“Festivals have realized that the next big thing was getting out of the white tents and out of these sterile cookie cutter environments,” explains Dede Flemming, co-founder of the event production company DoLaB, which builds stages and immersive installations at festivals across the globe, including Coachella, Boom Festival (Portugal), Electric Picnic (Ireland), Summer Sonic (Japan) in Japan, WayHome (Canada), Lovebox (England) and Envision (Costa Rica). “People demanded more and it was really cool because we were right there to step up to that challenge.”
Pennsylvania natives Dede, Jesse and Josh Flemming, who initially moved to Los Angeles hoping to work in film or television, founded DoLaB in 2000 along with their childhood friend Jesse Shannon. Josh Flemming recalls: “We started out just messing around with lighting for small events and parties, creating lanterns and little light sculptures. Those sculptures then started becoming structures that you could go inside of.” The team took inspiration from their surroundings and, “from the very beginning, we would pay close attention to how things are built in the real world,” adds Flemming. “ You can pretty much find any solution for any problem by driving through Los Angeles and looking at lamp posts or bridges or buildings. It’s all there; all you have to do is pay attention and take notes.”
This Memorial Day weekend, DoLaB presents its flagship event, the Lightning in a Bottle Arts & Music Festival at the Lake San Antonio Recreation Area in Bradley, CA. This is the 12th Lightning in a Bottle, a socially-conscious, enveloping experience that features 6 stages of music (Bassnectar, Bonobo, Richie Hawtin, Rüfüs Du Sol, Kaytranada, Bob Moses, are among the 100-plus artists on the three-day bill), alongside keynote speakers, workshops, yoga, swimming and mesmerizing art structures, with 10 new designs set to debut in 2017.
“I like to think of it as a well-rounded experience,” says Jesse Flemming. “We’re trying to bring an educational component and an activist component to the festival in addition to all the wild and crazy performances and music and art structures, so that it’s not just a party. We’re really good at throwing parties but we also want people to walk away from this experience inspired and motivated by their personal lives — to want to go out and get involved in the world to help create positive change.”
You first got recognition for your installation at Coachella 2005 and DoLaB has been part of the festival since. How did that come about?
Dede: A friend of ours who’s now the art curator and used to be friends with the old curator just got us in the mix. We submitted a little proposal and at the last minute they accepted it. It was a 60-foot dome with some little artistic sculptures and a water fountain and some misting features. It was really basic but they accepted it, although doing what we do, we snuck in some speakers and we had people play music. We also did a dome the second year, although it was much more elaborate and creative — we did a giant treehouse.
I think Coachella really liked our style and our attitude because those guys come from the punk scene. They liked our willingness to push the envelope and do what we want and challenge norms.
The third year they came to us and said, “Don’t do a dome this time, do something crazy.” I remember driving up north with Jesse and Josh to the Bay Area and Josh was just doodling in his notebook and came up with this absurd little village that we ended up creating, which was just a huge leap for us in the design side and the creative side of things.
Coachella challenged us to go a little further and we did. They’ve always allowed us to have that freedom. They never asked us to submit designs for approval or to come in so that they could okay a project, none of that crap. They gave us creative freedom and a budget and we did whatever the hell we wanted to and it’s still that way with them.
As you continued to develop was there a memorable moment when your artistic vision ran into limitations imposed by physical reality?
Jesse: One year at Coachella we did a project called Fish Fry. We made this huge arch and suspended it really high in the air. We were going to do it all with an aluminum truss and after we made the curve we wanted, we thought everything was good to go. But we had a ton of weight mounted to this thing that would be over people’s heads.
This was shortly after we started working with a structural engineer and he came back to us in the 11th hour, literally the night before we were going to go build on site and he said, “I’m really nervous about this. You need to roll a bunch of steel I beams to back the truss, which we had never done before. We scrambled at the last minute to find someone to make these for us and luckily we found someone. Later, when we were breaking down the structure, we noticed that the original truss we were going to use by itself was totally bent and most certainly would have collapsed had we not reinforced it at the 11th hour with steel. So thank god for the engineer who called us out at the last minute. We’ve learned to take engineering seriously.
Josh: Oftentimes when the engineer says, “This needs to be this size,” we’ll make it one size larger just to be extra cautious.
You’ve been working on international events for many years now, how did you make those connections?
Dede: In 2006 at Coachella we met John Reynolds, a festival owner from Ireland. He has a festival called Electric Picnic and he’s a creative spirit like us. He doesn’t like rules, he doesn’t like authority, he just gets something in his head and does it. He saw what we were doing out there and he came up to us and said, “I want to bring you guys to Ireland.” We didn’t quite believe him because we were just renegade artist kids. This wasn’t a real business venture, it was just a fun project. But sure enough, he flew us to Ireland, we did an installation at his festival and we kept going back there, which led to other festivals around the world seeing what we do and inquiring.
It was always a self-sustaining thing but it was never, “We need to raise revenues and make profit.” That was never a thought. It was always, “We need to bring in enough money on this project to sustain ourselves and do the next project.” It was, “How do we feed ourselves, make art through parties and make people happy without having to do other jobs?”
What are some of your favorite recent builds?
Josh: A Big Fish which debuted at Coachella three years ago was one of my personal favorites. For many years we made these smaller pods — we called them pods — because we didn’t have the experience or confidence to make anything larger. But A Big Fish was the first year that we took all the things that we were learning and studying and built a structure that covered an entire dance floor. It was built out of these big wood ribs and even though it was playful and whimsical, it felt like we built something real.
I also think the Dance Temple this year at Coachella was next level. It was something we did at Boom festival last year. Jesse and I spent two months in Portugal building it. Standing inside of the Dance Temple was mind-blowing because we had spent six months on a computer looking at a 3D model but you cannot grasp the scale of the thing until you put it up — you could park at least 15 semi-trailers inside of the thing. It was huge.
This year you’re premiering 10 new structures at Lightning in a Bottle. What led you add that many?
Dede: We spend a lot of our year just daydreaming and envisioning the experience that we want to create. We have the best job because essentially we’re trying to create the world that we want to live in.
Over the years we’ve accumulated all these structures. Most festivals have one or two key unique elements but our entire festival is made up of these unique elements because we actually own them. And we have this amazing team of people who know how to put them together and set them up.
Jesse: We’ve moved this festival around a half dozen times and the fun part for us is trying to figure out the best way to use a location. We’re pretty good about going to any space, any shape, any size and really spending time with that space to understand how to use it. We like to think a space will tell you how to use it if you know how to listen.
So we can come out to this raw piece of land in the middle of nowhere and feel it out and figure out — try to understand where the best place for stages might be and where the traffic is naturally going to flow and where people are going to wander and try to line all those pathways with interesting things. Then we’ll see where we got it right where we got it wrong, taking meticulous notes.
As far as bang for your buck, we’re over-delivering like crazy, we’re providing so many comfortable places for people to sit and relax and so many shade structures and so many art pieces and sculptures. We can’t really help ourselves. The bottom line is never really our concern, so we can’t help going above and beyond. At the end of the day if we went broke and put on the best show in the world, we’d feel pretty good about that. We’re definitely better artists than businesspeople.