“Blazing Swan is a community, and some might say, a way of life.”
I sat down with Frank Mitchell, a founder and committee member of the not-for-profit organisation, the Blazing Swan Festival. Held annually in March, but operating all year round, the organisation—which is completely volunteer-run—organises and develops art projects, fundraising events, community workshops, and of course their yearly event, where things literally go up in flames. Frank calls it a “social experiment” guided by 11 principles that festival-goers use as inspiration to fully enjoy this weird, wonderful, and wacky experience. He tells me that the week-long event gives people “a sense of belonging to a community, that encourages individuality, creativity and responsibility.”
You may have heard of Burning Man in the United States—an annual temporary community where radical self-expression and self-reliance are the norm. Or, you may just have seen lots of celebrities in the desert wearing super-cool costumes and riding around on little bicycles in dust storms. Frank, and other likeminded people, came away from their time at Burning Man back in 2007 with a desire to bring a piece of it back to Western Australia.
Frank describes getting caught up in the excitement of delivering the vision of creating an Australian version of the Burning Man experience. He and Lewis Viljoen, another key co-founder, started off their dream by holding rogue parties on northern beaches that included the American ceremony of burning a temporary, wooden man. Things started to gain momentum, and all of a sudden Frank was being interviewed on ABC’s seven o’clock news while standing next to a 6-meter effigy. Enter Paul Jorgenson, a Burner (Burning Man supporter) of 20 years and co-founder of Africa Burns—the largest regional event outside of Burning Man. Jorgenson tracked Lewi down, and a meeting was held between them, as well as Frank and four fellow colleagues that continue to be on the Blazing Swan committee today: Cat Conner, Damon Pages Oliver, Daniel Taylor and Matthew Robinson.
Since that meeting, Blazing Swan is considered to be an official Burning Man regional event, and as a result many of their policies have been directly taken from Burning Man’s drawing board. This means you’ll find many similarities between the two; they have similar principles, an effigy and temple burnt to ashes, teams of passionate volunteers and rangers, theme camps (with names like The Church of Belligerence and Camp Unicorn Power), and of course, a strong dedication and focus to art. This ranges from stand-alone pieces to interactive or moving pieces, like little cars topped with flashing lights that roam around with DJs. But the event alone is not what Frank and his committee cherish so much as the community that arises as a result of the event; “We want to share our culture and values with our local communities all year round,” Frank says.
While Blazing Swan may have risen, phoenix-like, from the smouldering embers of Burning Man, it has striven to be unique in its own ways. This is mostly due to an extraordinarily different group of people and physical context. Frank owns that Blazing Swan is “Australian and proud to be”, and as such they have a stand-alone, defining relationship with their local community. The group is supported by the City of Fremantle, and their 900 square meter warehouse headquarters, lovingly referred to as The Nest, which is also located in Freo. Here you’ll find artists working furiously on their work or “mutant vehicles”.
Frank is extremely proud of his Indigenous heritage and values his working relationships with the local Indigenous community, the Balladong people, as well as local farming communities. Before any one enters the event and the mayhem begins, Blazing Swan always begins with a welcome to country ceremony to acknowledge Australia’s First People. The event is created to be safe and inclusive for all.
When I asked him about Jilakin Rock and the location of Blazing Swan, I was told that the conditions in Kulin, where it’s based, are not as dusty as that of Burning Man, but that in the past they’ve had some spectacular weather, like an overnight 70mm dump of rain that caused flooding, and wind that can sometimes be ferocious for days on end. Frankly, it isn’t an event for the faint of heart.
Blazing Swan is hosted on a farm next to Jilakin Salt Lake, and people can wake up early to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the still waters in the post-rain season. The beautiful, natural setting is one thing that Frank feels passionate about leaving every year as they found it. One of their 11 principles, “Leave No Trace”, implies self-responsibility in respecting the physical environment and protecting the natural world. “It’s about acknowledging how we treat our environment and is a tangible reflection of who we are and how we treat ourselves and others.” Another, “Self-reliance”, is about how “everyone needs to be responsible for and to bring everything they need to survive and thrive.” The other remaining principles are “Inclusion”, “Gifting”, “Decommodification”, “Self-expression”, “Communal Effort”, “Civic Responsibility”, “Participation”, “Immediacy” and “Consent”. “Immediacy” can best be described as living in the moment, as opposed to posting selfies on Instagram all day (hey, we’re all guilty). For this reason, the Blazers burn their effigy to show that attachment to moments can be far more precious than attachment to material objects. Frank muses, “that everything, even life, is temporary and the best way to live is to enjoy the present moment, not to try to capture it for the future.”
Stemming from all of these principles is the idea of “Gifting”. At Blazing Swan, festival-goers should bring enough to give to others, and don’t be surprised to receive many gifts in return. “A gift is given unconditionally,” says Frank. “This means you can’t expect, demand, or barter it… People are likely to offer you food, drinks, goods, services, experiences and other amazing gifts, however these are only made possible by other people who are radically self-reliant and have brought more than enough to share with others.”
So, is Blazing Swan like any other festival out there? Certainly not. In fact, I wondered how much the festival focuses on these special principles, and how much is just good ol’ fashioned boozing it up and grooving to tunes. While Frank tells me that there is certainly lots of that, this is a festival for people who feel a sense of meaninglessness or emptiness in superficial partying, and are looking for something more—a lifestyle that can be maintained. It’s for those who are looking to experience joy, as they find it at Blazing Swan, in their everyday experiences.
“We provide a blank canvas for anyone to put forward their aspirations, creations and release their wildest dreams,” says Frank.
While many festival-goers are in their 20s and 30s, the event is family and kid-friendly (13 and younger enter free, and under-18’s receive a discount). Parents, of course, are advised that they are completely responsible for their children.
So, who is the festival aimed at? Anyone and everyone—but particularly those who are open to the marvellous world of experiences that Blazing Swan can offer. And what do we have to look forward to in 2018? I’m told there’s too many things to count, but tiny little treasure hunts, the Propaniac (what on Earth?), and a 10-metre-tall worm hole are all expected to make an appearance. I, for one, have my ticket already and can’t wait to get my temple-burning, worm-hole climbing, self-reliant freak on at Blazing Swan this March! See you there, Blazers.
Buy your tickets here, before they sell out.