Symbiosis is many things. It’s a gathering. It’s an art exhibit. It’s a music festival. But what encapsulates the Symbiosis experience more than anything else is each intangible moment that brings the larger parts together.
Symbiosis is floating on a raft without direction. You know that feeling of drying off with only the sun? You probably don’t get to feel that often. But when you do, it’s usually when you’re not in a rush. Whether it’s at the beach or any other body of water, that instance of you drying off in the sun reflects a kind of meditation you need amidst the pace of life. Symbiosis is that feeling.
We’ll start at the beginning. It’s Thursday. You’ve been waiting all month for what you could only describe as the intersection of a music festival and Waterworld. But for now you call it Symbiosis Gathering. As you’re in the car to Oakdale from its nearest city, Oakland, the Californian landscape of bridges and silicon gradually turns to pastures and crop fields. You’re taking Friday off of work, but realized taking all of today off might be a bit of a stretch. The sun’s now setting as you reach the site after a little over two hours of driving, having left the city as soon as you were back from work and packed. You’re ready for four days of what you could only expect is somewhere between Burning Man and a weekend festival in terms of how dusty you’re going to get. But now, as the cornfields dissolve into oasis, you’re reassured.
The site is Woodward Reservoir, a massive basin of crystalline water pierced by a peninsula like the silhouette of an oak leaf resting on the shore. You pull up to the base of the peninsula and join a line of cars you can only assume are going in the right direction. It doesn’t take too long—you missed the initial wave of veterans getting the best camp spots
Wednesday night and Thursday morning—until you reach the entrance of car camping and drive into the tent city after a friendly greeting and a quick car and wristband check. You find a cozy spot at the intersection of two of the more colorful of the seven camp-connecting roads, dirt paths named after each color of the rainbow that come together like capillaries to the artery aptly called Rainbow Highway. You set up your tent just as the light fades.
As the horizon gets darker it reveals a man made glow. An ocean of neon lights and LEDs surround the path to Symbiosis like switching out the backdrop of Rainbow Road with Enter the Void. The stillness in the dust makes you think of the playa. The path narrows and you’re filed to the right side, giving room to the flashing bikes and carts moving back and forth from camp to festival. You walk by the tents of the early birds who got the coveted close spots the night before, but you’ll come to appreciate your quiet spot, even if it means a couple extra minutes walk and getting lost once or twice. Then you make it to The Courtyard.
Symbiosis might have the coolest layout of any festival in the world. The peninsula comes to four bottlenecks, the first two an eighth mile apart near base and the final two side by side at the end. It feels like an archipelago. It’s shaped like a leafy seahorse with two leaves coming from its nose, but you’ll need to take a look at the map to really get it:
As you go through The Courtyard it looks like most of the traffic is going straight, so you take a left along the belly of the seahorse and pass through The Hub, a perimeter of tents and domes surrounding a much bigger canopy over a floor of blankets. People are sitting down and listening to a lecture. It’s the first journey of your first night and you’re not ready to sit down yet, so you continue to walk along the water until you hit the second bottleneck. You cross a bamboo bridge just wide enough for two people. It feels like you’re walking across the abyss. Walking between two massive wire statues, you make your way into Empire of Love, a pavilion of art and sculpture.
You pass by Swimbiosis, the water stage, but since it’s dark and you haven’t seen it during the day yet you don’t realize its beauty (and function). You cross another narrow strip of land and find yourself at The Fringe, or something you can only describe as an opera house of bass and funk, hosting the likes of Gramatik, Beats Antique, Santigold, and RL Grime. You still want to wander some more before dancing at your first stage, so you cross an even thinner bridge, passing yet another part of Symbiosis you won’t notice at night, and make your way to The Grotto.
You’ve looked at the lineup just enough to know that this will be one of your homes. It’s the Dirtybird corner. Claude VonStroke, Justin Martin, Christian Martin, Ardalan, Worthy, and Atish are gracing the decks over the course of the next three nights. An intimate stage with its back to the beach and wide, hollow columns holding up the tent with people dancing inside. You reach the apex of the peninsula and step down a grassy ledge onto the shore. You forgot how clear the stars are this far away from the city. The still water creates a dark reflection making it seem as if space starts on the shoreline.
You dance at The Grotto some more until you feel the urge to explore further. You make your way to the Persian tent network called Silk Road, welcomed in by the deep house basslines of Bedouin. Artists are painting on canvases amidst hanging tapestries. This is where you find yourself for the rest of the night. After you stay up as long as your Thursday night self allows, you revisit all the landmarks—still wildly new to you—on your way back to camp. You return to the dusty rainbow road and only take two wrong turns, making a few more friends and realizing the vastness of the camp before finding your tent. The crew wants to party some more, but you’re smart and know you have three more days ahead of you, so you collapse onto the air mattress you luckily found an outlet to inflate.
Symbiosis feels like an entirely different festival during the day. Leaving camp and making your way through the entrance for a second time, you realize just how much you feel like you’re on an island. There’s water everywhere. You walk by people doing morning yoga at The Hub and cross the bamboo bridge again. Then it hits you. Hundreds of people dancing and floating around a stage on the water. Everything inflatable you could imagine, from trampolines to couches. You’ve reached Swimbiosis.
Swimbiosis, just like almost every cove on the peninsula, is one of the most defining characteristics of Symbiosis. It’s the name for the area of the shore with its own stage. The element of both water and land being so accessible makes Symbiosis one of the most unique festivals in the world. Finding sanctuary from the California heat in the perfectly cool water of the reservoir is the best dichotomy you’ll experience. And to do it time after time, from floating on a Lamzac and letting the wind take you whatever direction it wants, to dancing knee-deep by the shore, is an experience you’ll find at only a handful of festivals around the world. The contrast of the crystalline water and dusty land make the archipelagic layout of Symbiosis one of a kind.
You spend the day swimming and soaking up sun. You have a surprisingly good poutine dinner from one of the dozen food trucks then hang out with friends to watch the sunset. You find yourself back at The Grotto for most of the night getting down with the Dirtybird crew. The 200-person crowd is the perfect size. After wandering a bit more, you make one of the most incredible discoveries of your life.
Mova. An art gallery on a hill, anchored by a 20-foot white geodesic dome. There’s an incredible holographic painting at the entrance to the dome. You admire it for a few minutes. There’s a line to get into the dome. Someone tells you there’s something like a movie going on inside. The thought of doing something like this at a festival is new to you, so you think, “why not?” The line only takes fifteen minutes, anyway.
Forgive me for switching to first person here, but I feel like this is the only way I can do this narrative justice. What I saw inside that dome was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen.
The frame of holographic art I saw at the entrance outside the dome was truly the most beautiful digital painting I have seen in person. To tell you how genuinely surprised I was after walking into that dome without having the slightest shred of what to expect and witnessing the gravity of the projections above me is almost impossible. The artist was Android Jones. And the show was called Samskara, a 360º video with visionary art animated with detail I could not have imagined until I first saw it. Five projectors map the entire inside of the dome, giving me the perspective of what I, fumbling with words, can describe as an intersection of virtual reality and an IMAX Omni Theater. The intricacy and immersiveness of the project was so incredible that it scratched this itch I never knew existed. It was leagues more moving than my first time using VR. Android Jones planted this seed in my mind that simultaneously made me question my existence and struck awe in my understanding of the applications that this art form has in the future. It was the most visually captivating fifteen minutes of my life. To see how he played with these faces and mosaics in a 3D space fundamentally altered my perception of art.
Back to you. After having your mind absolutely obliterated you have no idea what to do for the rest of the night. The bar has now been set too high. The bar is in another galaxy. You’re inspired to explore the rest of the art at Symbiosis, which are incredible in their own ways. There are two statues at the base of the bamboo bridge that look like the tripods from War of the Worlds. You climb up a ladder on its side and into a rope net big enough to hold twenty people (another parallel to War of the Worlds). It’s a surprising feeling to be suspended like that, so you spend an hour there and have some hilarious conversations with friends and visitors. You realize how late it is, so you head back to camp—only making a slight detour this time—and prepare for tomorrow.
By Saturday, Symbiosis feels familiar. No more possibilities of getting lost, unless you want to. But there are still two huge parts you haven’t explored yet, one for the day and one for the night.
Between The Fringe and The Grotto, on the furthest cove of the peninsula, is a floating stage. They call it The Atoll. It’s forty feet from either shore; you actually need to swim to it. The smart ones come in a raft. So you and your friend leave your phones with your other friends and swim over for a closer look. The floating platform is shaped like a J, with a tower resembling the hollow base of a tree in the middle. Claude VonStroke’s playing from a booth inside. You’ve probably never seen anything like it before. It’s like Mad Max meets Waterworld. You climb up to the top of the twenty-foot tower to find a waterslide. These guys thought of everything.
As the sun sets on your final night of Symbiosis, that one yet-to-be-explored stage calls to you. It’s the night you’ve been waiting for: Lee Foss, Seth Troxler, and Pan-Pot back to back to back. A house and techno dream. The stage is called Juke Lagoon. In the center, you see the DJ booth nestled into a shanty. Forming the base of a triangle with the shanty you see two confusing structures. They’re two-story sheds, tall and narrow like shrunken down office buildings. As you get closer, you realize there are people partying on the second floor. On the balcony. You need to get up there now. A ladder leading up to a trapdoor and an unwieldy line (the people coming down can’t tell that people are trying to come up, so you need to shout up to tell the twentieth person in a row coming down to stop) later and you’re there.
You’re at the corner of the balcony and you don’t plan on leaving until four in the morning. It’s a perfect view of the booth and the dance floor below. Lee Foss comes on at nine, laying bassline after bassline of funky house. Somewhere between now and the 1980s you snap out of your trance to see Seth Troxler taking the decks. He starts off slow. Jungle and Detroit house. The groove creates a shared pulse in the crowd. Now it’s two in the morning and you want something hard. You’re in luck. Pan-Pot take the decks and deliver three hours of pumping techno. The best of Berlin. The night culminates in Audiojack and Kevin Knapp’s “Vibrate,” Tass and Thomas laying down this hard-hitting track in what seemed to cleave the ground in half. The Berlin duo play well past their scheduled set time and the crowd’s loving it. It’s one of their best sets of the year. And your best, and final, night at Symbiosis.
In a different way, Sunday is your favorite day at Symbiosis. You want some peace, so you return to Juke Lagoon during the day with your crew and find that you have the entire shore to yourself. You’re slightly burned from the day before—luckily you find the perfect tree with enough shade for you and your friends to lay down blankets and chairs. The water is the perfect temperature. Today’s the day of relaxation and reflection.
You get in the water. A boat with ten people floats by, blasting disco. Floating away from the shore, you see Symbiosis from a new angle.
It’s one of those gatherings that’s best when you let it find your direction.
Photography courtesy of Juliana Bernstein of Get Tiny. Many thanks to the teams at Symbiosis and Infamous for making this weekend one to remember.