As festival season draws to a close, one last contender for the summer's best weekender slid into view this past Friday. Held in a summer camp called Camp Lakota in upstate New York—around a two-hour drive from Brooklyn—and now in its second year, Sustain-Release is an electronic music festival with a difference. Unlike established mainstream players like Electric Zoo, which attracts 85,000+ attendees, or "boutique" festivals like Bestival, which annually welcomes around 55,000+ festival-goers, Sustain-Release caps its member-only ticket sales at just 700. Instead of blowing budgets on overseas headliners, they largely book local artists from New York's extensive underground scene. What's more, while other tiny festivals with big ideals—Arizona's FORM: Arcosanti, for example—depend on sponsorship to exist, the team behind Sustain-Release shun outside funding in favor of a more DIY approach (photocopied set times and hand-drawn camp maps, festival co-founders stepping in to help serve drinks, and so on).
Arriving late to the forest-enclosed camp on Friday night there was a whiff of first-day-at-college in the air, in part due to the shared bunks we were directed to; each bunk held around 10 single beds, and there was also on-site camping. As the site usually plays host to summer camp kids, there were also volleyball and basketball courts, a swimming pool, a skate park, and a nearby lake. Lights strung in the trees added to the homey atmosphere. The night's entertainment was spread across two indoor stages, both booked by Sustain-Release with Bushwick's Bossa Nova Civic Club lending their name to one. However, it was the main stage that held my attention on the opening night: there was shiny-eyed house from veteran NYC DJ/producer Jenifa Mayanja (she used to play at the city's legendary Body & Soul night); brass-accented disco from Chicago's The Black Madonna, who danced as hard as the crowd; and curious excursions into the deeper side of house from Germany's Kassem Mosse. The area outside the main stage was on a massive slope, and people perched on rocks or gathered around benches to smoke and chat. Noticeably missing was the anxious aggression that usually lingers at a music festival, which probably has as much to do with the size—there was little chance of losing your friends or having to miss a set because of a restroom queue—as Sustain-Release's policy of fostering a "positive, communal attitude."
It was past 4am on Saturday morning by the time I'd noticed that well over a third of the acts on the line-up were women—many other festivals would've milked that very PR-able angle, yet Sustain-Release just got on and did the right thing. "We book badass artists and powerful performers, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality," explain its co-founders, producer Aurora Halal and NTS Radio mainstay Zara Wladawsky, over email. "Great art is all about reflecting on the human experience, so including a variety perspectives is essential."
After a handful of hours of sleep, it was a thrill to see the camp in daylight. It really is cute: as well as the general feeling of nature and the host of cricket-soundtracked outdoor activities on offer, there was plenty of evidence of the summer camp's usual inhabitants, from a hand-painted rock garden to extravagantly themed papier-mâché works hanging from the canteen's ceiling. By noon, a friendly email from the festival informed everyone that the planned pool party soundtracked by RVNG Intl.'s Matt Werth, reggae heads Blazer Sound System, and the lush sine waves of Washing DC's Beautiful Swimmers was being moved to the main stage because of rain. Nobody seemed to mind: folks stretched out in recovery mode on the floor for Werth's strange vibrations and were up rolling their shoulders by the time Blazer's dub embraced the room. Maybe the rain was getting into it, too, because it came down like it was a competition, sending attendees to their bunks to eat snacks, nap, or chill on their bunk's porch while they waited for the rainy day to end and the rave-y night to begin. (Those camping weren't so lucky: many tents were water-logged—some dealt with it by staying up all night, others took refuge in spare beds in the cabins. Weirdly, no-one really complained that much.) When it finally let up, 10 minutes before the evening's music started, the camp was filled with fog of the kind that makes everything look like a film set. It wasn't cold; the dampness felt weirdly cozy.
We tentatively picked our way through the wet forest to the Bossa stage to catch the opening set from New York's 51717. A sheet of blue laser, courtesy of the festival's lighting team Nitemind, hung in the air a foot or two above eye-level, as single-minded as the heavy drone that filled the room. The signal continued for many minutes, so we sunk onto cushions and soaked it up; it felt like a hug. After such a long anti-silence, 51717's introduction of fragments of distorted vocals felt like complete, alien sentences.
Later, as the rain came down once again, Brooklyn-based techno producer Via App, who's released on Vancouver label 1080p, upped the tempo with a sure-footed live set that showcased her deft way with texture, followed by homespun house vibes from L.I.E.S.' artist Terekke. There was just time to catch a few minutes of Halal's syrupy, psychedelic synths before we hotfooted it over to the main stage for a dance performance from performance art duo FlucT. A whisker under 10 minutes, it was without doubt a highlight of the weekend. The audience formed a giant circle around FlucT's Monica Mirabile and Sigrid Lauren, while the festival's staff attempted to mop up the damp floor. Wearing long white dresses and matching contact lenses, the two dancers shared a quick nod before launching into their electrifying take on contemporary dance. By turn graceful and violent, each movement felt like a critique of modern sexuality: the pair tore off their dresses to parody sexual acts with faux smiles on their faces, before throwing themselves to the ground on all fours to revel in their bodily form. That a music festival would choose to break the main room's peak-time flow with a performance art piece felt wholly radical, and judging by the audience's rapturous applause I wasn't the only one to feel that. Riding high on the energy FlucT generated, we headed for one final dance at the Bossa stage where White Material's Galcher Lustwerk was playing exactly what the 4 a.m. crowd needed: techno party tunes to bop luminescent balloons into the lasers to.
Set against an increasingly commercialized electronic music landscape, Sustain-Release is a breath of fresh air. According to Instagram evidence, the partying went on long after the music ended at 8 a.m.: some went for a dip in a nearby lake, others gathered round a bonfire that had been rained off a few hours earlier. Halal, Wladawsky, and their team of enthusiastic staff, on the other hand, kept on trucking, taking note of any "organizational snags" to fix for next year (my one note: order more tea and eggs) and reminding everyone via the camp's loudspeakers to leave their bunks in a tidy state to ensure the party could return next year. They needn't have bothered: save for the rain's havoc, the camp was virtually spotless—when was the last time you left a festival site that looked respectable? Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.