Last spring, C3 Presents – a concert promotion, event production and artist management company out of Austin, Texas (that happens to be responsible for several well-established festivals such as Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo) – announced the first-ever FORMAT Festival would be hosted in Arkansas this fall.
The inaugural event took place from Sept. 23-25 on private property located along Sugar Creek Airstrip in Bentonville. While it can be difficult to picture what a first-ever festival will look like, the festival came together seamlessly, with international, national, state and local talent showcased in all of the areas that FORMAT brought together.
Elizabeth Edelman – one of FORMAT Festival’s producers, and the founder and producer for TRIADIC, a creative house and cultural engine with locations in New York City, London and Vienna – explained how the festival has actually been a work in progress for much longer than the public was initially aware.
“When I started TRIADIC, with Mafalda Millies and Roya Sachs, there were gaps, in this area, between art, music and technology. So we wanted to partner with C3 Presents to create an equal stage that supported the original vision of the company,” Edelman said.
“When you go to Coachella or ACL, you’re starting to see more art installations, but we felt there was still a large opportunity to create a space and an opportunity to merge all of these things – music, art and technology – together in one space.”
Edelman and her team were only recently introduced to Northwest Arkansas, specifically Bentonville – which is known for being the birthplace of major global retailer, Walmart, and claims to be mountain biking capital of the world.
“We had a huge interest in the Ozarks, and we went as a team to check it out,” Edelman recalled. “Not only did we fall in love with the sights and sounds, but we wanted to be part of what was happening there, and to help build upon it organically.”
FORMAT Festival was built to be an immersive artistic experience, one that is unlike any other in the country.
“Pretty much all of our stages are commissioned art stages and were built specifically for FORMAT. The concept of the commissions was for the art to live on in NWA, and for the community to be able to enjoy the beautiful work 10-20 years down the line.”
The lineup of the festival included many popular and upcoming names of both visual and musical artists, from bands such as The Flaming Lips and The War on Drugs to Phoenix, Jungle, Thundercat, Elle King and Rüfüs De Sol, to groups such as Honey Collective and their opening act, BAANG – both of which have strong ties to NWA.
The setup also placed well-known local artists such as Kat Wilson next to internationally respected names like Nick Cave. With the work of TRIADIC and C3 Presents, local and international talent were showcased all together, making for a unique range of names and performances.
“A big goal of FORMAT was to be able to give a voice to some of the younger and up-and-coming artists, and we blended this line. We gave them an opportunity to perform and show their art,” Edelman said.
According to Edelman, this original concept started almost four years ago, back in 2018.
“We found this site about two years ago, and we started reaching out to artists and musicians around a year later. The fact is that this has been a long time coming, and it has allowed us to be considerate about being able to work on this,” Edelman explained.
“The whole process was really exciting – we worked with the C3 booking team, and we watched what was happening. We were able to bring some eclectic people together through an eclectic lineup.”
FORMAT Festival allowed guests to hear the smooth tunes of Herbie Hancock and the bluesy notes from Elle King and in the same weekend, sing along to dream pop powerhouses like Beach House and The Flaming Lips.
“There were different genres of music from different times. We had jazz musicians, new musicians and incredible DJs from all over the world,” Edelman said. “The dream for us was that people might come to the festival because of the bigger names, but leave the festival being totally obsessed with the work of newer musicians. We wanted to fuel curiosity and exploration of new art.”
The attendee experience remained on the forefront of planning FORMAT Festival, according to Edelman.
“I wanted people to be blown away by what they were just able to experience. I am looking forward to collaborating with locals to build this festival, and I’m really proud of all of the surprise elements that happened over the weekend,” Edelman said.
“One of the things we are most proud of is that it feels very local. We have a huge market – the Bizarre Bazaar – for guests to walk through and engage with little activities and very cool things made locally.”
About 10,000 people attended the inaugural festival, according to FORMAT, and according to Edelman, the intention is to keep the festival pretty small in comparison to others of its kind, which can stretch into the 100,000 range in number of attendees.
“I think that we will grow the festival every year, but in the right way for the community. We want attendees to have space to enjoy the site, experience and everything FORMAT offers,” Edelman said. “We are excited about where it will grow. We want to keep engaging the community; we want to commission great pieces and continue with a great collaborative effort.”
The “Drag Me To The Disco” art installation at FORMAT featured a barn transformed into the perfect disco location. The barn was decked out in pages from Maurizio Cattelan’s TOILETPAPER, a picture-heavy magazine based in Milan, Italy. Artist Stefania Biliato explained how the vision of Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari were brought to light in this installation.
“TOILETPAPER magazine loves any opportunity to do something different, and FORMAT is a first-time event, a first edition and first everything,” Biliato said.
All of the photos plastered on the walls of “Drag me to the Disco” featured real objects. Archivio Personale, the set department of TOILETPAPER magazine, helped with the project as well.
“It is so cool that we get to be part of something new, not just for ourselves, but for everybody,” Biliato said, explaining that this part of the world and this part of the country is very new for TOILETPAPER magazine. “This is not a typical city for us, but it has been a beautiful adventure, with beautiful nature and a really pretty location. It’s been great to share cool ideas here.”
TOILETPAPER magazine is known for its photographs of real objects, those of which have been translated into a collection that goes beyond home design to a beauty line that covers every corner of the body, called TOILETPAPER Beauty. The TOILETPAPER brand also has a pajama line that, according to Biliato, is perfect for endless naps and even makes for great dancing attire.
As a tribute to the first-ever FORMAT festival, TOILETPAPER magazine recently announced a special 15% discount on pajamas on its website.
“We hope that people who visited Drag Me to The Disco felt the free creativity of the art and were able to think about it,” Biliato added. “The photos are for everybody, and are meant to be an inspiration to anyone who sees it.”
Musicians like Seun Kuti – who is from Lagos, Nigeria – also appeared at FORMAT Festival, bringing Afrobeats to the stage. Kuti is known for being the son of legendary Afrobeat godfather, Fela Kuti.
For Kuti, performing at FORMAT was not only a new experience, but also his first time performing in the area.
“I mainly have done shows on the West Coast and East Coast in the United States, but I haven’t done a lot of shows in this part of the country,” Kuti remarked. “It is really cool how art, technology and music are combined in this.”
Kuti said one of the most exciting things for him was getting to work in collaboration with artists such as [Nick] Cave.
“My goal in music is to be able to bring people together in very divisive times, expand views and stress humanity,” Kuti said. “There is so much impact we can have on each other through art and in bringing issues to light through art, for the people who can’t express themselves.”
Kuti also explained that everywhere he goes – and he has traveled to a lot of places – he tries to experience the culture through the people in the cities he is in. “I go to a lot of places, and I tend to see very little of the areas I’m in, but I do see a lot of people.”
Afrobeats as a genre has become increasingly popular over the years, and Kuti was able to share this with the FORMAT Festival crowd on the second day of the festival.
Disko Cowboy/Vinyl Ranch made an appearance at this year’s festival, performing in “Drag Me to The Disco.”
While FORMAT Festival prides itself on blending the lines between music, art and technology, Disko Cowboy/Vinyl Ranch is a converging concept in its own right. Vinyl Ranch, the brand connected to Disko Cowboy, is largely responsible for redefining the urban cowboy culture movement – which converges streetwear, country music and disco. Disko Cowboy – also known as David “Dave” Wrangler– has made a name for himself in performing and producing events, and collaborating with global brands such as Wrangler, Tom Ford, Chanel, CMA Fest, Sundance Film Fest, the Super Bowl and more, according to the Disko Cowboy website.
“It’s always a cool experience to be invited to perform at a first-time festival, and this festival has been pretty cool in all ways, visually and collaboratively,” Wrangler said.
Originally from Houston, Texas, FORMAT Festival was Wrangler’s first time bringing Disko Cowboy to NWA. Though, as he lived in nearby Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a period of time, this was not Wrangler’s first rodeo in the area.
“I really love the area. I love the venue of this; it’s a great place to hang out, and I love being a part of anything that is geared toward the guest experience,” Wrangler said.
Vinyl Ranch started in 2007, and according to Wrangler, came out of a really niche idea.
“I was kind of the first cowboy DJ to mix club music with country music, and this all really started when country music wasn’t widely enjoyed by a broad range of people,” Wrangler said. “I really leaned into the modern country and cool vibes, and Vinyl Ranch is about a lifestyle – a culture of the two, converging.”
Disko Cowboy is known for a lot of things, but performing at festivals has especially shaped what he does.
“I don’t have any records or any singles, and I’m not like a lot of other DJs, so having opportunities like [performing at FORMAT] is something that is really cool, and something I am very grateful for,” he said.
For Disko Cowboy, “Drag Me to The Disco,” was a perfect venue for his performance.
“The space really shaped what I played, and I think it fit the vibe of Disko Cowboy/Vinyl Ranch very well,” Wrangler said.
As a frequent festival performing act, Disko Cowboy will find himself at another C3 Presents festival later this year – Austin City Limits – where he will perform both weekends.
“I loved getting to see Phoenix perform live, watching the drone shows and seeing some of my favorite groups all in one place,” he added.
In the Local Limelight
Locally, NWA has become a hub for the arts, and a home to many artists of different rankings – visual and musical.
Honey Collective, a band that has merged raw jazz, funk and hip-hop, opened the festival. Now, the group is based in Brooklyn, New York, but the group is no stranger to NWA. Aricka Lewis, the group’s vocal talent, grew up in Fayetteville. Jordan Strickland, who plays keys and guitar, is from Rogers and Walter Ferguson, who plays drums, is also from Fayetteville. Matt Magerkurth, who plays cello and bass for the group, is the only non-NWA native, but is familiar with the area as he grew up nearby in Kansas City, by way of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Being back in NWA has been great, and getting to come back for a festival like this is incredible,” Lewis said. “By opening the festival, we really were able to set the scene for the weekend.”
“Seeing our idols in the same space has been insane. We’re right next to Robert Glasper’s trailer, and Thundercat will perform on the same stage,” Strickland said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve been creating music and thought, ‘What would Robert Glasper do if he was writing this?’ It’s incredible to be in the same space as these great artists.”
The group opened the festival on the “North of OZ” stage, one of the two full-size stages at the venue.
“It was our first time playing on such a big stage, and it’s a huge stage, in NWA,” Ferguson said. “We’re always going to have a really special place in our heart for NWA. The emphasis on the technological side of music making is something that is not often omnipresent in the NWA music community. So, I love seeing all of the things that the other musicians have that are combined. It’s a great time.”
As the group has long been part of the music scene in NWA, Strickland said he expected a festival like FORMAT would one day be in NWA. “It just makes sense that with all of the art and the music and all the talent in NWA, that FORMAT would take place here,” he said.
“The art experience as a whole is really exciting. There’s Doug Inkin work and Nick Cave work, and I’ve always loved the idea of art and sculpture mixed in with music,” Magerkurth said.
BAANG, a NWA rapper, has been seen in a multitude of ways around the NWA music scene, opening for artists such as Big Boi and performing at Bentonville Film Fest. At FORMAT Festival, BAANG had the opportunity to open for Honey Collective, which he called a one-of-a-kind opportunity. As part of the local music scene, BAANG advises other musicians and artists to keep fine-tuning their craft.
“Whether you’re playing in front of a crowd of 10 people or 10,000 people, just play your best, because someone out there needs to hear what you’re performing about,” he said.
Nick Cave is a well-known visual artist responsible for a unique blending of fashion and sculpture into “soundsuits,” which are objects that have combined the two artistic disciplines together. While several of the performing artists noted their excitement of his involvement in FORMAT Festival, Cave was also able to get involved in the Arkansas community in a different way.
The drumline for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff band and Jlin (a Chicago composer) partnered with Cave to march with specially made soundsuits, following the festival-goers of FORMAT on the final day of the festival, which created a visual and musical experience for guests to enjoy.
Kat Wilson, a Fayetteville-based photographer, said being in the same space as notable artists was incredibly exciting.
“I was really excited to see my name on a poster with Nick Cave and The Flaming Lips,” she said. “I wanted my selfie booth to be very Arkansas kitsch, which is why I added the camo and antlers to this selfie throne.”
Wilson has long-been a photographer in the area, but around 2014 – when the popularity of selfies continued to rise – she decided to evolve with the times, creating a unique photo experience.
“I still set the stage, and I still take care of the lighting, but I wanted to be able to do more outside of behind the camera, and now I’m getting to bring the selfie throne to a music festival,” Wilson said.
The Bizarre Bazaar, which stood directly next to Wilson’s Selfie Throne, housed several local curators and creators, including Onyx Coffee Lab, Little Rock’s La Rosa Antigua and NWA Girl Gang, to name a few.
La Rosa Antigua, which is run by Maximiliano Dominguez, was present at the festival for all three days, and by the end of day one, the thrift and screen-printing booth had sold out half of its inventory.
“My team and I originally brought about 450 unique pieces from the Little Rock store to Bentonville. By the end of the day Friday, we had sold half of our inventory and actually had to be innovative and arrange a drop-off of more inventory from our store,” Dominguez said.
For Dominguez, this festival was not just a great way to get the word out about his store, but also to be able to experience a music festival for the first time.
“This is actually my first time at a music festival. The most exciting thing about getting to be here is just being able to attend and be uplifted by a festival that was developed in Arkansas,” he said, adding that seeing the support for small businesses was incredibly encouraging. “My goal has always been to bring more light to projects like FORMAT while also uplifting local artists and creatives.”
NWA Girl Gang (NWAGG) is a nonprofit organization that focuses on serving marginalized communities. Rachel Fox, the founder and executive director of NWAGG, explained that the nonprofit is involved in several aspects of the community – including hosting the NWAGG Market, which showcases local woman-owned businesses and brands.
The NWAGG booth featured handmade earrings, buttons, stickers and other merchandise. Harlow and Sage Company contributed polymer clay earrings and The Sacred Cocoon was also at the booth for tarot readings.
From the standpoint of many artists involved in the festival, FORMAT has had an impact on not only NWA creatives, artists and musicians, but also on national and international creatives, artists and musicians. And with the success of the first year of the festival, there is little doubt that the festival will only continue to improve over time.