What if Ulster County had an annual event that was like a scaled-down version of Burning Man – a cultural festival with a countercultural feel, where you can camp overnight, in which there’s more emphasis on audience participation than on passive consumption of the performing arts? Woodstock’s Maverick Festivals of the early decades of the 20th century, and more recently that town’s Secret City gatherings, can be seen as a partial template for the upcoming inaugural Friends Fest at Phillies Bridge Farm in New Paltz. But what organizers Ariana Basco and Melissa Pelino have in mind is something a little different. Sure, there’ll be continuous live music both days; there will also be a whole lot of immersive, interactive art. “Come with the idea of being part of the event, and not just spectators,” urges Basco.
Doing business as Let’s Be Friends, an organization on its way to 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit status, Pelino and Basco are event facilitators on a mission: to bring people together from all walks of life to celebrate community and the Earth. “Many of us felt isolated and alone over the course of the last couple of years. Divisive politics coupled with the pandemic sent many of us into isolation. Friends Fest is designed to bring us back together,” Pelino explains.
“We want this to be a place where people can rest and digest, instead of being in fight-or-flight mode. After the past year, we have so much to digest, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Basco elaborates. “We’re all about creating spaces where people can feel safe, feel at home, where they’re able to be vulnerable and communicate with other humans.”
What they hope will the first annual Friends Fest will run from 1 p.m. on Saturday to 8 p.m. on Sunday, September 25 and 26, with both single-day and full weekend tickets, with or without camping, available. Prices range from $15 to $75 (parking is extra, and very limited); tickets can be purchased at www.simpletix.com/e/friends-fest-tickets-76477. Attendance for this “hometown throwdown” will be capped at around 200, and Basco says, “We’re thinking we’re going to sell out,” so don’t wait until it’s too late to opt in.
The music lineup for Saturday includes Rootbrew, Moonunitt, Royal Khaoz, the Big Takeover and Mr. Atwood, with performance art by the New Paltz-based drag troupe Haus of Peculiar commencing after dark. For late-night entertainment, you can participate in Quiet Hours Silent Disco, which is just what it sounds like: Dancers each borrow an audio headset and move to what they’re hearing, without disturbing the neighbors. “Coming upon it at a music festival for the first time, I thought, ‘These people have lost their minds,’” Basco recalls with a laugh. Sunday’s musical offerings commence with an 11 a.m. yoga class with Mara from NP Rock Yoga, followed by DJ Nathan, Kyle Miller, Rivergrass Revival, Snowbear and Cold Flavor Repair.
The organizers have worked hard at ensuring a diverse selection of music, but even harder at making this weekend engaging in novel ways. Much of the performance will incorporate what are known as Flow Arts: the integration of body movement with the artistic manipulation of props. Juggling, fire-spinning, hula-hooping, ribbon-dancing, poi-spinning, even drum circles are examples of these rhythmic activities that are meant to induce a trancelike “flow” mind-state in the adept (and are also fun to watch). A group called Love Nest will be on hand this weekend, creating “hammocks” for a sort of rebirthing ritual from the aerial silks used by trapeze artists. “You can crawl inside, and it’s like a little cocoon. People will say nice things to you. Then you emerge,” Basco explains.
Another mind- and heart-expanding experience available at Friends Fest will be True Mirrors, developed by John Walter to “show you yourself the way other people see you,” rather than in reverse left-to-right as in a normal mirror. “You see the light in your eyes; you see the things that other people notice about you,” Basco says. “You come alive.”
Food, beverage and artisan vendors will be on hand. The organizers encourage attendees to come in costume and bring musical instruments, games, props and things to do, such as soap bubbles (no glitter bombs, however – visit www.letsbefriendsny.com/information for the list of what not to bring). There will be crafts workshops, both for kids and grownups; and if you bring along a seed, you can ask sculptor/jewelrymaker Sergey Jivetin to create a picture on it using his high-powered microscope and extremely fine engraving tools. How cool is that?
Honoring seeds is a natural activity for a hotbed of community-supported agriculture such as Phillies Bridge Farm, and places that help reconnect people with where their food comes from are high on the wish list of not-for-profit organizations that Basco and Pelino want to “uplift” via future events like this one. They’re looking to open-air venues such as this CSA, with its stunning view of the Shawangunk Ridge, to host cultural gatherings that will provide “access to the land and the outdoors,” according to Basco – especially for people of color living in urban environments. “In Kingston, we’re surrounded by farms, but it’s still considered a ‘food desert,’” she notes.
The host organizations will share in the money raised by future cultural gatherings in the same spirit as Friends Fest. “We would like to do annual events for other not-for-profits and help them build momentum.” Meanwhile, they’re already thinking about expanding Friends Fest to three days next year. No effigy-burnings are on the drawing board; still, this may be a social experiment whose time in the Hudson Valley has come.
Phillies Bridge Farm is located at 45 Phillies Bridge Road in New Paltz. To learn more, visit www.friendsfestny.com.