It’s easy to think that Envision Festival is remarkable for its breathtaking landscapes, delicious fresh food and stacked lineups (and it is), but there’s something extraordinary that really makes it such a unique experience. Specifically, Envision Festival stands as a group of people that are at the forefront of innovation in a community that thrives through permaculture. Boldly straying from the path of a traditional festival, Envision believes that people can get together at a festival to connect with each other on a human level where music is an added bonus, not the main focus. The tropical climates of Costa Rica have become a staple to embrace in all of the festivities and all of the people have figured out how to harmoniously embrace the forest and everything inside of it. This is far beyond the “leave no trace” ordeal, this is a living and breathing community that is a product of love, enlightenment, joy, and becoming one with yourself on a scale that surpasses many of the ideologies you may know.
We had the pleasure of speaking with co-founder Matt Siegel who shared some insight on what it takes to build, form, create, and inspire a community like that of Envision. During our talk, he dove into the challenges of the festival community, the importance of reconnecting with the earth and talked on what it takes to create something so magical.
Here’s what he had to say!
Photo by Amin Beydoun
What inspired the birth of Envision Festival?
We all came from such different places. Half the team was living here in Costa Rica before we started and the other half was coming from the United States. For me personally, I had a very traditional American upbringing. I came from a small town that had a lot of farms that eventually turned into housing developments and stripmalls. I went to a good college and had my first career in finance in New York. I had a passion for seeking out counter culture, but really was just following the mainstream American path in front of me. I found festival culture when I was 19 and all of a sudden was turned onto this community of art and supportive people that I never knew existed. Through it I found this desire to be good and do good and not be defined by modern culture or religion, but by real authentic community.
Envision was from the onset was created to provide a space to build and spread the concept of an international human community designed to be connected with our environment and supportive of one-another. We were also seeking to create completely unique experience, free of social conditioning and deeply ingrained in the natural beauty of Costa Rica.
Why did you guys decide to do it in Costa Rica and not anywhere else?
We always wanted it to be an experience whereby people felt fully immersed in nature and found a stronger connection with it. In the northern hemisphere people are living in their apartments, condos, houses and embrace fancy trinkets and technology. Envision was hopefully going to be a strong contrast. Being in Costa Rica, all you really need for comfort is a roof over your head, a bed, and simple living. There is real happiness in going to pick your bananas for breakfast and not opening a cupboard for some processed and boxed calories disguised as food. To realize that happiness is so simple and all the other marketable nonsense we are faced with everyday is just a distraction from that.
The festival clearly has a lot of sustainability initiatives – can you tell me a little bit more about these?
Event sustainability is in our DNA. One of the things I’m proudest of is the Envision build. It’s overwhelmingly comprised of sustainably sourced materials. We call it a No-EZ Up festival because it’s not easy and there are literally no EZ-Ups. You go to any festival in the US and all the vendors and all of the campgrounds have those cheap 10×10 shade structures that are made in China and are purchased at Walmart and Costco. Nearly all structure here are made out of bamboo that is either cut on site or brought up from one of the local area bamboo farms. We do a lot of palm shading, natural fiber lashing and other sustainable building methods. We started doing a lot more earth work and actually building our offices and onsite homes out of adobe brick that is pressed and formed on site. Not only is that more sustainable than using metals and plastics, but it also gives the feeling of being in a real community in nature. When you walk into the Envision Village to have breakfast with your friends on Saturday morning you’re not surrounded by EZ-Ups and cheap festival food signs. Instead you see bamboo and natural materials, as you would in a real off-grid village. That is all part of the experience.
Another successful campaign was the end of single use products in the food court. No paper plates, plastic silverware, disposable cups; everything handed out is washable and reusable. The way we did it was by creating a dishwashing station. We bought thousands of plates and cups that we now own and we basically rent those out to all the food stalls so when people go to order their food, instead of getting disposable paper or plastic utensil, it’s served on one of our reusable plates or cups. Participants pay a deposit for that and once you’re done you take it to the washing station and get a token for that payment. The amount of waste that normally comes out of a food court for thousands of people over the span of 5 days is really disgusting. And we have successfully mitigated that.
We designed it with the intention to reduce our waste, but the unintended result is that because of the deposit system, it completely paid for itself. It is a sustainable practice with a positive financial footprint compared to purchasing and disposing of single use items. It’s really a no-brainer that every festival should be doing. If you’re a festival owner and you’re throwing money at disposable shit, you’re being lazy and irresponsible. I say it strongly, because I feel strongly about it.
Photo by Amin Beydoun
The Envision website says “the Village Witches bring alternative healing services, educational opportunities, and grounded spiritual connections” to the fest. Can you give us some examples of that?
I love Sarah Wu for all of this. She’s our lead village witch and is the creative force behind the Village Witches. It started with an herbal workshop series that brought some of the best herbalists from around the world to give lectures and workshops on plant medicine. Since we started this, it’s grown to a whole new level. Now, starting before the festival Sarah and Sevensong lead an herbal clinic that begins at Punta Mona and continues through the festival where you get a hard crash course herbal first aid.
The students then actually go to Envision, help build an herbal first aid clinic and assist the seasoned herbalists. During the event, participants needing basic first aid have a choice to be treated with Eastern or Western medicine. It’s an amazing offering to the participants and real world hands on experience for our new herbal street medics. The final component is the the herbal elixir bar. It’s run by educated herbalists that can readily concoct something to directly suit the needs of the participant, whether you need to go to sleep, feel more relaxed or something to energize you for a night of dancing. But it’s not typical caffeine and stimulants, it’s all herbal medicine.
Many of the founders live in Costa Rica most of the year so this isn’t a vacation destination for them. What calls the founders to put so much of themselves into this project?
One of the driving differences between Envision and many of the “Transformational” festivals, and I don’t like that term, is that the reality of all of this is that most of us are already living in community year round. Stephen, who I mentioned earlier has two other thriving communities within Costa Rica and Josh and I live on his community property about 15 minutes away from the Envision venue. We are living Envision year round; building permaculture properties, growing our own food, living with nature and being truly surrounded by animals – it is really living the experience every day. We’re not building a festival just to inspire everyone to feel like one day they should just live a different way, but we are actually living it and breathing it today and Envision is inspired by our desire to share this lifestyle option with the world.
To land this point at Envision, one of the things we do at the festival is the community networking center. This is where existing functioning communities from around Costa Rica come togehter and share tips, trade secrets, and connect with other communities. Many of them are seeking active members to contribute, to give energy and participate beyond the festival, which creates an opportunity for participants thinking of taking that plunge or actively ready to do it so it’s easy to come in, connect with these active communities.
To directly answer your question, the energy commitment is really all about seeing what people walk away with on Monday. I don’t wanna get too cheesy but I know that Envision has changed peoples live. They have told me and sometimes I can just see it in their eyes. It’s been a struggle for sure, but we’re all in.
With Envision, we can create a ripple that jumps from one pond to the next, as participants leave and travel back all around the world, and keep spreading our message wider and further. However, it’s important to keep the perspective that the the festival is not supposed to be the cure to the actual problems. The festival is the festival. It’s 4 or 5 days of connecting, education, celebrating. What it can be is an a jump off point for change.
Photo Courtesy of Envision
What does the Envision land look like the rest of the year when the festival is not happening?
This is our fourth time producing this festival on the same property. I’ve never been a part of another festival that has done this but I know they’re out there. We have an amazing relationship with the owner of the land and a long-term arrangement where we have access to the property year round now. This is a festival and community dream come true. The least sustainable part of a festival is showing up two weeks before, building it, having the festival for a few days and then tearing everything down and cleaning it all up. I’m very happy to say that is no longer the case with Envision. We have moved into the area immersively and it’s a home for us now.
We have built permanent and semi-permanent structures and infrastructure, with roads, water, power, and even internet in the jungle. We’ve build yoga studios that will last up to 9 years. One of the cooler things is the quantity of planting we’ve been doing on-site since 2014. When we got it, it was a cow pasture that had been cleared so that they could sell cattle and meat. As we moved in, we started with fruit trees and as time went by we knew we were gonna stay there. We knew that with camping we needed a way to provide shade, and in 2014 people camped in a raw cow pasture. Now, there’s a good chance you’ll be camping under a banana plant, beach almond, breadfruit or ceiba tree. We have effectively trasnformed this land from a cow pasture into a tropical tree jungle. Today, I saw a full troupe of monkeys mobbing around in our village.
How can the lessons that people experience at Envision inform their actions in the real (Western) world?
There’s a few things that we definitely hope people can take away from the Envision experience. People commonly disassociate themselves from the environment and don’t see themselves as just another animal species in the environment. It’s about taking in the full nature experience and realizing that you’re part of something bigger. Everything can trickle down from that. Something the core team is passionate about is food and food-systems. Stephen Brooks is devoting his life to changing the food system and relating what you’re eating to where it’s coming from. From whose growing your food, how are they growing it, what are they using to grow it, how is that affecting the environment and the animals around you. For our staff kitchen, actually pay organic farmers months in advance to plant food the food that we will use to feed our team during the event.
Another subtle point, and although we’re not a vegan or vegetarian festival, we definitely limit the meat consumption on site and are super specific about where it’s coming from and how the animals are being treated on that property. The way Envision has been designed all around is to be an experimental living community. One of the things that we changed in 2014, which came to be a defining factor of the festival, is that Envision is not built around the sounds stages like a lot of festivals are. A lot of times the music is at the center with a few distractions but the way our things are setup is that music and production is off on one side and at the heart of the festival is the village. The village is the gathering place where your food is, coffee, merch, shopping, and also where all of the education takes place. We don’t have much music during the day as we like the focus to be on the village where people can take part in conversation and just dive into a very human experience. How they can relate to the environment and other people. Just being aware that these are things that you’re doing every day of your life.
Over the years you’ve built structures, planted food on an onsite farm and grown trees on the land. What other projects at Envision are investments in the local land?
Over the last 6 years we have done a lot in many of the surrounding local communities. We’ve built a new water system connecting 3 new springs to a local town – which was actually in a drought last year – and would have ran out of water with or without Envision happening. So, we tripled the water budget we had set aside for Envision to purchase the materials needed to complete this water system so that the town could have water. We’ve helped plant gardens in local schools, put money towards new roofs for schools near Envision, alongside trying to help support the start of a local community center here as well. We wanna spread education, community, and resources outside the festival. That’s what we are here for.
The spirituality of the community stands as one of the 8 pillars of Envision fest – what do you think that cultivates amongst the community as a whole? For an individual?
Spirituality is definitely an interesting thing. Looking at the American upbringing, spirituality is based on traditional and very conventional religions. Go to church or a synagogue, have a defined idea of what god is, and here’s the roles you have to abide by in order to keep them happy. Which isn’t really spirituality, more so religion, where there’s a little bit of an overlap. What I found is that human spirituality can be derived from a connection to people on nature and being an animal species on this planet. A lot of people come down to Envision because of the music or because of the yoga, or whatever it is, the thing they are least expecting which always affects them the most is the undeniable spirituality. It’s an inner human thing where there’s so much emotion, love and beauty that you can’t help but feel.
A lot people are feeling it for the first time, or maybe they’ve just never felt it this strongly because they’re so lost in their daily lives. To me it’s just love and being able to love openly. A safe community space where you can let loose with no social conditioning of what’s cool, how you have to act, or what you have to wear. It’s a free space, but also a safe space that allows people to tap into these parts of themselves that are not so easy to find when you’re trapped in a conventional society. Somehow that is spirituality. And this is a subjective way to look at it. There’s also ways that were holding and introducing the sacred, for sure. We have a temple area at the festival where we light a sacred fire and actually hold space for people to set intentions in a quiet area that allows for meditation.
Why do you think people come to the festival? Why should they travel to experience a festival abroad?
Let me start with the second part. As someone who grew up in America, it’s really important to get out of America. A lot of people go vacation in Florida or Hawaii or maybe even Southern California. You just need a perspective of being able to step away, look back, and see different cultures and know that America is not the center of the world. There’s real humans living very differently everywhere else. I was lucky enough to leave the country when I was 19 but I was totally shocked – like holy shit. America is not the center of the world. Getting on a plane, leaving the country and just getting so far away from the place you’re used to calling home, I think that opens you up to, and I use social conditioning a lot for this example, but for what we’re trying to get away from. It’s marketing, wear this, dress like that, do this, stay in school, and getting out of America entirely accentuates that.
We’re a truly international festival so you’re entirely out of your element. I could just go on and on about why I think people come to Envision. The crew is a passionate group of experience curators that work incredibly hard to find the most amazing musical acts that don’t get booked because they’re popular or the size of the crowd they are gonna draw. It’s more about who’s the perfect musical act for this hour of the day or night, and the same goes for education. We look for teachers who are on top of their game that are knowledgeable in their field. As a whole were just passionate experience curators. The curation of everything is endlessly picked apart and thought about to what we hope is one of the best 4-5 day experiences on the planet.