Meet FORM: Arcosanti, The Tiny Desert Festival With A Big Dream

A three-day music event in an experimental city shines light on a better future for branded music.

In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.

The first time you arrive at Arcosanti, you’re probably going to feel a little lost. To get there, you drive out to a grouping of gas stations in a tiny Arizona mountain town called Mayer, Arizona—about an hour north of Phoenix—then turn off down a two-mile unpaved road. Suddenly, desert unfolds in 360 degrees around you, and the low arches and roofs of the late Paolo Soleri’s architectural masterpiece-in-progress appear, huddled almost imperceptibly against the side of a mesa. Even the second or third time you drive up that dusty road, its appearance still takes you by surprise, somehow always emerging into view where you’re not expecting to see it. The town is built over 25 acres, and it sits on a 4,000 acre land preserve. At this stage in its construction, Arcosanti is mostly just a cluster of low-rise buildings and arched walkways, but when you’re walking around inside it, you get the creeping feeling that the structure you’re looking at used to be standing somewhere else.

I’m not even sure what to call Arcosanti, but Wikipedia describes it as “experimental city and molten bronze bell casting community,” and the official website for the place refers to it as an “urban laboratory.” During my time there last weekend, I heard it described, variously, as a “non-profit,” “a company town,” and “the eighth wonder of the world.” Arcosanti was born in 1970, as a life-sized model for the Italian architect’s concept of arcology, a vision of modern city design based on a fusion of architecture and ecology. A former student of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Taliesin West firm, the Italian-American architect founded Arcosanti—and Cosanti, its affiliate research institute—with the aim of dreaming up a compact, earth-friendly alternative to urban sprawl; specifically, he wanted to see if he could create a city that did away with American car culture, with its twin pitfalls of environmental destruction and social dislocation. You can walk anywhere you need to go in Arcosanti in just a few minutes, and in addition to boasting multiple apartment-style residences, performance venues, artist studios, libraries, greenhouses, and office spaces, its labyrinthine layout includes more public meeting places that you’d expect to find in an entire New York neighborhood—including a star-gazing roof, with ergonomic concrete headrests.

50 years later, and two years after Paolo Soleri's death, Arcosanti is far from being finished; currently under the leadership of architect Jeff Stein, its 15 acres of buildings and wild desert are spotted by cranes, dumpsters, and other construction site fixtures, and of the 5,000 residents it was originally projected to house, only about 50 people—mostly employees of the space—now live there year round, along with a revolving cast of architecture students and participants in various arcology-themed workshops. But when I arrived there on Memorial Day weekend, that number had inflated by about 850 temporary guests, here in the Arizona high desert for an experiment of a different kind: the second annual rendition of FORM: Arcosanti, a three-day music event presented by Los Angeles via Gainesville rock band Hundred Waters, and curated by drummer Zach Tetreault.

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As the story goes, back when the electronics-tinged, psych-rock five-piece was still living in Florida, they built a wooden stage in the house that they shared together, and would invite all the bands in the surrounding area to play. When Tetreault and guitarist Paul Giese drove cross country en route to Los Angeles last year, they stopped by Paolo Soleri’s city planning experiment, and fell in love with it; when it came time book a release party for their 2014 album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, they instinctively gravitated toward the same sort of community scenario they’d created back home, only this time, Arcosanti was the stage.

FORM is kind of like a festival in miniature: this year, Hundred Waters booked about 27 of their favorite artists to play—including Holly Herndon, Mas Ysa, Bing & Ruth, Machinedrum, Julianna Barwick, Pharmakon, and returning performers How To Dress Well and Majical Cloudz—then rounded up a group of about 75 additional musical co-conspirators and friends to come hang out and roam around in the desert. Everyone in that extended network of music people slept, ate, and drank for free, and of the additional 250 campers and 500 day pass-holders also present on site, not one had to pay to get in—they just had to reserve a spot by filling out an online questionnaire about their reasons for wanting to attend, then figure out a way to get to Arizona (Note: though this was a way of screening out a few people who didn’t seem like they would respect the place, admission was offered on a first-come-first-serve basis.)

If all that sounds too good to be economically possible, well, it is: though it bore very few noticeable traces of them, FORM boasted FAMILY—an L.A.-based management and artist development company of which Hundred Waters is a client—as a sponsor, along with synthesizer retailer Moog, which hosted a pretty unobtrusive vintage synthesizer lab in one of the greenhouses. FORM certainly isn’t the first branded festival I’ve ever been to, but there seemed to be something different about it from the outset: aside from a surprise performance Skrillex on night one, it featured none of the usual cast of today’s mainstage festival headliners; and unlike your Coachellas and your Bonaroos and your Lollas, it seemed less about attracting as many monetizable eyeballs and eardrums as possible than simply showing a hundred young people an unusual experience in an unusual place.

Sponsored or not, camping in the desert is still camping in the desert, and from the moment that I stepped out of the car, life changed. Dwarfed by that endless expanse of sand and rocks and plants I didn’t have names for, I suddenly had a whole host of problems that I’d never had to deal with back home. After a mix-up at the production office, my camping partner and I had to spend two hours tracking down a tent that we were supposed to stay in, because if we couldn’t find it, there wasn’t really anywhere else for us to sleep; once we found our accommodation, we had to keep both of the doors zipped tight at all times, so fire ants, scorpions, and rattlesnakes wouldn’t get in, and carry around a flashlight around with us so we wouldn’t trip on rocks, and make sure to wear closed-toed shoes.

Out in the desert, the dryness can be so extreme that you don’t even notice that you are sweating; if you don’t want to die of dehydration, you need to remember to drink a gallon or more of water a day, and make sure you always have a water bottle on hand. At night, it’s hard to get much sleep: people are partying, or snoring, and the temperature plummets to 40 or 50 degrees, only to rise back up first thing in the morning, so that you wake up feeling so thirsty and winded that even getting out of your tent feels kind of daunting. Showers, phone chargers, and sunscreen become coveted, barter-able things, and a favor economy immediately emerges, where you start helping other people out on the faith that at some point you might need somebody’s help in return. On the morning after we arrived, we gave someone a ride to one of the gas stations down the road in exchange for a hotel room shower. The place looked kind of like the Bates Motel, and as if we couldn’t feel any farther from home, we spotted old lady brandishing a rifle in the parking lot.

You could feasibly spend a lot of the day tending to these basic life tasks, but there was no shortage of things to do at FORM: free daily yoga classes; hiking around the hills; taking a dip in the pool; following the evolution of an on-site sculpture project helmed by L.A. artist Cody Hudson; staring out at one of Arcosanti’s signature circular windows, which capture views of the surrounding landscape in the manner of a picture frame. In addition to its educational programming, Arcosanti supports itself partly through the production and sale of engraved bronze bells and ceramics, cast using earth from the surrounding land. I took a guided tour of the city—incidentally, from the very same Arcosanti resident who was preparing all of our meals in the on-site café—and learned that Soleri cast a lot of the archways using a similar method to the one that is used for the ceramic bells, and how the dwellings were cooled and heated through combinations of sun-absorbing concrete and heat-trapping skylights. I walked on the roof of one two-family dwelling that I was told was once the inspiration for the design of Luke Skywalker’s house in Star Wars (you can walk on pretty much all the roofs in Arcosanti), and found out that by contrast with the cookie-cutter quality of your average urban apartment building, no two rooms in Arcosanti are designed the same.

One thing that surprised me about Arcosanti was that despite its 1970s origins, the place seemed to be a whole lot more about sci-fi in spirit than back-to-the-land hippie. During a tour of the archives, I saw sketches for cities that stretched out across the American countryside, in narrow, horizontal bands, linking one large metropolitan area to the next while leaving the surrounding countryside intact. I also examined a large scroll containing a Paolo Soleri drawing of a city that took the form of an gigantic floating island, complete with motors for shuttling from place to place. Soleri’s vision was that of a city that is kinder to the environment and also kinder to human beings, fostering the village-like feel that automobile-driven suburbs do away with; in its current incarnation, Arcosanti is more of an educational non-profit than a commune, though its design is a testament to the extent to which city design can impact our experience of community. As I learned from our tour guide, you have to be mindful of what you say and how loud you say it in Arcosanti, because the sound will bounce off the concrete walls and end up in unintended places; and its system of buildings, squares, and passages is so compact that you can’t really avoid running into everybody you know, both for better and for worse. As one festival-goer put it to me, “At Arcosanti, when you tell someone you’ll see them later, you actually will.”

After the initial disorientation of being in the desert wore off, I think what struck me most about FORM was how quickly life fell into it a kind of routine, collective rhythm. We’d wake up next to each other in the sun, then finish the day off dancing to “Know Yourself” under the stars by the “Peace Train,” a cluster of old train cars down at the bottom of a hill that you had to hike down to by torchlight. We’d climb onstage to form a crowd around Skrillex at night, then see him waiting on the cafeteria line in the café the next morning, because everyone in the core group of artists and music people took their meals together (they were fresh, and tasty, and mostly vegetarian). If you’re someone who works in a specific niche of independent music, it was a time to catch up with people from the extended scene that you haven’t seen in years—or to get to know people that you’ve heard of but who you’ve never met before, or to link up with people who you have a lot in common with for the very reason that you both love Holly Herndon. As Tom Arsenault, a former roommate of mine who took the stage Saturday night to perform as his musical alter ego Mas Ysa, described it to me, “It feels like being backstage at a festival here, only the entire festival is a backstage.”

Tetreault, who says he got to work curating and planning this year’s FORM festival the week after he returned home from the first one, says that impression is by design: “In the music world, going to concerts and going to music festivals and just events in general that all of your colleagues and peers are at, it’s generally a very shallow environment,” he explained to me one afternoon, as we sat on a balcony off the cafeteria and watched the birds fly by. “The events that are sort of designed to bring us together tend to have a lot of branding, and have a lot of security, and a lot of barriers to really going deeper with each other. And this thing doesn’t have any of that. Everyone’s pretty much free to roam around and talk to anyone. There’s no class system here, there’s no VIP, there’s no special all-access pass that you can buy. We’re all just here, and there’s not that many of us.”

Still, nowhere was this community aspect of Arcosanti more apparent than during the musical performances themselves, which convened all of 750 attendees—artists and general assembly alike—on the steps of the Roman-style amphitheater that forms the epicenter of social life at Arcosanti. Just seeing all the spectators sitting there side by side is pretty breathtaking, and though the theater wasn’t so conducive to getting up and dancing, it made FORM the rare music event where the music actually feel like the most important thing that was going on. My traveling partner spotted many people in the crowd straight-up weeping during an almost ecclesiastical-feeling afternoon set by L.A.-based singer-songwriter and recent Terrible Records signing Moses Sumney, and when Hundred Waters themselves took the stage on Saturday night, singer Nicole Miglis’ melismatic vocal runs felt like the perfect metaphor for the kind of audience-performer relationship that FORM facilitated: Miglis sings softly—rarely pushing her voice beyond a whisper—so instead of taking its presence for granted, you lean in.

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“The scale of Arcosanti is partially responsible for making it feel unique,” Majical Cloudz singer Devon Welsh would tell me a couple days later, via email. “It is small enough that you never feel overwhelmed by a crowd. The scale also means that the festival isn't curated purely in order to maximize draw—entry to the festival doesn't cost anything, and entry is also limited, so there is little incentive to fill the lineup with highly visible bands.” How To Dress Well, also back for the second year in a row, expressed a similar sentiment, pointing to the way in which FORM can often feel less like a festival than like a desert artist retreat that lets fans into the mix. “I mean, I don't know how he did it but Zach basically came up with a scheme to take all of his favorite bands on vacation once a year and to get a handful of fans out there who want to have a profound experience with the music,” he told me. "This is a special festival—fans and artists alike congregate somewhere beautiful to love music and to share in that love. It's not about getting as many people in a field as possible to sell beer.”

Like 30 Days In L.A., the November-long Red Bull Sound Select music festival that I traveled across the country to report on last year, FORM represents the paradox of a brand-sponsored event designed to support independent musicians, artists whose idea of a good time probably skews closer to convening around a wooden stage at a house party in a college town than gazing out onto an anonymous mass of flower crowns and glowsticks. The musical underground will always be struggling against the seeming inevitability of its own extinction, searching for new ways to survive and thrive without compromising on its own aesthetics and values. Strangely enough, an event like FORM makes me wonder whether brand sponsorship, when done right, might somehow enable the scene to better circumvent the pressures of the market—to forgo the feeling that success is somehow synonymous with the ability to “scale,” to revel in its own intimacy and smallness.

It’s hard to pinpoint what the sponsors of FORM might be able to expect in the way of a return for their investment—a bunch of influencers tweeting about how much fun they were having? Notoriety for being a brand that cares enough about music enough to support the little guy? But then again, maybe being involved in an experimental endeavor like FORM, with its vision of a possible, better future, brings a certain satisfaction in itself. Though there are a couple residents who have been living there for decades, since 1970, some 7,000 people have passed through Arcosanti to lend a hand in the physical construction of Paolo Soleri’s science fiction metropolis. It’s the kind of place where people come and get involved for a while, then leave—not unlike in DIY music scenes themselves, and sometimes for the same, instinctively felt reasons. When I asked Tetreault why he’d spent his whole year planning an event that would only last for three days, he seemed to be at a loss to explain it: “The intentionality of this is hard to really hone in on,” he said. “I’ve poured a lot of myself into it without really stopping to think about why I’m doing it. It’s just something that I feel is right. It’s almost like when you’re making a song, or you’re making art—you don’t really think about it, it just sort of comes out you.”

As I mentioned before, Arcosanti has its back to you when you first approach it from the road; like the spectators seated along the concentric rows of the amphitheater, most of the buildings in the city are designed to look out in the same direction, gazing eastward toward the valley right beneath Arcosanti and the mesa rising up just beyond it. On our last day at the festival, my friend and I hiked up to the top of that rock face to see what Arcosanti looked like from the front, pausing to look at the occasional salamander and wildflower and hawk along the way. Sunlight was falling through breaks in the clouds and dappling the desert floor, and when we got to the summit, we could hear bits of Mutual Benefit’s warmly glowing rock music echoing through the late-afternoon air. Though it had been our entire world for the weekend, my friend couldn’t help remarking how small Arcosanti looked from up here, just a bunch of tan-colored buildings blending into the overwhelming vastness of the world. “It just looks so unfinished,” she said, seemingly discouraged on behalf of the hundreds and hundreds of people who’d traveled there over the years to help build it. “Seeing it from up here, I just get a sense of how much more work there is to do.”

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Meet FORM: Arcosanti, The Tiny Desert Festival With A Big Dream