Arkansas’s FORMAT Festival Lives Up to Its Promise to Blend Music, Art, and Technology

Bentonville, Arkansas, may not ring a bell for most people, but this weekend the town hosted a major new music, art and technology festival: FORMAT. It shouldn’t be a surprise.

Bentonville is the home of Walmart and, over the past ten years, the Walton family has done their utmost to invest in the rapidly growing region, from paving mountain biking trails to setting up Crystal Bridges, a world-class art museum. Why not bring a music, arts, and tech festival to town?

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The brainchild of Roya Sachs, a curator and creative director, and Mafalda Millies, a creative director at C3 Presents—which has produced Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, among other festivals—FORMAT was picked up by the Walton family after four years of development.

“The team met with Olivia, Tom, and Stuart Walton who are very invested in expanding the cultural landscape in the region. What they’ve already done is completely incredible,” Sachs told ARTnews recently. “The population has doubled there in the past 20 years, it’s rapidly changing. It’s really interesting to be in a market that is molding itself because allowing yourself to be a part of that mold actually allows you to hopefully have more of an impact in the region and in the future of its outlook.”

Almost all the musicians who performed, from Moses Sumney and Phoenix to the War on Drugs, made some comment about being surprised to be in Arkansas.

“We will never have all the same people in one crowd again, this energy won’t happen again, we won’t see each other again, especially not in Arkansas,” Sumney said onstage, before introducing one of his last songs. “Or maybe we will!”

The visual artists who appeared in the festival, including Doug Aitken, John Gerrard, Nick Cave, Pia Camil, and Studio Drift, were similarly surprised, but attracted to the idea of showing their work in an under-explored corner of America.

Studio Drift, Franchise Freedom, 2017

“It is difficult to take the work outside of its normal context and we’re also not very big fans of doing that. But, for this occasion, we made an exception,” Lucas Van Oostrum, cofounder of Studio Drift, which makes works using drones, and rose to popularity after its 2021 exhibition “Fragile Future” at New York’s The Shed, told ARTnews.

“If you go to East Coast, West Coast, you see art everywhere,” Van Oostrum said. “The beauty about the work that we make is that it transmits freedom to its visitors, it’s not confined by the white space of the gallery or the museum, so it’s important for us to show the work off the beaten path.”

Studio Drift and French indie pop band Phoenix collaborated during the band’s performance Saturday. Toward the end of their set, they slipped into an instrumental song, and thousands of blue lights were released into the night sky. The light changed color and began to gently swarm, mimicking a murmuration of starlings. At the end of the performance, a man in the crowd told his friend, “Now that was music, art, and technology.”

That work, Franchise Freedom, was first developed by Studio Drift in 2017 and was performed at Art Basel, and later, at NASA. Configuring the piece for a music festival took some delicacy.

Van Oostrum appreciated that when it came time to organize how the work would be shown alongside the musical performance, space was consciously made during the set so that people could focus on Franchise Freedom and not on the stage.

Boris Acket, Waaiwerken, 2021

Boris Acket, another Dutch artist who presented work at the festival, felt similarly supported.

“I’ve done a lot of festivals and you often end up as decoration, more or less,” Acket told ARTnews as he gazed at his massive piece Waaiwerken [WindWorks] (2021). For the work, 538 square feet of a special aluminum fabric was threaded along a wire and floated serenely in the wind, almost as if in slow motion. The fabric is one of the lightest in the world, and the entire length of it weighed only 44 pounds, but to keep the wire perfectly in tension, several tons of concrete blocks were brought in to ground the scaffolding of the piece. He gestured grandly at all the space his work took up.

“This space could have fit another stage, there could be music here, more bands, but they did this instead,” Acket said.


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