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Living the Island Life: Sziget Festival Beyond the Bands

Tom Szigeti 2017.08.19.

As we’ve reported, Sziget Festival, was held this past week on an island at the northern end of Budapest, from August 9th to the 15th. But while Sziget is famous worldwide for its numerous huge-name headline performers, there is far more to life on the “Island of Freedom” than just the concerts.

What makes Sziget Festival so unique, so interesting (and by extension so enticing to foreign investors), is in the way that it thinks about attendees of the festival itself. Unlike other mega-sized music events, where people are abandoned to their own devices until big name bands start hitting the stage in the afternoon, Sziget makes an effort to bring day-long programming, enjoyment, and even education into the festival experience. At its best moments, on the Island of Freedom, you can find culture, community, and downright silly fun, all of which make the festival into something more than a simple transactional experience of paying for a wristband to see bands.

Without further ado, then, here is just a small selection of the myriad activities, sights, and events open to “szitizens” of the Island of Freedom:

The Luminarium

Without a doubt, The Luminarium Pentalum is one of the most unusual sights of Sziget. While from the exterior it appears to be just a series of inflatable buildings, once inside you quickly appreciate it for what it is: an 800 square-meter inflatable sculpture that transports you to a world far away from Sziget Festival, Budapest, or really any place on earth that you could readily imagine.

The exterior of the Luminarium

While at first glance the inflated structures give off the appearance of circus tents, the inside is a sea of colors and geometric shapes. At Sziget for the fourteenth time, the Luminarium Pentalum is a creation of the Architects of Air, an artistic group based in Nottingham, UK.

In fact, the group has created an entire series of such “Luminaria”; Pentalum, designed by Alan Parkinson in 2013, made its way to Sziget this year. Since cooperation with the festival began, more than 8 million people have gotten the opportunity to take part in this truly unique experience.

The Pentalum itself is, in the words of Architects of Air, “a celebration of the beauty of geometry.” They also note the sculpture’s use of geometric forms that “can complement the sense of discovery” due to the fact that “they are forms that don’t have symmetrical axes to settle the viewer in the space.

While we must admit that we at Hungary Today failed to make not of the exact structural elements and geometric shapes employed in the Luminarium’s design, the results are undeniably stunning. After walking into an intermediate “airlock chamber”, you enter into a world of shapes and colors unlike anything found in everyday life; purple domes, scarlet alcoves, an inflated geometric ‘tree’ rises from the middle of a space that seems to be made up purely of shape and color, rather than of plastic and air.

While we have provided photos of the Luminarium’s interior, the truth is that images on a screen fail to do it justice: this is a space that you truly have to be fully immersed in to fully understand.

The Hungaricum Village and the ‘Táncház’

Sziget-goers learning how Hungarian folk dances at Sziget’s “Táncház”

One of the facets of Sziget Festival that distinguishes it from large music events almost anywhere else is the emphasis that it places on culture. One of the best examples of this is the Hungaricum Village, which provides Sziget-goers with an interactive showcase of traditional Hungarian culture.

The area plays host to showcases, folk-dance performances, traditional folk games, fashion shows, and various workshops every day of the festival. In truth, though, the most exciting side of the Hungaricum Village only emerged after the sun went down: the Táncház, or Dance House, an interactive combination of dance instruction, live music, and fun.

At night, “szitizens” would come from an evening of rap, techno, and rock music and step into a wholly different experience. Inside the Hungaricum Village’s wooden polygonal barn, festival-goers participated in traditional Hungarian dances with as much excitement and enthusiasm (and with as little coordination) as they had at any of the festival’s wildest performances.


The Cardboard Parade:  Cardboardia—Mobile Embassy

The front of Sziget Festival’s “Cardboardia Parade”, complete with a band

While wandering around the Óbuda Island, we had admittedly more than a few moments when we weren’t quite sure whether we were hallucinating or not; without a doubt, one of the most outrageous of these was the cardboard parade that made its way through the island, complete with a band, floats, and a multitude of people wearing cardboard regalia that words can’t quite do justice to.

This seemingly spontaneous (and insane) event was actually organized by Cardboardia, “an independent community of artists, performers, event managers and experts with various backgrounds from Russia, USA, UK, the Netherlands other countries.”

This art group transformed Sziget-goers into “Personages of Cardboardia,” who happily paraded throughout the Island of Freedom, bringing joy and confusion to nearly everyone they met.

Stilt Dancers—Afuma

Not long after our encounter with the cardboard parade, we ran (almost literally) into a group of men at tree-level. No these were not Ents, the walking oaks and elms of Lord of the Rings. In fact, they were, if anything more impressive: Togolese warriors walking, jumping, and dancing on 5-meter-tall stilts, all to the beat of a drum.

The men, trained in both “ancestral techniques and traditions” as well as in contemporary circus practices, danced around, lifted each other up, stood on their heads, and did many other things that the poor author of this piece can’t perform on his own two feet, while on stilts.

These men, in their own way, represented the very best that Sziget Festival can offer: an unexpected, yet exciting experience, that somehow still manages to help you learn more about culture than you would in that book about European history that’s still sitting on your shelf since your uncle bought it for you as a terrible graduation present 13 years ago.


Be sure to read Hungary Today for all of our coverage of Sziget Festival.


By Tom Szigeti

Additional info via sziget.hu and architects-of-air.com

Photos by Riley Dunbar (www.rileydunbar.com; Instagram: @rileydunbarphoto)

Videos via YouTube

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