Having recently migrated to the West Coast from Boston, the difference between a “Festival” and a “Gathering” was completely lost on me. Eager to understand and hungry for adventure, I traveled upstate from LA with a friend to Symbiosis Gathering's 10 Year Re:Union to get my first taste of the wildly immersive and close-knit cultural setting that is seldom found anywhere else in the world.
Since its inaugural year in 2005, Symbiosis has grown 10 fold, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary while ushering in over 10,000 exuberant participants ready to enjoy an unparalleled demonstration of art and music that is brimming with unique displays of dance, education, experimentation, and connection. Free of any corporate sponsors, and with a strong human element that permeates throughout the setting, Symbiosis gives off a feeling of “here and now” that brings people of all different musical backgrounds together in the spirit of sustainability and physical and emotional well-being.
Taking place at the pristine and isolated Woodward Reserve in Oakdale California, the setting is flanked by a delightful and expansive reservoir. Once getting over the painstaking process of setting up camp and coming to terms with the fact that the dust would be inevitably infiltrating our tastebuds and nasal cavities for the remainder of the weekend, the rest of our experience was carefree, lively, and eye-opening. Walking around, the people of Symbiosis formed a kaleidoscope of vibrant styles with a comfort for nudity and a level of resilient expression that I have never encountered before. Everyone’s radiant attitude made smiles contagious and it became clear that the unsurmountable degree of freedom that was allowed to reign supreme over the reserve was only made possible because of the indisputable level of respect that participants had for their fellow man and the land that surrounded them.
The myriad of musical genres represented over the four day event, and with over one-hundred-thirty various artists performing at five different stages scattered throughout the reserve, it was necessary for us to choose our battles accordingly. Colorful performances from the Desert Hearts crew and Gaiser on the night of the opening ceremony ushered in feelings of a positive forecast of sound for the next few days. It was after the first day that I realized this was the first festival I’ve attended where background visuals were nowhere to be seen. I had mixed feelings about this at first but over the coming days came to appreciate how it made such a difference in crowd engagement at each of the various stages.
Max Cooper’s set at “The Grotto” the following day exceeded all previous expectations, dropping a mysterious rendition of Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” that had me, and the whole crowd for that matter, spinning. Despite making a noticeable impression, Cooper’s performance was completely eclipsed by Four Tet’s two and a half hour set that followed. Polished, diverse, and tough when it needed to be, Kieren’s set was absolute aces and was further highlighted by his most recent remix of Eric Prydz's “Opus."
The most popular attraction during the day was by far and away the Swimbiosis stage. Featuring performances from the likes of Quantic, Justin Martin, and Esta over a three day period, a rowdy wave of gatherers armed with pool floaties would enthusiastically unclothe without a shred of embarrassment or remorse and hurry to the waterfront to languidly float around and dance the day away.
With a new album having dropped only a day before its performance at Symbiosis, Bob Moses swooned the crowd at the Big Island Stage on Saturday night with its signature groove that strikes a perfect balance between what is considered dancey and emotional. Despite being Symbiosis’ biggest headliner, Nicolas Jaar’s performance was baffling and difficult to wrap my head around. Despite showcasing moments of sheer sonic genius, the performance lacked any form of consistency and was both underwhelming and off-putting at times. The Lydia Lunch monologue that he has been so keen on using in his performances lately seemed too harsh for the setting and took up a large chunk of his set time that could have been better spent catering to a crowd that was eager to listen and dance rather than simply look on in confusion and awe.
Upon my arrival to the Juke Town stage the following day to see Blond:ish play, I was heartbroken to find that the fun-loving duo was nowhere to be seen. Juke Town, which resembled an old, dusty scene from a western flick, was also the stage that offered the smallest amount of shade during the day. It was hot and the crowd was scarce. Despite this, Eduardo Castillo continued to play well into his allotted time slot and the heat was a small price to pay for the remarkably eloquent and sophisticated sound coming from the speakers. I’m glad I stuck around because I was then treated to a profound set from electronic duo Extrawelt, who left me wide-eyed and shaken.
Due to the fact that Pantha du Prince was a no show (ugh), Blond:ish ended up playing its set later that night at "The Spring" stage during Pantha's set time. Despite the issues in scheduling that arose, and the somewhat frustrating lack of communication, all the participants involved seemed indifferent to the changes and simply went on enjoying the worldly, ancient sounding techno that Blond:ish has so knowingly perfected.
While XLR8R primarily came to Symbiosis Gathering's 10 Year Re:Union for the impressive lineup, it was definitely not the only thing to marvel at. The otherworldly art installations that peppered the reserve, the alchemy village, which dedicated itself to the wellness and nourishment of the gathering’s participants, the Yoga workshops, and “The Hub,” which provided shade and an assortment of informative lectures, were all worthy attractions. Organic food, live painting, tea clinics, healing crystals, vibrant clothing vendors, karaoke, art boats, free range poi, and lessons in permaculture—these things only begin to scratch the surface of what this event has to offer and en masse the experience has ingrained itself into my very being and twisted my worldview. It goes to show that events such as Symbiosis, that prides itself on creating a family oriented and all around amicable community environment, and operating without corporate sponsors, resulted in little to no police action and cultivated a feeling of co-operation, harmony, and acceptance that I’ve never found in my five years of going to festivals.
On August 21 in 2017, Symbiosis will be holding its next gathering in Oregon. The choice of date and location is due to the fact that a total solar eclipse will be stretching across a thin path of the United States and Symbiosis wants to share the celestial experience with all its loyal followers and anyone else who wants to revel in this extraordinary event. You can learn more about the Oregon Eclipse 2017 by going here.