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I Spent Three Days in the Desert at an Experimental Music and Arts Festival

So how was your weekend?
May 29, 2015, 8:30pm
Illusion Mask, photos by Tonje Thilesen.

It's a simple enough question, usually kickstarting a Gchat conversation around 11 AM or so on any given Monday: "How was your weekend?" I often fire back without much thought, and key in a friendly platitude like "Good!" or "Fine" or "Kinda boring" or "Fuck my life I'm exhausted." But this week I've had a difficult time with the question. Though it's not because I can't figure out if my weekend was good or bad, I'm just more preoccupied with figuring out exactly what my weekend was.

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Over Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to the middle of Arizona to attend FORM: Arcosanti, a small music and arts festival organized by LA production/management company, Family, and future-facing pop band Hundred Waters. Sounds basic enough, sure, but I found the event to be much more than your average "music and arts festival." Over the course of three days in the desert, I experienced what the FORM team prefers to call a "retreat." And the title is apt: relaxation and rejuvenation come easily in the awe-inspiring locale of urban laboratory Arcosanti. A more accurate name might be "arts incubator."

On the surface, FORM has all the necessary trappings of a festival: there's a daily line-up of notable performers, food and drinks available to purchase, camping on site, and a breath-taking location that has to be seen to be believed (architect Paolo Soleri, who designed and founded Arcosanti, was a major inspiration behind George Lucas's sets for Tatooine). Dig a little deeper, though, and you will quickly uncover important differences. For instance, it's absolutely free to attend FORM; once you go through the application process, you'll be chosen from many other applicants based on your responses. It isn't about exclusivity or generating FOMO—it's key because the organizers are cultivating a close-knit and creative environment, and their efforts worked.

Everywhere I turned I'd see a guest engaged in some artistic endeavor—I came across photographers, sculptors, painters, illustrators, writers, filmmakers, programmers, designers, architects, singers, musicians, and other creative specialists. One of my favorite memories from FORM was watching an unscheduled performance by artists-in-residence Cody Hudson and Tim Biskup, Kelly Pratt from The Antlers, Wild Belle's Elliot Bergman, and a few volunteers. A set of psychedelic ambient music was improvised on synths, flute, baritone sax, and other brass as the volunteers carried circular figures carved by Hudson to the top of a canyon in the distance; it was like watching a scene from a Jodorowsky film unfold in real life. True to FORM, there just so happened to be someone with a drone camera watching the artists prep, and he offered to film the piece on the spot.

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Cody Hudson & Tim Biskup

Tim Biskup

Collaborations happened spontaneously all weekend, and you'd often run into an artist working in unexpected places. Brooklyn composer/pianist Bing & Ruth followed his breathtaking Saturday appearance with an encore set on the side of a cliff, playing as much to the birds and rocks as he did the people who decided to stop and take in the view with him. Moog brought out its Sound Lab full of modular synths, effects pedals, and other audio gadgets for attendees to play music with, and also filmed workshops with performers like Moses Sumney, Julianna Barwick, and M. Geddes Gengras all over the grounds. An artist by the name of Autumn Casey drove a colorful wax sculpture of herself from Miami to FORM in order to let it melt under the sun as she documented the process. Photographer Davin Sanchez set up shop in the camp grounds for his archive project, hoping to photograph 500 of the attendees and ask them why they came to Arcosanti. I also ran into a visitor with an "illusion mask" and a piece of augmented reality software loaded onto his phone, and passersby would stop to try out the headset and watch others. When I gave it a spin, his so-called "translation of reality" looked like a real-time application of the rotoscoping techniques used in movies like Waking Life, Richard Linklater's ode to lucid dreaming. The metaphor seemed more than fitting for the singular, sometimes otherworldly experiences that FORM made possible.

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But if what happened during the schedule's downtime was that memorable, the impact of its arranged events was only further magnified. I got the sense that each artist felt differently taking to Arcosanti's amphitheatre stage than a typical slapped-together festival rig. Most gave performances that were more intimate, personal, and unique, with frequent jokes and mentions that they were trying something new. Montreal duo Majical Cloudz played a set of entirely unreleased material, much of which had never even been heard before in a live setting. In the middle of their show, lead singer Devon Welsh took a break from his silly antics to note that what the FORM crew had accomplished "commands a lot of respect." Tom Krell of How to Dress Well made a similar statement between explosive, full-band renditions of his music, pointing out how festivals are all too often not good to the fans or the artists. He concluded by saying, "This is both."

M. Geddes Gengras

Autumn Casey

Moog Sound Lab

It seemed obvious to me why everyone felt that way: A tremendous amount of thought and consideration went into FORM's accommodations and programming, with each day exploring a specific facet of forward-thinking music from all angles. Friday was a huge dance party that channeled the club-ready energies of Jacques Greene, Machinedrum, Tokimonsta, The Range, and others, topped off with a surprise appearance from none other than Skrillex. While my hangover slowly dissipated on Saturday, a quieter element was showcased. I convalesced to the sounds of Bing & Ruth, folk singer Julie Byrne, and LA up-and-comer Moses Sumney—whose unbelievable voice (like an alien reincarnation of Jeff Buckley), exquisite musicianship, and deep emotional resonance rightly earned him a standing ovation. The final day took on a raw edge at first, with Pharmakon banging on sheet metal and bluesy rock duo Gentle Pony sounding anything but, and gradually built up to life-affirming finales from Julianna Barwick, How to Dress Well, and The Antlers. Perhaps most importantly, though, I never had to choose between who to see because there was no overlap, and the time between each set was spacious and flexible without dragging on. Words like "spiritual" and "holistic" were mentioned frequently in conversations I had with performing artists, some of whom have been on the festival circuit for their entire career. From what I gathered, FORM may very well have found a sustainable future for music festivals.

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Hundred Waters

Skrillex

How to Dress Well

Jacques Greene

Arcosanti seems built to inspire the kind of activity I saw over Memorial Day weekend. It was designed with sculptures installed around the landscape, a ceramics studio and bell foundry, innumerable surfaces and corners available to work or just sit and think, and a fluid layout meant to foster exploration and chance run-ins with other inhabitants. Founded in 1970, the community has long provided workshops and classes to students interested in the ethos of Arcology (Paolo Soleri's concept of architecture and ecology being one integral process), and is regularly open to the public for tours, events, or week-long visits. Jeff Stein, an award-winning architect who has been involved with Arcosanti since 1975, introduced Hundred Waters' jaw-dropping performance on the second night of FORM, and gave an illuminating speech based around the question this "urban laboratory" was created to answer: "How shall we live?" There were many highlights (watch his 2012 TED Talk if you're curious), but what resonated most with me was a point he made about everyday "distractions" taking our attention off being conscious citizens of our hometowns and of Earth itself. Like Arcosanti, FORM was conceived and executed to be free of these distractions—a festival without the noise. The buzz of that freedom lingered in the air all weekend, knocking around in the heads of its participants. Even now, it still rings in my ears.

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Jeff Stein

Crowd Illustrator

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