Tuesday, 12 August 2014

WIlderness Incorporated

Wilderness Incorporated.

I’ve just returned from Wilderness Festival. I should probably be spending the day scraping all the tangy black portaloo slurry off my action sandals and eating the remaining crumbs of last night’s service station pastie out of my cleavage but I’m writing this instead. For those who don’t know, Wilderness Festival is a ‘boutique’ festival in the Cotswolds where the headline acts are Michelin starred chefs, and which offers spa sessions, Shakespeare, a Laurent-Perrier Champagne tent, Cara Develigne’s ‘Mulberry Bag Launch Picnic’ (apaz!) and a host of other ridiculously posh gigs (all at an additional charge, natch). 

So yeah, I always knew it was going to be a few million miles along the leylines from drinking mushy brews out of chipped cups with gurning jumblies in lost-it blankets around a fire built entirely from carrier bags and white lightning bottles... But but but…. it was called Wilderness and it was a festival, so I remained cautiously optimistic that, come Saturday night, there might at least be a few teenagers rendered paraplegic by ketamine, dragging themselves through Babylonian rivers of piss like giant grinning slugs, or I dunno, even just Ray Mears and Ben Fogle wrestling naked inside the rotting carcass of a wild boar… Something…

The name Wilderness drips with notions of the uncultivated, the unkempt, the untamed. Sometimes barren and always undomesticated, the wilderness stands outside and in distinction to the (re)productive register of the capitalist metropolis. That certainly chimed with all my previous experiences of festivals [disclaimer – I may well be a massive hippy]. But maaaaan! This was a festival unlike any I have ever encountered, where the sound of music was secondary to the noise of bleeping barcode wrist bands and the incessant kerching of tills ringing; and where dance floors were less populace than the snakes of endless, objectionless queues for six quid artisan hot dogs. ‘Wild’ was just not what I was feeling, to the extent that when I got back from the festival I actually googled the definition of wilderness. Just to check.

      A drone in the skies above Wildnerness Festival. (I give you no words only my tears)

So, according to the online dictionary, the word wilderness comes from the Old English wildēornes, meaning 'land inhabited only by wild animals', from wild dēor 'wild deer' + ness, which definitely works with the idea of a festival as a sort of pop up utopia where herds of young bucks and doe eyed girls can gather together and get their antlers out (shush Kate shushhhhh). Anyway, because I’m a massive geek and I just LOVE the internetz, I then extended my google search to read up on Cornbury Park, where the festival was held, and discovered that the site, as a royal hunting facility, has indeed been inhabited by many wild deer over the years (at least since the Domesday book). Result! Cornbury Park = Wild deer ness = Wilderness. Totally get it now. Loving your work Wilderness dudes… But but but…

But what I found most fascinating and relevant in my little delve into the history of Cornbury Park was that in 1665, the owner of the park, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, built one of the first Ha-Ha walls in England. And suddenly everything began to make sense...

A Ha-Ha wall is a hidden boundary – an invisible sunken border – designed to give the Lord of the Manor and his posh mates an uninterrupted view of the vast expanse of his land, whilst keeping the wild animals (and their expensive-shoe-wrecking-shit) out. The ‘Ha-Ha’ part is that, because the boundary was hidden, anyone who believed that they were in some sort of uninterrupted plenitude with the wilderness surrounding them could accidentally walk right off the edge and drop down into the ditch. Ha-Ha! (be gentle on these Restoration era toffs though – they didn’t have You’ve Been Framed to be fair)

Drawing of a side view of a Ha-Ha wall by Felix Kelly

Essentially, Ha-Ha walls were designed to give the illusion of wilderness without all the, you know, wild-deer-ness. So basically alienation masquerading as liberation. And this, of course, is precisely what the organisers of Wilderness, and so many other festivals these days, are trading in.

The Ha-Ha wall at Wilderness festival is surely the outrageous price tag, augmented by the fact that almost every attraction – from skinny dipping to bushcraft lessons to, well, pretty much everything– must be pre-booked and costs extra £££. This keeps the ‘wild animals’ (trans.: poor people) and all their shit out, and, crucially, also keeps the ‘revelers’ locked in, both economically and libidinally. The apparent negation of the distinction between a supremely capitalist, consumerist situation and the wild wild wilderness it is selling - this sort of Wilderness Incorporated – made me massively depressed all weekend. I was overwhelmed by a sense that all our experience, our thought, our whole world was being flattened out into a one dimensional spectacle, robbing us not just of our 'Hard Earned Cash', but also, more profoundly, of a vital, and much needed, sense of a 'beyond'.

Festivals like this trick us into forgetting that between us and the wilderness is a great big fucking ditch. They tell us that freedom and liberation can be bought for the price of a feathered headdress and a dynamic yoga class. Ha fucking Ha. Maybe this is massively old news (it is). Maybe I’m just nostalgically longing for the pre-Blair conviction that Things Can (Only) Get Better of my youth (I am). Maybe I was just on a massive comedown during the festival after a beautiful time on Steven’s boat and London (I was). And yeah, like, the Supermoon is MASSIVE... But whatever. I still can’t help but feel that if we do really want to get to the wilderness, to true liberation, we’re gonna have to be prepared to swim through some pretty filthy rivers of Bablyon. But we can do it naked and at least we won't have to pay for the privilege and book in advance.

Then again, who needs revolution when the food is THIS good? <chomps onto Best Burger Ever> #nomnomnom #Ha-Ha

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