Garbicz Festival: Berlin's Best Party is in Poland

Article by: Eamon Armstrong|@EamonArmstrong

Mon August 07, 2017 | 00:00 AM

We all have assumptions about new places. One of the great benefits of travel is to upend our oversimplified views of other cultures and festivals especially encourage cultural curiosity and make the world a more compassionate place. After all, if you want to see people at their best, join them in celebration.

When I went to Garbicz Festival in Poland I had my own assumptions about the Berlin dance music scene that inspired the relatively new event. As an American on a long trip in Europe, I almost didn’t make it. I was nervous that the none of the participants would speak English, that they would ridicule my colorful outfits and that I would feel alienated by an austere industrial landscape. What I discovered on the banks of a pristine Polish lake was a festival where any burner and indeed any international traveler would thrive.

The History of Garbicz

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Photo by: Eamon Armstrong

The town of Garbicz sits close to the Polish-German border and has changed hands throughout history. It was part of Germany prior to 1945 but after the second world war the Soviet Union resettled the village with families from Eastern Poland. For a community of around 300, the annual Garbicz Festival is a huge economic boom. The local church benefits from parking arrangements and the small stores make more on a single day during the festival than the rest of the year combined. The event also supports charity events and workshops for local children throughout the year and helps a small group of handicapped children looked after by the owner of the Garbicz Palace Hotel.

In 2006, two London based architects, Thomas Zieglmeier and Mark Newman, along with Jack Wiak and Zibi Gondek (who run a construction company out of the same building), bought the south-facing lake shore near the village. It was February and Zieglmeier and Gondek walked across the ice to a completely undeveloped plot. Even in the winter they knew they had found something magical. They initially did a planning application for seventy houses and three hotels on the land. However the more time they spent there the more they fell in love with the space. “We felt it was wrong to build over it,” says Zieglmeier. “But we didn’t have any idea what else to do with it.”

Meanwhile in Berlin, a legendary party crew was looking for innovative ways to revitalize the city’s culture. From 2003, an underground club on the banks of the Spree River called Bar 25 spawned a vibrant and irreverent community of freedom seekers and creative revelers until its unfortunate closure in 2010. The venue inspired such a celebrated resistance to bland capitalism that it was immortalized in a 2012 documentary Days out of Time. Juval Dieziger, co-founder of Bar 25, continues to enthusiastically promote emergent culture against the industrial spread of penthouse apartments with new ventures in Berlin and beyond. After an interim period with the venue KaterHolzig, Dieziger is now Chief Emotional Officer of an ambitious community-focused development project called Holzmarkt, which includes a hotel, restaurant, shops and the popular nightclub Kater Blau.

In 2012 Klaudia Oliver, the producer of La Calaca in San Miguel de Allende and a close friend of Zieglmeier, met the Bar 25 crew in Tulúm, Mexico, and introduced Dieziger to Zieglmeier. The immediate sympathy and trust between the two led them to hold a small festival just six months later. “We had the land,” Zieglmeier told me, “they had the party.” Their common goal was to develop something extraordinary with deep respect for the natural setting of the land in the middle of a nature reserve. 

The final ingredient of the masterpiece was the inclusion of festival experts Bachstelzen who came on board to choreograph music, art, and light into the land, lake, and forest. Inspired by Bar 25, they took over a floor at the popular Fusion Festival in 2006. “Fusion influenced the whole scene,” Florian Walther, one of the founders explained. ‘In good ways and in bad ways.” Fusion came from a punk background and Walther and his co-founders weren’t trying to replicate that model. “We wanted to do our own festival since 2005. We wanted something perfect, with a lake with a forest. Nature, something you can feel!”  Walther and company went to Garbicz in the winter of 2012. It was the place they had been looking for since the beginning. They were friends with the Kater community and that was their avenue for getting involved. “The power of Bachstelzen is not to stick to any pattern,” Walther said. “We were very flexible in what we wanted to achieve and that flow is still there in the creation of the floor. It’s all about community building. It’s all about bringing people together.”

Old World Charm

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Photo by: Eamon Armstrong

An exceptional festival experience comes down to two complementary aspects: the production value, both in terms of design and programming, and the vibe of the community. In both categories, Garbicz excels.

A friend from the U.S. referred to the festival as having “old world charm.” Set in a forest on the bank of a stunning, deep lake, the fest's spatial design emphasized the dynamic landscape. Rather than relying on temporary scaffolding and facades, the structures were solid with admirable attention to detail. I loved the large round tables for communal dining and I happily made new friends while feasting on delicious apfelkrapfen in the morning and Hummusexual hummus plates late at night. Bending around the bank of the lake was an elaborate jetty replete with a diving board and a DJ spinning funky electro on vinyl for a truly laid back sunny Sunday. Overall the production felt heart-centered, elaborately detailed and refreshingly tangible. There was certainly something of the old world there, from the homemade gingerbread cookies by Poland’s Masterchef winner to the handmade wooden structures dotting the grounds. But there was also the stunning glamour of gritty, artsy Berlin.

Garbicz 2016 Birdmilk Collective

A scene from Birdmilk Collective's performance. Photo by: Birdmilk Collective

In just a few short years Garbicz has earned a reputation as a top-tier destination for electronic music producers and aficionados. While they don’t release the lineup prior to the event and don’t use huge fees to draw well-known DJs, Garbicz showcases some of the best talent in Europe. It’s considered an honor to perform there and Garbicz sets on Soundcloud are some of the most highly anticipated of the year. Each stage (called a floor) at Garbicz has a different vibe and musical offering, from house to techno, to ambient to eclectic live performances. The festival even boasts a “hippy paradise” called Lichtung, which offers a space for yoga, meditation, workshops and improvised jam sessions. Garbicz is also deeply rooted in the Berlin dance scene. One of my favorite performances of the weekend was the Birdmilk Collective’s show in the Polish Corner. It was so innovative I saw it both nights.

Zibi Gondek, the passionate leader of the Polish production crew, is originally from the area and although his family moved to Southern Poland, he spent his summers at the lake. Being personally embedded in the community helps with collaboration with the locals and Gondek hires Polish people to construct the site, volunteer during the festival, and provide and cook local food, and as security year-round. I was inspired to hear Gondek’s passion about the event and the joy as he described his plans for expanding the land by 25% and building composting toilets.

An Intentional Community

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Photo by: Eamon Armstrong

At their best, festivals are intentional communities that iterate annually guided by a utopian vision. They are most successful when they either create or are tied to an existing network of engaged creatives and makers that is active year round. A strong community has core values and polices itself gracefully. At the same time it must be inclusive to new participants and ideas in a way that acculturates newcomers as well as allowing the core concept to grow. In fact, this process is one of the reasons festivals are transformational. Garbicz has grown to 8,000 participants in a couple of years so the event organizers wonder if they can maintain the vibe. However, with the core Kater Blau crew continuing to grow in Berlin, acculturation to the values of the festival will continue year round.

In spite of not attending other festivals, the Garbicz organizers have naturally picked up some best practices over their four years. For example, they employ a group of rangers to manage onsite security within the participant community, resolving disputes with compassion but firmness. Much like the Black Rock Rangers of Burning Man or Electric Daisy Carnival’s Ground Control, Garbicz’s Power Rangers are there to assist and acculturate: “The Power Rangers want to sensitize you to environmental issues, racism, sexism or homophobia,” promises the festival program, “You are not alone! They also provide you with sunscreen, garbage bags, or a good talk for those in need of an ear.” The producers also utilize a sophisticated harm reduction team onsite called Eclipse EV Psychedelische Ambulanz that provides drug safety information and a safe space for participants who are overwhelmed by their experiences. Eclipse works with Kater Blau in Berlin and joined the festival last year.

The Lady of the Lake

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Photo by: Eamon Armstrong

Garbicz doesn’t have the self-referential quality of crunchier festivals in the U.S. There’s no ultra-spiritual egoism. However, there is a live-and-let-live playfulness that fosters dynamic self-expression. The nourishing quality of the festival is also so much about the lake and the forest. “There aren’t forests like this in Germany.” Zieglmeier told me, “Germany has beautiful forests but they’re more cultivated. That takes away that enchanted character. You may have noticed this from the beginning but the land here is magic.” Before they bought the property the organizers spoke to locals who told them that there were people who regularly made a pilgrimage to the land because there “was something special going on.” I personally felt renewed by the healing waters. It is the deepest of a chain of lakes at about 40 meters of deep blue water.

Growing Boutique Festivals Everywhere

In many ways Garbicz mirrors a global trend. Much like the spread of craft brewing, festival attendees increasingly seek smaller, curated events. There is a deeper sense of community fostered when you meet the same people in line each morning. A smaller group of attendees creates more civic responsibility because there is less anonymity. Modern boutique events skew typically a little older and more participant driven than larger festivals. They foster a feeling of craftsmanship and love. As there is also less of an economics of scale, boutique gatherings mean less repetition of concept and more attention to detail. Frankly, I’ve never seen craftsmanship at a festival like I saw at Garbicz.

When I was first invited to Garbicz, I didn’t think I’d be writing about the event. I’d heard that there was a policy against promotion. The website is minimal with no photography of the lush location and the lineup isn’t published in advance of the event. In spite of the these efforts (or perhaps because of them) tens of thousands of people still vie for the limited number of tickets. After last year when Polish national TV told people Garbicz is the best festival in the world, the organizers have been less able to keep a lid on it. Zieglmeier laments that people may want to go just to say they’ve been. He wants informed participants rather than spectators and so I’ve endeavored to articulate the value of the event such that attendees, particularly international travelers, will understand that it’s more than just a great party.

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Photo by: Eamon Armstrong

Garbicz will remain a boutique event and most people reading this won’t be able to attend. However, from Desert Hearts in San Diego to Bass Coast in Canada, the goal of sharing stories about small events is not to encourage a glut of attendance. Indeed, it would be unsustainable to grow these festivals much larger, especially when the demand is already high. Rather the goal is to share what’s working in the global festival scene so that we can create more life-changing containers like Garbicz and where our parties can become more than just parties, but transformational containers for the betterment of all.