Surrealist Art and Eerie Magic: A Deep Dive Into the 10-Year History of Suwannee Hulaween’s Spirit Lake
The music is an integral piece of what makes Suwannee Hulaween so special, but anyone who has gone to the festival would agree—the real magic happens at Spirit Lake.
Fully immersed in Florida's natural beauty, the radiant Spirit Lake encompasses everything there is to love about the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. By day, Spirit Lake is a natural oasis surrounded by trees dripping in earthy Spanish moss and drenched in sunbeams dancing across its forested floor. Warm sunlight peeks through tall, tufted trees and you can feel a palpable sense not only of interconnectedness with nature, but also of "home away from home."
By night, though, Spirit Lake transforms into its own psychedelic universe. Expertly programmed lighting illuminates its organic textures while lasers chase the treeline and mind-melting projections graze every swampy surface. It's hard to believe you're still on planet Earth.
At every turn, mind-blowing interactive art begs to be played with and audible gasps of bewilderment can be heard far and wide. Surprises await those who are willing to look deeper. 3D holograms on the lake seem to reach out and touch you while ambient noise flitters and dances between the trees, playing with all your senses.
Every inch of the space is so carefully curated, it really makes you think, "How is this place even real?"
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Hulaween's Spirit Lake has been continuously evolving since its inception 10 years ago. Brought to life by a dedicated phalanx of programmers, engineers, artists, designers, craftspeople and more, the space didn't just become this magical overnight. It has evolved year after year through unique collaborations, experiments and ideas that take the magic from dream to reality.
Returning October 26-29, the sold-out fest also features a stacked lineup to meet the moment. This year's event features The String Cheese Incident, John Summit, Boogie T, Big Wild, Elderbrook, Dispatch, Goose and two sets from the resurgent Pretty Lights, among many others.
The very first Suwannee Hulaween took place back in 2013. Denver-based brother duo MZG, who have been performing at the event since its debut, said the festival's palpable magic has a lot to do with its venue.
"Hulaween is a home away from home," they tell EDM.com. "It's where you’ll find your family you never knew you had, until you visit. Hulaween is hosted at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and that has a lot to do with what makes it such a special festival to begin with. The park is made for music and Hulaween suits it gracefully. Spirit Lake, to us, is the place where you can wander and find exactly what you didn’t know you were looking for. After the sunset, it becomes quite the showcase of the arts, just about everywhere you step. It’s something you have to experience."
James Erasmus, a South African engineer and entrepreneur who designed and built the water screen technology for the festival's phantasmagoric lake projections, agreed that the park's natural beauty plays into its enduring allure.
"The lake at Hulaween is very special," Erasmus said. "I have a very close relationship with water. It is such a beautiful environment and we are so privileged to be able to experience it. To be in nature and to have such beautiful water, it is rare. The first time at Spirit Lake, it felt like finding a family I never knew I had. And on the production side, there is such camaraderie of everyone working together."
Erasmus reverse-engineered the water screen tech, which projects 3D holograms onto the lake. Applying his engineering background, technical skills and lifelong love of music festivals, he was able to develop one of Spirit Lake's most iconic art installations.
Learning the differences between South African and American power systems and mastering the nuances of water dynamics, it took a year for Erasmus to design a prototype so he could pitch his idea to the Hulaween team.
"I took all our savings and spent it on buying the pump and building a frame," he recalled. "I created a much bigger water screen than I had showed them. It was impossible to test it due to the voltage we used, so I created the whole thing without ever testing it. But I knew it would work once we put it on the water. And it worked wonderfully!"
"We had our first show at the first Hulaween and it was amazing to see the reactions on peoples' faces and to see the impact it had," Erasmus continues. "I never knew it would have such a radical impact. I was just trying to do something pretty for everyone to look at and add some beauty to the world. Then so many people came up to me, so inspired, they said it gave them hope."
For Erasmus, creating the water screen and hologram show meant more than just building an art installation.
"I look at the state of the world and I want to be a force of joy and inspiration," he says with a smile. "I want to inspire people and give them hope that there is more to this world than what they think is possible. I love sharing the water screen. No matter if a grand dad or a little child sees it, they are equally fascinated. It's a beautiful form of communication that crosses age, gender, race or nationality. We all absorb that love and goodness."
The water screen technology first landed at Hulaween in 2016. Before that, lighting, fire activations and a few other elements played together in Spirit Lake, according to Justin Casey, a production designer who has been with the festival since its first inception. Casey was originally brought in to help with lighting design on the Amphitheatre Stage, but ended up assisting with programming on the lake as well.
"Year three was a huge moment for us," Casey recollected. "We noticed crowds sitting on the banks by the lake. Before that, we didn't have a seating area. But in 2016, we built an area so people had a space to sit and watch the show. We brought in a team to help program the lake with more equipment and that all made it a really big year for everyone, because we glued everything together. We had ambient noises and spooky, Halloween audio tracks like whale noises, chants and other weird sounds. We programmed the lighting to change with the sound. There were lasers and video projections on the lake, too. It was a great year. We finally had something synced and created a show, rather than having multiple people doing their own things. Now we had a timeline set and created an hourlong show that looped."
Then, there was the jetpack guy. Hulaween veterans will remember having their minds blown by this mysterious person flying over the lake. But what you may not know is that his first performance at Spirit Lake was completely unplanned.
"He showed up randomly and was like, 'Hey, I brought this stuff and I thought it would be cool to try it here, so can I get in the water?' All of us were like, 'Uh sure, let's see...' So, before the festival officially began, he got in there and started doing his thing. We were all like, 'Oh my god, this is the coolest thing ever!' We ended up coordinating with him so he could go every hour or so, spending 15 to 20 minutes in the air. We found out some cool things. We could turn off the water pump, which creates the holograms on the lake, but keep the projector on. We put images like flames on it. He was basically able to create his own water jet screen behind him, and when he would fly around, it would look like he was on fire. The first year was a totally rogue thing."
After the success of his first performance, he came back with an LED suit the following year. The team also added flaming lily pads and other elements to the Spirit Lake show. Syncing the audio and the visuals, the team was able to control the flames to shoot up at the same time as the audio played, like the sound of a monster roaring.[embed]https://youtube.com/watch?v=661EyQMpX_I[/embed]
"We had a controller and the pyro people would take it into the crowd and randomly walk up to people like, 'You want to shoot flames? Hit this button,'" Casey explained. "It was a cool experience to watch that happen because people could really interact with the install. Over the years, we have tweaked all of the elements, like brighter lights on trees, brighter lasers and projectors. We always try to get the right collaborations to create the vibe we are going for. Every year we could add a bit more because there was more faith in us. The festival was like, '[Spirit Lake is] becoming our signature thing and we want it to continue to grow. We do months and months of research to make it better each year.'"
For Casey, the biggest goal with the art on Spirit Lake is to balance elements of light and dark, creating happy moments but also using some brooding content to play into the fact that the festival takes place over Halloween weekend. His ultimate reward, he says, is watching people experience the magic in person.
Spirit Lake's Curator and Creative Director, Justin Bolognino, agreed that seeing the wonder on people's faces when they experience an amazing installation is the icing on the cake. Bolognino has designed immersive artistic works in collaboration with Skrillex, Phish, Porter Robinson and more, as well as with Spotify, Twitter, HP, Samsung and Google.
"We always want you to feel a sense of mystery, wonder, surprise and delight," Bolognino tells us. "We’ve focused on have lots of mini-world to discover, with plenty of hidden surprises. We love the juxtaposition of the large-scale pieces, and creating more thematically-oriented art zones to create more of a sense of cohesion overall."
"We’re doubling down on our legendary lake water screen with lots of new visual and audio content, including some of my own music," Bolognino continues. "We’re also bringing back one of the best projection mapping teams in the business led by Jasper Mosher, who will be going bigger than ever in mapping many of our art and the Spirit Lake stage."
Jasper Mosher and his wife Shelby, who run a projection-mapping company called The Electric Dream Machine, are experts who have worked on Spirit Lake for the past eight years, using Epsom projectors to "create the illusion of bringing inanimate structures and artwork to life with custom digital content and other special effects," he explained.[embed]https://youtube.com/watch?v=8LUSmvKLPqo[/embed]
By playing with light and imagery across different surfaces, the Moshers are able to play on the senses and make people feel like they can't believe their eyes. Shelby had the idea to create an illusion of spiders, snakes and creatures crawling on the ground by setting up a projector in a tree, pointing down.
"The first attempt at this had to be one of the most entertaining installations of our career," said Jasper. "Half of the patrons walking by would try to step on them or play with the projections. The other half would scream at the top of their lungs in genuine surprise or take off running in sheer terror thinking that our illusions were the real deal. It was hilarious to stand there and watch all the different reactions. After the first year, the amount of ground projections grew from one to a total of eight different installations located at different spots all over the Spirit Lake area."
Perhaps one of his favorite experiences working on Spirit Lake was projection-mapping the towering witch sculpture by Paul Kuhn.
"We designed psychedelic, ever-morphing effects for the witch's jacket, added different energy sources for the crystal in her staff, animated her eyes to follow patrons and gave her skin a freaky aging effect that made you wonder if this was happening, or if your eyes were playing tricks on you," Mosher explained. "Her cauldron was lit with digital fire and would erupt with color smoke, spooky symbols and animated creatures. All the skulls at the base of the sculpture had digital eyes that would look around in random directions. Occasionally the entire witch would engulf in sparkling green smoke before transforming into a cat, monsters and other imaginary creatures. The different array of animations and effects would continuously change though a 24-minute cycle with special interactive effects jumping out that would zap patrons with energy bolts and spells to keep the installation interesting throughout the four-day weekend."
Mosher has worked on stage projection-mapping at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for may other events, including Bear Creek, Wanee and others since 2007. But, he said, Hulaween is the first festival to completely transform the lake area.
"The section of the forest I had been so familiar with for most of the previous decade was almost unrecognizable with creative artwork from all mediums, massive sculptures and special effect lighting, spread out as far as the eye could see," recalled Mosher. "One of the most impressive aspects, for a production nerd like me, was the extensive underground network consisting of miles of power and data cables necessary to run the hundreds of lighting fixtures mounted in all the trees. You could see moving and multi-color lights everywhere, but because there wasn’t a single cable or generator in site, it almost felt like you were walking through a pristine alien forest where all the wilderness would grow psychedelic lighting as an organic natural phenomenon."
Seeing the ambition and creativity at Spirit Lake collide and continue to expand over the years has been a rewarding experience for the Moshers.
"The evolution of this event has been inspiring to witness," Mosher continued.
"Not only has the Spirit Lake production area continued to grow over the years, but the intricacies of the artwork, creative depth and the community of creators has developed by leaps and bounds. Thankfully, Spirit Lake has managed to retain the original personality from its youth while blossoming into the creative behemoth of an immersive environment that it is today. I personally find the Spirit Lake artists' use of natural elements to be a true part of its charm."
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This year, 10 new installations will be featured in Spirit Lake, where Subloominal and Voxeleyes will bring a special mushroom-inspired installation. The piece will feature custom LEDs and proximity sensors, ultimately showcasing "interactive bioluminescent mushrooms in their Bioshroom display which are created by growing and foraging real mushrooms that are 3D scanned and digitally sculpted to be 3D printed."
The Hulaween faithful can also explore Tyler Schrader's "Cosmic Portal," an interactive wooden LED sculpture "equipped with a device that detects electrical variations of plants, translating them into vibrations, audio and visual experiences that encourage attendees to reconnect with nature through the use of technology," according to a press release.
Emanuel Zarate Oritz is bringing a new Alebrijes installation, which is said to pay homage to tales of traditional Mexican storytelling and "inspire spiritually expansive messages to the Hulaween attendees." Meanwhile, Paul Kuhn's Twelve Limbs Art Studio will return with his signature sculptures, including the Witch, the Ogre and the Ferryman.
Organizers are also bringing back a ton of community staples and fan favorite installations, including the fire-spitting Incendia stage, the beloved Frick Frack Black Jack and the Mural Maze, the lattermost of which is expanding to include a lounge and workshop space, hydration station and gallery. The sustainably constructed Birdhouses built by Duende Builds will also be back this year.
Plus, fans can expect to see the returns of the "Spider" by Thomas Dambo, the "House of Lost" by Lost Creations, the "Portal Prism" by Daniel Shields, Charlie BlackCat Smith's flaming interactive steel sculptures and many, many more.
You can learn more about Suwannee Hulaween and Spirit Lake here.
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