Symbiosis Gathering is an amphibious, pop-up paradise where clothing is optional and respect is required. The temporary oasis springs to life in a dusty California town that calls itself “the cowboy capital of the world.” Last weekend, more than fifteen thousand adventurous souls—and a heatwave—converged upon Oakdale’s Woodward Reservoir for another successful event. The Gathering features six music stages, two playful art boats fit with their own music lineups, and a slew of immersive environments to harbor art, dance, meditation, guest speakers, workshops, and yoga sessions.

Symbiosis is a truly conscious festival, which strives to stimulate love without borders, expression without judgement, and the progressive conversations society needs to keep moving forward. The Gathering helps drive the exploration of new possibilities and alternatives to old, broken traditions. Permaculture education—for example—is strong throughout the fest, offering a more sustainable agricultural practice and broad philosophy of self-sufficiency.

As with all things of such raw natural beauty, however, this year’s Symbiosis Gathering came with some imperfections. The most threatening of which seemed to spare no one, including early entry pass holders.

Once each voyager’s exhausting journey had brought the “Festival Entrance” sign into view, inbound fest-ers met a line of cars and a wait of up to nine egregious hours. All traffic funneled into one lane to creep forward roughly sixty feet every ten to twenty minutes. We can only hope each driver had the eco-savvy to kill their engines while standing.

In the moment, the excruciating entry to the festival felt like a difficult challenge to move beyond. But with camp set and a few hours of sleep achieved, attendees opened their eyes to a Symbiosis Gathering in full bloom, featuring a plethora of wondrous sights and activities to help purge all residual negativity.

Kites and small seaplanes dipped and danced with the sun in the sky. Colorful floaties buoyed kids of all ages in the water around the peninsula. Jet skis skimmed the horizon, and waves of nude Burners splashed into the reservoir to rinse off the last specs of Black Rock dust. By the time the weekend reached its final hours on Sunday night, blissful revelers were climbing up the light riggings of The Grotto where Dirtybird’s Justin Martin was spinning up a storm of wobbly beats. There were so many reasons to smile throughout the fest, it was impossible to hold a grudge. So we put together this list of the most memorable MVPs of Symbiosis ‘16, which made the rocky start not only forgivable, but worth enduring again and again.

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Desert Hearts at SwimbiosisKristina Bakrevski

The Desert Hearts Takeover

The first attraction to rope in the masses at Symbiosis was not just one act but a full daylight takeover by the Desert Hearts crew at the Swimbiosis stage on Friday. Comprised of Lee Reynolds, Deep Jesus, Marbs, Porkchop and Mikey Lion, Desert Hearts started cookin’ on the decks as early as 11:30am and kept the beach poppin’ all day at Swimbiosis. Between the sun-soaked bodies grooving on the subwoofers and the kite boarders surfing the reservoir, not a single person in sight seemed to give another thought to the nightmare drive into the Gathering. Then Dirtybird’s, Shiba San, dropped by just before sundown to close out the final 90 minutes of Friday’s Swimbiosis lineup—a set which included the most anticipated song of the weekend.

Shiba San – “OKAY”

It’s rare we give a full honorable mention to a single song out of the course of a full festival…but Shiba San earned it. As soon as his smash single, “OKAY” wiggled through the speakers at Swimbiosis, the crowd erupted in screams and whistles, then dug themselves into ditches with their shuffling feet. The dust that was kicked up during that one song seemed to linger in the air for the rest of the weekend.

The Android Jones Dome

By Saturday night, festival chatter involving what was widely referred to as “the Android Dome” and “the dopest sh%t [they’d] ever seen” had grown loud. We walked up the hill from the Juke Lagoon and shuffled through a line that circled a large white dome. Once inside the dome with about one hundred others, lying on our backs we faced the ceiling of the dome’s belly…and saw the dopest sh%t I’ve ever seen in my life.

Andrew “Android” Jones is a digital artist from Colorado and a sage in the Electro-mineralist community, which praises the advancements in art achieved through technology. The veteran Burner travels the world showcasing his cutting edge animations at conscious gatherings like Symbiosis. He even dressed the Sydney Opera House with his visual art in 2011. This year’s Symbiosis Gathering featured Android’s brand new 3D short film, “Samskara 2.0,” projected inside a 40-foot dome.

Black Rock Observatory

On the east bank of the peninsula’s south most finger, a large cannon-like structure sat in the shadows, fixed upon the stars. A man known as “Major Tom” and his dutiful helper took turns tinkering and fine-tuning—sometimes lifting and moving—the large equipment. Next to it, a makeshift sign read, “Black Rock Observatory.” The Black Rock Observatory (B.R.O.), is a crowd-funded operation with a mission to bring a closer look at the cosmos to Burning Man, Symbiosis, and other like-minded events. Major Tom welcomed all inquisitive fest-ers and would-be astronomers with open arms and offered the chance to gaze upon a galaxy. After climbing a ladder that Major Tom threw atop a hay bail, one was eye-to-eye with the viewfinder of a massive telescope. With both hands cupped around one open eye to minimize peripheral light pollution, a pupil-sized orb appeared glowing in the center of view like a pearl floating in the vast, black nothingness overhead. According to Major Tom, this was a cluster of countless stars which comprised only a part of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Hub

Symbiosis Gathering is not about pointless, mindless fun. It’s about the fun and excitement of adventure and exploration. This includes exfoliating old ideas, then exploring and sharing new ones. It’s about self improvement and the subsequent betterment of society. The most impactful way the producers bring such purpose to the Gathering, is with talks, panels, and Q&A’s with visionary leaders under the shade of The Hub.

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Winona LaDuke at The Hub – Kristina Bakrevski

The Hub radiated wisdom and consciousness, igniting conversations which echoed throughout the festival. Luminaries like Winona LaDuke, an economist, tribal land activist and beloved straight-shooter, spoke of the issues brought to light by the brave people protesting at Standing Rock. She also touched on her inspiring work with Honor The Earth. Wade Davis spoke of his incredible work in Colombia, helping communities ravaged by war and cocaine trade. Vandana Shiva, an economist and activist for food justice and the environment, spoke of the imminent dangers presented by capitalist entities fighting to obtain patents for seeds. These conversations have the power to galvanize movements to defeat harmful forces and create positive change. Even more encouraging, was overhearing these conversations continued at various campsites throughout the fest.

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The ATOLL – Kristina Bakrevski

The ATOLL

Word of a floating treehouse-DJ-booth buzzed loudly throughout the festival scene after last year’s Symbiosis Gathering. The team responsible for the famous art boat returned this year with an even bigger raft to play on. The new ATOLL art boat was crafted into a floating light house structure with multiple decks, a slide, and water cannons. The DJ booth on board was commandeered by big names like The Librarian, Christian Martin, and Ardalan.

The (Vegan) Food

Symbiosis Gathering offers locally sourced, organic food with more than enough options for everyone. This doesn’t just represent a high level of inclusion but actually provides Symbiosis patrons the clean, healthy energy needed to fest sustainably around the clock. Most notable of all was the L.O.V.E. tent, an all raw food vendor brought together by LA-based yoga instructor, Cheri Rae Russell. Yummy cabbage leaf tacos and pad tai zipped out to buyers. As tips and compliments flew back at her, Cheri Rae exclaimed, “I fucking love you people!”

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Kristina Bakrevski

Bad Unkl Sista (above)

Known for their eerie white dress and tense, Butoh-style dance movements, Bad Unkl Sista is the artistic direction of Anastazia Louise Aranaga. The company could be spotted performing throughout the festival, most notably on the main stage called The Fringe. They crept slowly across the stage just a hair of a second after Oh Wonder finished their Sunday evening set. Jaws dropped with the lights as dancers tweaked to life for an interpretive routine. At times, the dancers’ twitching choreography expressed pure ecstasy, but was soon contrasted by the conflicting expressions of tortured souls. When the dance concluded, the crowd erupted in hollering applause.

FKA Twigs

While the masses in front of The Fringe stage were still picking up their jaws from a breathtaking performance by Bad Unkl Sista, FKA Twigs prepared herself in the final moments before taking the stage for her own. The crowd slowly thickened until the lights dropped and music queued a few minutes past 10:30pm. Tahlia Barnett–“FKA Twigs”–made her strut out to center stage with the presence of a goddess, in an orange two-piece suit with unusually placed zippers opened, allowing maximum airflow. As FKA Twigs approached the front of the stage, she flashed cat eyes and a dangerously powerful smirk. The subtle action caused the heads of front row superfans to explode with shrieking OMGs. Something then caught her eye at her feet. She bent to a squat, let go of her mic, and when she rose again a dragonfly sat perched on her finger. For a few seconds, the two creatures locked into each others intense gaze. Then, Twigs walked the little one to side stage where she put it to rest on a monitor speaker. With a peaceful calm, she found her way back to her microphone just in time to begin the lyrics of “Water Me.” Many more heads exploded.

Dirtybird

Wherever you looked…wherever you went…there was no escaping Dirtybird Records. The LA/SF house music collective dominated the entire weekend. It began with Shiba San carrying the party torch Desert Hearts started into the sunset at Swimbiosis on Friday. Later that night, Dirtybird DJs threw the reigns on The Grotto stage, with Christian Martin and Worthy setting up the boss, Claude VonStroke, for the peak-hour win. They weren’t done. Worthy, Ardalan, Christian and his brother Justin then made a splash on Saturday, boarding The ATOLL for a four-hour Dirtybird takeover. Still…not done. Ardalan performed his second set of the fest warming up the night at The Grotto for Justin Martin, who then sent everyone within earshot into a primal dancing frenzy. He mixed his familiar House beats with hooks from legends like Dr. Dre, and of course hits off his acclaimed 2016 album, Hello Clouds. Justin Martin’s set was the most playfully rowdy night cap Symbiosis could ask for.

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+++Next year, Symbiosis is moving to Oregon to coincide with the solar eclipse that occurs August 21st, 2017—an event Symbiosis co-founder, Kevin KoChen, calls a “shit-your-pants” experience. The event dates are currently set for August 17-23rd.