Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2006
June 15th thru June 18th 2006
By Sharon Scott

Red, blue, and blinding, the flames were hot enough to hear. The sudden flash of light tanned the faces of an awestruck crowd. The raging ball of fire lasted only a moment before becoming a massive black cloud. A perfect ring of smoke billowed and rolled back upon itself in a disturbingly atomic fashion. A million miles from Baghdad, this is Bonnaroo. In the midst of the chaos pyro-artist Ken Smith drew all eyes to the blazing summer sky. His Smoke Ring Machine produced singular black clouds that drifted high above the American landscape promoting the radical notion that explosives might be used for celebration not destruction.

Deep within the Bible Belt, a small town called Manchester, Tennessee has become home to North America’s hottest summer event. Since 2002, The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has showcased an impressively diverse schedule of recording artists ranging from Beck to Bonnie Rait. Presently, event organizers are exhibiting a new interest in non-musical arts. “Bonnaroo consistently attracts exceptional musicians,” said Russ Bennett, Artistic Director of the festival, “in the future we are hoping to attract a high level of artists from every medium.” Bonnaroo organizers support an encompassing definition of art that includes innovative cooking, camping, and sunbathing.

For the three-day festival 80,000-ticketed attendees camp in the grassy farmland that surrounds Bonnaroo’s seven music stages. Each camping area or “Pod” is equipped with necessities such as toilets and food vendors. Among the tents are bars, clothing stores, glass shops, and the occasional air-conditioned restaurants. This year the Art in the Pods program employed students from Bowdin College to create site-specific installations for each of the camping areas. Samantha Ferrell’s piece Cascade consisted of busted sinks and broken pipes. Its resemblance to an exploding bathroom was particularly appropriate at Bonnaroo where the base conditions of humanity are medievaly-present. In addition to heightening the visual intrigue of the festival, each of the student installations became a welcome landmark for navigating the sea of endless cars and tents.

The camping area was separated from the inner festival by an impenetrable wall and several security checkpoints. Before the guests arrived, the Bonnaroo staff adorned the wall with stenciled profiles of legendary rock stars. During the festival, a cacophony of unique and anonymous visions arose in-between the giant faces of John Lennon, Bootsy Collins and Prince. Graffiti exploded this year at Bonnaroo. It jumped off the walls onto picnic tables, port-a-johns, and multiple other event furnishings. The familiar images of Andre the Giant and Laser Guided Democracy were juxtaposed with more obscure messages from the underworld, which often denounced Bush and his War. The spontaneous and clandestine art at Bonnarro 2006 was raw, honest, and satisfyingly disruptive to the official aesthetics of the event. “Next year” Bennett said in a telephone interview following the most recent festival, “we need to figure out a way to manage the graffiti --Allow it without having it become destructive. Graffiti should stay on the walls, respect the things that are already in place.” It seems unlikely, however, that such lively expression can be restrained.

Inside the festival, the large music tents automatically give the event a circus appeal. The crowd brings a carnival of hawkers, painted women, and thieves. Parades of costumed troupes were hired by Bennett to “plant the seeds” of performance. Dressed in fire and golden feathers, cabarets from New Orleans swerved through the masses coronating concertgoers as performers through the ritualistic application of runic tattoos.

2006 marked the first year Bonnaroo has dedicated a portion of the festival grounds to visual artists. The Art of Such n Such, a collaborative installation by fourteen pyro-technically oriented artists, was introduced at the festival by Burning Man celebrity Charlie Smith. The exhibition included the ‘Lil Mephisto Tesla Coil by Syd Klinge, The Storyteller Sculpture, a fire-powered zoetrope by Jeff Morgan, and Nomadix Productions, a laser-light show by Rob Minnihan. The consistent use of materials--fire, metal, and audience participation-- united the diverse artists in a cohesive landscape of intense heat.

The general atmosphere of Bonnaroo has changed little since festival began in 2002. The giant Bobble-headed sculptures were back, so was the central mushroom fountain. If Bonnaroo is serious about introducing young audiences to new artists, planners might consider diversifying each year’s festival with a new visual environment.

Bonnaroo was officially rededicated as a Music and Arts Festival in 2005. This year, festival directors began diversifying the event with outdoor sculpture and site-specific installations. Still, art remains a sideshow at Bonnaroo. Festival organizers have an opportunity to prove their dedication to contemporary aesthetics in 2007. Commissioned artwork, interactive sculpture, and more exhibition specific tents could make Bonnaroo a visual art destination. As the festival continues to grow, expect the visual arts to become more than just a curious backdrop to the festival’s impressive musical lineup.

The Art of Such n Such

Bonnaroo 2006