A guest post from our reader Kestrel about last weekend’s Further Future Festival.
ROBOT HEART’S SPIN-OFF DUST-UP: A Report From the Further Future -aka- “Don’t hate the plug n’ player…hate the game”
…My first year on Esplanade our camp was woefully undermanned, and the couple who organized it didn’t really even have an hour off to get in some of The Awesome until Saturday night, at which point they left me in charge and went off to find “The Bus.” This was back in 2010, before Robot Heart had acquired their giant sign, and you actually had to go out looking -and listening- for the THWAP. I still remember their words as they biked out into the Tron- “That bus, man…it doesn’t look like much, but it’s what’s UP.”
I’m a bit of a camp rat, and in the years since then, Robot Heart was my reward to myself whenever I felt like it was time to get out. There’s just something about the look of that thing, with its ratty graffiti, minimal lights and drivers cantilevered ridiculously out to the sides. It’s been known to sound pretty great too. I also appreciate the fact that the Robot Heart crew documents and publishes the entire week of music, so that later in the year you have a kind of auditory postcard to reference. When they announced that they were doing their own festival in the desert outside Vegas I was curious. There was more than a little hatred directed at FF at the Burning Man GLC last month; when the topic came up at a breakout session, I didn’t feel comfortable admitting that I was planning to attend.
A few years back, one of the Playa news outlets ran a hit piece on Purple Palace and Robot Heart, accusing them of being art cars that only let pretty girls aboard. I thought there was a logical fallacy in the article: RH isn’t an art car. Its a delicate stage, and I have just as much a right to demand to touch their steel as I do to touch Dr. Kilovolt’s. Robot Heart took the high road and instituted a yoga and speaker series the next year. But I digress…
How I Got my Invite Code:
I sent the Further Future Facebook page a simple message explaining that I’d had a blast in the past dancing to their music and offering to bring my Playa install. I got a response within hours with 2 codes and a message telling me “thanks for the offer,” but that all I should bring with was an “open mind and good energy.”
The festival was originally supposed to take place on public land near Fire Valley State Park. This is a very beautiful setting, with red, striated rocks. Having never camped in a Moab-like desert, I was sold. Apparently the BLM permit for the road to get there fell through, and the Robot Heart team had to go with plan B – rent a couple hundred acres of land from the Paiute Indian tribe, who control the Moapa Valley reservation. Among other things, the Paiute produced Sarah Winnemucca, probably the most well-known female Indian writer, and also handed some miners their asses to them at the start of the Pyramid Lake War (Hey, isn’t that on the way to a rave somewhere?)
This reservation was at one point down to a thousand square miles, but during the Carter administration the tribe was granted 70,000 more, and they have spent much of the time since then fighting efforts to place the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository on their land. This fact added a certain irony to the Further Future website, which depicted waify looking models emerging from smoldering pods in the desert. To quote Gary Farmer in more than one Jim Jarmusch film: “Stupid fucking white man.” (FF sent out a media bundle with a ton of free music from the fest, and it came with a reminder not to bring anything remotely resembling an Indian head-dress.)
I flew into Vegas Thursday night, having found a cheap rate at the Silverton Hotel and Casino, which has a free airport shuttle and contains the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop, where you can pick up pretty much any last minute camping supplies you need. Further Future offered free transportation to and from the airport, but I caught a ride in with a couple New Yorkers who had rented an RV. The drive was really quick- about 45 minutes from the strip. The gate was two big LED F’s on either side of the turn off and the greeters station was four dusty Chromebooks. Gate swag consisted of a slick, brushed aluminum FF water bottle (hydrate nudge) and a schedule. No map. Registration was a snap, and all told it took just under an hour for me to get from hotel to campsite.
This is where it gets a little weird, and I could understand if some people won’t read past this paragraph. The festival grounds looked uncannily similar to Playa: dark mountains surrounding a long valley filled with brush under that amazing Nevada desert sky. The ground underfoot was uniformly sandy/dusty, and at first I thought they had trucked in sand. Turns out the festival had simply bulldozed several hundred acres of brushland, tilling the desert into a smooth surface. Here and there some scrubs had been left to provide a little shade for a sound board or vendor. On paper, the idea of some rich guys from Buffalo bulldozing Indian land to stage a rave seems (insert Gary Farmer quote about S.F.W.M. here.) But of course it’s up to the tribe to decide how to use its land, and who to rent it to. (Lord knows they need the money to fight Uncle Sam’s efforts to fill their land with spent fuel rods.) The result of the landscaping was an environment eerily similar to the Big Burn, complete with winds powerful enough to send a ten-by-ten tumbling, brief whiteout conditions, nice wide hurricane-shaped dust devils and water trucks spraying down the streets. I brought my goggles and I used them.
The layout seemed like a rough circle but again, with no map it was hard to tell. We were allowed to venture out into the sagebrush, but were told that it contained both rattlesnakes and “bigger snakes that eat the rattlesnakes” so understandably very few Further Futurists wanted to fuck with that. Once my shade was up I went for a walkabout and took in my surroundings. In the middle of everything was the Mothership stage which was a run-of-the-mill silver truss rental stage, though they had started to build some pretty impressive organic panelized deco around it. This was the setting for Warpaint, Damian Lazarus and Bob Moses, and then guitars sounded right. At one point there was even a Hammond B3 and Leslie up there. I have never seen a Hammond on Playa! They never had time to finish decorating this stage, though a few guys worked until Sat pm and got it half done. Nearby was the Void, a kind of disco with Red Bull branding that I mostly avoided (thus missing Body Language’s set). I should say, the Red Bull branding was very minimal, just on the draft pulls. Every other vendor had a hand-written chalkboard sign.
At the North end of things they had placed the speaker/lecture series stage, oddly named “Booba Cosmica”, whose backdrop was the Moapa valley extending for miles and miles. At the West end right next to camping was a little quad sound situation called the Gypset stage, with 4 speakers arranged in a 30 by 30 square. This stage had no lights or deco, and the backdrop behind the DJ was seven miles of Valley. This was also a moonset stage, and the desert moon behind the DJ was a more beautiful backdrop than any screen I could imagine. Nearby they had placed three super-neat laser cut polygonal steel sculptures lit from within. There were two areas of RV parking and two boutique AC camping zones of the Caravansicle variety, cut off from the rest of the festival and guarded by doormen. So. Weird. There was a main vending area, and apparently food was ten bucks. A few other pavilions, RFID top-up stations (cashless festival, unlike BM – your CC-linked wristband buys your ice) and a couple of art installs peppered the grounds. No signs, no info booth.
While there was no real central shade to speak of, RH had provided dozens and dozens of beautiful wicker and steel chill-out pods, each containing a circular mattress, and pillows, still shrink-wrapped. It took five or six people to move them and it became obvious that we were encouraged to just take them to camping. (A crew near me forgot their tent, and was saved by these pods.) These things were beautiful, and must have cost a fortune. It was the only real public infrastructure at the event that wasn’t a rental stage or pavilion, but they were really cool. You’ll no doubt see them out at 10 and K this year. There was also a yoga sanctuary, which was yet another rental stage outfitted with potted plants.
Last but not least was the bus itself, placed at the extreme Eastern edge of the area facing dawn (away from the fest) flanked by giant storage containers on each side. The thing is, the heart structure looks the same from the back, so while the star attraction faced away, it still was basically the Man here…the neon logo we all knew. I walked over to the bus and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have goosebumps. I fuckin’ love that object, and it triggers memories of some of my happiest moments. I shadowed a sound guy as he ran from sweet spot to sweet spot tweaking the mix. His baby is Basscouch, and he started explaining RH’s unique crossover to me and the search for a better onomatopoeia than “Thwap” to describe its super tight bass. I had a “there is no Santa” moment when he explained to me that there are actually TWO Robot Heart buses (one stays in Nevada). Soundcheck was Tycho’s Awake (foreshadowing?). Standing there, next to that bus, well…I felt happy to be there.
You could walk anywhere in five minutes, there were no bikes, trikes or streets, though they put out lawn lights the second night. There were no Thompson portals, no Flaming Lotus Girl builds, and no fire of any kind, at the Paiutes’ insistence. They simply cannot fight fire in this valley so we weren’t even allowed to bring camp stoves. If fire is a deal breaker this is not the fest for you. Other things conspicuously absent: cops, dreads, DPW, propane tanks, Rangers, dubstep, headlamps, projection mapping, theme camps, gifting and a temple…but then wait, slow down…this wasn’t a burn. Portos were clean, and water and showers were free. There were a lot of drones.
A Few Words About the Theme:
One of my very favorite writers is the Italian futurist/fabulist Italo Calvino. I brought with me his Complete Cosmicomics, which is a series of short stories inspired by scientific facts. Calvino’s main creative output was between 1965 and 1969, when the world was looking towards the moon. A cornerstone of Futurism is optimism based on human technology and ingenuity. This puts the theme directly at odds with the post-apocalyptic “Mad Max” aesthetic of the big burn. Now that California is dying of thirst and we don’t even have the space shuttle program to look up to anymore, RH’s celestial vision seems pretty exotic, and also retro. But it’s also very Robot Heart: the bus is almost always placed facing the rising sun. Reference the epic 2012 sunrise “Time On the Fucking Moon” mixes and remixes, their “Halloween On the Moon” party in New York and FF’s spaceman logo. People wore a lot of silver, and the largely undecorated rental structures actually fit in.
Celestially Oriented Placement of Stages:
This is where the RH crew really showed their cerebral approach to staging. At first, the stages seemed placed kind of randomly, and not optimally for sound bleed. But it’s all about the heavenly bodies, and I’m not talking about the girls climbing the heart (guys were allowed too this time, in fact anyone was allowed up on the bus). The fest took place under a worksight-bright full moon, which tends to detract from blinky stuff… But here it worked to their advantage. Robot Heart faced the sunrise, the Gypset stage had the moonset AND sunset as a background, the mainstage had the moonrise as a backdrop. The program had a section labelled “Key Times” and they were 6:07 AM and 7:13 PM…sunrise and sunset. My favorite art install was a piece inspired by the Voyager plate, placed by the Black Rock Observatory crew (Desert Wizards of Mars). Late Saturday night, looking at the bus from the East, you could see the beginnings of dawn, a blue-purple sky, three planets, and the full moon setting over the heart, with all the silver structures glowing in the moonlight behind the bus. It really was epic, and all the light was coming from outer space, not LEDS, fire or work lights. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much this place resembled Black Rock. It looked more like Burning Man than a lot of Burning Man does, and with up to five stages bangin’ at once, you got that special moment where you walk away from one system and towards another and your feet are the fader.
…Overwhelmingly consisted of impossibly attractive white hetero couples, gay guys and French people. Hard to tell how many were Burners. I saw a lot of money. Airstreams. Porsches. Airstreams hitched to Porsches. The whole place had the distinct flavor of wealth and civility. The open camping felt a little more down to earth, though very international. We were packed in tight, which was good for wind deflection and conversation. No grid, and mostly store bought tents and pop-ups. My neighbors on one side were a very cool couple who got a babysitter and flew in from Hong Kong for the weekend (!) and a crew of six French people were on the other. I speak a little French, so this was great for me. People were friendly but not outgoing like on Playa. I spoke to a Paiute tribal cop for a while and he couldn’t believe how little he had to do. He mostly drives around responding to domestic battery calls (“Indians like to drink” he said).
I didn’t see a single shitshow moment, argument, fight, injury, party shrapnel, O.D. or anything. Turns out a couple thousand white people will treat each other pretty well, left to their own devices. People mooped, but there was a clean up crew working so it felt like you were doing someone else’s job. I spoke to a few artists who had placed pieces and they all agreed that the organizers had been very helpful and on point. I can attest to this – when their third party ticket agent tried to mail me my will call ticket, I got a personal email from Benjamin Alexander (who rocked the bus Saturday night) fixing the problem. These guys are ultra-pros, and it ultra-shows.
Saturday afternoon featured a series of talks TEDx style. The Soundcloud guys talked about the future of listening and got my attention when they started talking about biotech enhancements increasing the range of human hearing to the point where we can start to hear light. Tony Hsieh talked about his downtown Las Vegas urban renewal project, and Carter Cleveland got everyone’s attention when he suggested that like Warhol, Kanye West be hated during his time but then later revered as a great pop artist. Other topics included space travel, consciousness hacking and why Elon Musk believes that we are already living in the singularity. The talks ended with cello looping by veteran Burner and one-woman orchestra Zoe Keating.
…was outstanding. I got to see Warpaint from five feet away. Weird seeing America’s best current all-female band – called Warpaint – on a rezz. Damian Lazarus & The Ancient Moons was a really special moment, with four vocal mics going at once. Bob Moses basically headlined the mainstage, bringing one of the best performances I can remember, with the live vocals, guitar and samplers mixed perfectly. (If you know who Robert Moses was, the whole bulldozing thing takes on a deeper meaning). Twenty minutes into their set the full moon rose behind them. All in all, the sound quality at each stage was first-rate, and the depth and variety of music made other small festivals look like big festivals. Other highlights for me were Kiasmos, Little People, South African DJ Culoe De Song, and the topper was a surprise encore Sunday on the Robot Heart bus….a DJ set by Tycho.
I won’t really delve into describing the proceedings on the bus; if you’re reading this, you know what that consists of…though I will say, I kinda missed BOTH dawns. Saturday AM was their fault, as the bus ran out of diesel just before sun up, and by the time the sound guy I met earlier was done doing the fuel crew’s work it was daytime. (The scene: he’s balancing on a Kubota, heroically trying to fill up the worksite Genny hidden in the bus through its little feed tube, while models with glazed eyes watched from above.)
The second night culminated with an epic Thugfucker sunrise. As the magic moment approached, JLG lifts appeared out of nowhere and a three man film crew started taking an epic boom shot. There were so many cameras I would’ve felt really exposed without my Wasteland cowl. The whole thing started to feel a bit staged, like they were recreating the magic dawns from 2011-2013 on Playa but for the cameras. To block the blazing sun they stretched a long run of aluminet between two JLG’s, creating the Giant Deep House Badminton Net of the Future, but I couldn’t tell if it was for us or the shot.
I got kinda down on it and walked away, so I missed the – wait for it – champagne and caviar toast at dawn.
It was as if the Robot Heart I knew had turned itself inside out…what used to be a secret party miles from Centercamp had become Times Square. I walked away, feeling pretty shitty about it all.
But my way back to my tent I found about eight people dancing at the quadsound stage and stayed there for hours. Kind of like a few years ago when I was feeling burned out and went for a walk in deep Playa and found this weird bus with the big speakers…so that’s a full circle right there (Orbit?). I don’t know who the DJ was, as the Gypset stage had a secret lineup – just as Robot Heart used to. By the time Bob Moses took the mainstage I was in better spirits and the Tycho surprise set sealed it.
The main reason I went to FF was out of curiosity, and the desire to be at something at its inception – my first burn was Larry’s twenty-fourth. This is a really interesting moment in the evolution of our culture; here we have a theme camp that isn’t even really a theme camp putting on a regional that most definitely isn’t a regional. What will be the next Robot Heart? It sure isn’t Mayan Warrior, though that’s pretty much a direct copy of what the bus is. And the bus itself is an homage to the T.A.Z. soundsystem movement in the UK back in the 1990s. I’m also curious what’s going to happen to the parking lot we made on Paiute land. It’s a great place to stage a festival and an excellent training ground for people who haven’t made it to Playa yet. It will be interesting if other legacy theme camps rent this land to have a faux burn. I can just imagine what some Greg Fleishman installs would look like here, or if it could be used to stage a “Building Man” type gathering a la the Jenkstars. Or maybe the land is cursed now and we’re all going to hell and the boys from Buffalo will lose their fortunes and join the rest of us looking for a cardboard box to contain our Aldi purchases.
The Bottom Line:
I shelled out $250 for a second tier ticket and another $75 for a camping pass. I ate out of a cooler and skipped vending and all the other amenities. The price is steep, but to put it in perspective, the hotel BM chose to host the GLC charged us $240 PER NIGHT for a motel-quality room with no bathroom fan. To camp in a gorgeous natural setting like that would cost you more per night than would the price per day at Lolla, Coachella etc. There was a $40 early arrival pass for sale, but shuttles started friday, and my RV ride was a surprise. You could stay until Monday AM, but I felt a need to get to the hotel and start writing this while it was fresh.
They must have lost a TON of money on this. Who’s to know is they even got deposits back on the original spot? The location went through; it was the access road that didn’t, from what I gather. Word on the street was that the population was at about 2.5k, but it seemed even lower. By Sunday night there were about 600 people left max. But the fact that they were able to pull it off at all, considering the venue change a mere days before gates is pretty astounding, and something I just don’t think a non-burner crew could have accomplished.
A final note on the money issue- Robot Heart dug deep into their pockets to finance a new Nevada desert festival in May. Unlike a private yacht, the rest of us get to enjoy this too. I can’t afford to live in Midtown Manhattan, but I’m not gonna boycott MoMA. I did boycott “The Fight” because honestly, I’d rather eat caviar with people who love music with every fiber of their being than eat McDonalds with people who think its worth $100 mil. to watch minorities beat each other. FF speaker Tony Hsieh gave away three hundred million of his own dollars to revitalize a once-dead Downtown Vegas. It’s clear that our Congress is incapable of passing laws that would save the world, so what we need now more than ever is rich people who are also good people.
One thing that stuck out to me was the public water. Burning Man’s character building exercise of bringing your own water in has the unfortunate side effect that thousands and thousands of plastic bottles are purchased and then driven in separately, wasting carbon. BMorg should address this moving forward as BM’s population increases and California’s water disappears. Moreover, from ancient watering holes to water coolers, communal water is where animals and people have congregated to drink and mingle. How do we maintain the values of radical self-reliance and cut down on bottled water at the same time?
Its also really interesting doing the desert thing in Spring. The Baker beach burns were a Solstice affair, and while Labor Day is more convenient for more people, it’s a totally different vibe.
Sidenote: In the Further Future, the portos have a sign that says “close the toilet lid.” If you do this, the little shit-exhaust chimney creates a shit-Venturi or whatever and the shit-smell goes out the top, instead of cooking the Porto. Why people don’t do this at BM I simply do not understand. [Shit rant over.]
On a more personal note, this was the first festival I’ve attended alone, and if that’s something you’ve ever considered, or if you suspect yourself of being an ambivert, I say “Do it!” You’ll be on your own timetable, and you won’t disappoint anyone or get annoyed by anyone. I met some cool people and gauged their impressions of this boutique non-burn.
So what’s the Further Future? According to the Robot Heart crew, it’s got a lot of live PA and guitars in the mix, and an almost defiant sense that we’re free to pick up parts of the Burn culture and run with them and leave others behind. Its not quite radical exclusion – call it liberal editing of the principles. If their bulldozing virgin desert leaves a foul taste in your mouth, consider that the Burn takes place on Paiute land as well, except it is land Sam hasn’t given back yet. So by trekking to BRC every year, I’m sorta financially rewarding my government for its greatest crime. Who’s the S.F.W.M. meow?
The music was great; the celestial orientation of the stages leveled the music up cosmically. The Robot Heart crew have a reverence for the cycles of sun and moon that verges on a kind of neo-paganism. FF didn’t convince me I was gonna travel to Mars listening to Bedouin anytime soon, but they definitely had me looking towards the sky.
Discussion question: When does awesome design become a logo? Or a brand? What defines a logo?
FINAL FURTHER FUTURE DISCLAIMER: I intentionally avoided the Robot Heart guys, although I basically know what they look like and where they camped. I wanted to bring back an objective report, so I talked to Indian cops, security, artists and festival goers but not the RH crew, and although I was tempted to go up on the bus, I didn’t want to sway my experience one way or the other. They’re Burners, after all, and they probably would’ve gifted me something awesome. Or maybe I would’ve caught them in a WTF moment after what must have been an insanely stressful week of location switch. Either way, we’d all do well to remember to try to give each other some breathing room as this fire spreads…we’re all just trying to get our camp up, after all.