The admissions officer at the so-called Symbiosis University had an elective quiz for new students. Sitting behind her desk in a pink wig, a low-cut unitard and a maybe-fake German accent, the woman grilled applicants on their intentions.
What was their planned course of study here, at this loopy rave festival on a lake two hours outside Oakland?
“Dog psychology,” said one applicant, earning a nod of approval. And their favorite yoga pose? “Um, 12-ounce curls,” said another, lifting his can of Tecate and taking a swig. “And how will you be paying for your tuition,” she asked yet another. “In beard hair,” he said, offering her a handful of his fluffy face coif.
She signed their admission slips and let them into a hidden room, whereupon the students had to promptly drop their pants and get smacked with a canoe paddle, thus joining this fraternity of dust-caked techno hippies.
Last week’s Symbiosis Gathering put the cap on a season of Burning Man-adjacent mini festivals across California (including veterans like Lightning in a Bottle and newcomers like Further Future and Desert Hearts). The 11-year-old, 15,000-capacity party is moving to Oregon next year, so this weekend’s fest was to be the last one at its current site, a peninsula abutting the idyllic Woodward Reservoir in the small town of Oakdale.
But Symbiosis was the year’s best example of this growing counterculture festival circuit, which many call “transformational” in a nod to the earnest spirituality that often accompanies the music. It turned the huge expenses, rigid rules and copy-paste musical lineups of the major fests inside out, and back into something much weirder and liberating.
As Burning Man churns with dissent (as seen in the vandalism at the upscale White Ocean camp this year), many fans are looking elsewhere for a similar experience.
Symbiosis had a musical lineup to rival any equally established fest, and it wasn’t just standard rave fare. There were great sets of sliced-up R&B from up-and-coming producer Ta-ku and headliner FKA Twigs, whose alien dance moves and pleading vocals fit right into the mood while coming from a different world entirely.
Upper-shelf house and techno acts filled out the bill — RL Grime, Claude VonStroke, Seth Troxler, Lee Foss — along with Burner-circuit staples like Atish, Sabo and the extended Desert Hearts crew.
But the music was really just an accent note to the dreamland setting. The festival was laid out on a winding spit of land that was easy to navigate and wonderful in which to getting lost. The stages were welded into shapes like LED mollusks or lunar greenhouses, and the twisty, central Silk Road complex evoked a Marrakesh souk taken over by red-eyed Berghainers.
Even the Kidzbiosis family section had hypnotic, climbable light structures that must have blown some tiny minds. All along the waterfront, little mesh lighthouses and hand-built art boats (bravo to whoever built the seaworthy Delorean) made for perfect day-lazing or night viewing of the main stages.
And the lake was the thing that made it. Any fest like this benefits from a swimmable body of water. Once it’s been experienced, anything else is just a pore-clogging, sunburning dystopia by comparison.
There may be no festival hangover cure that can contend with grabbing a case of beer at 8 a.m., peeling off filthy clothes and jumping onto a giant inflatable pizza with a half-dozen strangers who greet you with coconut oil massages or a Ziploc bag full of vodka and Kool-Aid.
Even the saltiest big-city techno purist had to give into the sweetness of the whole idea. That carried over to its harm-reduction polices: Having a bad psychedelic experience? There were counselors on-staff to give you a soft place to land and work it out. And given the grinding sense of unease that everyone seems to feel this election season, a weekend of apolitical escapism was welcome.
Sure, participants introduced themselves with Playa names like Pixie Stardust or Moonbeam Lucy (each of whom was absolutely lovely people), and one seminar on the cosmic properties of cacao ended with the lecturer wondering, “What if we could use chocolate in suicide prevention?”
But Symbiosis also had a sense of humor. One lecture was a satirical panel of fake flat-earth truthers that was arch enough to make those in attendance put their faith back in science and go catch up on their vaccines that same day.
The crowd was perhaps a little too big for its intentions: The serendipity of running into friends is what brings it all home here, and 15,000 fans was a bit too busy to find anyone (cell service was a bust, as it should be). The campgrounds were at least a 30-minute walk from the tip of the waterfront, so if you forgot your sunscreen, your afternoon was kind of shot.
But what the Symbiosis lake takes from you, it also gives back in kind. One reporter, extremely dust-caked and finally ready to give into the spirit of the weekend, left some garments atop an inflatable doughnut raft, where the clothes were promptly knocked overboard and sunk to the bottom in the 10 minutes he turned away to fetch a beverage.
Walking home was going to be a bit of an issue, if a minor one in the grander spirit of libertinism at Symbiosis.
But just then, someone’s abandoned, waterlogged scarf happened to float by in the wake. And lo and behold, it made a pretty sufficient beach towel for the walk back home. If Symbiosis returns to the site, and an overzealous swimmer comes up a little empty-handed from an afternoon dip, maybe he’ll find a pair of buffalo-plaid pants that’ll save the day.
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