How to Curate Non-Music Programming at a Music Festival

Suwannee Hulaween in Florida used art and environmental design to connect with fans.

By Tracy Block January 8, 2015, 7:00 AM EST

Synergy Event Production president Andrew Carroll, who was headlining artist String Cheese Incident's lighting designer for 16 years, curated nighttime lighting designs at Spirit Lake. They included illuminiating tall oak trees and Spanish moss, and projections onto the center lake.

Josh Timmermans

For large-scale music festivals—the kind that draw thousands of people to campgrounds in rural areas—programming isn't limited to what happens on stage. In just its second year, the music festival Suwannee Hulaween has created a unique space called Spirit Lake, an art-filled, interactive refuge for the 8,000 people who came to Live, Oak, Florida, over Halloween weekend for the event.

The festival, which featured headlining jam band the String Cheese Incident, takes place in Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, a woodsy area with tall oak trees, Spanish moss, a central lake, and an amphitheater. Spirit Lake was created by Synergy Event Production, a four-year-old California-based company specializing in art and environmental design. Synergy Event Production has helmed notable installments using natural landscapes at music festivals including Rothbury, Electric Forest, and Outside Lands.

At Hulaween, the firm brought a festival-within-a-festival to life in the woods of Northern Florida. Synergy president Andrew Carroll, who served as the String Cheese Incident's lighting designer for 16 years, served as art director and lighting designer of the experience. The presentations included glowing art murals, a jellyfish dome swing set, a sound totem activation, performance artists, and multiple interactive art installations.

“We have been to a handful of festivals that are taking events to new levels by creating large zones dedicated to art, lighting, and performance,” said Carroll, citing art-meets-environment concepts like Burning Man, Coachella, Fuji Rock in Japan, and Boom Festival in Portugal as influences. “Gone are the days of throwing a stage in a field. It's critical to the longevity of most music festivals these days that patrons are engaged on a stronger level, and that there is an interactive component that can be experienced, touched, felt. Just as music is the auditory form of creative expression, large-scale art and environment is the creative expression for the visual senses.”

In an effort not to take away from the musical experience of the festival, Carroll and his crew made the decision to promote Spirit Lake as an after-hours spectacle. “One of the main things I learned from last year’s Spirit Lake was that people really want to be where the music is,“ he said, “and so we didn’t put as much emphasis on interactive art and performance while there was music on the main stages.”

Visitors were encouraged to lounge in hammocks housed by the oak trees and relax by the surrounding serene lake. Private nooks in the woods of Spirit Lake also provided and encouraged a sense of intimacy and escape, a quality difficult to come by at many saturated modern music festivals.  “I was able to make great use of the space, and make it feel full, but not too full, spread out, but not spread too thin,” Carroll said.

A highlight of Spirit Lake’s environmental components was the use of campfires, coupled with pyrotechnics. Fire had a multisensory appeal, as both visual art and a warming element for guests. “Fire is a powerful element that truly deepens the experience,” Carroll said. “Plus it's really cold at Suwannee, and fires are nice and cozy.”

The attractions at Spirit Lake were just one option for guests, who could see more than 50 acts performing on four stages as well as check out a silent disco, a Ferris Wheel, daily yoga workshops, and a disc golf tournament.

The event production companies Silver Wrapper and Purple Hat Productions co-produced the festival.

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