Russ Bennett, Bonnaroo’s Head of Visual Design
Russ Bennett is head of visual design for Bonnaroo. In this role he will work with a team of artists and engineers to create the festival environment. Much as did with Phish events from Clifford Ball on through Big Cypress he is responsible for the visual tone of the weekend. As with Bennett’s prior efforts, Bonnaroo will feature a distinctive village, interactive exhibits, an artist area and other elements that he is keeping under wraps (for now). Bennett, whose company NorthLand Design and Construction, is currently working on a number of musical projects, took a few minutes to talk about the festival. We will check back with him just prior to the event to see how he has realized the ideas he discusses below
Can you talk a bit about your background?
RB- My background is fairly varied as it comes to this. I have a firm and we design and build all kinds of things from high end custom houses to what we call interesting commercial jobs. I also have a bit of a theater background. I did quite a bit of work with Bread and Puppet Theater. I also have a planning background, I am the chair of the planning commission in this area for municipal growth. So all of those skills come together for these sort of “we build this city for rock and roll” things. I started doing these festivals when Phish did Clifford Ball. They wanted to create something that hadn’t been done before and somebody that was working with the band said, “I think I know the guy.” We’ve been doing them ever since.
How did the Bonnaroo folks come to bring you on?
RB- I think they probably spoke with Dionysian which is the management firm for Phish. I’ve done other things too. I’ve done some stuff for Phil Lesh and a few other artists and for the Ben and Jerry One World One Heart festivals along with a number of other sculptural projects over the years.
I’m working with people that I’ve worked with before so they recommended me. I met with these guys and we hit it off. They’re familiar with some of my work and they want to do a great festival and that’s part of what’s important to me. We’re not interested in just doing crepe paper at any old dance. It’s got to be something that has its own sort of social culture in order to be a meaningful event. I think the Phish ones do, this obviously does, and your readership is obviously tapped right into it, a generation that’s paying attention to a lot of different issues that seem to be associated with the jam band culture.
Relative to the Phish festivals and even in terms of this one, do you view each successive festival as a discrete event or do you place every one within a continuum?
RB- Well they were each separate events in and of themselves. With Phish there is a continuum and that continuum is the band. That’s unmistakable. With this event the continuum is there. It’s a different song but it’s all coming from the same place.
I don’t work in a vacuum, I work with other people as well. We’ve worked with other artists associated with the band and other artists that we bring in as well. I don’t want to hog the limelight, it’s a collaborative thing.
I just try to do a better job than the one before, which is not to denigrate the one before at all. You just try to build on it and try to create another wonderful experience and collection of surprises and ways of looking at things.
How involved was the band in planning the Phish events?
RB- We would meet with them and the band would have ideas and then we would throw some ideas back and see which ones stood. We had a lot of latitude working with Phish and those guys are great that way. They’re artists and they’re very appreciative of all the other arts. Through each of their festivals they’ve allowed other artists and disciplines to have a platform or voice that they normally wouldn’t have.
How do you balance aesthetics, functionality, security concerns and so forth in making visual design decisions?
RB- If you were to do an impressionistic painting someone could get a sense from it, a theme. Well you could also create the same picture, same theme and do a very detailed painting that focuses on every single piece of minutiae. Somewhere in between is where it all happens.
I work very closely with all of the guys from security to production to the overall site coordinator. We’ve had long discussions already about where we should put the stage and what areas should we use for our village and where should we put gateways and “No, we shouldn’t put port-o-lets there let’s put them over there.”
So it’s a balance of how things are placed and what’s practical, because every single thing that we do has a visual and emotional effect, from the tickets to the toll booths to the entrance gates to how the stages are dressed, right down to the font on the lettering on the street signs. For me I have to start looking at the site and work with the hard-edged technical things and work with these guys to move them around in a way that makes the best use of the land and the site in relation to people flow. From there we begin to impose the color if you will.
How far along are you?
RB- We’re fairly far along in the process in terms of where the bits and pieces are going to go. We know what our stage orientations are. We know where our venues are going to be. We know where our entrance gates are going to be. We know where our nighttime activities are going to be. We know where our artistic areas are going to be. We know where our games and those kinds of things are going to be. We know where our food vendors and crafters, and our other exhibits are going to be. Within little areas we know conceptually where they’re all going to go and now we’ll go down there and nail them down and then we’ll start to dress it up.
Do you tend to define the festival universe as something onto itself or do you take the surrounding environment into consideration?
RB- That depends on the site. This site is beautiful farm land and we’re on grass, so you accept that as a wonderful thing. We have trees and things to work with so that becomes part of your universe. Clearly this is a cultural experience that is not the same as everybody’s regular daily experience so it is going to be a separate experience no matter what. But then to bring it back to a cosmic level, it’s going to be summer solstice and you can’t ignore that fact, so all of those things will tie into what happens. But for the concert goers and fans after they’ve come and gone we want them to have felt a certain way so that they’re going to have some good thoughts about Bonnaroo. That will be relative to some of the experiences that they’ve had which match up with the visual aspects.
You’re not on an airfield this time.
RB- Airfields are tough (laughs) You’re always asking for a certain artistic suspension of disbelief in some ways. We’re going to have some street performers in our village and some other areas along with other artists doing some sculpture and painting. We may even have a piece that unfolds and evolves but then at the end of the event it’s over.
That reminds me of the art that everyone created and then burned down at the Great Went.
RB- Yeah we did that one very much to match the music in a way. The music is in the air and that creates a bittersweet moment where everyone has participated and made something that’s bigger than themselves by participating but then it’s over, the last note has rung. That was really great. That one ranks up there as one of my favorite pieces because of that kind of synergy.
How all-encompassing is your work on Bonnaroo? Do you focus on it exclusively?
RB- In some ways you wish you had 24/7 to give to any project because if you did you could really go over the top. At the moment I’ve done a few things for Ben and Jerry and Dave Matthews who are doing a collaboration on global warming. So I’m making pieces for them to take around as they get people to pledge to limit CO2 emissions. Those are on the road now. And the Ben and Jerry’s One World One Heart festival is the same week as Bonnaroo. But we have a number of pieces that we’ve made for them over the years. We made a DNA fountain; we made an art wall which has been an evolving thing, people get to paint individual pieces and then it falls down into a giant hole over the course of the day. So we have some pieces like that we will redo for them and I have a crew of people that have done that set-up for them before and they’ll do that.
Where are you in your schedule? When will you start building structures?
RB- We’ll start production off site probably in the next week and then we’ll do on-site production starting around the first of June on through the event.
Did you start to work on site about three weeks prior to the Phish events?
RB- It will be very similar to that with an increasing level of intensity the closer you get to doors and gates.
In terms of design, to what extent are things set in stone and to what extent do you allow for improv or flow?
RB- Some things you can line right out and you know exactly what you’re going to do. But other things basically you agree to the concept and you know from a production standpoint it’s going to be a performance art piece and the little glitches and technical problems will create other opportunities and it will turn into whatever it’s going to turn into. So it’s not like making a blueprint and then making that same thing. Most of things are sculptural in nature and they emerge.
What has been the most frustrating lesson that you’ve learned over the past few years?
RB- Frustrating isn’t the right word because the things are so darned rewarding. You become exhausted like you do with any sort of theater or artistic project because it can go on and on and on if there isn’t a deadline. The deadline causes you to get things done but at the same time the more you fall into something the more you can be attracted to the level of detail that is necessary to make the thing really profound. So if we could have eighty hour days we’d be golden (laughs)
You also need to do your homework so you don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for the right welder or the right guy. That can be frustrating which is why we bring a core group of people with us wherever we go. We know we need people we can always depend on.
Do you care to provide us with any specific details about what you’re putting together?
RB- No, I think it’s too early to say. I don’t want to give any away too soon. One thing we want to do is have this be an unfolding surprise for the people who come there. We want people to understand that we want to do is create a really great place of social congress beyond just what happens when everybody is in a pack listening to any particular band. I see the whole thing as a music and arts festival and it is definitely speaking to a culture, which I find very attractive. The social component of these things is important and that a lot of these people are pretty aware of their place in the world is meaningful to me.
I’ve been to plenty of festivals that are not conceptualized in that way. I can tell you from experience, that what you describe makes it far more satisfying for people who attend.
RB- I really like these guys because they understand what they’re doing. This is the first time they’ve ever done anything like this so they have to rely on a few of us who are really experienced with permitting and all those issues but they really understand the importance of that. I think the mix of music that they have and the mix of artists that they have really speaks to the fact that they want to do a first class high quality event. They’re not just trying to put the minimum number of port-o-lets in. You have to make people feel comfortable. I also think that you don’t run into the kind of problems that you’re liable to run into at events where this doesn’t happen and people just feel that they aren’t being respected and then start to run amok.
Final question. As you sit back and look at your gig as visual designer for Bonnaroo, what jumps to mind?
RB- I have the best job. I get to touch anything, and people really like it. We’ll have horses there, mounties for security and we’ve worked with these guys before. I’ve had them take care of some things to make sure they’re well protected. I met with the head of the mounties and he said, “You know you could do something with us, we could do a parade or whatever.” One of the cool things about this job is that everybody wants to be involved in the stuff that makes it cool
Are you going to take them up on that?
RB- I think I am. I’ve got some great ideas. (laughs).