9 Things I Learned At FORM Arcosanti

May 18th, 2016

9 Things I Learned At FORM Arcosanti

Last weekend at Hundred Waters‘ futuristic micro-festival FORM Arcosanti, I had a mildly life-changing experience.

Being a perma-jaded skeptic, this was a weird new thing for me because I’m certainly not the target market female for a festival like FORM. I harbor zero connection to the mystic, I swat away the universal ties that connect us all like unwanted cobwebs, and the only time I use the phrase “deep and consuming gratitude” is when I learn there’s food at a party. I’m not known for my love of face paint, nothing I wear is “fun,” I’m 50/50 on EDM and my body has a fondness for rejecting the drugs that can transform these things from outwardly hokey to inwardly meaningful.

That being said, I was wary of FORM’s self-advertisement as a “sanctuary of inspiration” and its curated audience who I imagined would be snobbish about being accepted.

I was iffy about the lineup. Although there were some artists on the scheduled I love (Perfume Genius, Julia Holter, Bill Callahan), it smelled mostly of dubstep and womp-womp; of Skrillex, Bonobo, Mija … artists I appreciate, but wouldn’t necessarily listen to.

I was doubtful that FORM would create the kind of idyllic environment of creative cross-pollination it promised to, and I packed my bags thinking I was in for a mini Burning Man, except with more lilac double french braids dangling athleisurely atop Supreme windbreakers.

God, I was so wrong.

form arcosanti 9 things i learnedrecap 4


FORM turned out to be what was probably the one of the most fascinating and inspiring weekends of my weird little existence. It was so moving and so far off from what I had expected, that I actually reached a critical point where I was filled with the sort of “deep consuming gratitude” mentioned above; the exact sort Cafe Gratitude wants to you have when they bring you an iced almond milk latte that was made without harming any actual almonds.

Being at FORM amongst the extraterrestrial architecture of Paolo Soleri, I really surprised myself by having a number of revelations about FORM, all of which contributed to this weird, pleasantly positive shift in my thinking.

1. Atmosphere is everything.

The physical layout, appearance and atmosphere of Arcosanti cannot be understated.

Originally, I underestimated the effect this would have. Although FORM’s organizers praised the actual venue as the main driving force its ethos of collaboration, intimacy and connection, I figured this would manifest itself as something no more impressive than, “Wow it’s really pretty here.”

LOL @ me, because Arcosanti itself turned out to impact every single aspect of being there.

FORM’s Welcome Packet described this effect so well that I’m not going to attempt to do it myself …

“The truly exceptional thing about FORM Arcosanti, what sets it apart from every other music festival on the planet, and what gives it its air of ecological sanity is that it takes place within and around the prototype buildings of Arcosanti. It does not happen in a converted football stadium, nor in a series of darkened nightclubs or elite galleries; it is not out on an unforgiving desert plain, or a converted farmer’s field. It occurs, as if by magic, in an architectural community designed by architect Paolo Soleri especially for events like this. In Soleri’s extraordinary architecture, the life of this event unfolds not just so spectators can witness terrific performers and performances, but in a way that they participate in the music itself, in the sense of community that Arcosanti’s connected spaces provide. Curved forms that catch sunlight, and views, and allow audience and musicians alike a sense of themselves mirrored by each other; a cultural setting on the one hand, a natural habitat on the other – architecture and ecology – all come together at Arcosanti in a way that they do nowhere else.”

Truer words have never been written in PDF form. There was something about the actual Arcosanti environment that resonated deeply within me, to the point that I could almost feel the tangible energy of the place prickling across my skin. The smooth concrete geometry was satisfying, relaxing and cleansing all at once; corporeal effects I imagine your brain elicits in response to thoughtful design such as Arcosanti’s. Everywhere I went, the architecture propelled me into nooks and crannies of both indoor and outdoor beauty; everything is simple and clean, yet entirely unearthly in that uncommon forms turned out to have surprising uses. Circular windows, amphitheaters, domes, geometric concrete outcroppings; everything simultaneously had the dual purpose of utility and pleasure.

The energy of the place showed itself most prominently in live performances, where each artist who graced the stage channeled it into some of the most moving, emotionally shattering performances I’ve ever experienced; and that’s what it was: an experience. Not a passive viewing, but an actionable relationship between artist and audience in which total focus and appreciation was passed back and forth between the two.

I’d seen some of the artists on the lineup live before, and listened to most of their recorded material, but for me at least, these honestly paled in comparison to the their shows at Arcosanti. I’m not sure whether it was the feeling the artists had from being there that made them perform so purely and honestly, the way Arcosanti’s stages are designed for sublime acoustics, or the fact that to play there is to play to an audience who’s subliminally attuned to your voice, but some combination of those factors made it so each song was more than a song; it was a connection. A powerful one at that.

I found myself so enthralled by artists I’d felt meh about previously that I entirely 180’d my opinion of them, simply because the environment gave me the opportunity to connect with them in ways a show at the Echo, or Coachella for example, never could. I’ve never been a Dan Deacon person, but his televangelist-like performance was an instant invitation to join his cult. I always respected Tortoise, but didn’t know much about them, and their set lead to some multi-hour research session on them that I’m pretty sure qualifies me for some degree in Tortoise-ology. And Thundercat? I’m so sorry I’ve been ignoring you my entire life.

It was during these performances that I realized  context has everything to do with performance, and your perception of the two in tandem is what creates a relationship with both the music and those around you. I’m sober, I swear.


2. The artist programming was perfect and all-encompassing

I’m pretty sure Hundred Waters selected their FORM artists solely based on their ability to make your body do weird things like cry tears of amazement or come down with goosebumps.

But apart from the individual merits of each band or artist, the context of all of them together felt so cohesive and made so much sense, that one act flowed effortlessly into the next with no jarring adjustment. Sonically, it seemed like each act built upon the former until by the end of the night, the closing act was able to channel elements of all that came before them into a set of nuclear proportions. Anyone who saw Moses Sumney transition to Dan Deacon Transition to Hundred Waters knows what I’m talking about.

Yet, while there was a definite flow, the lineup was simultaneously diverse in terms of genre and performance type. There wasn’t anywhere near the amount of womping dub-EDM I had thought there would be; instead there were producers, singer-songwriters, performers with backup dancers, spoken word artists, and full bands, all who performed a vast variety of music types.

There was Skrillex, and there was Bill Callahan.

There was Braids, and there was Four Tet.

There was Saul Williams and there was Dan Deacon. Both are preached to the crowd, but in different ways.

Because of this, FORM made you feel catered to in terms of its musical experience, but not only were the lineups fulfilling in themselves, there was also exposure to a handful of lesser-known artists like Azul and Lydia Ainsworth whose talents are just starting to become known.


3. You really do meet amazing, amazing people

I completely understand now why FORM hand-picks the festival’s attendants, and it’s not because Arcosanti itself is tiny.

It’s because doing this absolutely, 1,000 percent creates an atmosphere of utmost community; of sharing, collaboration and understanding.

Although the final head count ended up being somewhere around 1,200 people, it’s amazing how small that number actually feels. That made the festival feel accessible and intimate, which in turn created an environment in which meeting people and forming lasting, meaningful connections was effortless. This was partially because of the egalitarian atmosphere FORM created, but also because these people were selected based on the common thread of how they used creativity in their own lives. This lead to an audience with similar interests and values, who found it easy to approach and speak to another, and ultimately to connect, because they’d already been preselected to find joy in similar things.

I can’t tell you how many flooring people I met there. There was no “FORM picked me” hubris, no “Who do you know in L.A.?” Just a lot of really caring, genuine people doing awe-inspiring creative things. It felt like the normal, standoffish social structures that govern familiar things like L.A.’s music industry faded away and were replaced with nothing but real interest.

It actually kind of made me feel more confident being there; everyone is interested in you and vice versa, everyone is happy to be there, and everyone’s invested in other people’s ideas. Kinda tight.


4. Moses Sumney is a golden god

One of the most moving performances of the festival came from Moses Sumney, who completely melted the audience with his unique vocal looping and angelic voice that seemed to swirl and flow as effortlessly as the architecture of Arcosanti itself.

His performance was all-consuming, an ethereal rip in the space-time continuum that, for a second, I swear gravity fucked right off and I felt lighter.  Hope he reads that.

Still sober. Pinky swear. Check him out.


5. There’s really something for everyone there

Listen, I’m not the type to stay out until sunrise listening to Mija, but that doesn’t mean FORM didn’t accommodate for the type of person that is. While I got my beauty sleep after about 12 or so, FORM kept the midnight events raging down at the psychotropic Elestial stage, from which campers wandered back from in absolute bliss as the sun rose and baked us at precisely 400 degrees Faranheit in our tents.

There were OWSLA pool parties happening at the same time as moving discussions, artist panels and radio shows, performance art happening alongside impromptu hikes and unscheduled jam sessions between artists.

At one point, someone buried himself naked up to his head for art, while just a few yards away a group of fitness-minded individuals did yoga on a cliff.

Every interest was accommodated for, but it didn’t feel overwhelming. It felt like people were getting what they needed.


6. Braids

I’ll keep this one short, but Braids blew me away. My eyes juiced up, my hands got clammy and I got the kind of twisted pang in your gut and knot in your throat you get when you see someone do something truly incredible like win an Olympic medal or sing their heart out on TV.

Singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s voice has the same range and flexibility as Bjork’s, and her lyrics are primarily these vulnerable confessions that far transcend the typical “She left me” or “I’m horny” subject matter of so much music today.

And drummer Austin Tufts? Holy fucking God balls. His drumming had every bit as much beautiful fragility and technical diversity as Raphaelle’s voice did, and Taylor Smith, who plays pretty much everything did a number on the … pretty much everything. Truly incredible.

They’re playing May 26th at L.A. at the Echo if you want to go.


7. All notions of social status, music industry class systems and VIP are thrown out

At FORM, there is none of the social stratification you find at most festivals.

The green room was, for better or worse, open to anyone. Artists camped and ate with festival attendees. Everyone mingled about in the same areas, enjoyed the same seating, and took part in the same activities. Standing in line for the Arcosanti’s one full bar (the other was a Don Julio airstream), I met Hannibal Buress and up-and-coming performance artist named Megumi Arai in the same two seconds, proof of how FORM successfully skirted both geographical and social boundaries.

There was a glamping section where more well-off artists and attendees languished in luxury yurts and glorified outdoor hotel rooms, but the money they spent on those was “patronage” money, meaning any profit gained from the glamour section went to making sure Arcosanti ran smoothly and could happen again. So, thank you, rich people.


8. There is so much to learn

Part of what made Arcosanti so fascinating were the talks and panels that happened alongside the musical and visual performances.

There was cultural programming from NeueHouse featuring visual artist Sanford Biggers, a discussion about Arcosanti founder Paolo Soleri between artist and filmmaker Doug Aitken and Architect / Co-President of Arcosanti, Jeff Stein; a tear-jerking discussion with comedian and writer Zach Anner who will join GQ Editor Michael Hainey to speak on overcoming a neurological disorder; a daily meditation and interactive sculpture experience from artist Kathy Garcia; and a full-day live 2D human painting from artist Alexa Meade.

There were also a series of workshops and discussion panels on creative process and collaboration with select performing artists and moderators hosted by WeTransfer and Boiler Room, with participants that ranged from Ryan Schriber of Pitchfork, Zach from Hundred Waters, Jesse Rogg of Mack Sennet Studios, Young Turks creative director Molly Hawkins, Braids drummer Austin Tufts and more.

Listening to these people talk about their experiences, give advice on creative collaboration and entrepreneurship, and discuss meaningful issues that eclipse the superficial discussions we have in our daily lives (Saul Williams and Sanford Biggers discussed racism and the meaning of Harriet Tubman on the new $20, Zach Anner talked about what it’s like to live with a disability) made me realize there was a reason I’d come there; to learn how to think differently. That I did.


9. I think it might have changed my perspective on music festivals

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a music festival person. I have no interest in crowds, Port-O-Potties or economically marginalizing ticket prices that only Ashley-Katie-Brittney, whose dad is an entertainment lawyer, can afford. I don’t quite like that as music festivals balloon to a certain size and reach, they lose sight of them music and start to focus on their own image. I’d rather spend my time within the intimate setting of bands playing their own stage show on their own terms at local venues. I’d rather spend my money on things that aren’t $14 bottles of water and hotels in places I’d never ordinarily visit (sup, Indio).

But Arcosanti felt like something different entirely. I felt so taken care of, so thoughtfully considered there, that I couldn’t help adopt the same attitude towards others. The alien architecture, gorgeous landscape, small crowd, new friends and incredibly moving performances elevated it to level on which I’m actually comfortable using the word “gratitude.” Yep, it’s the $10 word of the day. Gratitude. I actually felt immense “gratitude” as I pulled out of the parking lot and steered my Prius home.

You know, to be very honest: I sometimes feel like in L.A., there’s a bit of competition and jealousy of those around you. You see other people succeed, and you inevitably compare yourself to them. It’s a recipe for insecurity, but in a city and culture where success is defined by the amount of Instagram followers you have or how well you can spend two hours contouring your face, it’s hard not to value yourself based on superficial things like what VIP list someone’s on.

I think for me, the most poignant and impactful takeaway; the one that most called upon the sense of gratitude I’m so reluctant to admit I have, is that I was genuinely happy for everyone I met. Genuinely happy to meet them genuinely happy to see them again, genuinely happy to have shared an experience that propelled my worldview in a positive direction.