Last May, I was one of the lucky few able to attend FORM Arcosanti, an electronic music festival in the “experimental” hamlet known as Arcosanti, located in Yavapai County about 67 miles north of Phoenix. The festival was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, and the site of my most intense spiritual one. This year, my application was rejected for an unknown reason.
This festival isn’t your typical Electric Daisy Carnival—oh no, this festival is “different.” First of all, FORM is (sorta) free to attend. But the organization curates their audience, meaning every attendee has to fill out an application providing details such as their job, social networks, and answer questions such as “What roles(s) does creativity play in your life?” and “In what ways do you see yourself contributing to the experience?”
Like me, your application might have been rejected, too. With limited physical space for attendees and increased exposure and popularity, FORM probably received significantly more applications than it did last year. But never fear: the festival isn't all it's cracked up to be, despite the press accolades to the contrary. With the festival coming up this weekend (check out the lineup here), it's time to explain why.
After last year's festival, New York Times Magazine called FORM “simply magical.” Relentless Beats described it as “an experience no festival-goer could ever imagine within their wildest dreams.” Both Noisey and Pitchfork pegged FORM as “the festival of the future” with Noisey adding it was “a hub for idealism and an active attempt at living in harmony with both each other and with the environment.”
But my experience wasn’t anything like that at all. I remember wondering if these reporters had even been to the same event I had.
FORM was started two years ago by Hundred Waters, a lush electronic pop band from Los Angeles by way of Gainesville, Florida, and their management company, Family. The idea began in 2014 as an album release show for the Arcosanti community, which is known to host periodic music events in their amphitheater.
The next year, the event expanded, featuring a Moog sound lab filled with new and vintage synthesizers, art installations, a cheap bar and a larger musical lineup. I decided to apply. True to form, FORM required filling out a form. So I wrote a little five-paragraph essay about how I am sort of creative or whatever and boy, that’s what drives my existence, isn’t that cool? The organizers must have liked it, because a few weeks later I got a welcome package in my inbox.
The idea of having your audience fill out an application in the hopes to be hand-selected is unorthodox, to say the least. Some have described it as “cultish,” while others simply dismiss it as “pretentious cocksucking” — but it does make some sense. At max, Arcosanti can only accommodate 750 people, and Hundred Waters wanted something intimate and inspiring, so they weighed their options. Responding to criticism, the band said they could have approached it on a first-come-first-serve basis, held a lottery, or raised ticket prices enormously.
None of these options appealed to Hundred Waters, saying it would make people flake or sit on RSVPs and added “making it expensive would mean only wealthy people can come.” They decided it would be better to have applications to avoid attendees who “want to come for the wrong reasons,” as Hundred Waters drummer Zach Tetreault put it to Culture Collide.
“We do see some applications that are like, "I just wanna do drugs in the desert,” Tetreault said. “I'm all about that, I'm all for that, but there's other things you can put on your application.”
So basically, you should just write bullshit? This year, FORM altered their stipulations just a bit. If you didn’t get vetted through the application process you could still attend by paying between $1,595.25 – $2,233.35 for a “Patron Package.”
Hundred Waters insists this isn’t some exclusive, “coolness contest” thing, which is a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t hold up. Any time you draw a line somewhere, it’s going to be exclusive. Everything from Coachella to private SXSW showcases are exclusive in some way. The question isn’t whether FORM is pretentious, because it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I love pretentious shit. The question is who goes to this and why. What type of person fills out an admission essay to attend a festival? And in the organizers’ eyes, what are the “right” reasons for wanting to go to FORM?
Why did I apply last year? First and foremost because I’m a big fan of Hundred Waters, especially their album The Moon Rang Like A Bell. The other bands on the roster I could take or leave. But I also applied because I had heard that the first FORM was a life-changing, enlightening experience and because I think Arcosanti is an interesting place, even if it’s not the ecological wonderland it's made out to be.
Arcosanti is a self-described “urban laboratory” designed by the late “visionary” architect Paolo Soleri in 1970. It combines architecture and ecology into something called “arcology,” Soleri’s environmentally-focused response to urban sprawl. Basically, it’s a utopian eco-friendly construction philosophy and in theory, it’s cool as fuck.
The problem is Arcosanti is far from reaching the level of sustainability it dreams of. There are a few greenhouses, for example, but they could hardly nourish the permanent residents at the urban lab. They’re still plugged into the local power grid, unless they have a coal power plant tucked away somewhere I didn’t see. Not to mention those bronze bells are made using propane, so good luck isolating your society when there are no nearby natural gas processing or petroleum refining plants.
Another issue is Arcosanti and many other arcologies are half-built — Soleri never finished a single arcology project in his lifetime — with the last building on Arcosanti being finished in 1989. It turns out selling ceramic bells, even with some priced as high as $380 a pop, doesn’t cover many construction costs.
These days, Arcosanti is little more than a tourist trap and education center akin to the quasi-failure of Biosphere 2. It may not accomplish many of its stated goals, but it’s a futuristic building in the desert where sightseers can learn how driving cars is bad for the environment.
You could nitpick about how most of the talk about environmentalism discussed at the festival is preached rather than practiced, pointing at the idling RVs in the FORM Arcosanti parking lot and the bathroom trashcans that overflowed with used paper towels.
But maybe that’s missing the point. FORM is definitely trying to be different, at least a speck self-aware, so why gripe about much trash was produced and how much water wasted? At least this isn’t a bunch of half-naked ex-hippies setting giant stick men on fire and driving around in circles, right?
That said, the main goal of FORM isn’t really to create self-sustaining, environmentally benign urban habitats. The primary purpose is to “Celebrate creativity, foster collaboration, inspire new work & perspective, [and] promote the role of art in public life” and their core beliefs are summed up as “Creativity helps us envision alternatives to what is.”
Could that be any more broad? Someone has been reading too much Chopra. I won’t get into how cliché and identical all the Instagram photos flooding from FORM appeared to me or how most of the music was unlistenable, especially the girl with the acoustic guitar singing about her daddy issues. Besides, I have a hard time criticizing an event that provided such an impactful experience for me. I couldn’t afford beer, but I did find three tabs of LSD that I ingested, then read a book in the grass while I came up.
The first stop was the Moog room, which felt like walking into a spaceship. The acid actually made me a little shy, so I didn’t approach any of the instruments, but I was just fine sitting next to some rhubarb and listening to others experiment with the machines. I thought it was an incredibly inspiring thing for Moog to provide this.
However, I tried to return to the sound lab at least three times throughout the night and each time, it was closed and locked with a sign that said “Do not enter, filming in progress.” Apparently someone’s creative process was so precious that no one else was allowed inside. Then what was the point of being so inviting in the first place? I had a hard time believing FORM wasn’t exclusionary after this.
Actually, I reflected a lot on inclusivity while deep in my trip. I thought about how bizarre and territorial humans are — they’re like giant squirrels guarding their nests — but also how Jesus was a homeless and treated like a bum, and how lonely everyone is. I also came to terms with my mother’s breast cancer, my fear of her dying, and realized I would be crazy if I didn’t marry my girlfriend, who is now my wife.
I was really starting to feel it when we were smoking by the campsites, watching the sun start to set. My friend Heather and I discussed relationships, Lars Von Trier, and the end of the world. A slight breeze was picking up and we caught some guy playing very, very light piano. It was such a gentle fluttering, it sounded completely angelic and the wind was just so perfect, breathing in this life-affirming way.
I was peaking at this point and I felt like the whole structure was flying through the sky. I closed my eyes and saw a giant cube flushed with rainbow colors and liquid poured from it when it turned into a three-by-three grid of tiny cubes (a Rubik’s cube, I suppose) with each face an eyeball that twisted into runes, crosses, and other cryptic symbols.
At this point, I started crying uncontrollably and kept going back to the piano and then back to the vision. I really felt that this was a little slice of heaven and that this is what communion with God would be like.
Did all these revelations really mean anything? I mean, other than the fact that I proposed three weeks later, I wasn’t sure that anything I had experienced had really been all that powerful. Would I have proposed anyway? Probably, but not likely as confidently. I felt incredibly drained and embarrassed and like I had just tricked myself into some illusion or something, like I was an idiot that believed what had happened was real. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, despite how overwhelming it was and how I had never before had such a strong spiritual experience on ANY drug before, despite years of use and abuse with all kinds of mind-altering substances. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore and whatever conviction had momentarily taken hold of me felt falsified and weak.
It took me a long time to process what happened, and in a way, I’m still processing it. To this day it was still the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve had on any entheogen and I’m incredibly grateful to have had that happen, even if I don’t entirely buy it. I do know that I was in a dark place in my life and I got out of it thanks to the acid, but that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly “enlightened.”
So yeah, my experience at FORM was definitely mystical and life changing. On the one hand, I feel like I can’t give FORM credit for facilitating that — those kudos probably go to LSD-25. But on the other hand, I do appreciate that I was able to mediate this way in a set and setting that was surreal and peaceful.
There’s a lot that FORM does accomplish that I really don’t go into in this essay. If you want to know more about that, just go on their website: It’s everywhere. But what they accomplish most is throwing a good party.
So why did I apply again if so much about FORM bothered me? Well, frankly, because their lineup didn’t suck this year. I wanted to see Four Tet and Saul Williams. I also wanted to see if maybe I was just being cynical — was there something I missed? I wanted to give FORM the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t know why my application was rejected this time, but I don’t take it personally. Maybe I was too slow to apply; maybe they wanted to give someone new a chance to experience FORM. Maybe they didn’t like my latest tweets.
Of course, anyone who reads this article and feels their blood pressure rise will immediately think I only wrote this to be spiteful and contrarian. All I can say is I don’t care if you don’t believe me: my feelings toward FORM are genuinely independent of my application status.
The only real thesis of this essay is to say while FORM is interesting and fun, it doesn’t quite live up to the heaps of accolades piled on it by the press, so don’t feel too bad if your application wasn’t accepted. It doesn’t mean your Instagram is boring — I mean, it is, but that’s besides the point.
I guess I’m just the guy that goes and does drugs in the desert without really contributing anything. I didn’t really understand that part of the essay contest, er, application anyway. 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?”
Most of what I saw people “contributing” involved taking selfies of themselves in the sunset. When Patric Fallon of The Creators Project visited, he said he “came across photographers, sculptors, painters, illustrators, writers, filmmakers, programmers, designers, architects, singers, musicians, and other creative specialists.” I mostly just saw people smoking cigarettes and drinking Fat Tire. I mean, I wrote in my journal, took photos and “expanded” my mind. What more could I have done?
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I guess that means I’m not one of the people that really fits in at Arcosanti or FORM. The question is, do I want to be?
When I asked Heather if she applied this year, she said, “No. I would never go again. It was like being indoctrinated into two equally pretentious cults at once.”
Troy Farah is on Twitter so you can send your hate mail there.
Correction. 11:20 a.m., 5/12/2016: The "patron package" tickets are still on sale.