Article / 5th Jun 2024

An Electromagnetic Force

I've just returned from a fourteen-day trip spent building, running and tearing down EMF, and as I sit on the plane writing this, as well as physical exhaustion, I am experiencing a whole host of emotions - happiness, wonder, determination, and also a strange sense of loss.

It is impossible to describe EMF to anyone who has not attended; while initially you might want to compare it to a normal festival, or something like Burning Man, it is fundamentally unlike almost any other event on Earth. The Dutch and German camps maybe come close, but even those have their own somewhat different vibe.

Over the course of my time heading up the logistics team over the last two weeks, I have done and seen such a wild variety of things that I'm never quite sure what was real. Among others, I watched a man play the US National Anthem on a tesla coil using a theremin; climbed up into a DJ booth in a solarpunk-themed Null Sector and pressed the "!! FIRE !!" button to light up the night sky with pillars of burning alcohol; exited the shower to hear HACK THE PLANET echo out over the field from the stage a quarter of a mile away; saw an inflatable t-rex driving a miniature Jurassic Park jeep, played games on a hillside using lasers, and refilled the duck flume several times (shortly after exclaiming "We have a duck flume?").

Alongside this, I was also leading a team of fellow volunteers to run the Logistics department, which is far more encompassing than its name belies; it is some combination of shipping, organising, task tracking, dispatch, signage, traffic management, and apologising to Amazon drivers when they pull up and it turns out half of their van is for the event.

Leading Logistics

The logistics role is one that most attendees don't really interact with directly and which they won't notice if it runs well, but that also means that when it goes wrong it's especially noticeable. Apart from a few small issues, this year went remarkably well - a sentiment shared by pretty much all of my fellow team leads, which I think had us all slightly on edge at first as it was so unusual.

It's also quite physically demanding; I walked over 125 miles over the course of the event, drove many more in our utility vehicles, moved an amount of toilet paper and barrier tape measured in kilometres, and enjoyed a few meals from our excellent volunteer kitchen but missed many more due to being in the middle of something crucial.

Delegation, however, has never been one of my amazing strengths, but it's a skill one can work on over time; in my normal career, I have got substantially better at it, and in the open-source world I'm still progressing but getting there. It's harder in a volunteer setting as you can never be sure if someone will be around to keep the context you give them in the long run; I always try to lead by trust rather than by dictat in corporate settings, but in volunteer ones you can only lead by trust, and there is maybe no greater test of leadership skills.

We did alright, but it's on me to make it more sustainable and more repeatable next time. Illness and injury are always a present risk, but they took out a few orga members this time around, and it has reminded me that I'm not invincible, as much as I would like to think I'll always be around to fix something.

"Orga" is what the organising team is called.

Largely though, we came away from the event successful, despite the weather being awful during build-up and teardown but almost fatefully perfect during the event itself. Plenty of lessons for next time, which I've already started taking notes on, but at the end of the day, not bad. Not bad at all.

An Emotional Legacy

When EMF 2022 ended, there was somewhat of a ripple of "we have to do this all again in two years?" amongst orga; the burnout had been real and the toll in some cases too great. This time around, though, there's much more energy; while we're not all jumping straight into planning 2026, there's a new drive I've not seen before.

It is incredibly strange to be physically tired and yet mentally recharged; by all accounts I should be completely exhausted beyond belief, but EMF encapsulates the reason I love volunteering.

Roaming around the site, watching kids build robots, meeting someone excited that they'd learned to solder for the first time, seeing folks wander around Null Sector and dip into the Night Market to browse the wares and then dance the night away in The Quarry - that is why I do it. Seeing all the posts from people about how they had such an amazing time, and seeing word of it spread around online communities, for both the good reasons and the slightly nuclear ones.

I had one such moment when I was helping carry a set of instruments in for one of our evening music acts - two people who have been doing festivals for a while. As I helped them load their theremin, DIY bagpipes and odd bell-based sound machine into a golf cart, they assured me that EMF was one of the two best festivals they had ever been to, from a very large sample size. When I asked why, they replied that it was the people and the sense of community - they'd almost never enjoyed just being at an event more.

Very few communities of people are as wonderful as the people who come together - attendees and organisers alike - to create EMF. It's a victory of community, of the social contract, of trusting each other and building a better world; it represents that life is about what we owe, and do, for each other.

As I write this, I am charged up and full of ideas; I feel better mentally than I have for quite a long time (and I was already on an upswing after finally getting some underlying chronic health issues into remission). I'm not sure I could do it every month, but it does make my day job pale a little in comparison; that said, I am fortunate to work with some incredible people, so I'm sure it'll only be a bonus there too.

While we can only host 3000 people for EMF - any more and I think all of orga would just evaporate from the stress - I hope that it has an impact much larger than those people. The talks, the stories, the pictures, and the fact that such an event exists and can be a huge success - they all carry weight out into the world.

While I am travelling home, in many ways I've also just left home; after all, home is defined by people and community, and nowhere feels quite as homely as EMF. As I said to all my old, new and future friends as I left - see you all in two years.