the magic of the event. Everyone was asked to bring an expertise, a skill, a workshop to teach.
Enrico — who’s an incredible connector — explained to me that we should be like the Italian soup, Minestrone. In the soup, all the elements (carrots, potatoes, celery, peas…) are basically being themselves but create something different, beautiful, together. Us, the organizers, should be the broth, the legante (binding agent) of the whole thing, enhancing each part and the whole, introducing them to each other and making them feel comfortable to radically self-express and be in charge of the art direction (design, managing).
What? Yes, the participants themselves art directed, meaning designed, the event.
The recipe was there, the code of the transformational events previously analysed plus the Totem idea itself: everybody would bring something important and we would craft and install a huge Totem, a symbol of what we’re ready to leave, to become something new and more meaningful.
Was it easy? Not really, not always.
Normal questions like: What do you mean there’s no schedule? How do I find the people that want to come to my workshop? Or simply: What next? What should I do? Showed how hard it is to exit society and its timeline. Our time and focus seem to be more scheduled than what we actually admit it to be.
We always know what we’re meant to do at all times, right?
Wrong. Now, more than ever, we should learn how to deal with unpredictability. The world is changing in seconds. You either disrupt it, or be disrupted. The people that are going to succeed tomorrow are the people that are ready for anything today.
So we better learn to be ready and work out of our comfort zone.
I felt lost, myself, and I had to step out of my comfort zone in organizing an unstructured event. Making people feel they had the best experience ever, without actually designing their experiences, but rather leaving the decision to them.
I almost panicked.
Did it work? Was it a successful experiment?
Well, as we can analyse just about everything, we’ll try to dig into this bunch of unstructured and almost intangible data.
And then, I’ll launch an idea for measuring long term effectiveness for events. I would love to have your feedback on this. I mean, everyone and their dog is trying to measure impact and ROI of events. Can we come up with a great solution?
The article is quite long, but the good news is: it’s divided into topics (some of the main elements that helped us decoding the transformational world and Burning Man ecosystem).
So, feel free to skip it to your topic of interest, or download it for later.
OFF-WORLD. Was Totem a TAZ?
The second crucial idea that ensured Burning Man’s existence was the simple yet profound concept of “The Zone” pioneered by Cacophonist Carrie Galbraith. Taken from her interest in the films of Andre Tarkovsky and novels of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, The Zone concept was that a person or group could enter into both a physical and a metaphysical space separate from daily “normal” existence, where literally anything could happen. […] The third primary influence was a written philosophy collected in a book called TAZ, Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey, an East Coast philosopher. Bey (or Peter Lamborn Wilson as he was also known) devised a very compelling theory of creative freedom and anarchistic collaboration that required participants to find a physical space far away from the cloying, civilization-engendered mechanisms of control. They would bring with them everything they needed, and for a period of time do whatever they wanted with absolutely no rules, regulations, laws, or other examples of social, political, economic control, or any other aspect of human oppression. They would then pack up and leave quickly before being noticed (and consequently, mandatorily crushed by the institutions of humankind), only to regroup in total freedom at a later unannounced time in another secret place.
We left the “normal world” (or default world, as Burners say) at the beginning of June for an island where we would co-create a secret event.
Straight from the beginning, it was clear for all the participants that the normal world rules and rituals wouldn’t apply there. We welcomed them in the wildest part of an island, with a cool bracelet, a sort of survival guide, or FAQ list, and a paper map.
We started with a dinner on top of a little mountain, where the improvised chefs were led by a Nigerian king (No kidding. Btw, the actual chefs would arrive only the day after). People autonomously gathered around tables and met each other, or even went to cook, excited by the co-creation of dinner and the no-rule environment. Positive vibes and tangible richness of interactions were there already, in only a few hours.
Then we sat in a big circle and we started the first event, called Che cazzo ci facciamo qua (literally: What the fuck are we doing here) where I interviewed Dario Battini, Burning Man Regional Contact and long time festival-goer, and Enrico, and we introduced the transformational festival world and the ancient ritual of Carnevale (Carnival) to the folk.
Describing the concept of TAZ, the “audience” started a conversation, and it was clear that we were already creating one.
We invited them to leave social media, mobile connections and their comfort zones out of this ecosystem. And they did.
48 hours later, they thanked us for entering a state of full focus, immediacy of engagement and a sense of being ready for anything. They thanked us for entering their own TAZ, basically, which I found amazing.
NATURE. Did people deal with the radical self-reliance that camping and bungalowing in the wilderness of an island requested? Or was it a limit?
Around 80% of the participants came from cities, so a full mooned night and a couple of days in a “comfortable forest” were already valuable triggers for feeling connected with nature.
The compromise we chose (Enrico’s idea) gave not-used-to-camping people the chance to experience the wild, without suffering.
We even had a pool.
Honestly, I spotted a snake and a couple of really bad looking big insects in the clay area just before the event, but we weren’t using that area and attending a festival in the wilderness of Italy is not as risky as the Australian outback, in my experience.
ECOSYSTEM. Did Elba Island and the location of Totem work?
Elba Island is just off Tuscany. It’s an island, so it borders with the world, yet it’s detached enough to make people feel they’re leaving the world for something different, isolated in fact.
Amazing beaches nearby and stunning panoramas generate a general sense of awe and make the notion of natural paradise accessible to any traveler.
The location was a man-made camping area that includes RVs and little bungalows in a terraced forest. This space, that meets human needs but is still in total harmony with nature, made people climb everyday to get to the centre of the festival and deal with the simple lifestyle, without making life too hard for them. Nothing to do with the harshness of the desert. More like Canadian or Oregonian nature, but in a small island.
An important factor was the topic of indigenous people: the Elbans. Even if the event was secret and independently organized, we accepted the inclusion of local participants that heard about it. The interaction with the Elbans, extremely proactive and generous, has been very interesting, resulting in a meaningful conversation on the relationship that the festival will have with the territory.
In this, Totem is distancing itself from the other festivals that generally have no relation to the content of the places where they occur. Definitely a provocation on inclusion for all the world of transformational festivals. Feeling in the geographical sense of nowhere can surely help entering the TAZ, but it doesn’t help the long term co-creation of meaning.
NETWORK. To which degree did the Totem participants engage and connect with each other? How does the Totem team plan to engage with new audiences?
A hint for events organizers/producers — or simply people that want to have a great impact with a sustainable event. The fact that the audience was designed to be small and the event secret, shared via emailed word of mouth with few contacts, asking them to invite others, assured the quick and easy process from getting to know each other to feeling like part of a tribe.
The principle of Each one teach one, part of the Afrikaburn’s set of principles, allowed in Totem the spreading of rules and rituals across the impromptu community. Even more than in other festivals, because of the ease of spreading data in a small network.
How do we plan to engage with new audiences? We designed an audience strategy based on deep knowledge of the target, topic interest connection and social data (drop me a line if you want to know the tech aspects of it)
So far, we had a high open rate (40/50) and great feedback. It blew me away to see so much interest in the next event from people that have been running or influencing the festival scene for the last 30 years.
On the other hand, we want to keep the first Totem’s vibes and core, allowing the Pioneers to invite around 3 people each (as of August 2018, we might change our mind) so that the event can spread across creative clusters organically and in a sustainable way.
Totem number 1 will be secret, again, pretty much based on word of mouth.
You heard it, no social media.
We love to be inclusive, but we also learnt from analysing hundreds of festivals that the equation for the perfect event depends a lot on the goals. If your goal is to bring a stunning ecosystem, along with content effectiveness and meaningful relationships, then you need to stay cozy.
COMMUNITY & CO-CREATION. Did people feel part of a community? Did they co-create anything?
One of the most shared feedbacks was that meaningful bonds were created at the Totem.
A bunch of people came from different backgrounds, brought different stories and self-organized. They co-worked straight from the beginning, and after 2 days they were basically a tribe.
They shared just about everything: from food, to personal space and to the emotional layer of sharing their personal stories and fears, in some of the workshops.
People left saving each other’s contacts with a common format that was name + Totem, which I found very romantic, or rather nostalgic (we used to do this in 90s and early 2000s, prior to Facebook and data-centric culture, when everybody was free to have made-up or even secret online identities).
TRIBALISM & RITUALS: What kind of rituals were adopted? How did they go?
One of the main peculiarities of transformational festivals is proposing new versions of archaic symbologies.
I’m thinking of the ancient geometric symbols we’ve seen lately on the stages of Shambala Festival, Origin, Boom, Sonic Bloom.
Stages — like old temples — rise magnificently, welcoming the communities, thanks to the great work of artists like The Do LaB.
But also totems, effigies and mandalas, as well as huge mantras to engage with, show how new humans respond to ancestral needs at festivals like Electric Forest, Lightning in a Bottle and Symbiosis.
Ancient cultures rituals mix with EDM, creating a new space for sacred moments, often of common ectasis.
At Totem, we co-designed a place to gather around for big moments of the community, that Enrico wisely called Agorà (the word Agora — pronounced ‘Ah-go-RAH’- is Greek for ‘open place of assembly’. It was in the Agora of Athens that the great philosopher Socrates questioned the market-goers on their understanding of the meaning of life), and we co-created an actual Totem.
Every participant was asked to bring an object to leave and be part of the big effigy. But unlike the Burning Man temple (where people leave a message and then let it go/share with the others, before it gets burned) this was our call to Totem.
The Totem will be the metaphor for the party and it will rise as a propitiatory hymn to transformation. Everyone will bring a symbolic object — new or old, big or small, important or cheap, it doesn’t matter — and we will give it to an artist or a group of artists. Like shamans they will change its shape and colour, and transform it through its assembly with the other 99. As on an initiation, on the first night the Totem will rise at the centre of the place.
We all will be there, mixed, united, transformed and in transformation in the Totem.
I met people who brought old diaries and symbolic, important, objects of their past. One guy brought a big marble slab (no kidding, he carried the marble slab all the way to the ferry and eventually to the top of the location). A girl left a tiny handcuff. There were all kinds of stories there: milestones, things to forget, lifetime triggers.
The moment of rising the Totem was quite epic, so we decided, with the consent of the landlord, to leave it there, even if our original idea was different.
MUSIC has a crucial yet controversial role in the transformational festivals world (article coming in autumn about that!). What was music role at Totem?
The role of music was, again, controversial. The police came on the first night to make us stop the music ’cause the natural amphitheater would buffer the sound to the whole valley.
That implied a complete redesign of the stage and the second night timeline (which included a big midnight sardine BBQ, thanks to brilliant Elban minds).
In general, I found it quite ironic; police would chase the music, as if it was the most rebellious and disruptive action. Kudos to the DJ for that.
FREEDOM vs RULES. Were people feeling free? What were the new society rules?
People go to Burning Man and transformational festivals to experiment in freedom, that’s why these sort of festivals represent an ideal ecosystem for innovation leading to radical change (or to successful ideas for the future, like in the case of Silicon Valley leaders).
At Totem 2018, we tried to give up structure and disrupt hierarchy, like in the ancient ritual of the Carnival and contemporary festivals, where participants feel safe to pull out their freakishness and creativity.
We invited people to “be somebody you want to be, for once”. We asked them to be in charge, of the event itself and its ecosystem. In change, we gave them a safe space, out of judgement, to radically self-express.
Some of them experienced for the first time what it is dealing with unpredictability and radical freedom.
The lesson on EXPERIENCE at Totem and transformational festivals
The consumption of reality becomes prosumption of reality in the transformational festivals’ ecosystem, making the events experienced visions for a change, as mentioned in this article.
Not only the world of events, but many fields, including education and any kind of business really, should take these festivals as inspiration. They should try to think of their audience, and ultimately their consumers, not merely as simple spectators or consumers. They should think of their products as whole experiences for those who buy them.
This is one of the biggest things to take away from this — or from any kind of social gathering experiment nowadays.
If you’re trying to be loved by a bunch of people, or maybe millions of them, you should blur the line between production and consumption and make those people count in your strategy, design, distribution.
After Totem, talking with Enrico and Roberta we shared amazement about the participants’ behavior: we expected them to be interested in the performance aspect of the event. But rather, they all wanted to do, to try, to learn by doing.
They tried things for the first time, in a playful environment, out of society. Whether that thing was Odissi dance, or collective storytelling (like the Time Slips or the Cadavre Exquis, or looking for gold underwater, or learning relationship lessons from BDSM (there’s so much more but this article is already too long), they experienced something exciting and unexpected.
They were, indeed, prosumers and not just consumers.
Everybody was a protagonist and there were no spectators. As most of the world is asking to be ;)
Who are the Totemists? What made people part of the Totem Tribe?
The brilliant minds that were brave enough to come, with no clue of what would have happened, in a secret event, on an Italian Island. They have different jobs and areas of interest, but that’s what they have in common.
Pretty cool people, actually.
DISRUPTION/INNOVATION. Were people disrupting or innovating habits and challenging the status quo?
Once you disrupt the social hierarchy by giving everybody the chance to create your product, you automatically generate innovation. Guaranteed.
There’s that, and there’s the magic of building something from scratch. We took every step, every decision as an experiment. There was no right or wrong. That is the main reason why people working in tech and innovation love going to Burning Man and transformational festivals: experimenting in freedom.
Additionally, different minds participated in the decision making process, a general sense of thinking outside the box was always there, ’cause experts listened to non-experts.
For me, the best example of innovation though was concerning leadership, and was perfectly represented by Dario Battini (the Burner described above). Dario spent the whole time answering questions and guiding people through the Burning Man and festival preparation. He was always there to help, with pragmatic solutions learnt in several years of experience. He brought books, he showed us how to deal with cutlery and reuse. He never felt like he was trying to get attention from the others, or gain influence, but he ended up leading us in many moments, with his gentle and accurate attitude. I think that leaders of the future need to be perceived as givers, and that was an insight I got out from Dario at Totem.
CHANGE/TRANSFORMATION. What was the impact of Totem on our lives?
Totem is a place where cultural fit (the culture of the tribe, the thing that all participants have in common) is basically being ready for anything.
It’s a place to feel free to be yourself, to express and experience pure creativity. To be in charge. A social experiment, where anything can happen so anything is possible.
What do people bring home?
Something of themselves they didn’t expect to achieve, an augmented version of themselves. Their inner superhero.
Somebody said it was the freedom they achieved, somebody else didn’t think they’d be able to do something that always seemed impossible in their eyes.
For me, as I said at the beginning, it was to let it all go. And to find people that picked it up from there, people that were extremely collaborative and made me feel confident in the process of decision making. In everyday life, when I have hard days and I have to deal with people’s complexity and lack of innovation, I look back at the Totem. Its impact is proof to me that it’s possible.
(and doing my first interview just woken up, 2 hours of sleep and no coffee yet, for Famosini podcast, that was also a big change)
So we can say, based on the transformational festivals code, that Totem number zero worked well, and the feedback confirms that it was a successful experiment.
We learnt a lot by doing it, and I hope these insights can help to inspire leaders and innovators that want to try out new things.
But I want to push this conversation further. How can we measure the long term effectiveness of such events?
I mean, from TED, to Davos, SXSW and Burning Man (and all kinds of events, really), people gather to find inspiration and connections.
It’s hard to keep track of the events’ impact, though. We process a huge amount of information and lose track of the original seeds in the process. We don’t actually know where we got inspiration most of the time, we elaborate and digest more and more inputs everyday.
So after another unconventional meeting with Enrico, I came up with this. What if we ask the participants, right after the events, this simple question:
What would you bring from Totem [or X event] to society? What is the one thing you experienced or learnt there that you’re missing in your everyday life?
This would cement in the participants’ minds the very impact of the event, would trigger their memory when needed and would eventually provide data on what’s actionable — and therefore impactful in society.
We keep experimenting. ;)
This content is part of the first research in the transformational festivals field: Blaze of Inspiration. The Impact of Festivals ‘from another planet’ on our society, backed by social big data.
Please let us know your thoughts, and what’s your experience in the transformational world.