We Built a Zoo: Designing an EDM Dreamland

If you think this is impressive, stop by Randalls Island over Labor Day weekend to see its rearing-cobra successor.
If you think this is impressive, stop by Randalls Island over Labor Day weekend to see its rearing-cobra successor.
Photo: Electric Zoo

Whizzing through Randalls Island Park on the back of a golf cart, I see skeletons of scaffolding rising from grassy fields like stalagmites from a cave floor. Right now these half-built metal towers resemble what a construction worker on LSD might build, but they’ll soon become the fantastical, animal-shape stages of Electric Zoo, the enormous festival that will host 90,000 electronic dance music (EDM) fans over the weekend.

“We’re just checking out the tents we are decorating and wow, I thought they would be like four times bigger!” designer Patty Gutarra says, with somewhat sarcastic cheer. “I was like, wait, where’s the rest of the tent? This is like a pocket tent, I can fit it in my back pocket!”

Gutarra is one of many people responsible for transforming the park into a surreal fantasia, an effort the festival has undertaken every year since its founding in 2009. The most impressive part of this massive production is the stages; this year's designs include a giant black and white striped octopus (made of a custom inflatable), an enormous bear head, and, for the main stage, a massive, kaleidoscopic cobra, reared up and poised to strike.

The rise of EDM over the past ten years or so, thanks to artists like Avicii and Skrillex, has presented a new paradigm for festival production: The music, with its protracted crescendos and overwhelming drops, calls for grandiosity, and with only one or two people in the spotlight most of the time, the design emphasis is on enhancing the performance rather than ensuring the stage’s utility as a platform. “In EDM there’s an expectation, maybe more so than with a lot of other forms of music, that the experience is going to be a visual [one], too,” says Electric Zoo creative director Jeff Wright. “The whole festival site is an attempt by us to create another world for you to enter, to make you feel a sense of awe.”

The inflatable octopus is returning for a repeat performance this year.
The inflatable octopus is returning for a repeat performance this year.
Photo: Electric Zoo

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For Electric Zoo, the process of creating that visual element begins every fall in the Netherlands, where Wright and the designers brainstorm ridiculous-looking potential stages from the wildest corners of their imagination. Those initial ideas are then evaluated by the full production team for feasibility and cost. About nine months out from the festival, these plans are finalized, and a few months later, production of preassembled and customized pieces gets under way; the fabrication happens in Europe, overseen by in-house teams for SFX, the company that owns Electric Zoo. Setup on the island begins two weeks before the festival, in August. After three days of use, the sets come down and the process starts again for next year.

Back in the festival's early days, the setup wasn't so elaborate. “The [earlier] designs were based on video [screens], on trusses,” says production director Rutger Jansen. “The stages that we used were stages you can rent. They were [for] rock ’n’ roll, where bands need to be dry.” Back then, the production team just placed LED backdrops behind the performers, to add some visual interest to what were basically large boxes.

Then, in 2013, two attendees died when they overheated after taking MDMA. The last day of the festival was canceled. As if that weren't enough, SFX’s stock crashed after its IPO; the company eventually declared bankruptcy. Electric Zoo needed a rebrand if it was going to continue.

It brought on Dutch entertainment company ID&T, producers of the long-running Tomorrowland festival in Belgium, which last year brought 300,000 guests to a temporary EDM city decked out at every turn with whimsical installations. The influence on Electric Zoo is clear: Though the festival had long used animal motifs on marketing materials, it wasn’t until this revamp that wildlife-inspired sculptural stages rose on Randalls Island. The inflatable octopus debuted in 2015; the main stage was staggeringly large and shaped, out of blinding LED strips, like a screeching hawk.

The stages alone are not, apparently, enough: In photos from that 2015 edition, the already staggering main stage is obscured by explosions of confetti, streamers, and fireworks. But, insists production manager Jeff King, “bigger is not always better,” which is a bit ironic considering the 75-foot cobra head being constructed just to our left. The maximalist tendency isn’t cheap, either; the producers estimate an average material and labor cost between “a few hundred thousand dollars” for the smaller stages and a million for the main one – “Something like the cost of a nice apartment in New York,” as Wright puts it.

When Electric Zoo began in 2009, attendees would travel from around the world for the event. Now there are EDM festivals with similar lineups in almost every major city in the U.S. But the production team seems unfazed by the shrinking market. “I come from Europe,” Jansen says. “I’ve been doing EDM for twenty years. Everyone’s always said the bubble is bursting. It’s not.” Plus, the process of making these sets happen is always magical, says Wright. “When you show up onsite and the physical objects that were just drawings on everyone’s computer screens for months are there, and you see the real scale — that never stops being exciting.”

If a million-dollar stage is perpetually obscured by confetti, does it really exist?
If a million-dollar stage is perpetually obscured by confetti, does it really exist?
Photo: Electric Zoo

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