Leo and Tara are a DJ and designer couple from New Zealand. With connection to various counter cultures and movements, we speak to them about their involvement in Burning Man, and the world’s longest running regional Burning Man event, KiwiBurn. Embarking on a permaculture pilgrimage after they got married last year, Leo and Tara have since been exploring different conscious realms and world cultures, helping in communities and their projects worldwide.
Read about their experiences organising Kiwiburn, about permaculture and shamanistic healing ceremonies. Insights into the 8 forms of capital and how we can engage with the moment and make our lives more meaningful.
You can follow Leo(L) & Tara(T) and their journeys here and stream Leo's music from his website.
So who are you guys and where are you from?
L: We are Leo & Tara! We are two New Zealanders. We prefer to use the Māori name for our Pacific island nation, Aotearoa, meaning the land of the long white cloud. I’ve sailed across the ocean in a waka to arrive in NZ the same way the Pacific voyagers did, and it truly looks like a long cloud on the horizon! But as an identity, we call ourselves Kiwis. So we are not New Zealanders, we are Kiwis and we are from Aotearoa.
Aotearoa sounds like something straight out of LOTR! Well….
L: HAHA! It’s funny cos it's true. The movie set is still here… because you know, you can’t really take down the mountains and the forests are here to stay!
How did you guys meet?
T: We met in a high school stage production. I had a ridiculous role as a peasant wearing a sack and had to dance with a broom singing ‘I want a dirty woman…’ Leo was the bad guy. We were young and he gave me a rose.
L: And then she kissed me… I’m 26 now so it’s been 10 years!
So you guys got married more than 2 years ago and after that, you travelled for a year?
L: Haha yeah, I asked Tara if she wanted a big wedding or a big honeymoon. I always knew I’d have the right woman if she chose the honeymoon.
T: Who would turn down a year travelling the world? We tried to stay within the tropics because it’s hot (after living in windy Wellington), the regions are also the most culturally interesting, exotic and affordable for us. We stayed with friends and family in the more expensive places!
Both of you are exploring concepts like permaculture on this journey. Could you explain?
L: Permaculture is sort of like an umbrella term. In short, Permaculture is permanent culture. It’s a toolbox of techniques which allow people to live in harmony with their environment. In fact, Permaculture sets out to rewrite the fundamental assumption that (wo)Man is nature, as opposed to the Man against nature mentality which stemmed from the industrial revolution.
Using permaculture principles, all people at all levels of wealth or privilege are able to realistically apply concepts like sustainability, deep ecology and low impact living to contemporary life on earth.
T: We got interested in permaculture because rather than talking about the problems of the world, it provided us with solutions! Small solutions that we could put into action straight away. Things that you can do in your own home and community on what seems like a small scale, but when everybody gets on board has a large impact.
L: Hard. Permaculture presents a way of creating a change that would lead to a life better than the status quo. It’s fun! People applied it to rural spaces, but urban permaculture is going off! Permie principles and ethics are used in disaster relief projects, social groups, political movements and even financial organisations. In the end the world will only change towards an alternative way of life which is cheaper, easier, or happier - Permaculture aims to improve all of these. Unlike the current paradigm which focuses purely on now (like using natural resources irresponsibly, winning elections take priority over hard issues) permaculture focuses on creating a now which can become permanent by making our lives meaning-full instead of meaning-less.
When you live your life in a meaningless way, the moment appears stretched, dragging out because there is no real substance to the present. The past seems the opposite in a meaningless life however, the years whizz by, the moment is to be suffered for the weekend or for the day that thing might happen to justify your existence. But if you live your life in a meaningful way, you look back and feel that the past is stretched, packed with significance. And each moment is engaged in the experience, not tolerated but consciously applied and enjoyed. This whole approach to meaning is intricately linked with time, which is fundamentally what unites us all. We all face death at some stage, it’s what we do in between now and then which matters.
"We all face death at some stage, it's what we do in between now and then which matters" - Leo
What are the experiences that really changed how you thought about something during your journeys?
T: An experience that changed how I thought, was going to Nowhere Festival in Spain. It’s the European Burning Man. There I got to experience ‘freedom’ on a whole different level. There’s a lot of nudity and self expression. You have to learn to accept others for who they are and in return express your true self. It was quite a journey because I almost had to figure out who I was before I could express myself! It’s extremely liberating letting go of the barriers you have been holding on to your whole life.
L: I remember going to this this waterfall in Guatemala with a woman who was in her 40s, but looked like she was in her 20s. She was african-american and used to be a supermodel, drop dead gorgeous. Now she writes songs for popular musicians - she’d even written a bunch of songs that we knew. What’s more, she had 6 kids!
She told us that last year she had breast cancer and she was about to die. In order to come to terms with death, she went to the Amazon and drank an ancient plant medicine called Ayahuasca 6 times a week for 3 to 4 months!
Having experimented with Ayahuasca’s active primary psychoactive compound, DMT, I was extremely interested in her journey. DMT naturally occurs in trace amounts in plants and mammals, including humans, produced in our brains when we are born and when we die. It is widely believed to be nature’s mechanism to help people transfer from one dimension into the other—from life to death and from death to life. In almost every case those who’ve undergone Ayahuasca or DMT ceremonies have gained a better understanding of their existence, our place on this planet/in the universe and how our consciousness unites us all within it.
One can imagine her reality would have been completely deconstructed and then re-constructed over her time in the Amazon. Not only her mental state, but her physical, meta-physical and spiritual self also. What really changed my perception is how at the end of it she was free of the cancer. She realised how we’ve taught ourselves to separate each aspect of our lives, but in fact everything is interconnected - for example our life intentions, our diet, our community, connection with nature and our spiritual practices - the same things which beat the cancer.
"I almost had to figure out who I was before I could express myself" - Tara
Both of you are artists in your own sense. Tara being a designer and you being a DJ. How has this journey affected you guys on that front?
T: It’s funny because I thought after a year travelling and not using any design software I would forget everything I knew about design and have to start over. However, it seems my designs are even better than before! I think I’ve learnt to not overthink, to allow the creativity to flow and to trust my intuition. It was a year of observation and inspiration.
I’ve been inspired by the dances of Cuba, the textiles of Guatemala, the sculptures of Burning Man, the earthenware of Morocco, the coral reef of Honduras, the saris of India, the temples of Myanmar, the wine of Spain, the perfection of the Himalayas. When I’m travelling I’m in a constant state of awe and appreciation. It’s this sense of wonderment that I’m trying to continue throughout my daily life here in New Zealand. I did a 5 day silent meditation retreat in Guatemala. I’ll always remember this one moment after 2 hours of meditation where I opened my eyes and my perception of the world was brighter and the sounds were so crisp. It was around that time that I fell in love with the quote “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.” by Anaïs Nin.
L: As a DJ, I got to live a few dreams, playing the Full Moon party in Thailand, Goa in India, Burning Man in the US, among others...
But really, just having access to all the music from so many cultures was where it was at. All the different rhythms and such variation of melodies were amazing. Every time, we landed in a new place, we heard a different beat and that was inspiring! Like when we hit Central America I was so happy. After Morocco, and America, I was back in a latin based country. Sex is celebrated, not condemned and music keeps a constant rhythm to the chaos of Caribbean life. Music makes an 8 hour bus ride bearable while big booms blast out of ghetto windows as you go by, big booties dancing in the street, big muscles sweating in the heat! It’s totally legit for like, the grocer or the bakery to have huge speakers filling the street with reggaeton riddims and it ain’t nothing but a thing for the toothless old fullas hanging around smoking cigars.
"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" - Anaïs Nin
What are your best countries?
T: I love Barcelona in Spain. I think that city has it all. The beautiful beaches, architecture, people, public spaces, nightlife, wine and fresh produce! When people ask me this question I’m always changing my answer because ultimately no country stands out above the other. When I look back on my experience the borders between countries blur because it’s the people I met along the way that have made it special.
L: For me Cuba was fascinating. I studied international relations and political science and it was amazing to see a radically different political ideology applied to a country. I’d been dying to get there before the Castro’s die and it all changes. So many of the world’s problems have stemmed from our addiction to profit (T: and the need for growth) so Cuba has achieved a massive accomplishment in making a society that focuses on people instead of profit. Pretty damn Mukha if you ask me! Wait, did I just infer you are communists?
Cuba is extra special because of the embargo imposed by the United States. The blockade has to a large degree cut Cuba off from the rest of the world - especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. From a permaculture point of view this is really interesting because an entire country ran for decades on minimal amounts of international trade and very little fossil fuels, such as petroleum. What is so significant about this is that there is already a functioning model for a society which has faced some of the challenges the entire world stands to face today! There is so much to learn from the way Cuba got through such hard times, so the International Permaculture Convergence was held in Cuba last year to take this on. That event was so enlightening, with speakers and presentations from some of (what I think are) the smartest people in the world.
"So many of the world's problems have stemmed from our addiction to profit and the need for growth" - Leo & Tara
Now, let’s talk about Burning Man. What is it and what was your experience like?
L: Right, so Burning Man is this mad max kind of social experiment in humanity to see whether or not we can live in an alternative societal construct. I believe the way our societies are set up is flawed and the sheer nature of Burning Man and its popularity is a pretty good indicator of how many people aren’t too stoked with the status quo and maybe want to explore a way of change. You could say that Burning Man is a forum for these things underneath, and on the surface it’s just a completely unhinged week long desert rave/orgy. My favorite description is “the literal manifestation of all the infinite possibilities of human creativity” haha… I feel bad cos I want to quote someone else, but I texted that to a mate as I was coming out of the desert and it stuck with me.
One of the ten principles of Burning Man is “no commerce”. You cannot buy or sell anything for a week and it is an experiment to see if people can live without money and try to understand how broken the concept of money really is. Money is just one form of capital. There are many theories, but I reckon there are 8 forms of capital.
I’d love to go into detail about the ten principles of Burning Man, how the gift economy works, and the 8 forms of capital in the interview, but I can just drop in some links into Mukha and people can check it out if they like!
Ten Principles of Burning Man.
The Gift Economy.
The 8 forms of capital.
T: I think the $400 for Burning Man tickets are so totally worth it! Especially if you actively participate by attending workshops, galleries, talks, services, art installations, performances and on top of all that stay up all night dancing to the worlds best DJs!
L: Haha yeah and you can boost around in the desert in a 100 foot long shark, you can dress up in fire retardant suits and shoot flameballs at people in a real life arcade game, partake in a 500 person circle jerk (not for me lol), you can get naked and have a stranger wash your body with soap and their bare hands… We even went to a workshop called “Orgasmic Meditation” and we watched a lady orgasm for 15 minutes by meditating! It was super intense! Oh yeah, back to the different forms of capital, think, all of the workshops are transferring intellectual capital while you could say all of the performances are transferring cultural capital.
How was the experience of organising the Kiwi Burn?
L: Yeah na yeah yeah right, so I help organise KiwiBurn. Which is like Burning Man, but instead of a big old dry desert, we have lush green fields, an enchanted forest and a beautiful river. What makes Burning Man so unique is the philosophy it’s built on, so now there are lots and lots of regional burns aiming to emulate the burn ethos. There’s one in Russia, Africa, China, Brazil, Spain, England, Australia and Kiwiburn happens to be the oldest. Here is a map of the regional burns
T: This year Leo & I were instrumental in creating a space within the festival that had many faces. At night it was a heaving party right through to the morning when a kitchen would roll out and feed everyone. By day we converted the space to host yoga, tai-chi, there were discussions and various workshops. We had the annual KiwiBurn Prom, we held the Pirate Olympics and a 500 person potluck dinner! I feel that we really gifted the community an experience like no other that week from the so many different smiles I saw. We’re still humming from it!
"Spaces we live in need not contradict nature, nor the way they interact with it outside" - Leo
What was the spark that led you to this journey?
L: I think for both of us, there have been many sparks for many different passions and tracks which have lead to different interests. One that comes to mind is when we went and stayed at this ‘Earth House’ with a whole bunch of friends, that really lit a spark for me. It was built out of the same clay and earth they dug out to make the foundations, as well as straw bales from the farmer down the road. It made us realise that the spaces we live in need not contradict nature, nor the way they interact with it outside. And upon realising that about homes, it spread to everything and I realised that nature provides everything in abundance and is capable of taking care of us all if we just stop ruining her efforts to help us.
If you had one piece of advice to give, what would it be?
T: To make more connections in your life. Not only personal connections, but connecting with the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the products you buy and the environment you live in. For me, the perfect example of this is sharing a delicious meal with family or friends, and all of the ingredients have come straight from my garden.
L: Damn! That was awesome. I really like that advice Tara...I think some good advice would be get to know yourself first, your needs second and your wants third.
What does success mean to you?
T: Being your personal best and not getting caught up on who others think you should be.
L: Success for me is wisdom.
There are two types of knowledge - The first is called ‘priori’ knowledge, this is most commonly associated with intelligence - anything you know which doesn’t involve an experience. The second, ‘experiential’ knowledge is practical, or gained through direct experience. I associate this second type of knowledge with wisdom, so I’m harvesting as much knowledge through experience as possible!