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July 20, 2019



ConFest - A Therapeutic Community Energized Conference Festival

(Full Text of a News Bulletin broadcast 4 May 2006.)


ConFest is a campout live-in festival in Australia. It was first energized in 1977 by ex-patients and staff of the Fraser House Therapeutic Community along with the Deputy Prime Minister Dr Jim Cairns and others. ConFest explores alternative community life ways and is organized by Down To Earth. ConFest stands for 'conference festival'. It is a gathering of people in open process that functions for many as a therapeutic community. The therapy evolves for each individual to suit his or her malady.

The first ConFest was held just out of Canberra in the Australian countryside. Fraser House people and others energized five festivals that were precursors to ConFest.

Next December will be the 30th Anniversary of ConFest. The festival is currently held twice yearly - over the New Year and Easter holidays. Around 3,500 people attend. ConFest is a live-in community and day visitors are positively discouraged.

By design ConFest has been at new sites over the years. Through public liability concerns, DTE has acquired 470 acres of bush land and is in the process of acquiring a further thousand acre property as sites for future festivals. Festivals cover around 150 acres. Both properties have many kilometers of frontage to river/creeks, which allows everyone to camp within metres of running water. Bird life abounds. The sites used have been visually stunning. A short walk into the bush will find kangaroos, emus and goannas. Snakes are often found within the camp sites and this seem accepted by ConFesters and snakes alike. One snake stayed near the first aid tent that backed onto the creek.

Gate price is $60 Australian and two hours of your time in voluntary work. Everything during the Festival is free. Around 1500 of the attendees have been to ConFest before and know how it functions.

DTE and ConFest have remained fully independent and have always been self funding. DTE and ConFest are both not-for-personal profit. There is no paid staff. All work is voluntary. A core group puts in many hours.

ConFest has a form that unfolds into each location. In each new site, layout involves working sensitively with nature. Many people explore the site and weave the festival into the bush land. For example a traditional camping area called 'carefree'is without cars, and areas are found that naturally have difficult access for cars and can be easily accessed by people carrying their gear in on foot. Typically volunteering, information and first aid tents are located near the workshop notice boards.

A feature of ConFest is the workshop process. During the 2006 Easter ConFest over 400 workshops were held along with over 45 other happenings. Volunteers set up five workshop spaces. Another 15 places are evolved by people who want a special atmosphere. The process of placemaking of workshops is interesting - under a tree in one spot, under a tarpaulin strung between a few trees in another, and surrounded by hay bales or a large circle marked by small branches laying on the ground in another. Shade is important in the summer heat (48 centigrade last summer!). These are places in a forest chosen because they feel right.

A set of ten workshop notice-boards were set up with the times along the side and locations at the top off columns. The black board is 12 metres wide and 2 metres high and ruled up in chalk in a grid boxes about the size of an A4 sheet. People write up a short description of their workshop using chalk. Two days workshops were shown and then the space was reallocated for later days. To run a workshop or discussion you find some chalk at the base of the boards, a vacant box in the grid and write up a time, place and description. It is an open, self-organizing, un-controlled, un-moderated and uncensored process. There is a consciousness in the many volunteers of the wellbeing of people who attend and present workshops, and occasionally gentle action is taken to preserve wellbeing. Workshops are on a wide range of wellbeing and community related themes such body approaches (including Reiki, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, Tantric, Yoga and Shiatsu) as well as spontaneous choir, hypnosis, theatre, global futures, the environment and lots more. Around 30 massage tables are in constant use in a number of locations.

The Art Village is an area based around a beach created on the creek surrounded by hot tubs, massage tables, steam rooms, pottery wheels, life drawing area, photography area, volleyball court and table tennis area.

Happenings included musical concerts on a couple of the nights. These Concerts are self-organizing on the night. There are no imported artists. The performers are people who happen to be at ConFest and volunteer their time to perform. Other attendees generate the concert space. Other spontaneous happenings are for example 300 women doing belly dancing, and 1000 people doing African dancing with movement changes rapidly moving through the throng energized by one or two that know the movements. Elsewhere on the site there will be fire stick twirling, and large groups of drummers and dancers.

Dress is optional and the right to wear no clothes engenders tolerance. Nakedness can be found throughout the festival and you may encounter a nude ticket collector when you arrive. There is no requirement to be naked or clothed. With the intensity of the Australian sun most have cover of some sort, even mud.

People from many cultures attend ConFest and world music, song, dance and drumming occur spontaneously throughout the festival at campsites, along the pathways, in the market. Spontaneous drum circles may appear and attract dancers as well as the fire stick twirlers - all self organising.

There are over seventy hand-held radios among the many volunteers. The current site has a UHF radio repeater installed that ensures communication between any two spots on the site. Only one channel is used like a giant party line and anyone with a radio can hear everything and can contribute to ongoing discussion. This creates an inner community of the core coordinators. There are typically no meetings and the radio network is the meeting place for the whole festival during the festival and for weeks before and afterwards. Because so many people are on line, it is easy to gather people at a particular location quickly if needed. The knowledge is in the group, so for example, a broken water line gets fixed quickly; and the current whereabouts of a specific tool can be immediately passed on to someone needing it. People with specific expertise can be linked into a specific context quickly.

There is a market place with food vendors. This is the only commercial aspect. Community food processes are growing. Because of fire danger and restrictions, many fire circles are created in cleared areas. Each of these has a shelter, 4 gas rings with tables, gas bottles and a large sink with running water. People camped near the fire circle are encouraged to share the preparation and eating of food. There are no personal campfires. People need to join a community fire.

A water and shower system is installed throughout the site. Pit toilets are used. When we lease land we depart the site within three weeks without leaving a trace we had ever been there.

ConFest has a myriad aspects that are conducive to community forming. For many, ConFest is a must on their calendar. The place is visually stunning and has an extraordinary vibe. Newcomers typically describe their first ConFest as life changing. The values of the Fraser House Therapeutic Community are very much alive and well in ConFest.

For futher information, see the Down To Earth Homepage, 2006 (www.dte.org.au), and Les Spencer(2006) Cultural Keyline - The Life Work of Dr Neville Yeomans (www.laceweb.org.au/ck/ck.htm).

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