• Will Kriss

Festival Review - Big Fam makes a Big Splash in Lake Ann, MI

Like many other events in the last couple years, the inaugural installment of the Big Fam Music & Arts Festival had to be placed on hold in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With that in mind, the production team was forced to take some time off, heading back to the drawing board to make the festival bigger and better for 2021.

So was it worth the wait? The short answer is a resounding “yes.”

Marked by rapidly changing weather, a well-curated lineup, and a small-festival setting with a big-festival feel, attendees of the first Big Fam were treated to a weekend of fun, friendship and new memories for everyone.

Housed at Harmony Pines in Lake Ann during the final weekend of August, I was lucky enough to be given a behind-the-scenes look at the grounds in July. At that time, very few structures had been built, but the team told me they had big plans for utilizing the space. Without giving too much away, they showed me where certain things would go, and what sort of amenities would be in place.

It was hard to picture it all when looking at the bare grounds, but I was very excited to see how it would all come together.

Upon arriving on Friday, August 27, the first thing I saw was a very large pyramid structure that had not been there before. I guessed (correctly) that it would be projection-mapped by night, and by that sight alone, I knew we were in for something special.

I had no trouble getting in. The gate staff were very efficient at checking my vehicle and credentials, and before long, I found myself pulling into my camp for the weekend. Multiple members of my personal festival crew had already arrived and were hard at work establishing our home base.

Many in my camp for the weekend were people I’ve been to multiple festivals with, while others were people I hadn’t met yet who were supposed to be in my group for Electric Forest 2020. Some of those people had made the trek to Big Fam, where we would be meeting in person for the first time.

Gray clouds streaked the sky with tinges of blue strewn about, looking like they might open up at any moment, but the weather held off long enough to get a feel for things.

Luckily we had planned ahead for that, and had erected a large canopy for the crew to gather under, which was anchored to the ground with cinder blocks. Believe me, we’ve already learned the hard way that if you’re going to have a canopy at a festival, it must be weighted.

Other people around us wouldn’t be so lucky, but for the time being, the weather had graced us with a break.

Since this is my first festival review since August 2019, I am not focusing on any one area in particular - it is my intention to give a review of the overall Big Fam weekend, as well as to recount my boots-on-the-ground experience as it happened.

The Setting

The first thing to discuss is the grounds themselves. While the venue in and of itself encompassed hundreds of acres of pine forests and open fields, nothing ever felt too far away.

All stages and attractions were easily walkable from the camping areas, and even if you didn’t have a map (which we did), navigation was no trouble.

Immediately adjacent to the campsite was the canopy stage, a large covered enclosure that proved to be a popular spot when the rain eventually came.

Following that were the vendors, medical tent and pathways to the other areas. Continuing past the vendors would take you to the main stage.

The main stage was impressive in its own right - very large and sitting at the bottom of a hill, it was flanked by twin Big Fam banners. It looked very professional - if you didn’t know any better, you might not think this was an independent festival.

There was also a smaller stage by the main one, which was reserved for flow artists and fire dancers of all varieties - quite a sight to see when the sun went down.

Each stage was accentuated with high-powered LED display walls and lighting systems. While I do realize this is a new festival, it’s hard NOT to draw comparisons to other well-known ones.

From the bottom of the main stage and looking back, I had several moments of Deja Vu where I could have SWORN I was at the Electric Forest Ranch Arena stage.

That’s how well the production was - again, it was a big-festival feel in a small setting.

With the pyramid on the visible horizon, it also reminded me a lot of the former Sacred Vibrations festival, which occurred in Shepherd, MI from 2017 - 2019.

Another pleasant surprise was a grand piano and some giant banjos that were on display in the vendor grounds.

I’m not sure if it was the same artist, but giant instruments are also present at Wheatland Music Festival in Remus, MI every year. That festival is important to me because it was my first camping event, and I’ve been to it every year since 2012 (besides the obvious).

Unfortunately, Wheatland was canceled for the second year in a row this year. But seeing those instruments brought me a lot of joy, because it reminded me of what it was like to be there, even if in a small way.

Other attractions included a very large enclosed gallery, which housed the work of various artists for sale in a museum-type setting, as well as a nine-hole disc golf course. I don’t play myself, but several other people seemed to be enjoying it.

All of this was rounded out by the Katfish EyeKandy Wonderland, an interactive art and music experience area with an extra stage, which you reached by following a different pathway down a hill. (More details on this area later in the story).

While it is not my intention to “grade” Big Fam, there are a number of things I look for in the way of cleanliness and available amenities.

When it came to hygiene, Big Fam did an outstanding job, especially under the current climate.

Anyone who has been to a festival knows that the Port-o-Potty situation can quickly become nightmarish if not regularly maintained. One festival from many years ago sticks out in my mind, where there was an inadequate amount of POP’s available that were never cleaned. In that case, by day two, I decided to just hold it until I got home.

That was absolutely not the case here. There were more than enough for use by the stages and near the campgrounds, and they were cleaned out every morning. Soap dispensers were rarely empty, and even if one was, the others were full.

Hand washing stations were also available near the vendors, ensuring cleanliness before a meal.

Another thing I really appreciated was the separation of trash and recycling bins. I’ve written before about the sustainability and ecological mitigations that have taken place at other festivals, and I was glad to see the staff taking this small step to make a big difference.

In the common areas, I was also pleased to see that the attendees largely seemed to be mindful of their environment - I didn’t see one piece of trash on the ground in the main stage or vendor areas.

It’s one thing if there’s trash in your own campsite, so long as you clean it up. But in the common areas, I didn’t see trash on the ground, nor did I ever see any overflowing bins.

To me, this says the attendees were being respectful of the space, which is refreshing to see.

Even more so was the fact that I never felt the festival grounds were too crammed or congested - despite having at least 1,000 attendees, there was plenty of room for people to spread out at all times.

Most importantly, this is one of those festivals that lives up to its name. Almost every two minutes I ran into someone I knew, regardless of whether I last saw them three months or even six years ago. It truly did feel like a “Big Fam” reunion of sorts.

Especially given the last two years or so, that was one of the best parts for me. I believe that no matter how great a festival may or may not be on its own, it truly is the PEOPLE that make the experience, and in this case, Big Fam hit a home run.

After minimal human interaction since February 2020, it was flooring to see so many people I knew again.

Earlier I mentioned how the grounds appeared to stay litter-free the whole time, which I believed reflected a good attitude by the crowd.

But it wasn’t just the good will of those in attendance - after the festival was over, I learned that it was largely a tag-team effort by two different volunteer teams working together, Manifest Green and Lake Five.

After the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from both of those groups.

The first person I spoke with was Austin Boughner, one of the founders of Manifest Green, the organization in charge of coordinating cleanup volunteers.

Staying Green and Clean, Part 1 - Manifest Green

Photo courtesy of Austin Boughner

Boughner began his cleanup activities at Sacred Vibrations festival, where he was eventually put in charge of cleanup staff in 2019. Earlier that same year at Electric Forest, he was inspired to start the Manifest Green team.

“We had a good night [at Electric Forest], and as the sun was coming up, we were walking around and seeing how trashed the place was,” Boughner said. “So we went back to camp, saddled up with a bunch of bags, and spent the next seven hours picking up trash. Then, we started talking about what it would be like if we created our own business to do this.”

Flash forward to 2021, Manifest Green launched its first year as a serious festival cleanup organization. Big Fam was stop number 12 of the year with more on the way.

To keep the grounds clean, Manifest Green works nearly round-the-clock.

“Our mission for Manifest Green is to maintain the cleanliness and waste of the festivals as efficiently as we can,” Boughner said. “We always make sure the trash bins are never overflowing - we normally take the bags out when they’re about three quarters full, because the dumpsters are usually about ten feet tall. The bags get really heavy and they can rip open - it’s just easier to throw them in the dumpster when they aren’t all the way full.”

Due to some people not showing up at previous outings, volunteers with Manifest Green must pay a deposit in order to ensure the shifts are covered. Boughner says this is a strategy that has paid off, and Big Fam was one of their most successful stops yet.

“We had three shift leaders, and then three people working under them,” Boughner said. “We had four people on the clock at all times and three rotating six hour shifts. So all day, we had a team leader and three people with that leader that would have spot cleaning bags in their hands. They would go around and pick up microtrash, while also doing their rounds, making sure the bins aren’t overflowing. We always had a squad from 10 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.”

Once bags are taken from bins, they are then taken by golf cart to the nearest dumpster.

“A huge aspiration is for our people to be able to vibe in a safe and clean environment,” Boughner said. “Nobody wants to be at the stage dancing on cups. It’s a big thing, our motto is ‘Purifying the Atmospheric Vibrations.’ We do whatever we can to ensure that everyone has good vibes.”

Although Boughner and company were hard at work making sure trash was off the ground and away from vendors, he did note that the crowd itself was doing a great job of it.

“I was really surprised with how mindful everybody was,” Boughner said. “Throughout all the festivals I’ve done this year, there have been some really dirty people - people that will just make piles of trash without even a trash bag. Big Fam was definitely the most mindful festival I’ve been to so far this year in regards to the waste they produced. There was almost no microtrash in General Admission where everyone was camped at, it was really clean.”

In the future, Boughner hopes to take bigger steps with Manifest Green, such as an informational booth and an expanded festival presence. Big Fam was stop number 12, and Boughner hopes to make it to at least 20 next year.

“We’re definitely looking for more people that want to get involved, because it’s hard to get so many organized for festivals,” Boughner said. “Our volunteers can’t always go to festivals every other weekend, so I’m trying to build a bigger team, and that’s something I’m really working hard on.”

More information about Manifest Green can be found at https://www.facebook.com/manifestgreenteam.

Staying Green and Clean, Part 2 - Lake Five

Photo courtesy of Kyle Carpenter

After speaking with Boughner, I was able to catch up with Kyle Carpenter, the Co-Founder and Vice President of Lake Five.

While Manifest Green is responsible for the volunteer staff cleanup, Lake Five provides the necessary infrastructure and logistics, including trash bins and recycling containers.

Also a newer organization, Lake Five began its activities in 2020, but became a registered nonprofit this year.

“Our first goal is consumer-directed,” Carpenter said. “We hold a variety of events ranging from things like what we did at Big Fam, to cleanups at local parks, trailways and waterways, as well as providing free educational resources to consumers. Obviously someone cannot make a change in their daily life habits without being educated first, so we like to provide free educational resources.”

Lake Five also works to help businesses become more eco-friendly through consulting services.

“That means businesses who want to be more sustainable, have a smaller carbon footprint, we want to work with them in any way possible to help them meet that goal,” Carpenter said.

Long term, the organization hopes to make meaningful eco-friendly changes on both local, state and federal legislative levels.

However, the Big Fam weekend was actually the first large-scale operation that Lake Five had joined, having previously only organized park cleanups and similar events.

Where Big Fam is concerned, efforts to figure out how many bins would be needed began last year, starting with a test run of about 30 staff members while on the grounds. The data developed from that test run was used to generate a model of how many bins would be needed for the actual event, and where the best placement would be.

“Big Fam had their own goals, they wanted to become a leader in being a green music festival,” Carpenter said. “They want to be known for everything being clean from the time you arrive to the time you leave. For a first year festival, it was really good to see that the directors for Big Fam were so adamant about that. They never even hesitated with us - we said, this is the price, this is what we want to do, this is what we think will work. They never second-guessed us. I go to a lot of festivals myself, so this was a great opportunity to combine my passion for the environment and my passion for festivals.”

That model was then shared with the staff of Manifest Green to determine the best practices for the weekend.

“Basically, we worked hand in hand with them in the weeks leading up to the festival,” Carpenter said. “We showed them where we thought the high traffic areas would be, and as the festival went on, they gave us feedback on where the bins could be moved to. It was basically a lot of coordination between us and Manifest Green, which was fantastic.”

Waste and recycling bins were provided by GFL Environmental and secured by Lake Five.

Despite some confusion with signage on the bins (both types had a similar black and green color scheme), and potentially hazardous situations with broken canopies from the storm, Carpenter also said the attendees appeared to be largely mindful about their waste.

“I think part of the reason for this is that the grounds were pretty much in a bottleneck,” Carpenter said. “You had to walk through the vendors to get to the main stage, so there weren't a lot of places where people could wander off where trash would be missed. Since everyone was going through this main path, it was kind of easy to keep people in this bottleneck, and that’s where we had most of the trash and recycling bins.”

In the future, Lake Five aims to have improved signage to better differentiate trash and recycling bins, as well as the possibility of providing attendees with a sustainable welcome package.

That package would include things such as trash bags, wooden utensils and eco-friendly stickers, Carpenter said.

The team has already been asked to return to the next Big Fam, but for right now, its members are still enjoying a successful first festival appearance.

“We never expected an event this large to be our first major outing,” Carpenter said. “All of our local events have been ten to 12 people max, so going from that to an event that has roughly 1,500 people, and the fact that it went off so smoothly with an amazing team, was just surreal. I cannot say enough about how great our staff were. Having this opportunity to have our first real large-scale event was amazing.”

To learn more about Lake Five, visit https://www.facebook.com/LakeFiveMi/.

KatFish EyeKandy Wonderland -

As previously stated, the centerpiece of Big Fam was the KatFish EyeKandy Wonderland, an interactive Alice in Wonderland themed art area with an extra music stage. The Wonderland itself was accessible by walking down a hill into an area known as the “Bayou.”

Several different interactive exhibits were on display, such as a projection wall, a telescope, a boathouse, a sugar shack, a misting light up fountain with seats around, and even a full-on library in a separate clearing.

Photo by Nina Maa Esme, courtesy of Kat Fisher

Some structures, such as the boathouse, could be entered. There were various pieces of art on display inside.

By night, all of the installed art pieces took on a different dimension, as the placement of lights and projectors caused them to appear animated in ways that were not apparent during the day.

Small decorations that were scattered about, such as frogs and keys, even inspired some attendees into believing there would be some sort of mystery prize for locating all of them. Some also believed that there was something that could be unlocked with the keys.

There were actually no such incentives, but so many people repeated this idea that it eventually became common belief. Some workers of the festival decided to play along with it, adding more credence to that theory.

The Bayou Stage area, its musical lineup, and all pieces of art and structures installed in the Wonderland (minus a select few) were all curated by Dave and Kat Fisher, who also serve on the Big Fam Board of Directors.

“Many of the art pieces are designed specifically with subtle optical illusions that you might not notice right away if the art were viewed in a traditional gallery setting,” Kat Fisher told me in an interview after the festival. “These paintings are also made with a combination of UV reactive and non-reactive paint to create another layer of movement. These pieces are then placed with sound reactive color changing lights and paired with projections. The intention is that the viewer can sit for a moment and watch the art move and change with light and sound. Art at the festival was paired with seating arrangements to encourage people to sit for a while and to become completely immersed in the experience.”

Upon entering the site, viewers could see and interact with various installments just by walking around. Mirrors, floating cubes and keyholes dotted the landscape, along with multiple spots to have a seat and take it all in.

Dave and Kat said that part of the idea is to find a comfortable spot and actually experience that art, rather than observing one piece in a gallery for a few moments before moving on to the next one.

“We wanted it to spark a memory, or something that seems oddly familiar to you, but just a little different,” Fisher said. “We tried really hard to give you the feeling of being at our home, we wanted people to feel comfortable.”

This display area, touted as a “dreamscape” by the Fishers, marked their first large-scale production. However, the project was a culmination 20 years in the making.