FORM Arcosanti 2019 Winners and Losers

A surprise drag show was a highlight of FORM Arcosanti 2019.
A surprise drag show was a highlight of FORM Arcosanti 2019. Jacob Tyler Dunn
The fifth year of FORM Arcosanti has drawn to a close. It wasn't all smooth sailing out in the desert, unfortunately, as technical issues made the weekend a bumpier ride than expected. Still, we at Phoenix New Times loved this year's experience, and in the spirit of tough love, we'd like to share our Winners and Losers of FORM Arcosanti 2019, in the hopes that next year might be even better.

click to enlarge Arcosanti seen from the campgrounds during FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Arcosanti seen from the campgrounds during FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn


Perfect Weather

One of the prices you pay for going to FORM is enduring the weather. It's May in Arizona, so a bit of heat is expected, not to mention having to eat a bit of dust as the sharp desert wind kicks up clouds of it all over the place. This year, though, the meteorological gods smiled upon Arcosanti. It was cloudy and gray on Saturday and Sunday, with only an occasional trickle of rain that didn't disrupt any performances. Cool breezes passed through the venues, but it never got so cold that you had to bundle up super-tight. The dust took this year off, so you could go up and down the hill from the canyon campsite without having to slip on a mask or a scarf every time. And while it was sunny on Friday, it wasn't hot at all. You really couldn't ask for better weather for a summer festival in Arizona. Ashley Naftule

click to enlarge People came from all over the country to celebrate at FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
People came from all over the country to celebrate at FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

The Beautiful People

Say what you will about how much they paid to be there or how far they came from, but the people of FORM are remarkably friendly. Music festivals can be a surprisingly isolating experience, especially if they're on the larger side, and especially if you're there alone for whatever reason. But at FORM, the atmosphere is so comfortable that you can't help but chat up your fashionably dressed campsite neighbor, or the girl sitting next to you at the amphitheater, or the guy that just finished up speaking at a panel. People don't come to FORM just for the music and the partying — they also come for thoughtful conversations, for the beauty of the surrounding nature, and the intimacy of sharing an experimental community with thousands of former strangers. Douglas Markowitz

click to enlarge Florence Welch and Yrsa Daley-Ward at "Between Two Books" during FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Florence Welch and Yrsa Daley-Ward at "Between Two Books" during FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Diversity Onstage and Off

FORM's programming is reliably wide-ranging. From pastoral singer-songwriters and New Age songbirds to ominous noise acts and molly-popping funk and EDM, FORM's lineup always provides an excellent balance between crowd-pleasers and more esoteric acts. Not a lot of places would put Skrillex and Mary Lattimore on the same lineup, and that approach to mixing and matching different groups is part of why FORM's audience is unlike most other festivals. You're more likely to see openly queer and trans audience members and people of color at FORM than you would at, say, Innings. And while it'd be nice to see more punk and metal performers on the bill, at least FORM has enough sense and taste not to pander to alt-country fans and stick some boring cow-punk shit onstage. AN

click to enlarge An audience gathers in the Vaults at FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
An audience gathers in the Vaults at FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Better Organization

This year's festival had its share of problems — power outages, lineup changes — but compared to previous iterations of FORM, this year's festival was pretty on the ball with most of its logistics. They had lots of vans and shuttles running over the weekend, and registering on Friday was the fastest it's ever been. It was also a wise move to shift the location of the parking lot closer to the site itself, cutting down significantly on how long it takes the shuttles to do their loops.

Camping in the canyon was also a much, much smoother experience this year. The big upgrade: actual hot showers. Last year the showers were basically tarp-covered stations that spewed nothing but ice-cold water. For 2019, FORM set up wooden boxes equipped with curtains and shower fixtures, offering more privacy, more space to wash, and sweet, blessed warm water. Another welcome addition to the festival: a cashless, card-less economy. This year FORM rolled out an RFID-chipped bracelet participants could load money onto via a "top-off" station on the grounds. Everything one could conceivably buy at FORM could be bought with your bracelet, making carrying cash and losing your credit cards a thing of the past. AN

click to enlarge Watching a talk at FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Watching a talk at FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

The Nonmusical Programming

Some of the most interesting experiences at FORM didn't involve any kind of music. In the early mornings, one could find plenty of fascinating programs designed to do more than just entertain. Saturday saw an art class taught by Lonnie Holley at the Apse, while the Vaults hosted yoga for early risers and panel discussions on work and art, modern masculinity, and other thought-provoking topics. One could take a tour of the grounds or head to Envelop for an astrology reading or a deep-listening experience with an album by Steve Reich or Ryuichi Sakamoto. My favorite of these nonperformance programs, however, was a little library tucked into a room at the Vaults, assembled by a group of artists, where people could thumb through zines, art books, and even a copy of Frank Ocean's Boys Don't Cry. DM

click to enlarge The campground at FORM Arcosanti 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
The campground at FORM Arcosanti 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn


Schedule Changes, Power Outages

On Friday, power outages during sets by Japanese Breakfast and American Football put the amphitheater stage out of commission for a good portion of the day. This created all kinds of confusions; hallways got cut off so people couldn't leave the Vaults and go back to the amp area. And sets got cut off too — serpentwithfeet went from having a full set on the bill to having 15 minutes and some loose change to do his thing in the Vaults.

While the power situation eventually got sorted, musical chairs with the lineup would continue on Saturday and Sunday, with abrupt schedule changes that frequently went unannounced. Some performers, like Mary Lattimore, started earlier than their scheduled times, and some of the experiences (like the Talkhouse podcast) just plain didn't happen at all. While occasionally a volunteer or organizer would hop on the mic to announce changes, sometimes there would be radio silence from FORM about what was going on. While this year was a great festival in many respects, communication about last-minute schedule changes was a real problem. AN

click to enlarge Raising the roof at FORM 2019. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Raising the roof at FORM 2019.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

No Love for Local Music

FORM's programming is diverse and adventurous, but it has one glaring blind spot: Where are the Arizona artists? Year after year, FORM brings in amazing groups from around the world to Arcosanti, but never seems to find a spot or two on its bill for a worthy local group, despite the fact that the Valley of the Sun has more than its share of worthy acts. Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra was practically born to rule FORM, and imagine the kind of mind-warping sets a first-class crate digger like Djentrification could accomplish at Arcosanti. Noise groups, singer-songwriters, brilliant weirdo artists like Treasure Mammal, or former hometown heroes like AJJ would all kill. Hell, one of the brains behind Negativland lives in Tucson. There's a wealth of off-kilter creatives who could fit right in as a part of FORM. Here's hoping this festival, which has done so many other things right, digs into this untapped resource for next year's three-day experience. AN

click to enlarge Snail Mail playing their set at the amphitheater during FORM Arcosanti 2019 - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Snail Mail playing their set at the amphitheater during FORM Arcosanti 2019
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Noise Pollution

Sound bleed was a problem at this year's FORM. In past years, the majority of the action took place either in the amphitheater or at the Apse stage, which are relatively far apart from each other. Two acts could play concurrently at both spots and they wouldn't disrupt each other. But this year, FORM made the Vaults a major stage. The open-air chamber is a beautiful location and a prime spot for putting on a show, but it's also situated exactly in between the other two venues, which means that any music blaring in the Vaults would spill over.

This wasn't a problem for the louder acts, but it had an impact on quieter performances, like Destroyer's otherwise fantastic solo set; Dan Bejar is enough of a pro not to let noise bleeding from next door throw him off, but it made it harder for the audience to hone in on what he was doing. And poor Japanese Breakfast, who made a valiant attempt to salvage their technically disastrous set by going acoustic, couldn't be heard at all unless you were literally sitting within a few feet of Michelle Zauner. Here's hoping next year they figure out a solution. AN

click to enlarge The FORM logo overlooking the campground at Arcosanti. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
The FORM logo overlooking the campground at Arcosanti.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Attack of the Brands

In 2019, a festival cannot go on without corporate sponsorship. It's the sober reality of the entertainment industry that resistance to "selling out" has given way to branded activations and other forms of uneasy patronage. These kinds of things were all over the place at FORM, unfortunately, but at the very least, FORM seemed to spring for sponsors that, on the face of it, aren't totally evil. So you had panel discussions sponsored by Patreon, the startup where artists can crowdfund their practices with a monthly fee. You had a "social lounge" run by Vero, the fledgling social network marketing themselves as an ad-free, algorithm-free alternative to Facebook and Instagram. And you had Equinox, the upscale fitness chain opening a Scottsdale location later this year, running morning yoga classes and other activities.

Still, as well-intentioned as these brands may be, they're still businesses, and they're still connected to the forces of finance that the festival seemingly ought to be aligned against. One doesn't have to follow the money around Patreon, for instance, very far to learn that they were funded in part by venture capital from a firm founded by Jared Kushner's brother. Try as they might, FORM can't escape the fact that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and if they're not careful, the money will creep in, and the festival could potentially turn into a small-scale Burning Man, another utopian event ruined by suits cosplaying as hippies. DM
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Phoenix New Times Music Writers