Global Dialogues

Woodstock in Poland, 2012

The recently ended 18th Woodstock Station (Przystanek Woodstock) music festival, held in Poland just across the German border, is an extraordinary event. Organized on over 120 hectares under the banner of peace, love and rock & roll by the country’s possibly most popular charity activist, Jurek Owsiak, the free, open-air festival is a draw for over 500 000 people who come from all over Poland and increasingly from Germany to enjoy the unique event.

In terms of music, there are better festivals to be found. Woodstock Station showcases mostly rock, folk and industrial music bands, which are either still before or already after their prime; but this is only part of what makes the event special. The other is Owsiak himself and his charisma, which constantly attracts different types of people unhappy with “the system,” the political order, social norms and conventional careers. Woodstock Station provides them with a space without checkpoints or metal barriers, but instead offers one where they feel at ease and where they can do whatever they want. And indeed, the place has the feel of youth, punk rock and anarchy.

Yet, what you do find in the chaos is a quite surprising sense of mutual responsibility and a sympathetic awareness of others. During a concert you might need to elbow your way to get close to the stage, but if you feel gloomy, someone will ask if you are OK. The crime rate is ridiculously low: about thirty thefts in three days for half a million people.

Apart from two main stages and tent fields, which make the huge space look something of a favela, you can also find the so-called villages, spaces with big tents organized according to a particular theme. Apart from those organized by the sponsors—a mobile phone service provider, an international beer company and an on-line auction service—where you can buy drinks, exchange plastic bottles for water and charge your phone, there are others such as the religious Hare Krishna, and Catholic Church’s Jesus Station, another one created by the Polish National Bank, and the “Academy of Beautiful Arts,” a space for discussion where talks with public officials (this time the presidents of Poland and Germany), journalists, athletes, and even members of the army are held, and questions are taken from the critical but carefully listening audience. Smaller tents house NGOs such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, souvenir and jewelry shops, phone charging stations and the Christmas Charity Grand Orchestra (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy), Owsiak’s original brainchild, now over twenty years old.

The Christmas Orchestra, created in the early 1990s—not long after Poland’s democratic transition—was supposed to be a one-time event to collect money for medical equipment for newborns. Owsiak, then a TV host, famous for his show for teenagers, managed to create a one-day celebration of charity, hosted about two weeks after Christmas, broadcast live on television, with fund-raising music concerts held and televised all over Poland. The music festival Woodstock Station was created later as a thank you for all the volunteers who participated in the Christmas charity event.

It is now eighteen years old and has become internationally famous. German fans claim it would never be possible to create such an event in their country; Ukrainian fans are trying to adapt the charity and the music festival at home. And in a recent report on international religious freedom, the US Department of State mentioned Woodstock Station as the host of an ethno-league multicultural soccer match with players made up of Polish residents from foreign countries, including Nigeria, Togo, India, Italy, and France, showing it as an example of Poland’s anti-racist movement.

There are many music festivals in Poland where after paying for your ticket you can see all the new exciting stars in a controlled environment, and self-consciously observe other festival-goers to check if your taste in music and fashion is up to date. Perhaps because it is much less commercial and perhaps the bands there are not as new or popular, Woodstock Station attracts a different crowd of people. They seem to come there to participate in a shared feeling of liberation, spontaneity and few rules. At the same time Woodstock Station is a rare example of an event in which people granted freedom to do whatever they want choose to put their best, punk-rock combat-boot clad, foot forward.