Firsthand Report: When Russia’s Army Closed Outline Festival

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We snuck onto the grounds of Moscow's Outline Festival to see what we were missing out on after the Russian military shut it down.

Several news crews had already arrived by the time our car arrived at the gate of the MoZAL auto body plant in Moscow before sunset on July 2, 2016. There stood a crowd of shell-shocked staffers who had been setting up what was supposed to be this year’s Outline music and art festival when Russian authorities arrived on site and cancelled the party just hours before it was due to start. Police monitored the throng. Around the corner, more officers unloaded riot shields from jumbo-sized vans parked across from a platoon of military men in blue fatigues. An orange municipal garbage truck cruised down the road behind us with its street-cleaning hoses pointed outwards and upwards, heaving jets of water that drenched those gathered out front.

We parked our car in an inconspicuous spot and the three of us got out. We walked down a side street along the periphery of the plant and followed a route that would lead us to the locked festival grounds. We went through fences, traced railroad tracks and climbed a small bit of scalable wall that led into MoZAL. A few people waited on the other side to give us a tour of what should have been Outline Festival’s biggest edition yet.

It took us at least 30 minutes to see it all: There were carousels; hollowed-out buses and cars; a skate park; a maze; intricate two-story wooden scaffolding constructed opposite the DJ booth Ricardo Villalobos was scheduled to play in; chill-out areas nestled into nooks and crannies inside the old building’s drafty caverns; laborious hand-made art pieces like five meter-long wǔ lóng dragon costumes, a carefully-arranged stack of cereal boxes painted with the words “EAT YOUR LIES AWAY,” colorful murals and rotating light installations. The MoZAL area is huge and stoic, and its corroding brick and metal industrial buildings seem emblematic of post-Soviet decay. Dejected staffers sat and smoked cigarettes on piles of tires with blank looks on their faces in the midst of their almost-finished—now never to be finished—sound systems and installations.

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The past two editions of Outline have taken place in different disused industrial spaces, and its commitment to transforming unique locations around Moscow has contributed to its growing international cult following. DJs who’ve played the festival’s previous events have sung its praises for the astounding artistic curation, trippy installations, respectful crowd and rock-solid musical bookings—this year’s lineup featured representatives from minimal dance music (Rhadoo, Ricardo Villalobos), experimental and industrial (Mick Wills, Veronica Vasicka) and enigmatic bands (The Skatalites, The Residents). In 2016 attendance was estimated to more than double the 7,000 capacity it reached last year, with up to 20,000 projected visitors from throughout Russia and, now more than ever, around the world.

According to the festival, this success—especially among non-Russians—was its downfall, and the attention it received tipped the authorities to a movement the government simply wouldn’t allow. Naturally the Russian authorities had another explanation as to why they shut Outline down. By the time we had arrived on the grounds, the police had already issued a statement accusing the festival of failing to sort out their licenses and fire safety permits by the deadline: 30 days before opening day.

Regardless of the motives, Outline’s last-minute cancellation reduced a well-oiled and very organized weekend to shambles. Shuttles for artists and press were unreliable, so people were stranded at the airport on the way in or missed their flights on the way back. The organizers managed to schedule last-minute shows—a minimal tech-house club night on Saturday, a concert at Gorky Park on Sunday evening and an all-nighter at Arma 17’s headquarters on Sunday night—but they were arranged haphazardly and promoted poorly. The lineups were arranged in the lobby by organizers who asked artists on the spot if they wanted to play. If the answer was yes, the artists would have to grab their bag and head to the venue right then. In an effort to evade more heat from the authorities, no information was posted online, so interested parties had to dig for what scraps of information they could by word of mouth.

If the Russian government did shut down Outline because they didn’t approve of the idea that international weirdos planned to gather at a day-long techno party, Saturday evening’s Skatalites concert could be interpreted as proof. A very different demographic came to the park than would have been at MoZAL: the audience was overwhelmingly Russian and family-oriented, with lots of babies and clean-cut folks who went home soon after sundown. If the apparent reason for the festival’s cancellation was that they hadn’t gotten their permits 30 days in advance, then why were they allowed to have a show in the park at the last minute?

My frustrations are definitely minimal compared to the financial setback and emotional turmoil the organizers now face in the wake of that harried weekend. It wasn’t the experience I had travelled to Moscow (expecting) to have, but even if I had known ahead of time how it would turn out—I’d have gone anyway, if only to sneak past Russian soldiers into the most impressive festival grounds I’ve ever seen. My friends and I were the last to leave the grounds the night the festival was supposed to open. The troops who patrolled the front entrance as we approached it in the yellowing sunlight were all male; some of them were men; many of them were boys—or at least, late teenagers and very young men who fell into the age bracket of many of Outline’s projected attendees. “No English,” they told us as we passed. “Exit.”

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One of the troops broke off from the group to escort us out of the gate. The crowd outside had grown moderately, as the various Outline staffers who were on site when we arrived had also been forced to leave. They were hugging and consoling one another now, looking dejected and milling around in front of the gate and on the sidewalk nearby. As the group conferred and consoled, two more orange dump trucks trundled down the road, hoses out, and the crowd scattered to dodge the jets. They drove in circles around the block to disperse the throng and to quash any potential protests and to make the stragglers leave, so we found a local to help us call a cab. “I love my country, but at times like these, I don’t love it so much,” he told me as he dialed the number for a taxi. “And I don’t think these moments will end soon.”

Read Outline’s official statement about its closure and the allegations against it here.

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