What happens when a couple of Burners buy a stunning chunk of scenic Oregon land and dedicate that land to kicking each summer off with a fun, funky, frantic festival? What happens when 7,000 creative lunatics take over a forest for a weekend? What happens when art, technology, and nature come together to create an immersive, intimate, ultra-stimulating playground for adults in the forest? Well… What happens is the crown jewel of Oregon’s festival scene. What happens is What The Festival.
What The Festival has officially taken itself to the next level. What was previously a relatively low-key festival on the West Coast, and low-key my personal favorite festival of 2015, was absolutely NOT low-key this year. It was intimate still, sure. But it was EPIC. It was vibrant, it was pulsating with energy, it was populated, it was loud, and it was mind-blowing.
In its 5th year, and 4th year at Wolf Run Ranch, What The Festival went big. Capacity increased from 5,000 to 7,500. A third Splash Pool was added. An awesome new late-night stage in the forest was added. There was more art. More music. More Funktion Ones. More fun. More totems. More silliness. More Illuminated Forest. More production value. More lights. More smiles. More What The Festival.
More What The Festival. It’s a crazy idea, but dammit it works.
There was also more rain. In years past, What The Festival has been graced by perfect weather, not exactly what Oregon is known for. This year, we really got that bipolar weather that one might expect in Oregon, and if anything, the festival benefited from it. Seeing the gradual progression of the weather throughout the weekend from rainy and gloomy to bright and sunny was a sight to behold. A couple days before the festival started, it was hailing on-site! Friday was cold, rainy, and cloudy as all hell. The stunning vista of Mt. Hood, standing tall right behind the main stage, was practically non-existent, encompassed by clouds for nearly two whole days. The sun literally didn’t even make an appearance until Saturday. When it did poke through the clouds briefly, people cheered, screamed, and danced with joy. The cold and cloudy weather seemed to deter people from fully embracing the Splash Pool on Friday and Saturday, and the rain kept many people from exploring the festival at night on Friday. Despite increasing capacity from last year, this festival actually seemed less crowded for the first two days.
And then there was Sunday. Not a freaking cloud in the sky. Sunshine, smiles, and house music aplenty, the Splash Pool finally got the proper party treatment it deserved on Sunday. That shit was bananas, dude. BANANAS! Like T-Rex dancing next to a shark bananas. A girl eating soggy Cinnamon Toast Crunch in a raft bananas. An orca being used as a baseball bat to send a huge inflatable Modelo can flying bananas.The molestation of a giant bottle of Sriracha bananas. Pizza slices, hammerhead sharks, and palm trees flying through the air bananas. A girl literally rolling around all three splash pools (and the many bodies that occupied them) in a giant ball bananas. Male nuns performing baptisms in the pool bananas. THIS. This is the Splash Pool we all know and love. This is the iconic, unforgettable, surreal, and hilarious ludicrousness that only What The Festival can offer. As always, What The Festival’s floatie game gets an A+ out of 10. What a Sunday.
Honestly, I think we needed the rain at What The Festival 2016. To let us know that the real world can still exist in this ludicrous festival land. To keep our egos in check. To remind us that this is Oregon’s festival. To ease the newcomers into understanding the full potential of the Splash Pool on a sunny day. To tease us, leading to a gorgeous Sunday and Summer Solstice on Monday. And hey, this festival is just THAT much fun. Who’s to say Mother Nature isn’t allowed to dance in the Splash Pool too? Nice moves, Mom! Way better than that Hippie Sabotage.
But let’s get into it. What The Festival is damn awesome, and it’s damn unique. So what makes it so awesome and unique? First and foremost, it is just so, outrageously silly. FUN is the name of the game here. Internet memes and hilarious totems reign supreme, and they are all condensed into the relatively small festival grounds. This festival just does not take itself seriously when it comes to vibe. Believe me, with production value of this level, the producers are definitely taking it seriously and working their asses off to create a festival that operates this smoothly, looks this beautiful, sounds this good, and attracts such good people. But the vibe is just absolutely ludicrous. This is a place to just let loose. Looser than you’ve ever been. You can say anything, wear anything, do anything. Be extreme or as subtle as you’d like. What The Festival is a place for adults to have an outrageous amount of fun, and nothing else. There is no catch. There is no downside. Just positive vibes, phenomenal interactive art, and incredible music in a brilliantly produced festival environment. This is not a physically demanding festival by any means. The layout is simple and easy to navigate, campgrounds are located close to the main grounds, and the schedule provides very few set conflicts. What The Festival makes it EASY to have a good time. Most of the grueling physical activity comes from busting out your craziest dance moves all weekend. What else makes this place so special? Oh yeah. The venue. You know, the venue that features Mt. Hood, the largest mountain in Oregon (and there are many large mountains in Oregon, FYI) casually towering behind the main stage. What’s that? One huge mountain behind a stage isn’t enough? In that case, turn to your right and enjoy the view of Washington’s own Mt. Adams lingering behind the Equinox Stage. Ok, mountains, check. What else? Trees? Yes, this is Oregon. There are trees everywhere, including above your tent. Enjoy that luxury, it’s a rare one in this scene. But what good is a forest if there isn’t a Splash Pool in the middle of it? Each June, they build this mighty splash pool in the middle of this forested chunk of land, and each June, it has gotten bigger, better, and louder. Alas, there is the special and unique Illuminated Forest, among the coolest nightlife environments this world has ever seen. More on that in a bit.The festival seemingly has three identities, each corresponding to the time of day. There is daytime, evening, and late-night. Music programming is scheduled in a way that most people will be having similar sonic experiences throughout the weekend if they spend most of their time at the stages. This creates a very intimate environment where it’s easy to make friends and run into familiar faces. There are two main stages during the day, two main stages during the evening, and three main stages from 11pm – 4am, with additional music programming scheduled until sunrise at the LOL Stage and the awesome Shinto A Go-Go lounge. The activities, vibes, stages, and environments you find yourself in are so drastically different during the day, evening, and late-night. Each day feels like you’re experiencing three different festivals in one.
During the daytime, Splash Pool is the thing to do. Plain and simple. I’m tempted to call it What The Festival’s most distinctive feature, but this festival honestly has so many distinctive features. But Splash Pool is definitely one of them. During the evening, most attendees spend their time at the two main stages catching awesome, intimate sets by the headlining acts. What’s crazy is that by nighttime, you’ve practically forgotten that you spent all day at an absolutely bonkers Splash Pool party. When the sun goes down, the star of the show is undoubtedly the Illuminated Forest. What The Festival’s Illuminated Forest might as well be its own festival, if not its own planet, and it is just one of many things that will keep me coming back to this festival. But, for me, it is the best tangible thing about this festival. Dozens and dozens of interactive art installations and environments are lined up along a U-shaped walk through the forest. There is just so much to explore here. Aside from the two awesome late-night stages, the fire-breathing Dragon Stage and the bass-a-licious Groove Qube, there is all sorts of little pop-up parties and music-based art installations to keep you dancing regardless of where you are in the forest. Art installations like last year’s Glam Clam (jamming disco party still in full force) came back this year, but joined forces with other art installations to create bigger, better, more immersive environments. These aren’t big, huge, art installations that will blow your mind in their size and scale. Rather, they are smaller, more subtle, and creatively interactive installations that will engage, entertain, and stimulate you. All of this illuminated art is scattered throughout this forest and it just creates such a stimulating visual aesthetic. A patch of illuminated mushrooms that each create a unique sound when touched. A cash register turned into a complex beat-making machine that opens up with a prize drawer. A freaking TV in the middle of a forest with 4 controllers to play Mario Kart 64. A flamethrower chandelier with a pullable handle which triggers said flamethrower. I am just scratching the surface here in what this place has to offer. Just know that it is an irreplicable environment, and it may very well be my favorite example of how to showcase art at a festival. I can’t think of a better nightlife offering on the planet. Honestly. The things that you stumble upon at 4am in the Illuminated Forest will change your life. Grilled Cheese Disco, I’m looking at you. All this awesomeness, and I haven’t even talked about the music yet. The music at What The Festival this year was killer. 6 main stages, all equipped with Funktion One sound, just pummeled us with interesting music from all sorts of electronic genres. There’s just something about the forest that makes this music sound better. The way the sound resonates among the trees at night… There’s something distant, ethereal, and mysterious about it. All of the music seemed like it was from out of this world, and it sounded good as hell blasting out of those Funktion Ones. Some of the top sets of the weekend that we danced to were Claude VonStroke, Claptone, G Jones, Shades (EPROM & Alix Perez), Ardalan, Motez, Thievery Corporation, Phutureprimitive, and Dimond Saints, to name a few. Whether at the Splash Pool during the day or in the depths of the glowing Illuminated Forest at night, there’s something about this remote location among the trees that brings out the best in an artist. Everybody delivered their A game, and us freaks on the dance floor were a testament to that. If nothing else, What The Festival just creates the best freaking vibes.
In the end, that’s what What The Festival is about. Good vibes. Creating good vibes is its only clear goal, and it achieves this goal marvelously, rain or shine. I don’t know how else to say it. What The Festival stands in a league of its own. It has no competitors on the festival circuit. It is not trying to be anything else, nor is it to be compared to anything else. It is totally its own thing, in a location that isn’t known for a high volume of festivals, and those that know about it should consider themselves lucky. Yes, each festival has its own unique bells and whistles, but What The Festival has taken those bells and whistles and replaced them with slinkies and watermelons. No, it doesn’t make any sense. What The Festival doesn’t make any sense. It’s absurd, it’s surreal, it’s silly, and it’s stimulating as hell. It is one of the most fun camping retreats an adult can go on, and it is Oregon’s true annual haven for Burners, festival-goers, and those who like to have fun, let loose, get crazy, and be hilarious. In its 5th year, What The Festival has transcended the silly little campout it once was and evolved into a big-budget, perfectly-produced, well-oiled machine, and an absolute behemoth on the West Coast festival circuit while retaining everything that makes it quirky, intimate, and unique. It’s so good, dude.
*All words & photos by Babak Haghighi (aka Spirit Shutter)