All photos by Juliana Bernstein.
This past weekend at the Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, CA, a quiet cowboy town two hours east of San Francisco, Symbiosis Gathering celebrated ten years of existence as 14,000 people swarmed into its dusty expanses to camp out for four days and get weird. Symbiosis is a major node in the West Coast "transformational" circuit, a Burner-inspired and musically focused collection of events that includes Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, and Desert Hearts.
Symbiosis lineups are far more attuned to underground dance culture than most hippie fests. This year, THUMP favs Max Cooper, Four Tet, Justin Martin, Nicolas Jaar, The Acid, Gaiser, and Thugfucker joined usual dusty subjects Damian Lazarus, Tipper, The Polish Ambassador, and Bob Moses.
The Woodward grounds sit on a meandering lakeside, a five-nubbed peninsula surrounded by water in which you are free to cavort wherever you choose to wade in. Countless lavishly bedecked tea rooms, yoga domes, vendors and altars shared the space with five stages, like The Juke Town stage, which had the affect of an abandoned western boomtown. In The Grotto, DJs played in massive, white Fabergé Egg-likes structures that sprouted from the ground.
The jewel of Symbiosis' production, though, is the Swimbiosis stage, a shrouded cauldron with Woogie-like vibes that sits directly on the lake bank. In the water are three climbable structures, and for the bigger sets, the lake is filled with rowdy hippies, floatation devices and art boats. Yes, art…fucking…boats, like a floating red dragon and a gnarled treehouse with a DJ booth nestled amidst a wooden platform (above).
While the rest of society has cornered partying into an "escape," an experience that sits outside of and against "the real world" or any sense of responsibility to culture, other humans, or the earth, transformational festivals aim to educate while they titillate. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, socially-conscious pranksters The Yes Men, and spoken-word provocateur Saul Williams all spoke in lushly decorated, shaded structures that provided a respite from the madness. And hey, even if a talk on the aphrodisiac qualities of durien doesn't tickle your particular fancy, the couches and shade make a great place for an afternoon nap.
Justin Martin always gets the party going. The Dirtybird all-star is one of the most consistent selectors in all of dance music. The madness quotient was pretty high for his set at the Swimbiosis on Saturday. There, a stout youth in a sopping wet hippo onesie hit the water with an inflatable crocodile floatie in tow. She proceeded to aggressively act out being attacked by and/or having intercourse with the crocodile for the entirety of Justin Martin's set. She was relentless. It was bizarre and amazing. At the same time, a speed boat decked out into a spitting image of Back to the Future's Delorian careened back and forth at the perimeter of the dancepool, revving and showing off like some high schooler in an In-n-Out parking lot. With all this going on, you didn't even have to be on hallucinogens to question reality.
Boobs. There's not really much more I can say. I have never seen so many bare breasts in one place before. There was a notable contingent of exposed peni as well, with the ratio of boobs-to-penis at approximately 10-to-1 (or 20-to-1 if you're being pedantic). The Symbiosis community's perspective on sexuality is miles ahead of the rest of American society. People are free to be themselves without fear of being ogled or objectified and we're afforded the serendipitous circumstance of deconstructing America's puritanical fear of genitals while surrounded by beautiful, naked people. After the weekend, I now feel like I have an Associate's Degree-level understanding of the human anatomy.
Do touch the artwork. Many of the installations, like the giant metal bottom half of a baby that grew into a wrought globe structure you could squeeze into, were cool to climb up on. They provided a vantage point for the slow-sinking, magenta sunsets during which the sky lit up with howls from miles around.
After impressing at FYF Fest in Los Angeles a few weeks ago with the best set of the festival, expectations were high for Nicolas Jaar's DJ set. Unfortunately, his performance was underwhelming. Jaar is always prone to ponderous, brooding tangents. but he never committed to a beat long enough to get the crowd moving. The whole thing lapsed into self-indulgence.
Symbiosis is the right kind of lawless. Police and security presence was minimal, and the police were some of the chillest I've ever seen, yukking it up with partygoers as they strolled through the grounds. At one point, a Stanislaus County Police boat revved up to the peripheral waters of Swimbiosis, only to unload a collection of stray floats back onto the dancepool.
Perhaps inspired by abundance of free-flowing dongles around me, I took my shorts off and went skinny-dipping in the lake. As the crisply cold water seeped into my nether regions, I looked off into the distance, then around me to make sure nobody was within sight, and then I peed. It was brilliant. Fuck you, port-a-potties!
Saturday night was all about Dirtybird. In preparation for their fast-approaching Dirtybird Campout, J.Phlip, Ardalan, and Christian Martin all mobbed Juke Town until the morning, when Raja Ram Stashbag of Shpongle brought the sun up for the final day at The Grotto. At some godforsaken hour in the night, I stumbled into a psytrance rave unawares. It was fucking bonkers. A grizzled lookin' guy who looked exhumed straight from 1969 bashed on percussion like Animal from The Muppets while a DJ played. Kids were losing their marbles.
Despite all the debauchery, Symbiosis is a wholesome event in many ways. There is absolutely no corporate sponsorship, the festival does not sell booze, and families and kids are accommodated in a very real way. In the Kidzbiosis area, a shaded dome by a secluded inlet in the lake, everyone from newborns to preteens splashed in the water while a crew of dads made a quiet drum circle. Thankfully, I didn't see any children raging on any of the dancefloors, but I often saw families gingerly casing the stages. I even saw a couple of nudist families. You don't find that at Coachella, lemme tell ya.
NorCal was heavily represented. The Golden State's more latitudinally inclined members are a whole breed unto themselves. They have a dash of bro to them, flat-billed hats and tank tops, but having bathed in swampy hippie vibes and summers spent trimming weed, they are more likely to offer you their book on buddhism than ask you if you lift.
Visa issues meant that Notwist member and trippy sunrise specialist Acid Pauli had to cancel, as did the Ancient Moons portion of Damian Lazarus' live project. Instead, Lazarus DJed for two hours instead of the announced thirty minutes. As the haze plumed up from the kicked-up dancefloor, the dreamlike surrealism of the final sunset propped up by Lazarus' mystically-wrought deep house brought the weekend to a close.
Even for an unrepentant cynic like me, the chance to listen to cutting-edge music in a natural location, surrounded by ridiculous and beautiful people while maybe actually learning something about the world easily beats anything a corporate parking lot festival has to offer. Symbiosis proved, yet again, that hippies party harder, better, and smarter than most scenes associated with electronic music.
After selling out this edition for the first time ever, Symbiosis has just announced a 2017 event that will take place in Oregon in August, on the exact date that a total eclipse will be visible over a thin strip of America that includes the festival grounds. Someone get me some palo santo and a calendar!