Artist Interview with La Calaca Festival Founder Klaudia Oliver
Monday, April 8th, 2013
Klaudia Oliver has the kind of exuberance that isn’t constrained by borders. She is a cultural maven, a relationship builder, a free and welcoming soul who seeks to connect all people through the beauty of art and music. Klaudia has the radical heart of a burner and a reverence for ancient rituals.
This inspiring woman has entwined the culture of Burning Man with indigenous Mexican traditions to create La Calaca Festival in the historical town of San Miguel de Allende.
San Miguel has been home to many great artists and writers. Diego Rivera and Jack Kerouac lived there. The spirit of Neal Cassady is wandering the streets. He died on the railroad tracks outside of town.
Klaudia is building on the rich and vibrant history of San Miguel. She is a child of Mexico who was raised in Texas. Klaudia has lived in New York City, Europe and traveled the world. She has a worldview that embraces cultural identity and unity.
Last year was the inaugural La Calaca (The Skeleton) Festival. The second annual four-day, multi-disciplinary arts and music festival will take place October 31 to November 3, 2013.
La Calaca marries the joy, beauty and deep emotional connections that are part of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with the ten principals of Burning Man.
International and local artists, musicians and people from all over the world participate in a celebration of life and a remembrance of those we have lost.
Come to La Calaca! The festival welcomes those of us still dancing on this planet and the spirits of our loved ones, who step with much lighter feet.
The Ignite team had the pleasure to interview Klaudia to learn more about her vision and her passion to merge Burning Man principals with Mexican tradition in the amazing La Calaca Festival.
Can you tell us about La Calaca Festival in San Miguel de Allende? It sounds fabulous.
Klaudia: It’s really cool. The festival was born last year, around February. It came out of a City 2.0 question at TED that asked “What would you do for your city?” I organize TEDx conferences here in San Miguel and at Burning Man. I knew I wanted to link the explosion of arts and creativity with the vibrant and ancient traditions that occur in San Miguel de Allende during the Day of the Dead.
A group of friends and I came up with the idea of doing a festival. We were tired of the negative stories surrounding Mexico and wanted instead to celebrate our cultural traditions and build on them. Day of the Dead has a universal message about unity. We are all skeletons. We will all experience death and loss in some form or another.
The idea evolved when I was at Burning Man 2011, when I saw the Earth Harp with Andrea Brook at the Temple of Transition. It inspired me so much and it made me think of the immense privilege I have to be able to witness this kind of spectacle, and it spurned a desire to bring this to my country. I thought of the Mexican children that will never see this and how cool it would be to have all of our town see this in our town square. It’s so important to experience this type of creativity and the wonder it would invoke would be transformational.
La Calaca is at its very core a participatory arts festival. It’s about intervening with interactive art installations in disused spaces, calling on local businesses, individuals and arts organizations, national and international to come and celebrate the Day of the Dead, while still maintaining a reverence for the existing traditions. The ten principles of Burning Man informed our curation, and David Koren’s FIGMENT was also an inspiration.
Can you describe the town of San Miguel de Allende?
Klaudia: San Miguel de Allende is magical town in the central highland plateau of Mexico. It’s had a large ex-pat population since the 40’s made up mostly of artists, bohemians, and free thinkers. It’s a beautiful and inspiring place. I feel blessed to live here. San Miguel’s a bit of a portal for international visitors and new thought. We thought the time is right and the place is here.
The initial core of La Calaca crew are burners who are living here in San Miguel. We had a meet regarding the festival and said “Let’s ignite people with the notion of what is participatory art. In more traditional parts of Mexico, the Dead have always been a topic of cultural importance and significance in Mexican folklore.
So, Day of the Dead here in San Miguel, in recent years is a vibrant time where the cemeteries and peoples’ houses are full of song, and flowers, candles and loved ones welcoming back their loved ones. There is a burst of marigold petals, called cempazutchil, whose vivid color is thought to welcome the dead back to the homes. There are beautiful altars called ofrendas, full of food, bread called pan de muertos, and decoratively cut paper called papel picado, and images of the departed ones. There are also Catrina parades with people dressed up to the hilt promenading throughout the streets.
The first meeting for La Calaca actually happened in New York City. I mentioned it to my friend, Veronique Pittman who lives in New York, and she called on her burner community to ask what they can contribute from our festival expertise into this little town. We we wanted to change the story about what people perceive about us, what people perceive about Mexico. From the outset there was goodwill and many artists came to help paint faces, do circus performances, organize kids events, and help out with logistics.
The festival went down above and beyond all expectations. It happened about 12 days before the new mayor, Mauricio Trejo, came to office. He supported the festival from the outset, so it was really a perfect storm, a merger between the local government giving us permits and allowing us to use the park and letting us do what we wanted to do.
La Calaca was completely commercial free with no branding of any sort. We were given a small publicity budget from the municipality. We crowdfunded, took private donations and it was completely volunteer driven.
Andrea Brook, dressed as a skeleton, came with the Earth Harp. The Earth Harp is the world’s largest stringed instrument. The strings were tethered to the the crown jewel of San Miguel, the Gothic inspired church in the town square. It was just so cool. All the children and all the Americans and the Mexicans, everyone was just sort of watched in awe. And the parties that ensued! Whoosh! They were a showcase of Mexican and foreign talent. There were DJs, there were festivities, but at the same time, there was a real ancient tradition of reverence for the dead.
I just interviewed Andrea Brooks, she is incredible, what an amazing musician.
Klaudia: She is wonderful! I just did a yoga retreat with her at the Envision Festival in Costa Rica where I went to do a workshop on Celebrating the Dead. Andrea will be coming to La Calaca 2013. We are suuuper stoked to have her.
And you also had Spencer Tunick there, doing one of his famous photographs.
Klaudia: Yes, Spencer came this year. We did a shot called ‘Spirits’. I have worked with Spencer on production when he is in Mexico and I have to say this shot took my breath away. Everyone was covered in these crystalline and very sheer white cloths. Though it was freezing, 175 or so people showed up. It was in newspapers all over the world in places as far flung as Russia. We applied for an art grant for Burning Man, and are hoping for the work to be repeated at Burning Man 2013.
What is your background?
Klaudia: I’m kind of like a mixed bag. I call myself a Euro-Tex-Mex. I was born in Mexico, and grew up in the states. I lived in Europe for many years. I’ve had a wide assortment of jobs mostly in music, fashion and event organizing. I had a casting company, I was a stylist, I worked at David Bowie’s PR Company in London, all the while organizing events. I was kind of like this nomadic Mexican club girl, festival goer, and party maker. I moved to Mexico about six years ago. Even though I’m Mexican by birth, it was my first time to live here Mexico. I bought a publicity company and I also started working in real estate at Sotheby’s.
I decided to dive deep into this magical little town called San Miguel. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and sense of wellbeing I experienced here. When I went to Burning Man, I thought, I‘d just go from my beautiful, magical city to your beautiful, magical city. And since then, I guess you could call me… well, the mayor just gave me an award, cultural ambassador is what he is calling me.
Congratulations! That’s amazing, what a wonderful feeling that must be.
Klaudia: I’m very grassroots. I call myself an artivista, mixing art and activism, so it felt really good to receive the award.
Mexico gets a bad rap in the states much of the time.
Klaudia: Yes this is the main challenge. To change peoples’ perceptions and bring light to the magnificence of this place, its people and its traditions. We have to create different stories, and lately I have been calling myself a storyteller creating positive, art driven, community making stories that can resonate with people worldwide. While traveling last year, I remember at the Damian Hirst Skull at the Tate Gallery, and everywhere you look, skulls and Day of the Dead imagery was everywhere. It’s quite chic, so why not bring it back to Mexico and educate and expand on the traditions surrounding dead
In America, people aren’t connected with death. There is going to be a lot of collective mourning and a lot of collective loss if we don’t learn to transform these feelings about death. Part of our mission is to showcase the universal transformation of death as part of the cycle of life, and thereby heal ourselves, by utilizing ancient ritual and traditions to creating new ones that work for today. The skeleton is such a beautiful universal symbol of who we are. Todos somos calacas! (We are all Skeletons!)
I agree. In North America, the way we approach death isn’t very healthy.
Klaudia: No, not at all, and yet we’re all heading that way. Not one person is going to escape this. For me, I hope to spawn more La Calacas in other parts of the world and how we can transform our loss by these simple steps.
I recently went down to the Envision Festival in Costa Rica and gave a workshop on creating an Ofrenda, which is a Day of the Dead alter. How is this universal, how can you invite your dead to live with you, whether it be on Day of the Dead proper, or on the person’s birthday, or on a day that is special to you, or everyday? How can you honor the memory of your loved ones and also have a connection to your ancestral past? I feel there is a lot to be learned from it.
Day of the Dead is such a celebration, instead of a mourning. Everything, from the colors, the food, the decorations, it seems healthy and happier. Those of us in North America can learn from this tradition.
Klaudia: Definitely, and the more I’ve gone deeper into it, the more I’ve just started exploring the Celtic and different rituals that exist around the world, in this last workshop I did at Envision. Whatever imagery you have that connects you to your higher self, it could be the Day of the Dead and Catrinas, it could be your Catholic images, your Buddha, your R2D2, it doesn’t it matter, it could be a pile of rocks that mean something to you. Whatever provides a meaning within you to help you be in a place of connection, that’s where I was going with it. We start off in Mexico, but by far we go into whatever you want it to be, so long as it helps you transform your feelings.
That is pretty much what Burning Man is about. We need more of that, everywhere, in everyday life. Are you already working on this year’s La Calaca?
Klaudia: Yes! We’re definitely getting going this year. We are in conversations with David Best, known for his amazing Temples at Burning Man; Andrea Brook and her Earth Harp; David Tija of Cirque de Soleil; Joshua Harker, who does the 3D imaging of skeletons; Aaron Taylor Kuffner of the Gammaletron; Stephan Spins and his hooping and of course the plethora of local talent in Mexico to participate.
The urban arts collective, born out of last year’s La Calaca , Muros en Blanco, are clustering again, self organizing and coming up with a proposal. I’m super proud of this project because since San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage town, graffiti, urban arts was going to get criminalized and heavily punished. The young people had never been given a voice, never been given the access or legitimacy. I kind of lobbied with a group of friends against this and we were saying that you cannot squash creativity, if anything you need to expand creativity.
It’s going to be CALIENTE!!
Do you get a lot of volunteers or people interested in being a part of La Calaca?
Klaudia: The whole thing is volunteer driven. The core team have organized ourselves to be a non-profit organization, which is great, to begin to apply for grants and look to do some funding so we provide art grants for some of the arts installations and host artist residencies.
We are actually going to be at Burning Man as La Calaca. Our camp is called La Calaca. We’re sending an envoy of massive skeleton heads to Burning Man, to the playa. So I’m looking at this as a diplomatic mission. We’re taking some of our music, some of our DJs we’re going to be taking some of our skeletons, we’re going to be painting faces as skeletons on the playa.
We want to have a representation at Burning Man so that more burners, more people who have this kind of mind can come and participate, or they can just come and experience it.
This for me is a really relevant step to change stories. If we can begin with the burner community, which is a very progressive place to start, then I feel we are really heading in the right direction.
What is San Miguel de Allende like the rest of the year? Is there a lot of tourism?
Yes for sure there is tourism, both national and international. There is a constant array of festivals and people come to learn Spanish or take art classes. Many, like myself, choose to stay. Our town has about 140,000 people and it has about 10,000 Americans and Europeans living here. It’s had its influx of artists, from your beat poets, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac to many others. It’s always been that kind of “I’m going to Mexico to write a book.” town.
They come to this crazy little town that has a lot of fable around it. We’re on a bed of quartz crystals and we’re surrounded by hot springs. It’s this magical little cobblestone town. On the surface, we do have a lot of tourism, but beyond it, I feel that the community that is created here is really for me a community that works hard to change the story of Mexico. We’re very committed in to our organic farming movement, were committed in to our outreach into to schools that have water harvesting. I would call us an involved community. I sometimes refer to San Miguel as being an extended Burning Man camp where we all tend to help each other. Sometimes, when the economy wasn’t so great, the barter system here was just nonstop and our standard of living, if anything, was elevated despite the lack of money.
Whenever you get a community of artists together, it seems to uplift the entire community and improves the surrounding area.
Klaudia: It certainly expands it, for sure. One of my dreams would be to keep going with it, sort of like a burner outreach type of thing where I envision someone like Kate Raudenbush coming here.
We are a town of craftspeople, of artisans, so how cool would it be to have say, Kate Raudenbush or installation artists from Burning Man coming here to do a residency and working with the local welder kids, doing stuff out of recycled materials and making a site-specific installation here. We can unite and have this kind of residency that blends both the creativity that we see at Burning Man with the artisan kids here in Mexico. They have it in their blood, and yet I think it would be so cool to open their minds to what they can do what their skill set.
That’s an amazing idea, and a fantastic experience for everyone who could be involved.
Klaudia: It’s educational as well. We want to ignite creativity, ignite education and open people’s minds even more. People freak out about how cool the traditions are here. In DJ terms, it’s a bit of a cultural mash up.
Is there anything else you want us to know about La Calaca or San Miguel?
I would like people to participate. This, for me, came from Burning Man. I went last year to the regional conference, just because I saw that there is no regional contact for Mexico. I went there wanting to find out more and to see how we can bring this Burning Man culture to San Miguel.
We all participate in festivals, and I feel this is really great, but my personal mission as how can I bring the creativity, the ten principals into civic society, and infuse it into a Catholic country that is normally very traditional. How can I integrate the amazing traditions that we have here into some of the ten principals that happen at Burning Man?
How can we begin to teach all that we have learned at Burning Man and somehow infuse it with the local population people that will never be of festival culture? How to bring this into the default world, the real default world that is not liberal, that doesn’t have the same opportunities financially.
This for me is my main challenge, and at the same time, it is about how to project a different story of Mexico onto the world and deal with death in new manner. This is what we are trying to do here.
Muchas gracias, Klaudia.
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