(Sundancer by Dakatz)
It's June 2006, London.
A shift was in the making. I'd been staying at the Parallel Youniversity in West Hampstead for a month, while its Dean, Megatripolitan Fraser Clark, had been off on some Saharan adventure. This was hippy, or - as Fraser might have styled it - `zippy', central. The first storey flat had a couple of decades worth of rave-olutionary activity pinned to its walls, the reminders of several East Asian and subcontinental tours adorning the eaves and immeasurable layers of grime and hair worked into its carpets. Apparently most of the hair belonged to Jonty, the dog, who I was tasked to mind, along with the world's wildest indoor plant. While in the zippy lair, under the Hanging Gardens of Pronoia, I had privilege access to Fraser's extensive countercultural library. Flying off the shelves was a book called Its Happening: a portrait of the youth scene today by J L Simmons and Barry Winograd (1966), a couple of hipper members of staff in Sociology Dept. at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The book made me curious. As I became worded-up on `the hang-loose ethic' of the `swingers' and their definitive pursuit, `tripping out', I got to thinking about the role of social researchers in making accounts of countercultures, and about why a `school' of counterculture or alternative cultural ethnography had never developed paralleling say the Chicago School and its studies of gangs, or Birmingham's Centre of Contemporary and Cultural Studies famed research on English working class youth subcultures. I'm sure there are numerous reasons, but perhaps the answers were facing me in the pages of this book. Besides an account of a tripping scene, in which the authors carefully absented themselves from any question of participation, the book was largely unreadable, woeful in parts --- destined for obscurity.
The sociological investigation of proto-hippies appears to have been constrained by the positivist and distanced discourse of mid-century social science. `It' may have been `happening' in the mid 1960s, but the methodological shift required to capture this, largely wasn't. Given that `swingers', freaks, anarchists, hippies and other counter-culturalists evinced `movements' more than `subcultures', they would be smothered under the dense theories of new social movement research, dissed by Marxists as middle class kids suffering from `affluent alienation', deficient of historical or subaltern impulse, palmed off in Maslowian terms as those seeking the fulfilment of `advanced needs', and derogated by spokespersons of the `monophasic consciousness' prevailing as absconders, wasters and abusers of the rational mind and disciplined body.
So in my short semester at the Parallel Youniversity, I meditated on the scholarly detritus pre-Summer of Love, knowing that things hadn't changed much almost ten years after the ostensible Second Summer of Love (1987). But the freakological path was discernable in the lifting fog. Itself owing much to `the sixties' and its habitual commitment to become `experienced', reflexive, to `be the revolution' (both explicitly and implicitly through the wide circulation of consciousness alterants), the introspective and self-critical turn which would become integral to anthropology (by the 1990s) illustrates the kind of methodological `turn' needed. As anthropologists have trained their sights on a range of non-traditional cultural movements, formations and practices, including the contemporary `happening' apparent in a range of countercultural rituals, festivals and dance cultures, an `anthropology of experience' appears to be the route to appropriate research practice.
Such preoccupations coincided with the imminent resumption of my ethnographic research on global dance culture --- with a specific attention to trance (or psy-trance).
And this leads me to `Life'. That is, Life the festival in the Republic of Ireland. What better place to begin my summer research adventures, and to re-boot my life, after a depressing London winter. You see, in January I'd made the intercontinental cross-hemispherical shift from languid sub-tropical Brisbane and plugged directly into the Matrix: a 6th floor office in a steel, concrete and glass edifice known as the Social Science building at City University. I was a research assistant in the Sociology Department, and for three months I lived in a confined loft above an Indian dentist who, from his ground floor clinic, was drilling a serious hole in my bank account while volunteering for Iskcon in his spare time.
Perhaps I should have followed the lead of my Polish neighbours and fellow tenants, who wrought a split-cell apartment out of their shoebox, each with space for bunk beds and a TV. Or --- and I'm nearly capitulating to a mounting cynicism here - I might have followed through with my original plans and moved in above a Pakistani operated youth fashion outlet north of The Angel: `Roughcut Casuals (Incorporating Young Folk)'. But like I said, it was early June, and the mist was lifting. My good mate Damo put me up in the basement room of his communist run share house in Stoke Newington - my base of operations for the next three months. No rent, no worries.
I approached Life from the Hill of Tara on the road from Dublin towards Kells. And from the vantage of its mysterious earthen mounds regarded as the seat of the ancient High Kings, I scanned the horizon all around --- for what it wasn't clear: My Irish ancestors? A clear direction? A meaningful incorporation?
It felt good to be free of City (where I'd quit my job) and most excellent to be out of London --- a monumental rat-cage in a burgeoning police state crumbling under the weight of resources funnelled into an infernal terror machine --- a state apparatus which produces (they would argue `identifies' and/or `eliminates') terror/ists. I'd been suffocating. And so, with the benefit of the fresh air taken on these heights, I chose the SW route to Life --- a psy-trance festival organised by Neutronix at Charleville Forest Castle near Tullamore for the full moon weekend of June 9-11 2006.
Charleville is a model gothic castle situated in a primordial oak wood. Built in the early 19th century, and undergoing restoration since the 1970s the castle is complete with dungeon, towers and parapets. The main sound stages (psychedelic vibes and world beats) were positioned on opposite sides of the castle each facing the immediate grounds, with the structure a remarkable context for sharp hued and psychedelic designs. Disappointingly, both stages were shut down as a result of sound complaints on the main night of the event, a circumstance which saw a small sound system operated by Kris Beckett (aka Acid Casualty) serve the morning fare in an alcove nearby.
The festival was especially marked by a Salvia Divinorum event, superceding previous experiences with this `teacher plant' used for millennia by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico, to divine spiritual truths. Observing my identity, memories, secrets, and body unfold and expand into my furniture, become undifferentiated from my surroundings, or recombine in a random tumble of the psyche, prior encounters were the ultimate in ludic experience: uncertain, turbulent, hilarious. Yet remarkably insightful for the cartoon-like Salvia spin cycle enables brief witness to the unconscious, exposing a world of mysteries beyond the rational (Salvia inspired art). While I regularly dived behind the reality curtain amidst the turbulence, consciousness always seemd to prevail. But with one bowl of Salvia 20x at Life, the game changed, and it changed dramatically. I went under - for how long I wasn't sure. Was I screaming? Was `I' present at all? For how long had I been holding my breath?
Zipped inside my tent-womb in the shadow of Charleville, I finally remembered to breath. This surfacing was concurrent with a Category Five realisation that everything I had known, all my memories, my identity, the history of the world as I knew it, and my own physical body, was design, all code. In a duration where organic `time' had receded and at a place where the veils were lifting this was acutely understood as a significant breach in the known. I understood the insight to be the exposure and collapse of a grand deceit - and there were those (coders perhaps) who wanted me to know it, who had been willing me out of the deception for a long time, to join the party, to roll with the momentum. Given the apparent unprecedented scale of the breach, the moment was critical. Awesome. The wild screams and clamour of the festival all around appeared like the confused and conflictual response of the coders to the awakening.
I heard many female voices during this episode, coming from around the festival site, seeming to will me out of my `life' coma, `the great lie'. While the precise meaning of this deception was unclear, the sensation of immortality was overwhelming. And it was terrifying, as while an eternity was exposed ---it was one in which I was absent. My being was not destined to comfortably terminate (with `death') even though `I' was. I had a glimpse across the Great Frontier --- and I wasn't there.
Upon reflection, and indeed this required much reflection, I recognised that this was an opening, an awakening, as incomplete as it was. The awakening enabling the played avatar of The Truman Show to become aware of `the game' resonates here --- not least since Truman's revelation precipitated the realisation that all he knew and believed in was about to end while life beyond `the show' continued. And perhaps this awakening can be understood as something of the numinous experience characterised by Rudolf Otto as the Mysterium Tremendum.
The problem with such episodes is that while we recognise them as awe-inspiring events, remarkable experiences, how do we assimilate such into our daily lives, when our culture (including `psychedelic culture', as Eric Davis divines) does not provide us with such means? Perhaps it is this absence of incorporation which impels participants to revisit the awesome event, or attempt to re-live it, over and again, in order to `get the message'. The truth is that the significance of the experience, and most importantly, the thirst for further inquiry, will likely only arrive if one: a) is at a transitional moment in their life, and; b) performs requisite post-event work: debriefing, writing, relating the experience with fellow `travellers'. This is the entheogenic process. Herbs like Salvia will not orchestrate a transition. The response to its effects might.
What was previously understood to be an impenetrable frontier, an impossible crossing, was revealed as a fabrication maintained and defended against hacking. Despite the confusion discovered in the fjording, my Salvia assisted journey alerted me to a design. But this wasn't just a revelation about death, but about life --- that indeed the whole of my being was a construct (was designed). The mystery remains --- who/what are the designers? What was the nature of the afterlife glimpsed? Will my life be lived out repeatedly? Were the celebrants those who had awakened before me? And perhaps most importantly, how does my experience compare with those of others encountered in this or similar liminal environments?
While Life contextualised the reception of profound truths `now screening' in the theatre of my mind, the next leg (following the Sunrise festival in Somerset) of this edge ethnography saw me land north of Berlin amidst an evolved off-planetary carnival. Thus, late June / early July and I found myself at the tenth anniversary of that jewel in the German counterculture, the Fusion festival. Reclaiming the former Soviet air base at Larz, Fusion is a sprawling and `synergistic melting pot' complete with twelve camouflaged hangars each used as performance, music and dance zones. Self-identified as `holiday communism', the event doesn't take itself too seriously. With 30,000 people, a black gyrocopter buzzing overhead from Fusion's private airfield, Mad Maxian security vehicles with no two-way radios in sight and this is possibly the most unregulated event I've known.
Together with my friend Joe (who was calling himself Hans at this time), I'd been escorted here by Mattias, Simona and Natali, knowledgable, accommodating and delightful locals, guides to Deutchland's recurrent freak city.
It's Saturday night, the final night of the festival and it's a definitive good vibe. The Turmbuhne (main floor) and the crew, organisers and other culture cosmonauts are launching into orbit. Hamburg pioneer Sven Dohse's overseeing the show. It's a different atmosphere from other floors and previous nights. Perhaps this is how a revolution is translated to a dance floor : the revolutionary excitement of reunification, when East Germany joined the democractic West and embraced capitalism with its assumed (and real) freedoms. Tonight, the party, which had begun all those years ago, continues. If the 1990s resembled the 1960s for Germany (especially East Germany), then is Fusion its Woodstock? It's worth exploring.
But whereas Woodstock and related events were an expression of rising disenchantment with Amerikkka, emerging in the wake of the momentous events of its time and accommodating machines of pleasure in the place of technologies of war and destruction, Fusion dramatises the folly of Germany's past. Furthermore, it inherits more of the annual seasonal/festal tradition, perhaps akin to the Rainbow Gathering which emerged following the cultural struggles of the 1960s. But Rainbow is a socially and politically alternative event steeped in anarcho-social history (free festivals, alternative economy, permaculture, collectivism etc) and thus not an obvious influence on Fusion, which is very much a 1990s phenomenon --- an expression of the techno music, performance and alternative theatre scenes flourishing in Berlin. Moreover, as a vast experimental site enabling the performance of innovative and exploratory techniques and art there is a professional amateurism to Fusion which has a charm all of its own.
Following Fusion I travelled into the west past Frankfurt. In the wake of the kindness shown to me by Natali, and the volunteers (Aleks, Danny and Emanuel) of the Alice Project who hosted me (Alice is a drug awareness group initiated by Wolfgang Sterneck) I headed towards a trance party close to Frieburg near the Schwartzwald (Black Forest) where the ISS (possible translation - Institute for Subliminal Schwartzwald) were holding ground against police to pull off their event despite the enforcement of massive sound restrictions. A small party and a close-knit trance tribe doing what they love: making dance party.
Here I witnessed two practices entwined in the dance of the ages: the Dionysian impulse to make party, or as the Spiral Tribe had it, to make `a public new sense', and; the Apollonian commitment to reign it in, to identify the `public nuisance' and regulate it out of existence. Transgression thus has two sides. But the regulatory effort, the domestication of the night, and the attempt to purge transgression inspires feral sounds, enthuses the perennial noise from the margins, and even centres at the margins.
And speaking of such marginal centres, it wasn't long before I found my way to Boom. On lake Idanha-a-Nova in the mountainous Beira Baixa region of NW Portugal, Boom is the world's premiere psy-trance festival. This year (from August 3-9) the biennial event expanded its scope to include a world music stage with a 'sacred fire' a la Rainbow Gathering style.
It was an innovative effort all round. The dj line-up was intentionally low key - in that they decided to go with artists who are largely non big ticket acts. There were approx 25,000 people in attendance, from 63 different countries. It was thus perhaps the most populated yet arguably least commercial trance festival on the planet. The Boom organisation is an evolved and sophisticated unit aware of their lineage (see for instance this chronology on their website) and keen to accommodate the breadth of styles (electronic and non electronic) identiying as `trance'. The various hard compromises and inclusions made for this event did not appear to detract from quality and experience.
The main floor featured the Funktion One sound system, amplifying incredibly sharp sounds. Along with the entire assemblage of sound, visuals and performances, the primary Funktion of this `system' was to engender an othering of the self, a process constituting an oscillating blend of self-annihilation and self-expression --- right there in the primal real estate between the sound stacks, a landscape of becoming which, in the case of Boom extended well beyond the immaculate 2500m2 main floor shaded area with its irrigated water spray system, to the entire grounds of the week-long festival, a psyoasis in Portugal's arid summer interior.
Event occupants clung to lake Idanha-a-Nova overlooked some 15 kms distant by the ancient mountain village of Monsanto. The lake was almost essential given the 40+ degree temperatures every day for the 7 day event. I only recall Outback Eclipse festival in Australia in 2002 reaching similar temperatures. Quite an ordeal really, especially when you consider many participants had to queue up on the first day in their cars for up to 17 hours in that kind of heat! But most people weren't too pissed about it, or soon got over it - indeed it occasioned something of a collective endurance, a kind of extreme dance festival experience. At one of the most arduous dance pilgrimage sites on the planet - no pain, no gain, or something like that.
And there were many impressive elements to the festival, including an Eco Village promoting sustainability, using successful bio-tiolets and site wide recycling; the use of Balinese bamboo architectural designs for all the main structures (including the great Ambient floor tower structure which will remain as a permanent structure); a striking array of performances and land art installations; and many independent sound systems. But one of the more fascinating sites in this pilgrimage destination was the Liminal Village. Inaugurated in 2004 by Naasko, and the culmination of a vast global network of visionary groups, the space offers something rare in the world of psy-trance: an official forum for the exchange of ideas. A cerebral zone in a culture where the body has always taken precedence. As the name indicates, with its workshops, presentations and metacine cinema zone, the Liminal Village was an area devoted to the transmission of principal trance-culture sacra: ecology, shamanism, the 13 Moon Calendar and 2012, crop circles, psychedelic consciousness and `visionary culture'. The village was complimented by the Innervisions Gallery, the 13 Moon Temple, the Nectar Temple, the Solar Matrix Healing Zone, and a permaculture design garden.
I've an attraction to liminality, `the realm of pure possibility' as maverick cultural anthropologist Victor Turner would have it. The term is derived from limen, Latin for `threshold', and from `liminal', which Arnold van Gennep understood as the central phase in a rite of passage. It is no surprise that the concept is attractive to anthropologists of dance such as my colleague Luis Vasconcelos, a PhD student of Portuguese trance culture, who is enthused by his countercultural Argonauts of Western Europe. The logic of the liminal phase, space or condition is that its occupants are temporarily between everyday rules and routines, a removed and licentious situation which potentiates subversive behaviour and new ways of living, a very attractive heuristic to those in pursuit of alternative futures, and thus a logic recognised by enablers like Naasko.
At Boom, symbolic and stylistic recombinations flourish, core values are communicated and strangers commune in spontaneous conclaves. In a fashion, `magic happens'. This could be said to be true of the entire demarcated space of the festival, but here was a space for which its designers intended magic to happen.
Let me explain. This is a power spot. A space where neophytes and experienced habitues can meet fellow travellers, intergalactic missionaries, and seekers of alternate realities - of other (improved, enlightened) selves. In this primal real estate destinies collide, quirks of fate unravel, novelty events transpire. It might be said that the `magic' element involves synchronicities, strange coincidences and other extraordinary events which are potentiated by an event design compelling like minded global participants to congress. If we can say that `coincidences' appear to be enabled by the intelligent design of the space (into which many elements contribute), a purpose built storehouse of potential, a strange attractor, then we could say that `happenings' (derided in line with the general derogation of hippies/the sixties by mainstream corporate culture as `weak', `feminine' or even `sold out', or by other subcultures as non `hardcore') are `magical'.
Of course, `magic', denotes circumstances and practices not explicable via positivism, nor replicated via the scientific method and thus not accorded `truth' status. But time and again, one experiences phenomena inexplicable via rational lenses but from which significant personal `truths' derive. Perhaps the rationalist approach to this is to suggest that with the evolved preparations of events (parties) the greater likelihood for extraordinary experience, visions, encounters etc, which might explain why the trance party is such a popular global experience to which participants repeatedly return --- seeking enlightenment, awareness, meaning, belonging, love, truth.
My thinking about this was stimulated by an experience which effectively knocked me sideways. It happened about mid Boom, in the heat of the day, and it happened in the Liminal Village. Days before I'd had my galactic signature read by the exotic, vivacious and articulate Kwali. I had been reminded that I was a yellow planetary seed. As with 6 years before, when I first had my `galactic signature' read, I guess I didn't give it a great deal of credence --- I was more interested in the flourishing of the Mayan calender/13 Moon movement, as a movement which develops independently from my own biography --- as a rational observer of cultural movements.
So, days later, after my friend Paris introduced me to Chiara, an Italian whose conducting independent research on trance culture, something extraordinary happened. Chiara conveyed her interest in the 2012 movement and her Mayan Calendar galactic signature. It's not something I've had revealed often, especially so enthusiastically, but of the 260 combinations, hers was identical to mine! Like traffic colliding at a cosmic intersection.... Boom! ... there you are careering through the windscreen into a newly coloured reality. Down at the village crossways, betwixt and between, a special belongingness was discovered, and it made sense. Did someone say It's happening?
So my fellow `expander', Chiara Baldini, spoke of trancers of ages past, of the Maenads and the Rites of Eleusis with which she holds psy-trance parties to be continuous. From all that I've experienced of the genre, of the pilgrimage, of the ordeal, of the othering of the self, the revelatory experience, there is much to this interpretation.
For one thing, while many European sonic pilots cruising the theta waves take recourse to `tribal' cultures (e.g Aboriginal, Mayan, Native American etc) or Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) to frame or articulate their flight paths, this perspective demonstrates that their othering is perhaps rooted in a cultural heritage closer to home.
Boom was a fitting end to a long hot European summer of experiential ethnography. From Ireland to Portugal, I had transcended impossible frontiers and experienced encounters extraordinary. And as I had privileged meetings with a multitude of inspirational artists, producers, enablers and participants of psy-trance culture in a range of countries, friendships formed and my `field' expanded in ways I hadn't foreseen.
Many thanks to Magnetrixx, Sergio, Spacedracula, Birthmarkleg for images used here.
read Graham St John's blog @ <a href="http://www.edgecentral.blogspot.com">edgecentral.blogspot.com</a>