The Rambling Boy: The C3 Festival — Marfa’s David vs Goliath

by Lonn Taylor March 30, 2019
A stop sign in Marfa. Photo by Brandon Zech/Glasstire

A stop sign in Marfa. Photo by Brandon Zech/Glasstire

‘The Rambling Boy’ is a column written by Lonn Taylor for The Big Bend Sentinel, a newspaper based in Marfa, Texas. You can find and subscribe to the Big Bend Sentinel here. This column originally ran in the Sentinel on March 28, 2019.

Marfa is facing a David-and-Goliath battle of unprecedented importance to the entire Big Bend.

C3 Presents is an Austin-based event production and artist management company. It is called C3 because it was started in 2007 by three men named Charles: Charles Attal; Charlie Jones; and Charlie Walker.

It is the largest concert production company in the world, producing not only the Austin City Limits Festival, the Voodoo Music and Arts Festival in New Orleans, the Lollapalooza Festival in Chicago and its spin-offs in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, but 1,000 concerts annually in arenas, casinos, and clubs across the United States and Canada.

C3 Presents wants to produce a music and art festival on a ranch a few miles north of Marfa, just across the highway from the airport, sometime next year, possibly over Memorial Day weekend. They estimate that 6,000 people will come the first year, with the audience growing to 17,500 within five years. Charles Attal is on the board of Ballroom Marfa. For several years the word has been out that someone at Ballroom Marfa would like to see a festival in Marfa that would rival the Burning Man festival in Nevada. In 2015 70,000 people attended Burning Man.

In order to produce their festival, C3 Presents is required by the Texas Mass Gatherings Act to obtain a permit from Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara. Judge Guevara may deny the permit on the grounds that the proposed gathering will present a danger to public health and safety.

The Rambling Boy does not think a festival of this size during the height of fire season at a site whose only access is from two-lane State Highway 17 is such a good idea and I have written Judge Guevara, asking her to deny the permit, pointing out that the only way to get to the festival site from an Interstate Highway is to drive 50 miles down a two-lane road, which is also the main street of Fort Davis. I think that the proposed festival clearly presents a threat to the health and safety of everyone in Jeff Davis and Presidio Counties. It is simply too big for our combined public safety infrastructures. At this writing the Jeff Davis County sheriff’s office consists of the sheriff and one deputy. The Presidio County sheriff’s office has a sheriff and five deputies. Both counties are getting by on skeleton volunteer fire departments and E.M.S. crews. The Rockhouse Fire, which started west of Marfa in April 2011 and burned 300,000 acres of grassland, required 500 firefighters from all over the country to put it out. A carelessly dropped cigarette, or a car parked in high grass with the engine running, could have the same result.

C3 Presents appears to be playing a sort of shell game with the permitting process, which is in itself a matter of concern. First they announced that their representatives would meet with the Presidio County Commissioners, the Marfa City Council, and members of the public in Marfa on April 11 to address any concerns about the festival. Then they produced a document entitled “Our Vision” which they said was intended to address those concerns, and which was published in last week’s Big Bend Sentinel. It is a collection of clichés and generalities that essentially says, “Don’t worry, we are working on plans to address all of your concerns.” It also says very loudly that C3 Presents thinks that if they feed us pabulum and tickle us on the stomach we will roll over and gurgle. At the same time they announced that they were postponing the April 11 meeting until an unspecified date in May, when they would be better able “to offer informed answers to local residents.” Their inability to offer them at this time was evident in the “Our Vision” document. Now the Presidio County Commissioners’ Court has announced that C3’s request for a permit will be discussed at their Wednesday April 3 meeting, which will be at 9:30 am in the Marfa courthouse. Do you smell a skunk? The Rambling Boy does, and I plan to be at that meeting.

What I did not say in my letter to Judge Guevara is that it seems to me that C3’s proposal is a crass attempt by a group of Austin promoters who have achieved a toehold in Marfa to exploit the town’s name and its popularity for their own profit, killing the goose that laid the golden egg in the process. Any sensible person knows that you cannot put 6,000 people in a pasture for three days, give them alcohol, and expect them to behave responsibly. Any sensible person knows that Marfa’s fragile public safety infrastructure cannot support a gathering that is more than twice the size of Marfa’s total population.

So, folks, let’s be sensible. Let’s leave the big music festivals in the big cities, where the people who want to attend them live and where there are adequate police, fire, and emergency medical services to support them, and let’s leave the countryside of Far West Texas pristine and unspoiled for those of us who enjoy it that way.

Please send Judge Guevara an e-mail ([email protected]) and urge her to act in the interest of the people who elected her to office and not in the interest of a group of Austin promoters. And please go to the Presidio County Commissioners meeting on April 3 and make your thoughts known.

Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. Taylor reads his ‘Rambling Boy’ column on KRTS Marfa Public Radio every Friday at 11am and every Monday at 7pm.


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Ashley McGee March 31, 2019 - 10:55

Thank you for this article, and for attempting to stop this terrible plan. This has the potential for large scale humanitarian and environmental disaster written all over it. I’ve just sent an email to Judge Guevara in support of your premise.

L.D.X. March 31, 2019 - 13:26

It’s not about the toilets.

C3 will force the conversation: they will talk about the availability of toilets, their track record in executing massive events without issue, and mitigation and remediation plans. The community will hear about logistics and transportation, economic benefit, and a lot of “vision” nonsense.

Let’s talk honestly about what this event represents. It is about colonialism and capitalism. The whole concept is predicated on the notion that there’s nothing here, and that the land is empty, available. There is no vision other than exploitation through oil and gas drilling, men plopping down monolithic land art, or importing almost 20,000 people for a festival.

Ballroom Marfa, a contemporary cultural arts space, has an interest in this event. The Board of Trustees will facilitate procession of this damaging circus. One must imagine how lucrative this path must be and the opportunity at scale for financial and social capital. Recently a letter was published in the local paper from Ballroom Marfa staff explaining they could not answer questions about the event and had no role in the festival as of yet. It read as a coded message pleading with locals to not bug them about this at the grocery store, written in a neutral, anemic tone. But it is necessary for the staff to take a position if we, their audience and patrons, are to take any previous and subsequent programming seriously.

This is a group that calls themselves site-specific, has collaborated with the Borderlands Research Institute and has produced symposiums on climate change and culture. Wouldn’t they be the one group that would have a deeply-considered and culturally-aware perspective on the implications of intrusion, changing ecosystems, land trampled by military interests (the forthcoming border wall), fossil fuel industries (the Trans-Pecos Pipeline), and destructive roads permanently scarring wildlife and ecological spaces? (On that point – C3 has proposed “remediating” any damaged land which is an absurdist joke where the punchline is their track record at ACL Austin. After heavy rain in 2009, thousands of people trampling the ground were smeared with human shit and industrial pollutants from Austin’s sewage system. It was reported that C3 then gave people the runaround. So C3 has shown us who they are. When they come to Marfa to meet with this community they will talk about what they know, and I guarantee it is not desert ecology.

If it proceeds, this festival will be the apex of a naively colonialist goldrush selling faux Texas desert mythology for those festival patrons interested in setting up further exploitation plans. And for the record, that totally includes convincing yourself you’re gonna get a trickle down of this in your new AirBnB trailer compound.

In Marfa we often see artists and art-workers double-down for gentrification and exploitation. This weekend is the inaugural Marfa Invitational Art Fair. Their site gleefully proclaims the town to be a blue-chip arts destination. Melissa Bent, who is on their Board, happens to have just become a Sales Agent at Marfa Realty. Welcome to our Chekov play, quaintly staged in the town that obtained its name from a Dostoevsky novel.

Mixed into this cultural imperialism demonstrated by the routine practice of artists parachuting in to suck up place and use it merely as site (thank you Lucy Lippard for that phrasing) is the town Mayor, Ann Marie Nafziger, who also happens to be an artist. On artnet news she was quoted as saying she is “committed to working against the kind of divisiveness that seems so prevalent in society today.” Foundational to this strategy is the need to deter a wild-west stand-off situation (or what in this Glasstire article is called a David and Goliath scenario). Yes, everyone who lives and works in the tri-county area should take a beat and reflect on their position and ask themselves, which side (of the wall) am I on? How do I feel about this when the (blue) chips are down? Etc. But the Mayor’s job right now is to devise and build a metaphorical off-ramp for C3, so they can figure out an elegant way to exit Marfa. The community is out-gunned. A stand-off would bring defeat.

To those actively trying to prevent this festival, a tactic beyond tagging C3 on Instagram (they don’t give a shit about this and have already blocked vocally opposed City Councilmembers) is to press them on what matters to them. Make this thing uncool to the scenesters in Austin and LA. Who influences the Ballroom Marfa Board? Make this thing distasteful to them.

To those that support this festival, umm okay.

Tami Kegley March 31, 2019 - 13:34

Please deny this permit!!!

Mi March 31, 2019 - 14:11

I think it’s probably also important to note the cultural and social implications of festivals like this. Festivals like these attract a certain demographic from a certain income bracket, these burning Man types with hedonistic proclivities and lots of cash to burn love buying (or erecting) their rarely visited vacation homes in hip, little known environments… property taxes skyrocket, costs of living go up for people who have resided in these gem-towns for generations. By the way, as progressive as these types claim to be they are usually openly libertarian and really don’t care how their actions affect the average wage earners around them, look at Silicon Valley. I know this aggressive gentrification has already hit Marfa but something like a 6,000 person festival is sure to speed it up. While big events like this one may bring money to local economies in the short term they can have disastrous long tng term results for the quality of life for the current residents in the long term. Marfa is so special and should be preserved, it’s safety, environment and the population it is truly meant to accommodate. I know the residents of Marfa are special people with a lot of heart and I hope they will take a stand against a big corporate festival that could harm their town considerably. I believe in y’all!

Neil L Chavigny March 31, 2019 - 19:57

Lonn Taylor is a clear thinking resident of the Big Bend and formidable chronicler of the region.

I consider it a credit to Charles Attal and C3 for canceling this event.

They did their due diligence, listened to the local voice and
decided to come to the region as welcome visitors.

Suz April 2, 2019 - 09:34

I lived full time in the small town of Telluride, Co for 10 years and people often fought festivals for all these same reasons, but ultimately today they keep the town going financially and Telluride is known for the music scene and most locals enjoy a lot of the festivities.
I think there are certainly options to make this happen and benefit everyone. Telluride has a smaller fire department and resources and makes it work.

Year round 2-3k people live there.
I’m not surprised of this reaction from Marfa, but maybe they will come around.

E. Dan Klepper, Marathon April 2, 2019 - 09:39

Thanks, Lonn, for taking a stand against this exploitation. And thanks Glasstire for giving the controversy some oxygen. The Big Bend region may be expansive and popular but it’s also a fragile place. All it takes is something divisive and damaging like the proposed festival to perminantly screw it up.

Deb Bloomer August 7, 2019 - 12:54

C3 will ruin the Big Bend! Absolutely do not vote yes.


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