Say what you want about FORM Arcosanti (and our own Troy Farah has already said plenty), but you must admit it's different.
It's a music festival that this year booked a big-name headliner, Skrillex, and brought roughly 30 more bands, singers, and DJs to Arcosanti, the Paolo Soleri-designed arcology about 70 miles north of Phoenix.
But booking the prince of dubstep is where the similarities to other music festivals end. FORM Arcosanti is free to attend, but space onsite is limited. So the organizers — the Florida band Hundred Waters — decided on a novel solution: Require attendees to fill out a series of essay questions. The band then selected those with the right attitude, (or cynically, the right brand of cool) to attend the festival.
This past weekend, about 1,200 people attended the festival's third edition, which took place from Friday through Sunday. (You can find our review of the festivities here and some pictures of the events here.)
I was skeptical of the concept from the beginning. Curating the audience of a music festival seems like a shortcut to snobbery and exclusivity. There's an arbitrary nature to the selection process that seems opaque and vague. I'll defer to Farah, who attended in 2015 and got rejected this year. He summed up his frustration with the selection process nicely:
“What was I supposed to do, bring everyone weed brownies? Build a giant art car? Pat everyone on the back and say, 'Good job for being so creative?'
“I mean, I wrote in my journal, took photos, and 'expanded' my mind. What more could I have done?”
The no-ticketing policy also limits the amount of locals who can attend, since Arizona residents compete with everyone else from around the world to get selected. It's hard to call FORM Arcosanti an Arizona music festival at that point; it's more akin to an exclusive live-music retreat that takes place at an Arizona mountain resort. Hundred Waters is a Florida band; most of the artists (excluding Mija) are not from here. It's a festival of outsiders using Arizona as the backdrop for their vision of an idealistic music festival.
That said, it's not like the Coachella-type music festival model is flawless. Quite the contrary — standing under the sun in a field with 50,000 other people is a miserable way to experience live music. As music festivals reach a certain size, they become less about the music and more about other intangibles. But maybe I'm too old to care for that, or too lame. Give me the intimacy of bands playing their own stage show on their own terms at local venues. I'd rather use my limited vacation time to travel somewhere I'd actually visit if there wasn't a huge music festival going on, which is not something I'd say about Indio, California, or Great Stage Park, Tennessee.
Festivals' major upside is the opportunity to see more bands in one weekend than you could reasonably achieve otherwise, so they're not all bad. Framing FORM as an experiment in improving festivals helped make the thought of covering this festival something I could stand, and I headed up Friday to see if the hype piled on by the likes of Pitchfork, New York Times, and Spin matched the event's reality.
I rolled into Arcosanti at around 5 p.m. and got redirected by a cop who told me, "nothing but eights, nines, and 10s going into the festival, bro." It was here I got the idea that maybe curating the audience was a good thing. Yes, the downfall of limited attendance is a lack of accessibility, but ask the right questions and maybe you can weed out the shitheads who objectify women on a numerical scale. It was an auspicious moment for the rest of the festival. As I made my way towards the check-in spot, a bearded man wearing a colorful dress, multi-hued canvas sandals, and a brown, feathered trilby directed me toward the parking lot. About an hour later, I loaded my camping gear into a bus and shuttled with dozens of other late arrivals up to Arcosanti.
The exclusivity of the event helped create an exciting buzz among the people lucky enough to get in. It was dark and gusty by the time I started setting up my tent, and I asked a random passerby to help me set up my tent. It turned out to be DJ Ariel Perez, who plays parties all over Phoenix. I started chatting up the guy in front of me at one of the food tents and it turned out to be Phoenix underground party organizer Quincy Ross. Things like this kept happening — not just with Phoenix literati but with people from all over the country. One woman I talked to, Cheryl Dunn, had directed a documentary about New York City street photographers, called Everybody Street. Another person I talked to was an artist from France by way of California.
This was just in the first few hours I was there. After I got food and a campsite, there weren't many hours of the day left. Mija was just finishing her set, and Bonobo went on after her. The amphitheater at Arcosanti provided an otherworldly backdrop for music that sounded acoustically stellar when there wasn't massive bass distortion or other technical issues, which seemed to mar every artist on the festival's first evening. Organizers had draped a giant clam-shell-shaped tarp over the amphitheater, which provided relief from the heat during the day but unfortunately blocked out the stars at night. Bonobo soon yielded to Four Tet, who sampled Philip Glass to end his set. Skrillex followed, and he went on to play for another 90 minutes or so. The crowd didn't get as wild as they might have gotten at Bonnaroo or Electric Daisy Carnival. Some people danced like maniacs, but overall the musical vibe of the festival was pretty laid back, and Skrillex's up-tempo dubstep party jams felt a touch out of place. I will say seeing him work up close felt pretty special, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again.
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The next morning, I woke up early and walked around the grounds, taking in the location's surreal structures. Arcosanti looks like how people in the '70s envisioned architecture in the year 2150, with bold concrete domes and spheres rising like volcanoes from the arid desert landscape. The campsites were quiet, and a few early risers went for jogs or did yoga at the top the canyon that stretched out behind the amphitheater.
I didn't see anyone throw up. No one looked out of control on drugs. Everyone I talked to was respectful, friendly, and totally on board with the festival's mission. And why wouldn't they be? They had been hand-selected by a fairly well-known band with major connections to attend an exclusive music festival at a gorgeous, weird place in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps curating the audience, if you have a lineup and mission exciting enough to warrant sufficient demand, is a good idea.
I talked with a woman involved with the festival, and she told me that the idea was that the festival wouldn't grow past the capacity it reached this year, but that it would franchise out to different locations. If organizers can make the financials work, she said, we might see the festival sprout up in other locations. Maybe we'll see FORM Las Vegas or even a FORM Moscow in the future. After experiencing a too-brief moment of FORM Arcosanti, I kind of hope they succeed. Maybe curating the audience isn't as bad an idea as I had thought. Maybe making attendance at a music festival dependent on attitude can make for a truly positive experience.