I had the good fortune to play at Wide Open Space 2015, my first time at the small desert festival and I knew straight away that it wouldn’t be my one and only visit. This year I got the opportunity to officially document the three-day gathering of peaceful, music-loving souls with my camera and I came away with an even greater sense of WOS and what it all means.
The annual festival attracts around 1,500 people these days, having started smaller in 2009 with about 500 attendees when a group of local people decided to put on a party and to raise money for a PA system – yes, it was as simple as that.
The overwhelming emotion for me when I am in this remarkably beautiful valley, literally in the middle of the continent, is humility. I am humbled by the large rocky hills surrounding me, of the star-filled clear night sky, of the sheer positive energy that seems to flood the encampment like desert rains flood a dry riverbed. There is no mobile coverage in this hidden gem about an hour’s drive east of Alice Springs and, for someone whose business relies on social media, going dark online for three days is a wonderful opportunity to hit the reset button on life and concentrate on connecting with friends (old and very new) and to immerse myself in the collective solitude and sense of belonging that to my mind underscores what WOS is all about.
It is this coming together of like-minded people and the shutting out of the outside world that I think makes for a funky kind of Stockholm Syndrome at WOS – we are all in this together and we ain’t goin’ nowhere. We are here to stay for the duration and we start to feel a special kind of closeness, a secret shared and only understood by those who have been there – it is almost conspiratorial. There is a strict ‘no-dickhead’ policy at the festival, which, by its nature, fails to attract dickheads in any event.
The humbleness extends to the artists that play at WOS. I only found approachable people amongst them. The diverse range of talent coming from near (very near in the case of many of the indigenous performers) and far made for a broad church – something for everyone’s taste, ranging from ‘desert metal’ bands to the heavy end of EDM and sprinkled with folk, rock, reggae, funk and hip hop. A stunning burlesque show, trapeze artists, the famous (infamous?) Pool Party at the nearby resort facilities (attended by a resident DJ duo), spoken word, freestyle rap to improvised music and the renowned costumed Bilby Tea Party, all combine to make for a life-enhancing experience.
The lack of formality at the festival is refreshing and the authorities seem disinterested in the event, making for a very relaxed atmosphere. Costumes abound as one would expect, as festival goers shed their town-skins and get back in touch with their true selves. The relative smallness of the event only adds to the sense of oneness and one leaves the festival with a restored faith in humanity, or at least secure in the knowledge that there are still many people who love and respect the Earth and the diverse peoples on it.
This experience is capped off by the traditional ascent on the last evening of a surrounding escarpment to watch the sunset over the adjoining valley – this is a truly remarkable thing to watch and to be involved in and, having done it twice now, I can say that I have never experienced such spiritual intimacy amongst a crowd of people in my almost 50 years on this planet. I exaggerate not one whit and words fail me to adequately describe the bond that forms between festival-goers, even if they only pass each other once in the three days they are there.
We can’t leave this space without being mindful of, and thankful to, the traditional owners, past and present, of the land upon which this gathering of souls takes place – the Arrernte people. Many traditional owners perform as artists at the festival and this coming together of cultures to celebrate music and art is the jewel in the crown of Wide Open Space.
Many thanks to the organisers for their hard work and dedication in making WOS happen and for granting us access and giving us free range to record a moment in the history of the event. For further information see: