The English language does not contain the depth of prose to construct a fitting representation of the four-day spectacle that was the Symbiosis Gathering: stages built within trees sprouting from floating barges; paintings depicting the unity of science and spirituality; nooks of repurposed trash altars and recycled shrines; amphibious vehicles that effortlessly adapted to the surrounding elements; acrobatics and performance art defying the laws of nature and gravity; silent discos in the water surrounding winged LED boats; pineapple shell mimosas to sunrise dance floors; secret sets on pop-up stages; inflatable raft parties undulating to the vibrations of deep bass; gallons of inhaled dust; moving meditation infused in contact dance; cuddle puddles with strangers in nets strung across wooden amphitheaters.
Every moment and every image brought sensory stimulation and unexpected enlightenment — it was a living dream, an experience in surreality.
Celebrating 10 years and coinciding with the onset celestial mercury retrograde, a special energy and intention permeated the Woodward Reservoir in Oakdale, which surrounded the festival grounds and provided attendees with life-saving release from intense heat.
Thursday evening opened with a five-hour Desert Hearts takeover at the bass-blasting Juke stage. Through this opening ceremony, we drifted from the dance floor to an art boat featuring several insect-like flapping LED wings and a small DJ booth. We danced on land, in water, and flew away into the electric playground about to unfold come sunrise.
Later on Friday, Oregon’s Emancipator brought a live accompaniment to the main stage. Ascending violin melodies fused perfectly with the live and synthetic bass elements, revering the natural wonder of the Pacific Northwest. Shifting the mood and channeling the powers of his electric blue and yellow jumpsuit, the Polish Ambassador electrified the dance floor while dropping banger after banger from his monumental and socially conscious Pushing Through the Pavements (2014). The audience blasted off to renditions of A-ha’s “Take On Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” and succumbed to blissful overload.
An unexpected high point was the spellbinding performance by the Lucent Dossier experience. A tribe of performance artists reaping fame from sensational Burning Man installments, this collection of characters staged a show beyond the wildest imaginations of the onlookers. On-stage wardrobe and set changes propelled the entire performance into a state of continual flux where visual stimulations and musical accompaniment from Kaminanda orbited around endless focal points. Seductive dancers effortlessly ascended aerial silks, ropes, and giant rotating metal prisms where spiritual symbolism and silent storytelling mesmerized and entranced.
If nothing else, Symbiosis nights were deep. San Francisco’s own Dirtybird crew was well represented throughout the weekend with memorable sets from the likes of Justin Martin, J Phlip, Christian Martin, and Ardalan. Reminding us why Europe still reigns king over the realm of house music, Max Cooper and Four Tet solidified Friday night with back-to-back sets that took us deeper and deeper into the liquid whirlpools and electric peaks of a continuous electronic soundscape. Four Tet’s lead in with an old Bollywood sample reminiscent of his latest Morning / Evening (2015) transported us through the streets of a displaced Bombay.
Swim-biosis emerged as the most rowdy and most exhilarating place to be during the peak of the midday heat. After Friday, all sense of raft ownership had been abandoned. The quasi-beach became a swampy island for misfit toys, which were repurposed and reclaimed umpteen times throughout the course of the weekend. While samba-ing to the Latin-fueled beats of Quantic, dozens commandeered a massive raft, wrestling and jockeying for spots on the tube’s exterior. After wreaking irrevocable damage to this raft, a much more structurally sound inflatable was hijacked. We shared celebratory champagne while spinning in concentric circles. When it was time to return to land, our exit was blocked by a giant, colorful parachute which we were forced to scramble under as it was lifted above the surface. Crawling onto land once again was a gratitude-evoking and welcome experience.
A defining characteristic that separated Symbiosis (and especially Swim-biosis) from the rest of the pack was a refreshing dose of nudity. For one of the most sexually-liberal environments in the country, Symbiosis took it to a new dimension where by the second day, few were staring goggle-eyed at the exposed bodies sauntering through the grounds. Projecting an air of respect for the human form in every iteration, the festival achieved a level of community and openness that few other transformational festivals with stricter clothing policies can achieve.
Sylvan Esso packed a punch far greater than their humble two-person stage set up. Rocking little more than a synthesizer and a microphone, the union of live vocals from Amelia Meath and the heart-stopping beats of producer Nick Sanborn built beautiful cathedrals of sound through which the listener soared, spun, and sang. The energy emanating from the audience was reflected tenfold by the band, dancing just as hard as those of us in the front row.
Midnight ran thick: Nicolas Jaar is a name garnering almost divine respect amongst faithful followers and his two-hour set was unconventional in almost every way. Weaving a portrait of sound with masterful finesse, Jaar perfectly dissociated onlookers with cacophonous sounds only to hook them even harder when the distantly placed beats finally dropped. Mixing in unsettling monologues about the state of the world and ‘exile from truth’, the middle portion of the set brought the listener deep into a cerebral tunnel where one was forced to confront demons and the denizens of the dark. Jaar was little more than a silhouette, shrouded in smoke and backlit in red and white light. And then, without saying a word, Jaar raised a hand in thanks at the end of the set and disappeared — like a ghost who had never even been there in the first place.
We found our way to Atyya’s set sometime around 4am; never in my life as an ardent concert-goer had I experienced a dance floor energy as magical. We were surrounded by the most beautiful and expressive humans I could have conjured up in my wildest fantasies, all flowing with the grace of the wind. Through necessity of physical exhaustion and three days-worth of wear and tear to my body, this exploration in flow and contact dance enabled me to tap in to new sources of energy.
By this point, the sky was beginning to saturate with the colors of the new day and we were reminded of our proximity to Yosemite Valley as we glimpsed the glimmering outline of the Sierras on the horizon. Cheers arose as the first slice of sun was framed between two enormous wooden rams that formed a symmetrical structure around the sun.
In the shadow of these creatures, a woman adorned head to toe in feathers and sporting two enormous eagle wings flapped in welcome of the new day. As if this was not enough, the rumor mill finally grinded to a halt and the much-anticipated set from Tipper roared into action at a pop-up stage near by. Listed on the top of the line up but not slotted on the schedule, people had been speculating about whether or not this psytrance prince would make an appearance. It proved well worth the hype. Droopy and gooey grooves sent us into an early morning stupor where the only thing we could imagine doing was slinking though the crowd, dancing with everyone encountered along the way.
When we finally flopped down into our geodesic dome at camp after a celebratory pineapple shell mimosa to the set of the Human Experience, we were still buzzing from almost 24 hours of exploration and experimentation.
Understandably, we got a rather late start on Sunday. I managed to make it out of camp by 2:30pm to catch Eduardo Castillo of Robot Heart. With deep cuts from Jaime xx and other industry giants, Castillo drew a small but dedicated crowd during this low, blisteringly hot point in the day.
As the set rolled on, we explored several art boats docked near by. The most exceptional came in the form of a barge with an enormous tree growing out of its center. Nested in the tree above the dance floor of the boat was a stage where DJ’s were rotating in and out. We caught glimpses of sets from Desert Dwellers and the surprise show from The Glitch Mob at Swim-biosis before making it back to camp to spend a relaxing sunset swimming in the water and preparing for the final shebang.
Oakland’s tUnE-yArDs carried Sunday and very possibly the entire festival. The group delicately layered elements to create a subsuming ocean of sound while simultaneously punctuating it with bright bursts and colorings. They moved gracefully through shifts in dynamic where eccentric and slightly dissonant tracks were juxtaposed with delicate and draped ballads. Lead singer Merrill Garbus displayed a vocal range unparalleled where the softest suggestions surged into sonorous screams. They elicited ear-pounding cheers from the audience when they observed that “this may be the danciest crowd we have ever played to.” When the saxophone solo dropped on “Bizness,” there wasn’t a stationary head in the house and we were all proclaiming in ecstasy, “Don’t take my life away, don’t take my life away.”
We ended up at a performance by Phadroid. Combining experimental interpretive dance with a fractalized light show synchronized to the beats of Tipper, the audience could do little more than sway back in forth as the hypnotic scene on stage separated us from external distraction. Extrawelt took over shortly after this interjection and laid down what were possibly the deepest house and most genuine techno vibes of the weekend.
With tasteful splashes of melody amidst the thundering beats, we left our hearts on the dance floor with only a little residual left over. In hopes of ending the weekend on a slightly brighter and less industrial note, we reluctantly left Extrawelt to catch the latter portion of Griz’s set. Needless to say, we did not walk away disappointed. The energy and party vibes that permeated the main stage during this finale granted us a third wind and we lost our minds to soaring saxophone and dirty drops. Since no festival is complete without an afterparty by Third Eye Pine Cones, we practiced decompression flow and shared final moments of gratitude together.
Despite rampant cynicism about festival culture, spaces like Symbiosis Gathering carry transformational and revolutionary wavelengths for those tuned into the right frequency. Each and every one of us has a unique and beautiful story to share with others, and the methods of storytelling have the power to open us up to endless alternatives to, possibilities for, and interpretations of daily life and the ways in which we overcome negativity and suffering to discover the beauty and grace in all things. Some of the things that one encounters in this vulnerable state are neither easy nor pleasant to face. The sensation of self-actualization that emerges from the progressive learning over the course of these festivals (as well as between them) has the power to reconstitute even the most traumatizing of experiences and channel reflection on self-love and compassion for others.
The complete absence of corporate presence on the grounds fostered a spirit of cooperation where an alternative societal organization emerged and functioned, albeit for a short time. The party of the year was also the spiritual and community-building experience of a lifetime. It challenged common biases and perceptions and called us to reflect on how we are ‘exiled from the truth’ in our everyday lives.
Article and photos by Conner Smith