Held in the town that Walmart built, its inaugural edition offered attendees a choose-your-own-adventure-style journey designed to blend art, music, and technology
A hush falls over the crowd as people crane their heads, looking up at the hundreds of twinkling lights unfolding across the sky in a slowly-changing formation. The lights are autonomous drones from Studio DRIFT, and what we’re watching is an immersive aerial installation designed to simulate birds in flight. As they drift across the sky, a man turns toward his friend and exclaims with unironic enthusiasm: “Now that was music, art, and technology.”
If I had said that myself, I’d have been doing a bit—but he’s not wrong. We’re at the inaugural edition of FORMAT, an experimental festival celebrating (you guessed it) music, art, and technology, held in (you may not have guessed it) Bentonville, Arkansas. Featuring everything from live music and immersive installations to drag performances and sex therapy sessions, FORMAT saw the niche and mainstream intermingle: There were shows from popular musical acts like Moses Sumney, Beach House, Shygirl, and Phoenix unfolding alongside an experimental concert from human cyborg Neil Harbisson, and performances from contemporary artists like Jacolby Satterwhite, Nick Cave, and Doug Aitken. There was hypnotism and an NFT auction, an immersive 360-degree artspace, and a speakeasy that required you to enter through a porta potty; it was, in short, a grab bag of experiences intended to facilitate a choose-your-own-adventure-style journey for attendees, and to bring greater awareness to the Ozarks and its cultural offerings, which have expanded in recent years as part of a push to incorporate art into the daily lives of citizens.
At the forefront of these offerings is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, nestled in hundreds of acres of forest trails. Designed by Moshe Safdie, it is the brainchild of Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton—a big player in the small town of Bentonville, whose influence is apparent there in forms obvious (Walton’s original five-and-dime store, now the Walmart Museum) and unexpected (the hospitality groups, banks, and countless businesses owned or sponsored by the family). The more time I spend in Bentonville, the more I realize that Walmart (or at least the Walton family) rules everything around me: Even in my hotel room, I find testament to the Waltons in the form of a framed photo, oddly nestled above the toilet.
FORMAT is one of many cultural initiatives picked up by the Waltons. It’s not the only offering that veers toward the experimental and contemporary: Not far from the festival grounds, the Momentary—the younger, edgier sister of Crystal Bridges—plays host to contemporary visual, performing, and culinary artists. Unlike Crystal Bridges, it does not have a permanent collection of its own, instead favoring an ephemeral approach: Exhibitions rotate in and out of the cavernous industrial building roughly every four months, not unlike roommates in the particular brand of Bushwick factory loft it resembles. (The building was once home to a cheese factory, and its signature architecture now serves as a driving force behind its site-specific exhibitions.)
I’d be remiss not to mention that, with a net worth of roughly $212 billion, the Waltons are the richest family in the world—and while their monumental contributions are framed as generosity, they also support the family’s efforts to preserve fortune across generations vis-à-vis tax loopholes, as the Dallas News reports. “Operate globally, give back locally,” was Sam Walton’s mantra according to the company museum, and it’s an ethos shared by the family’s younger generation, who are alleged to “live modestly” in the area while continuing to work on cultural development across sectors: from paving bike trails to promoting public art, to newer initiatives focusing on advanced mobility and healthcare. It’s rumored that the younger family members are so unassuming that anyone we speak to, even a janitor, could be a Walton in disguise.
FORMAT kicked off at the Momentary on Thursday night with a performance from The War on Drugs. “I have to admit, I’ve never been to Arkansas,” the frontman says before beginning his set, a phrase that would be repeated by countless musicians over the next couple of days. The first festival of its kind to be held in Bentonville, FORMAT is the latest in a series of initiatives designed to bring young people to the region. “It’s as much an art festival as it is a music festival,” says Roya Sachs, who co-curated the festival with fellow creative director Mafalda Millies. The pair lead me on a tour of the grounds, pointing out its highlights as we trek around in 80 degree heat. (It’s worth noting that the festival, which is held on Sugar Creek Airstrip, is about a half-mile walk from the nearest road—a distance that you can traverse by foot, bus, or in the back of a golf cart. The guy driving ours tells us his skin care routine on request, and judging by the caliber of his products, he may be a secret Walton.)
During my two nights at FORMAT, I do my best to fade into the background, soaking up the energy of the space and the people in it. Over the course of each evening, the vibe shifts like the weather as one traverses the festival’s many spaces; one minute, Fatboy Slim is dropping beats in a little red barn, and the next, you’re witnessing Neil Harbisson, the world’s first human cyborg, tune into NASA Space Station for one of his cybernetic concerts. (“I love you Neil!” someone yells as he takes the stage and fixes his antenna toward the sky.)
During Harbisson’s keynote talk, where he explains the intention behind cyborg art and the invention of new organs, people keep turning to each other, asking variations of Is this real?; some people stand with mouths agape on the side of the stage, unable to believe the premise that this man hears color because of a bone-conducting implant embedded in his skull. Later, when Harbisson and I are speaking at one of the festival’s many outdoor hang-out spaces, a man approaches us: “Excuse me,” he says, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have a question for you.” Harbisson and I knowingly make eye contact, as we had just been talking about how he’s frequently confronted by people in public in regards to his implant. But instead of addressing the antenna that visibly protrudes from Harbisson’s skull, he asks, “Do either of you want to play hacky sack?”
Such is the unique and constantly shifting atmosphere of FORMAT. There are people in flower crowns and glow-in-the-dark outfits intermingling alongside the work of today’s preeminent artists, technologists, and sexologists. There are lines outside of the festival’s merch booth, and also outside of the little tent in the ‘Bizarre Bazaar,’ where Betony Vernon is conducting sex therapy. (“Damn, people really are getting vulnerable in the club,” a friend notes.) Elsewhere on the festival grounds, disco balls cast flashing lights over a pumped-up crowd. People squeal at the unexpectedly wet mist emanating from an art installation, or else run their hands over the fuzzy, tree-like columns erected by Icelandic artist Shoplifter. The vibe is unabashedly fun; in between breathtaking performances on Saturday night, Moses Sumney urges the cheering crowd to savor the present moment: “This energy here tonight won’t ever happen again, especially not in Arkansas,” he says, then reconsiders: “Or maybe it will!”