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Cover FORM Arcosanti 2016
Photography Ian Clontz

The town in Arizona that inspired a Star Wars planet

Experimental desert town Arcosanti was founded in the 70s. For the past three years, FORM Festival has descended on it, with acts and artists like Skrillex and Doug Aitken in tow

Google tells me there are 5,218 miles between London and a town in Arizona that I'd never heard of, called Arcosanti. The brainchild of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti is an experimental town that has been ‘in progress’ since the 1970s. If you perch yourself on one of the town’s open roof tops to take in a 360 view, you’ll find yourself indulged by either desert stretching as far back as the horizon or rocky cliffs that meet grassy valleys dotted with various species of succulents. Sure the settings are majestic but it's what you find in the town itself that is a life-changing experience – said to be the inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars planet Tatooine.

One of the most surprising things you'll realise is that four decades since Soleri began construction, Arcosanti is just five per cent complete. Design, art and architecture students and volunteers from around the world are often desperate to visit the town and contribute to its gradual construction through one of Arcosanti’s five-week-long programmes. We're told that the design processes are eco-friendly and meant to leave as little human footprint as possible. Looking around, amongst solid concrete structures and arches, are unfinished buildings. “It’s a place where things work a little differently,” explains tour guide and resident Ariel. Pointing to the side of one of the buildings, which appears to be a work in progress – even though it’s not clear how long it’s held that status – she laughs, “It’s an experiment, some things got finished, some things didn’t.” The ‘experimentation’ element of Arcosanti is clear as soon as you enter through its one dusty, rocky road, flagged by a welcome sign that reads, ‘Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory?’

Initially, Soleri’s goal was that the town would house 3,000 residents across its 25 acres of a 4,060-acre land preserve, but it’s estimated that, at present, just 100-150 live there full-time, with all residents helping with the maintenance of Arcosanti and the town funded by donations, short stay lets and selling the cast clay and bronze bells that are made at its foundry. However, for three days in May, 1,200 ‘guests’ of the relatively new FORM Arcosanti Festival descended upon a portion of Arcosanti, bringing art and musical guests like Skrillex, Saul Williams, Moses Sumney, Fourtet, Bonobo, Braids, Doug Aitken and Thundercats to this self-described community built around the ideas of “arcology” (the intersection of architecture and ecology, coined by Soleri himself). Co-founded by Zach Tetreault (of the band Hundred Waters), Mike Feinberg and Alex Hoffman, the festival is in its third instalment and since 2015 has doubled its attendance numbers.

“It’s not about creating a capitalist model which is finished and completed and done and you move onto the next” – Doug Aitken, filmmaker

Over the three days, a series of performances and panels take place. In one, Cosanti Foundation co-director Jeff Stein, in conversation with filmmaker/artist Doug Aitken, explains that the festival’s name, FORM, came from one of Soleri’s quotes about collaboration: “Suggesting that the universe, as it is constructed now, needs human energy to give it structure, to give it form”.

Building on this notion and relationship between human energy and collaboration, in the first of two WeTransfer sponsored panels, hosted by Franki Chan and featuring Tetreault, Jeff O'Neill, James Hinton and Ryan Hemsworth, the quintet discussed the notion of collaboration across the arts and music. Tetreault reveals that most of the bands and artists attending are friends and family of the co-founders, with many attending, in some capacity, over the entirety of the festival’s three-year stretch for free.

“It's mind-blowing because it keeps growing”, says the co-founder as he takes breather in the town’s cafeteria. “Leading up to the event, it's like more and more people want to showcase something and add to the experience, and we're just trying to find ways to facilitate that as much as possible.” Whether that’s Sanford Biggers bringing friend, and fellow FORM performer, Saul Williams on-stage to talk about the black male in 2016 America, or Skrillex throwing an all-day pool party, the boundaries of what FORM is feels artistically limitless.

Most people I meet at the festival are from neighbouring states such as Los Angeles or Arizona itself. Michael, a 21-year-old local fills me in on the application process, telling me that he and his girlfriend were curated by Tetreault and his small team to attend. Curious, I later find out that the curatorial process takes weeks of cross-checking and whittling down applicants based on questions around creativity. In return for this influx of influence and insight, FORM doesn’t charge for tickets, parking or camping passes (this year everyone is required to camp on site). Tetreault says, “It will be like ‘oh you missed this person from Idaho who makes this insane laser cube or something, they want to bring it out, get them’.” But all this work seems to be, well, working. The festival truly feels like a community; people interact, dance, eat, drink, learn, listen, converse, and laze around on the grass together, and you almost forget the temporality of it. As we drink beers on the beanbags before everyone shuffles off to the amphitheatre for first evening’s performances, Michael tells me that he likes the selective aspect of it, “It means you have a group of like-minded people coming together.”

“Leading up to the event, it’s like more and more people want to showcase something and add to the experience, and we’re just trying to find ways to facilitate that as much as possible” – Zach Tetreault, FORM co-founder

Aside from Michael, there’s a range of characters who have made the journey to FORM. One second I’m talking to a group of VR developers who are sharing tips on technology, others are playing guitar on the cliff edge, and under the arches someone is selling quartz jewellery. But it’s the community who stay once the festival-goers have left that is perhaps what is most intriguing. Ariel explains that most come through on the five-week programme, where they can experiment with silk casting, wood or metal work, electrical, plumbing or clay ceramics. After their time is completed, they can apply to stay in one of the studios or residencies at Arcosanti, where accommodation is decided based on seniority – or how long the resident has been there. Everyone is required to work and maintain the town but if you are new to Arcosanti, you are likely to be put up in a small studio, away from the town’s centre. Whereas if you are years or decades in, then you’re privileged enough to live in one of the flats that dot the perimeter of Arcosanti’s amphitheater. The thing is, everyone pays the same rent. “There’s no ownership here”, Ariel says, “it’s about hanging out and hard labour. A lot of people elect to leave because they don’t wanna work that hard.”

During my first few weeks back in London, friends comment that it sounds like I’d escaped a cult. I can see how my ability (and willingness) to reel off ‘fun facts’ about the town and use words such as ‘arcology’ was initially jarring. It’s also difficult to relay an experience of something that isn’t quite sure what it is itself to anyone who hasn't had the privilege of seeing it first-hand. As we work to deadlines and need structure and certainty, Arcosanti is fine ‘figuring it out as it goes along’.

“(Soleri’s) idea was that we might explore some new ways to be on the planet, which has taken in the form of architecture” – Jeff Stein, Cosanti Foundation co-director

I question whether it’s a utopia, but soon find out that’s a word that Soleri adamantly rejected, as he did the label “futurist”. I talk to a few people about it. I ask artist Sandford Biggers if he feels like an artistic utopia is possible. “I don’t know”, he laughs, “I’ve lived in New York for too long.” “Same”, I tell him. I’ve lived in London for seven years and have, I can safely say, never experienced anything like the fluid thought process behind Arcosanti. It’s something Stein addressed when he assured us, “(Soleri) didn’t think he had the answer, he was wasn’t a cult leader, he wasn’t a futurist, it wasn’t his idea that this is how it’s going to be.... His idea was that we might explore some new ways to be on the planet, which has taken in the form of architecture. (Arcosanti was) meant to model a new method of urban design. It was his notion that cities are the newest organism on the planet – whereas all sorts of other life forms are hundreds of thousands of years old.” He elaborates, “We’ve been around a long time, we have co-evolved and the reason we are the dominant lifeform on the planet is because (of our bodies) it’s our design that has made us sustainable and we think it’s meant to be the design of cities; compact, complex, three-dimensional connected forms that will allow them to be sustainable too, and transformative.”

Aitken jokes that when he first visited Arcosanti at 10-years-old he “had no idea what was going on”. And, it seems, Arcosanti hasn’t changed that much since Aitken’s first visit 30-years-ago. “This place is a living organism,” he says. “One thing that always struck me about this place was that it was based on radical experimentation. It’s not about creating a capitalist model which is finished and completed and done and you move onto the next. You look around and you see unfinished spaces, things that are rough, things that are elaboratory for society, really, and I think it’s so important to have places like this.”

A question that looms in my head over the three days I’m there – and long after – is, is FORM a festival? To call it that feels odd. I put it to Tetreault as we meet on the final day. “We constantly battle with that,” he says after a slight pause. “I think it is. I think it's also a retreat for a lot of people. I think it's different things for different people, but if it is a festival, I think it's redefining what a festival is.”

Trip provided courtesy of WeTransfer, one of FORM Arcosanti Festival 2016’s sponsors. Find out more information about the festival here