Finding Respite at FORM Arcosanti 2016

Powerful and intimate music performances, unique architecture and more contribute to a revitalizing weekend in the desert

“Has everybody been having an insanely relaxing time?” electronic musician and hypeman-for-Saturday-night Dan Deacon asks the crowd, adding how almost “creepily” relaxing it’s been here at Arcosanti, Arizona before immediately shifting the mood into high gear. What a fitting summary for the weekend. The architectural experiment in the desert hosted around 1200 campers for the third iteration of FORM Arcosanti, founded and run by the band Hundred Waters. It’s their largest expansion yet of an ambitious idea: a free-to-attend music festival (via an open-ended application), spiritually enriching for both artists and participants. Within Italian architect Paolo Soleri‘s “arcological,” community-centered structures, we were part of a microcosm of creative energy unlike anything we’ve experienced before.

Some 30 artists performed over Friday, Saturday and Sunday; with D∆WN and Ryan Hemsworth warming up the amphitheater—Arcosanti’s beating heart—and Julia Holter, Bill Callahan, Thundercat and Perfume Genius ending the weekend with a bang. Besides the noticeable increase in capacity (almost double the 750 people last year), FORM tested for the first time glamping patron packages to help offset costs, discussions led by NeueHouse and WeTransfer, and two new stages in addition to the amphitheater. The smaller Apse theater lent itself to more intimate performances and talks, and the handbuilt, brightly colored fabric stage (by Elestial Sound, friends of Hundred Waters), located down in the canyon, stuck out against the desert’s muted palette by day and glowed by night. None of the three stages overlapped, as programming focused on one performance at a time—no FOMO at FORM—and there was plenty to discover in between, including Alexa Meade‘s painting onto flesh or performance artist Bert Rodriguez getting buried in a hole for “What A Tree Feels Like” and having festival participants take care of his protruding head.

One could walk from their tent—all participants were required to camp—to the amphitheater in one minute, easily finding a spot to sit down. “Someone said this weekend that Arcosanti’s like an outdoor cruise ship because you always run into the same people,” FORM co-founder Alex Hoffman tells CH. “And there’s different shared spaces that you can engage with. But once you’re here, you’re here. And that becomes part of the mentality of everyone who’s participating. Also this year, we didn’t really allow in-and-out; whereas last year, we had people who just came in for the day. So I think that also creates a different headspace for people in terms of settling in, relaxing and letting it overtake them a little bit—in a good way.” The layout of Arcosanti, which winds in and out over a short distance, is conducive to exploration and spontaneous conversations; but most importantly, private breathing spaces unfold wherever you wander. When most festivals are demanding on the mind and body (“nauseating” is how one artist put it as we chatted in the breakfast line), FORM’s regard for respite is something to deeply appreciate.

That’s not to say that the festival is a snoozer. When the sun sets at Arcosanti, the darkness falls as fast as the temperature does, switching up the vibe immediately. Bonobo and Four Tet played our favorite sets on Friday night, despite some technical issues with sound (don’t miss the chance to see Four Tet perform in another amphitheater later this year, on Croatian island Obonjan). Four Tet seamlessly transitioned between unrelenting techno beats to hypnotic melodies—including a celestial remix of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better”—ending things on a tranquil note, as to brace the audience for the intensity coming up next. Skrillex headlined (Hundred Waters is signed to his label OWSLA), bringing a crowd onto the stage, and the two DJs later played the pop-up canyon stage back-to-back until the sun rose.

At noon on Saturday, a baby grand was rolled out by the canyon and miked up. David Moore (of Bing & Ruth) performed solo, fingers softly rolling over the keys. The repeating, evolving arpeggios blurred into the atmosphere. Many laid down on the grass during this musical meditation; others looked out toward the opposite cliff. In the final minutes before Moore’s shy bow, birds unexpectedly joined in, adding trills to the ambient music; the wind whipped through with extra force, swaying bodies back and forth. This concert is a manifestation of Soleri’s ideas to live harmoniously with nature and gather people together, and one to remember.

The most memorable shows, overall, were the ones that took place in the daylight. It takes courage to bare it all under bright natural light (though the amphitheater’s kite-like canopy offers cool shade)—but it can also shine the rare spotlight on each band member’s musicianship. D∆WN, Son Lux, Empress Of and Braids especially did this intimate environment justice, performing with an inspiring passion and intensity hard to catch at your dimly lit favorite local venue. Hundred Waters closed Saturday night with a dramatic light show and performance that rocked the heart to sleep, in the best way possible. Late-nighters enjoyed Local Natives underneath the stars or could partake in the impromptu Prince dance-off.

FORM’s uniqueness extends beyond its wondrous setting. It’s the people that have congregated here for the weekend: the artists who perform, hang out, and catch their peers’ shows; the volunteers who drove from all parts of the country to help out; and the participants selected by the FORM team (it takes about a month to read through all the applications). “I was at check-in and I started recognizing a lot of people,” recalls Hoffman. “It’s rewarding to see them actually here, because people pour their hearts out [in their applications]. Sometimes I’m shocked at the level of candor or how much they’re willing to reveal. It’s beautiful, the fact that they do that.” The Arcosanti residents (including a long-haired cat) also seemed to be having a blast: answering questions about how they live here year-round and what structures they hope to build next, offering sips of homemade applejack, slipping in and out of the amphitheater during performances and overall, welcoming strangers into their desert home.

“No more people for FORM Arcosanti,” says Zach Tetreault of Hundred Waters, when we meet up on the last day to reflect on this year’s event. “We’re starting to find the happy medium, the sweet spot. We just want to continue to make the experience flow seamlessly. I think we can do a better job of providing people with more options.” Adds Hoffman, “A lot of it boils down to logistics, there are always things to learn there. Another thing we’re always looking at is increasing the interactivity amongst people, amongst the artists. Giving people room to breathe, too, between some of the sets, having breaks. Those things have really helped shape the flow.” On the red-eye home, there was a glowing sense of rejuvenation underneath the accumulated layers of sweat and dust. An eagerness to make something; talk to someone; share a moment. Hands down, without knowing next year’s line-up, we’d return to FORM in a heartbeat.

Four Tet image courtesy of Jacqueline Verdugo; all other images by Nara Shin