Back from the (Further) Future

Attendees sit and dance atop a metal heart above the Robot Heart performance area at sunrise during Further Future on Sunday, May 1, 2016.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

In the real future, less will ostensibly go wrong—at least in theory.

That thought might’ve gone through Daniel Lopatin’s head during his early Sunday morning performance at Further Future, when his frustrated motioning to the crew just a few notes in suggested equipment failure. The man behind experimental electronic act Oneohtrix Point Never continued playing through the first song, but halfway into the second, he threw up his hands and halted the performance, with touring guitarist Nate Boyce stopping seconds after him. Lopatin’s profane acknowledgment of the problem could have taken a mercurial tone if he weren’t so discernibly bummed. “I want to play for you so f*cking bad,” he told the crowd sans microphone before walking offstage.

And yet, a few minutes later, after a tinkering tech yelled to the sound tent, “We’ll try it in mono,” Lopatin and Boyce returned, pulling off an hourlong fever dream of awesomeness, full of glitchy throttle and dystopian lullabyes. Even the elderly event staffer stationed nearby gawked at the duo in astonishment. Nevermind the meagerness of the 30-odd audience—they stuck with and praised Lopatin, a fact not lost upon him when he wound down the set, kissing his hands and throwing them out into the frigid air. As if we had enough goose pimples.

Further Future’s second edition, held almost an hour northeast of Las Vegas on the Moapa River Reservation, wasn’t just afflicted by imperfections both preventable and otherwise—it was literally a stormy affair. A Saturday rain and wind (and hail) cycle forced everyone to take shelter twice and introduced the West Coast to the woes of soggy, sodden festivalgoing. (Perspective check: New Orleans’ Jazz Fest flooded that same day, and Austin’s Levitation was canceled due to hazardous weather conditions last Thursday, 24 hours before gates were to open.) If a weekend of stage-hopping wasn’t fatiguing enough, one had even fewer opportunities to rest with nowhere dry or mud-free to sit.

Further Future Second Year

But hindrances were basically met with shrugs from the unfailingly enthusiastic attendees—a reported 5,000 of them, or 3,000 more than last year—who came from just about everywhere to enjoy a consistently stimulating festival with diversions galore and an ambiance that fostered engagement. This was a crowd that actually asked questions during speaker discussions when prompted for them, kept its picture-taking to a minimum during performances and intermingled with each other like a 5,000-member circle of friends, differences be damned.

I say this because elsewhere, you’ll read about Further Future being overrun by the 1 percent, their desires for a Burning Man-lite made easier via lux accommodations, pricey pop-up dinners and concierge services. Well, those were VIP options—Further Future the latest recreational destination to fleece the rich—that remained separate from the festival grounds. Otherwise, there were no divisions. I saw plenty of people in fancy playa gear, and I saw plenty of people walk in from the self-camping area in thrift-store costumes, and they blended together in their mutual participation, revelry and socialization—especially where grooves were to be found, proving once again that the dancefloor is the great equalizer.

The music program was far and away Further Future’s greatest strength, a carefully chosen program (by Brooklyn promoter and Burning Man mobile soundsystem Robot Heart) of non-commercial, progressive and live electronic music acts and DJs, with a handful of rock-tinged, reggae and hip-hop acts that could keep the rhythm. Las Vegans were particularly spoiled, given that many of the artists on the lineup rarely, if ever come this way.

The Southern Nevada debuts of the de facto headliners—indie favorite Caribou on Friday and pioneering electronic group Leftfield on Saturday—were absolute stunners that eventually drew near-capacity crowds to the Mothership main stage, the former tightly and exuberantly churning out transcendent electro-pop jams that never meandered, and the latter pounding out techno-influenced soundscapes and bangers that demonstrated the full potential of live electronic music. To watch them in the desert night, far removed from the rest of the festival, awash in brilliant lighting schemes and evocative fog, magnified both their performances and the uniqueness of Further Future itself.

Two DJ performances supported those headliners, and were nearly or equally as substantial and engrossing. Nicolas Jaar finally graced the region with one of his worldly and expertly crafted DJ sets, maturely colored by sounds and styles that are traditional in the truest sense, but essentially unheard on American dance floors. Jazz, bomba and plena music from the Caribbean and gospel joined four-on-the-floor tempos (and the occasional breakbeat), floating synth ambience and emotive keystrokes put us everywhere but Nevada. Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden delivered an adventurous set of his own that also drew from the global fringes of house, but with less roots music and more synth passages that might mutate at any given second. A steady house beat might disappear completely and defer to pure, womb-like ambience, but the crowd merely slowed its shuffle.

DJs dominated the Robot Heart and Void Village stages—read Deanna Rilling’s coverage of some of those acts here—with the latter infusing genuine energy into what was essentially a festival food court. They offered memorable flashes such as Joeski’s set-ending drop of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which resulted in an explosion of flailing limbs and shrieks, and the impromptu afternoon dance party triggered by the beachy, breezy house of Pedro Aguiar, who was only playing warm up to the Future of Music panel before suddenly compelling 100 or so folks to run across the grounds and storm the Booba Cosmica stage.

Speaking of panels: The conversational component of Further Future—featuring speakers on a wide array of subjects, all addressing where technology and humanity is headed—might’ve seemed like a TED Talk program add-on for Silicon Valley types, or like organizers were trying to shoehorn a conference into a music festival. But in practice, it didn’t seem extraordinary to discuss music after having danced to it all night long, or hear how technology pairs visuals with music, or learning about virtual reality gadgetry that might play a significant role in music festivals in the near future.

The best featured talkers during the Vision Speakers Series were the ones that blended forecasting and enthusiasm with engrossing personal anecdotes, like Joann McPike’s inspiration for her nonprofit, travel-based boarding school THINK, or revealed truly interesting developments, such as the Food and Drug Administration recent decision to determine whether Adam Gazzaley’s cognition-enhancing video games will be something doctors can prescribe for patients.

The highlight of Saturday’s three-hour-plus talk-a-thon, though, was a rare and lengthy public Q&A with a refreshingly off-the-cuff Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (which owns Google and its offshoots). If there was a rock star at Further Future, it was him, a designation he handily earned with his impressive but accessible intellect, genial demeanor and sense of wit. If an audience question was too geeky or inside baseball (i.e., genomics), Schmidt answered by reframing the question to reflect its significance to the average person and the greater world. He caught us all up on the present state and future of several technology-driven industries while mercifully keeping the Google plugs to a minimum.

Then there were tech demonstrations that gave attendees an inside look at products we may very well see in the future. David Hanson’s human-replicating Sophia robot not only spoke without human help, but smiled and cracked jokes. When Hanson asked her if she was in love, she replied, “I’m in love with the whole world, but we’re keeping it platonic for now.” Cue audience laughter. However, a rock/paper/scissors game with Hansen got awkward when she declared, “Defeating you in front of all of these people was the highlight of my day. This is the end of friendly robot.” Cue Hanson’s spin minutes later about how robots would ideally possess programming so rational that it would prevent them from hurting humans. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality would come up again and again through the weekend talks, especially with regards to their therapeutic potential.

With regards to execution, there were numerous improvements and additions to Further Future beyond production touches and stage design. The Vendor Village, which was curated by local Jolene Manina, featured cuisine and libations from District One, Velveteen Rabbit, the Intuitive Forager and Gelatology, among others. Short movies played in between the main stage’s acts, all depicting a futuristic idealism—a directive by FF curators who wanted to eschew the usual dystopia and cataclysm so favored by modern filmmakers and authors. The Art Zone, like the recently burned Life Cube, offered brush and paint to passersby. And any number of freebies available to all included metal water bottles, wifi, sunblock, and what may be the coolest pairs of sunglasses in my possession.

Still, letdowns were hard to ignore, including unexplained no-shows by advertised participants Scott Hansen (of Tycho), director Darren Aronofsky and DJ/Enter.Sake founder Richie Hawtin. Storm evacuations were casually handled by random crew members and rarely announced or updated on Further Future’s social media feeds (which were generally disappointing sources of information, and its website and app were only slightly better). Trash cans were far and few between—recycling bins were nonexistent—and many attendees ignored or were too wasted to heed organizers’ pleas to leave no trace. And the sound bleed from performance areas hindered the areas designated for meditation and yoga, an ironic dilemma for anyone seeking out a little bit of zen.

Nonetheless, Further Future 002 handily improved upon its predecessor, even with inclement weather. And the one thing that looped through my zen-less mind throughout the entire event: This is happening here. Robot Heart didn’t establish its only festival in Marfa, Portland, Boulder, Joshua Tree or any other city that might score more cool points. And it didn’t opt for the Bay Area, despite the tech appeal. Despite being 50 minutes away, only Las Vegas can claim Further Future—another notch on its festival belt, and another hole in the cultural-wasteland argument.

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