It’s tempting to look at the recent, disastrous Fyre Festival as a bizarro version of FORM Arcosanti.
Each music festival was founded and co-curated by musical artists. Hundred Waters is behind FORM, while Ja Rule headed up the ill-fated Fyre. They’re set in remote environments: Fyre on an untouched island; FORM at an experimental desert art community. They cater to “influencers” – people who tend to be socially active, stylish, and young. For Fyre attendees, the promise of a “luxury festival experience” involving yachting, Blink-182, and proximity to Kendall Jenner was worth $12K. For FORM participants, there’s the feeling of being part of a chosen few who camp alongside artists just outside Phoenix.
The crucial difference between them, of course, is careful planning. Fyre flamed out on its inaugural weekend because there was little to no infrastructure and headliners canceled last-minute. FORM, on the other hand, has evolved since its 2014 launch.
FORM is set to kick off its 2017 edition on Friday, May 12. A diverse group of musicians, artists, and happenings are scheduled to light up Arcosanti’s expansive desert landscape over the course of three days. With its focus on hosting a small group of festival goers (no more than 1,500), its commitment to cultivating non-music programming that adds variety to the festival (including yoga sessions in the morning, social issue panel discussions, and late-night film screenings), and the “we’re-one-big-tribe” vibe (several acts like Mitski and How To Dress Well that are performing at this year’s fest have played it before), FORM stands in stark contrast to the grow-until-you-burst expansionist model that festivals like Coachella use.
A cursory glance at the 36 acts that comprise FORM’s 2017 lineup is just as likely to provoke head scratches as it would jaw drops.
Black metal heroes Deafheaven share the bill with singer-songwriters like Julie Byrne and Weyes Blood, while the sepulchral electronic rumblings of The Haxan Cloak play on the same festival grounds as bass drop king Skrillex and Father John Misty, the indie Czar of Snark. There’s James Blake, Thundercat, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Omar Souleyman, Solange, Timber Timbre, Shamir, and Future Islands. It’s as if Pitchfork’s Best New Music section will spring to life.
While the booking can seem like a collection of oddities, festival curator Zach Tetreault says that’s part of FORM’s charm.
“I’m not afraid to put Skrillex and Julie Byrne on the same bill because I know that when you come to FORM, the scheduling is part of the experience,” Tetreault says. “It’s a sonic journey that makes a lot of sense when you’re there.”
Tetreault is the percussionist for Hundred Waters, the band from Gainesville, Florida, who started the micro-festival to celebrate the release of their acclaimed sophomore album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell. Working with a rotating group of nonprofit organizations and such guest curators as Moses Sumney, Hundred Waters put together a festival experience that was meant to be the antithesis to larger festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo.
The work that Hundred Waters put into the festival hasn’t gone unnoticed. As FORM’s profile has grown, so have its connections to other arts and advocacy groups.
Several high-profile organizations will take part in the festival’s “cultural series” this year by presenting panel discussions and film screenings. Among these groups are Solange’s Saint Heron network, climate change group Pathway to Paris, and Planned Parenthood. FORM also will feature a screening of the critically acclaimed documentary Whose Streets?, which premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival.
Aside from their cultural series programming, another significant way that FORM has stood out from other fests is its application system. For the first few editions, the event was free to attend. Participants had to submit an application explaining why they wanted to attend the festival and what they had to offer as creatives. The process has been labeled by some as pretentious or exclusionary, but Tetreault says it was a necessary step to ensure that the festival grounds would be respected.
“The idea was to cultivate a thoughtful and respectful audience,” Tetreault says. “Arcosanti is a historic and important site. We’re not popping up a festival in the middle of a parking lot or a football field and letting people come in and throw their trash and cigarettes on the ground, and it’s all good because we can put some new sod down afterward. It’s just not that kind of situation.”
Staying on Arcosanti’s good side is a top priority for the FORM organizers.
Founded in the 1970s by the late architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti is an experimental community about 70 miles north of Phoenix that blends architectural forms with ecology to embody Soleri’s concept of “arcology.” And those tasked with running the place have been reluctant to host large-scale happenings until FORM came along. They had good reason to be reluctant: In 1978, Arcosanti held a festival with more than 10,000 people in attendance, and it ended in disaster when a desert grass fire spread to almost 200 cars.
Besides discouraging party monsters from attending and wrecking the place, the application process has helped create a unique vibe for the festival that some have described as both familial and weird. That was the impression Phoenix musician Brandyn Jenkins (who often performs under the name WOLFZie) noticed when he attended FORM.
“We all kinda had to look out for one another,” Jenkins says of the family atmosphere that has pervaded past FORM festivals. “I went by myself the last year, it was free, and absolutely loved it. The scenery, the music, the art — it all just captivated me in such a way where, even though I was miles away from home, I felt like I belonged there.”
Poet and storyteller Melissa Dunmore was also struck by the festival’s communal vibe.
“I met so many people from all over the world,” Dunmore says. “It was such a privilege to share energy with people who had never been to Arizona before ...”
Because of the intimate and isolated nature of the festival’s location, performers tend to interact and co-mingle with FORM attendees. Jenkins experienced this firsthand on a few occasions:
“Here’s something I often said to myself while I was there: ‘If they look weird or interesting enough, introduce yourself to them.’ I had a full-blown conversation about Warby Parker glasses with Machinedrum before I even knew who he was. I casually complimented Moses Sumney on his outfit. I even got to party and dance on stage with Skrillex and most of the festival attendees. I met some amazing people who I’ll never see again, and kept in contact with some like-minded individuals.”
The biggest change to this year’s festival is FORM’s transition from a free fest to one that charges an “experience fee.” While the festival still asks for applications, accepted participants pay a $389 entry fee to attend this year’s fest. They also included a “patron” option that allows attendees to skip the application process and pay $2500 for two for a luxury camping experience.
The move has been a source of controversy, as some past revelers see it as excluding the less-privileged from attending.
“This year, there are three rates for the weekend as a whole; only one of those three options is remotely feasible for most people I know,” Dunmore says. “It saddens me to miss out on what will no doubt be another legendary event, but also to think of all those individuals who are now shut out of attending — even if invited — because of cost.”
It isn’t a surprising development. Any event that has sustained itself and grown to the degree that FORM has was bound to cross this bridge eventually. When festival organizers announced the experience fee in a press release, the festival cited the need for funds to improve their accommodations, amenities, catering, programming, and to help reduce their environmental impact. Funds also would go toward supporting the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation and the town of Arcosanti.
Another previous FORM attendee, Michele Roya Chinichian (also known as DJ Roya), takes a more sanguine view on the festival’s format change.
“I have no energy on them charging an ‘experience fee,’” Chinichian says. “My take is their initial intention was to make it free, but that’s simply not a viable option now, and that’s okay. To expect a free festival for forever seems a little ridiculous and entitled to me. Artists and staff deserve to get paid for their services, and I am happy to support it if the value is there for me.”
Talking to Tetreault about the festival’s shift, he says that they are still committed to their original mission of creating a unique, intimate, and progressive atmosphere.
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“Everything’s a part of the greater experience,” he says. “All of our artists are as intentional as every audience member that comes to participate and as intentional as the architecture of Arcosanti itself. It’s all part of a sonic journey that comes together nicely.”
Looking ahead to next year’s festival, Tetreault confesses there is one act he’d love to see at Arcosanti.
“Radiohead,” he says with earnest conviction. “I would love for Radiohead to play our festival. Radiohead — it’s going to happen.”
FORM Arcosanti 2017 runs from Friday, May 12, to Sunday, May 14, at Arcosanti.
Correction: FORM isn't the first festival event for Planned Parenthood. Hundred Waters are from but not currently based in Gainesville, Florida. Entry fees for FORM Arcosanti are $389, not $229, and patron packages are not $1,000-$2,000. They're $2,500 for two.