FORM Arcosanti Is Trying To Change Festival Culture By Letting The Right People In For Free
Hundred Waters' desert weekender demonstrates the upswings—and potential pitfalls—of curating the perfect crowd.
Photos by Michael James Murray.
At the beginning of Kim Gordon's recent memoir, Girl In A Band, the former Sonic Youth frontwoman describes playing festivals as a "necessary evil" for touring musicians. She may have a point: a typical mainstream festival today features huge crowds, endless lines for overpriced food and drink, and the same big-name headliners you see at every other major fest. FORM Arcosanti, an intimate festival that just celebrated its third year in the tiny desert city of Acrosanti, Arizona, wants to be something different: a carefully curated, deeply considered affair that's rewarding for fans and artists alike.
FORM was founded by the Los Angeles-based electronic indie-pop band Hundred Waters, who were inspired by their own less-than-great experiences playing festivals around the world. Looking for a unique location to put on a free album release show in 2014, Hundred Waters members Zach Tetreault, Trayer Tryon, Nicole Miglis, and (former member) Paul Giese visited Arcosanti—a still-in-progress architectural experiment started in 1970 by Italian architect Paolo Soleri.
Located on a remote, geologically stunning mesa about an hour outside of Phoenix, the utopian city is a prototype for Soleri's concept of arcology—a school of urban planning in which architecture and ecology work in harmony. The site was designed to be sustainable, maximizing the use of resources like sunlight and interfering minimally with the pristine natural landscape that surrounds it. If Arcosanti's rounded, sand-colored features look familiar, it's probably because Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's arid home planet in the first Star Wars film, was partially inspired by George Lucas' visit there.
As the band took in Acrosanti's beige cement domes, arched entryways, and circular windows, something clicked. "The spirit of community and the spirit of creativity really exists there," Hundred Waters' drummer, Zach Tetreault, told THUMP over the phone a few weeks before the festival. "Just by nature of the way the place is, the reasons it was built."
Since the 1970s, Arcosanti has been home to 50 to 150 year-round residents, many of them employees of the space who were drawn there by a desire to preserve its history and help oversee its continued architectural construction. Wind bells—cast with molten bronze in silt at an on-site foundry and sold in a gift shop—form the space's primary source of income, along with tours, bell-casting workshops, and extended, weeks-long courses in arcology. As far as performance venues go, Arcosanti contains both a large Roman-style amphitheater and a smaller stage beneath an apse (a quarter sphere of decorative and shade-providing concrete).Stephen Stills and Todd Rundgren played Arcosanti back in the 70s, and concerts still happen there regularly today.
FORM takes advantage of Arcosanti's unique environment to host an arts festival that attempts, per its website, to "celebrate creativity" and "foster collaboration"—ideas that easily play into the nature of the site. The city's relatively small size and single main stage mean that a lot of the time, the crowd is in the same space, making chance encounters more likely, and quickly-formed friendships with strangers common. The amphitheater itself, which never held more than a few hundred people at a time on its broad steps, allowed artists and attendees to watch performers side by side.
Drawing on the band's network of musician and label-owner friends, the festival's lineup, while diverse, seemed to nonetheless prioritize artists who fit a specific tone, favoring combined electronic and acoustic elements, strong melodies, and moderate experimentation. On the rock side of the spectrum, headliners included legendary 90s post-rock band Tortoise, acclaimed singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, and indie acts that blend accessibility and innovation, like Empress Of, Braids, and Son Lux. On the electronic side, there was the anarchic Dan Deacon, Four Tet (whose sound issues were so bad he walked off stage at one point) and Bonobo. Other acts tended toward more experimental fare, including circuit-bending from composer Tyondai Braxton and a beautiful set under the stars by the ethereal Julianna Barwick.
To my surprise, Hundred Waters' focus on careful curation even extends to the festival's audience. Attendance at the festival is free, but would-be festival-goers have to fill out an application for admission. In a few essay-style questions, applicants are asked to write about their lives and creative or professional pursuits—a move the band says was initially intended to weed out people who wouldn't appreciate the historical site. "We only want people to come who will respect the integrity of this place," Tetreault says. "We have always just been looking for proof of thoughtfulness and intention and respectfulness."
The first two years, the festival was able to invite nearly all applicants, excluding a few who seemed to dramatically demonstrate that they were only interested in doing drugs or seeing one of the many acts. This year, however, FORM received about 10,000 applications, necessitating a tighter focus on what kind of attendees they wanted to invite. "I would go through and see architect, or painter, filmmaker, designer, educator, social worker," Tetreault says. "That, for me, was the most telling part about the application process, learning, oh, wow, this is what this person's proud of." In practice, this culling meant that almost every attendee I spoke to was involved in a creative field. During my time there, I met a burlesque performer, a new music composer and a programmer creating a virtual reality glitch art app.
The festival continues to grow—it's more than doubled in size each year since its inception. This year there were about 1400 attendees, staff, and volunteers—compared to around 800 last year—and more than 30 acts, up from 24 in 2015. Scaling up in size presented some challenges to the festival staff. When I arrived, stressed out but friendly organizers in the production office were dealing with problems like an insufficient number of wristbands and missing names on various lists. Unlike in past years, when many attendees had day passes and stayed off-site, everyone this year stayed on the grounds, mostly in group campsites with regular tents, creating an even greater sense of immersion and community.
However, Form's third year also provided additional lodging options for a new class of attendees called "patrons," who were one of the main sources of income for this year's festival, alongside brands like Beats by Dre and Don Julio tequila, who provided equipment, drinks, and understated branding throughout the weekend. These patrons' financial contributions overrode their need for applications, and came with a bounty of luxuries. The basic Patron Package, priced at $1,500 for two people, included wood-framed tents with real beds, a power strip for charging phones (a major concern for most festival-goers), access to bathrooms with flushing toilets and hot showers, and dedicated security to guard belongings. Those who chose the two-person, $2,100 Patron Plus package each received two cards that allowed five drinks and three meals a day (a 24-hour flash sale for one-person Patron Plus packages was offered at one point for $1,775).
Though I slept in a regular old tent—and, like everyone else save a few artists who were put up in hotels, was awoken around 7 AM by the desert heat—as press, I was granted many of the privileges afforded to patrons, in addition to having my flights and meals paid for by the festival. I was served a mix of delicious vegetarian and meat-based food from the cafeteria, which usually caters to Arcosanti's workshoppers and permanent residents, and was only open to artists, staff, patrons, and press. Regular attendees either had to bring their own food, or stand in long lines for several food trucks in the blazing sun. This, however, didn't seem to bother people much. They almost universally seemed to be having an amazing time, even while waiting 45 minutes for a meal.
The euphoria of the festival's attendees was probably most evident during Skrillex's headlining set on Friday night. The stage was filled with his OWSLA label-mates and fellow artists while the crowd danced and screamed from the tiered auditorium, soaking in the flashing lights, bass drops, original tracks, Rihanna remixes, and even one Nirvana song. Skrillex played the festival last year as well, but his spot on the lineup may have been a curveball to those who weren't aware that Hundred Waters were signed to his label in 2012. His presence at the festival did seem to attract a different kind of crowd than the rest of the lineup—with their fringed crop tops, face paint and billowing kaftans, a number of attendees could have walked straight out of Forever 21's Coachella collection lookbook.
The juxtaposition between attendees there for "the party" and serious indie rock and electronic artists and fans was one of Form's many contradictions. Another was the VIP vibe afforded to artists, press, and patrons, which seemed incongruous with a festival that prides itself on collaboration and unity. Security was lax, and those who managed to snag artists wristbands (including myself) had unfettered access to the backstage. That meant that the festival's regular attendees missed some of the weekend's most surreal and once-in-a-lifetime moments, like Skrillex's green room piano rendition of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." Most of them also missed the impromptu late-night all-Prince dance party DJ'd by Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber and founder of LA label IHEARTCOMIX Franki Chan, which took place down at the massive psychedelic art project slash stage set up by collective Elestial Sound in the canyon below Arcosanti. The party was open to everyone, but since it wasn't announced, the majority of those who attended were artists in the know.
Happening upon surprises like these could feel magical, and they weren't always exclusive. On Sunday afternoon I stumbled upon the 13-year old DJ Rubix playing an impressive surprise club set by the pool, and down by the Elestial stage, many attendees found a train of cozy wooden boxcars with comfy seating and free coffee. The surprise of stumbling upon installations and art projects behind any corner contributed to the feeling that the festival was a space where spontaneous communal experiences were possible. A cathartic set by Dan Deacon created one truly utopian moment as the audience, with closed eyes, grasped each other's raised hands and Deacon instructed us to "picture the face of a minority killed by someone in a position of authority," and think about the potential of our collective power to change the way society functions.
Form's duality of exclusion and inclusion made the festival both fascinating and confounding. However egalitarian the festival believes itself to be, every person has their own definition of qualities like thoughtfulness or creativity, and anyone in a gatekeeper role like those sorting through applications inevitably brings their own values to their judgements. The application process could also be more difficult for anyone who struggles with expressing themselves through the written word, including those for whom English isn't a first language. The remote location makes the festival difficult to get to for those with limited means who live far away, even if they don't have to pay for a ticket. The site itself, with its Escher-like steps and narrow pathways, was one of the least accessible locations imaginable for people with disabilities, though I spotted a few people who had seemed to have overcome the hurdles.
Festival lineups have become the subject of much scrutiny of late, with increasing public demand to see artists on stage who aren't white, straight, and cisgendered. FORM featured a handful of artists of color this year—including Moses Sumney, Empress Of, Saul Williams, and Rome Fortune—as well as openly gay musician Perfume Genius. Compared to the female-dominated Moog or Red Bull Music Academic Festival in New York, which spotlighted many artists of color this year, though, FORM still lags in terms of diversity. At times, it also felt like a private party for well-connected creative people. To succeed in their ideals, FORM needs to ask itself what kind of community they want to cultivate: do they want to continue to support an established group of friends and fans with connections to the creative elite, or develop something that will reach out to people they may have less in common with?
Like Arcosanti itself, it was clear from attending that Form is still very much an evolving concept. Festival organizers are working on potential multi-day immersive events in cities like London and Sydney, as well as Form Labs—day-long pop-up shows combining music and art performances, one of which took place in Los Angeles in April. Putting on a Form event in a city, though it would provide a less picturesque backdrop, might make achieving their goals of accessibility more feasible. Bringing in a diverse group of outsiders to help go through applications could also aid in selecting a less homogenous crowd. For now, Form is a fun, worthwhile festival with great taste, good intentions, and grand visions. The choices they make in coming years will determine whether it develops into a truly original experience, or merely a somewhat quirkier and more compact version of any other music festival.