Graham St John
Graham St John is a cultural anthropologist with an interdisciplinary research interest in dance cultures, speed tribes, freak rituals, alternative subcultures and the anthropology of religion and performance. Graham was recently a Resident Fellow at the School for Advanced Research on the Human Experience, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a Research Associate at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.
In 2009, Graham will publish his book Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures with Equinox.
He is currently working on the international project (and book, forthcoming with Blackwell) Global Trance Culture: Technology, Religion and Psytrance, a critical enthography exploring the intersections of new spirituality and technology in one of the worlds most sophisticated and culturally diverse dance music subcultures: psytrance. Graham is also compiling a collection of screeds hatched over the past decade in festal adventures at home and abroad, together with new material thrown in for good measure: Off My Facebook: Postcards From the Event Horizon.
Past writing ventures have included the edited collection Rave Culture and Religion (Routledge, 2004) and FreeNRG: Notes From the Edge of the Dance Floor (Common Ground, 2001) the ebook for which can be downloaded right here on Undergrowth.
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of voices ….
Like “we journey from ignorance to knowledge. Growth reflects the advancement of the species. The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.”
I heard it on Cosmosis' “Self-Discovery” on Fumbling For The Funky Frequency (2009).
It was Carl Sagan, lifted from the TV Series Cosmos.
Other voices I’ve been getting are right out of the history of science fiction cinema and, further out... from astronauts participating in NASA's Apollo Space Programme.
They are the (male) voices that together speak the tongue of cosmic trance – which is the heart of the Goa trance phenomenon - and remnant within psytrance. They are the voices of a psychedelic astrofuturism, in which Space Age mediations have been intercepted by sonic and visionary artists repurposing popular culture in the pursuit of progressive evolutionism.
But don't let me get too far ahead of myself...
In Space Age popular music forms, from cosmic rock to cosmic jazz, funk and ambient, outer-space is the place that exiles of varying backgrounds have fictitiously habituated in order to resolve crises in the human condition, to achieve self-transcendence, space becoming a theatre of possibility, a stage for the performance of alien-nation, a theme that I’ve explored in a chapter for Tobias van Veen’s forthcoming collection Afrofuturism: Interstellar Transmissions from Remix Culture (Wayne State University Press, 2010).
But that's part of the broader story. Here I want to make a few statements about how extra-terrestrial space became a source of gnostic transcendence within Goa trance. Reproduced in samples from cinematic science fiction and from NASA dialogue, in psychedelic trance, spaceflight is a narrative device, perhaps what Kodwo Eshun would call “conceptechnics”, for inner travail, the avatar’s quest, the hero’s journey.
The “space” for this journey is external and internal, extraterrestrial and psychosomatic. A cosmic threshold. Within the psychedelic space programme the realms of the physical and the imaginal interface such that space becomes the terrain across which one physically, or within which one psychically, travels. And the farther from routine consciousness (and one’s home) one ranges, the more other one might become from one’s self. While travel in exotic locales might potentiate self-transcendence, there is no farther to sojourn from one’s ontological routine than the space beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. As it transpires, the exosphere was first subject to human exploration and conquest in the period that LSD (and other techniques of self-expansion, astral traveling and other out-of-body experiences like meditation, yoga, and isolation tanks) achieved popularity. From the early psychedelic period, the LSD “trip” gave users the impression of floating in space, a disembodied sensibility imagined with the assistance of astronauts and cosmonauts operating in weightless conditions care of the earliest NASA and Soviet missions into orbit transmitted into homes via television. If, as Victor Turner had argued, marginal spatial conditions are essentially liminal conditions, with the advent of the Space Age humans were accessing the most physically marginal (and thus liminal) space to date.
Outer-space, then, if we were to continue in Turner’s idiom, would be a “realm of pure possibility”. While the desire for expatriation from the ravages of modernity saw freaks make exodus to Goa, India, in the 1960s and 1970s, and thereby extend the then well-exhausted western frontier into the East, they did so at a time when manned missions beyond the Kármán line offered a new frontier of research and experimentalism, later revisited, remixed and repurposed by the scriptwriters of Goa trance.
This explains why, in Goa trance, journeys in space are deeply imbued with Eastern mysticism, Hindu iconography, yogic practice, and the possibility of merging with the divine. The galactic Orientation was apparent, for instance, in the work of Jörg Kessler, label manager at Shiva Space Technology, whose compilation The Digital Dance of Shiva (1999) features on its cover art a cyborg-alien Shiva dancing across what appears to be a star gate, or The Overlords, whose cover design for All the Naked People (1994) featured three sadhus and an astronaut.
While overt Hindu symbolism (i.e. the Om symbol) might have lost popularity by the late-1990s as the scene receded from Goa, producers and psychonauts were remaining true to their roots. Thus the Oming sequences on prodigious Israeli outfit Astral Projection’s space-operatic “Cosmic Ascension” (on Dancing Galaxy, 1997) left little doubt that the launch sequence for their full-powered mission was initiated on the subcontinent. When Gilbert Thévenet, producing as Asia 2001, projected a violet skinned hairless and earless alien with large almond eyes and vestigial lower face gracefully seated in lotus position with its bulbous head at the centre of a mandala on the cover of Psykadelia (1997):
Or when the cover of Astrological’s Space Odyssey (1998) featured a Buddha statue with a fleet of flying discs appearing in a red sky enlivened by an electrical storm, we had arrived at the juncture of two critical paths of self-discovery: the cosmic and yogic odysseys.
Within cosmic trance, the desire for expatriation is transmuted into the fixation with launch into the zero-gravity of space, the “final frontier” (a phrase also applied to the mind). We can locate the launch sequence on the "Live at Trancentral" version of what is sometimes claimed to be the first Goa trance release, the KLF’s “What Time Is Love?” (1990): “Okay here, we’re gonna give you a countdown... 4, 3, 2, 1, Fire!” On their seminal “Zero”, Astral Projection (The Astral Files, 1996) marked that moment of release where the crew of Apollo 8—whose 21st December 1968 mission was the first manned space voyage to escape the Earth’s gravitational field—have completed their check-lists, initiated launch sequence and, under the power of a Saturn V rocket, cleared the tower. At maximum thrust “Houston” reads the voyagers “loud and clear”. In the 1995 release, “Hypersphere” (Hypnorhythm) French outfit Transwave were anticipating launch phase with the repeated announcement from the film Dune: “31 seconds and we’re going for auto-sequence start”. Here countdown sequences narrativize quantized rhythms intended, with the assistance of carefully measured micrograms of psychoactive compound, to effect consciousness alteration: lift off. The result was immeasurable: “Boy, it’s just beautiful up here looking out the window – it’s just really fantastic” (Apollo 16 Commander John W. Young, from KLF's “What Time is Love? (Live at Trancentral)”.
“Imagine yourself in infinite space floating.” This call to disembodiment made by Space Tribe on “All You Need Is Spirit And Nothing” (The Ultraviolet Catastrophe, 1997), evokes the euphoric sensation produced from meditation, isolation tanks and psychedelics. The flotation bath had been entered several years earlier: “I felt like I was flying …. I was flying, very slowly flying, high in the sky.” The line is repeated onboard The Infinity Project’s cosmic “Uforica” (on Stimuli / Uforica, 1994). Emerging in 1989, the formative Goa act (with Ron Rothfield, aka Raja Ram, and Graham Woods) felt compelled to orchestrate a sense of meditative weightlessness through space tropes. Their earlier acid techno-trance journey “Zero Gravity” (Tribadelic Meltdown EP, 1992) features an astronaut reporting on the sensation of “perfect zero gravity”, stating “you can feel it shake, there’s a real strong vibration”.
The Infinity Project's most common source, however, was Star Trek, probably the single most sampled media-source in psytrance. “Time and Space” from the white label Time and Space EP (1993) reproduced Captain Kirk repeating “I was floating in time and space”. Lifting a line from Star Trek X: Nemesis, “Well, it seems as though we are truly sailing into the unknown”, among psytrance’s most enduring acts, Electric Universe (“Acidance”, Cosmic Experience, 2004), steers the ship into the infinite and beyond.
The Infinity Project’s Time and Space EP also possessed the untitled track (“B2”) featuring space-avatar Dave Bowman’s eureka moment from Arthur C. Clarke’s epic novel and unedited versions of Stanley Kubrick’s concurrent 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey: “My god, it’s full of stars!” Featuring one of the most powerfully gnostic narratives in cinema, 2001 is among the most sampled films in psytrance.
The space odyssey preoccupied many of the early Goa producers. Hallucinogen's (aka Simon Posford) notable “Alpha Centauri” (on his first twelve-inch alongside the momentous “LSD”, 1994) was a voyage to that constellation. Laughing Buddha (Jeremy Van Kemen and Bill Halsey) embarked on an ethereal quest for “Andromeda” (on their first 12-inch Infinite Depths, 1995). Prana were thrust into “Primal Orbit” (Primal Orbit EP, 1996). And Juno Reactor, the ongoing collaborative project formed in 1993 by Ben Watkins, references the third and final part of 2001: “Jupiter: Beyond the Infinite” on the 1995 album Beyond the Infinite.
Within all of recorded human history, space has been a source of awe, its depths occulting mysteries of origin and destination, genesis and apocalypse, with the mid-20th Century penetration of space providing an allegory for percipience, the journey into the mind. Ever since Timothy Leary gave weight to the off-planetary odyssey as the path towards the “universe of pure energy” - his space conquest-dependent consciousness evolution constituting a strange mutation of astrofuturist salvationism promoted by visionaries like Clarke and Robert R. Heinlein - a cosmic consciousness has endured among the space-cadets and astro-boys drawn to Goa trance. For these psychedelic warriors, NASA’s Apollo lunar program held appeal in storying the journey. But while NASA was developing science and harnessing technology with the purpose of launching humankind beyond the exosphere, visionary artists were repurposing audio technologies to enable exploration of inner space.
A Space Odyssey
Found on the first Goa-Head compilation (1996), the whisper repeated on Power Source’s classic “Granada”, “take me to the moon”, is not an uncommon refrain. The first full album release from Juno Reactor, Transmissions (1993), was a momentous realisation of this desire. With the Apollo lunar program stamped all over the album, you can imagine early VJs synchronising images of moonwalking astronauts to “Luna-tic”, a track receiving eerie transmissions from Apollo 17 astronauts struggling an improvised duet while bouncing across the lunar surface on the final Apollo mission in 1972. The track is cut with dialogue between Earth based NASA support crew member, Anthony England, and Apollo 16 Commander John W. Young, on the lunar surface:
England: Hello Orion, this is Houston.
Young: Hi there. We lost you for a while.
England: Yeah, we sure did.
It’s a curious choice of exchange, but one which I feel implies that there can be no discovery of one’s self, without its eclipse. The dissolution of rational consciousness and of base-ego associated with trance is analogised in the space mission, where “mission control” (“Houston”) signifies rationality, the consciousness from which explorers seek distance and with which they may experience patchy communications while in “orbit”. Such flights from, and obscure transmissions with, consciousness are enhanced by effects amplifying the risks involved for the traveler. Some fifteen years later, this became superabundant on Nanospheric (2008), the work of independent German producer Lars Goossens (aka Cybernetika).
On the opening “Plasmoid”, below a deep pounding space atmospherics a garbled dialogue is reproduced from the infamous 1970 Apollo 13 mission, which was crippled by an explosion damaging the command module Odyssey, resulting in a loss of oxygen and electrical power.
Command Module pilot John L. “Jack” Swigert: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Houston: “This is Houston. Say again please.”
Commander James A. Lovell: “Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt.”
Houston: “Roger. Main B undervolt.”
Lunar Module pilot Fred W. Haise: “That jolt must have rocked the sensor on - see now - oxygen quantity 2. It was oscillating down around 20 to 60 percent. Now it’s full-scale high.”
Lovell: “Okay. And we’re looking at our service module RCS helium 1. We have, B is barber poled and D is barber poled, helium 2”
At this point “Plasmoid” orchestrates unmistakable awe. Adrenaline rushes as pressure is lost, a sense of hurtling out into the vacuum arising in simultaneity with the realisation of the potential for permanent disconnection from base. But competency holds up, amid barber-poled and inscrutably technical dialogue.
Hasie: “Okay, Houston, are you still reading Apollo 13?”
Houston: “That’s affirmative, we’re reading you. We’re trying to come up with some good ideas here for you.”
Houston: “13, Houston. We’d like you to verify a couple of readings for us. We’d like the nitrogen pressure on fuel cell 1, we need the oxygen pressure on fuel cell 2.”
Haise: “Okay. Nitrogen on 1 and oxygen on 2—is that correct?”
Houston: “Negative. Oxygen on 3.”
Haise: “Okay. (pause) Okay. Systems test 1-A says zip, and 2 baker which is 3 oxygen says point 6.”
Houston: “2 baker says point 6 and say again the other one.”
Haise: “Fuel cell 1 nitrogen reads zero.”
Houston: “Roger, zero.”
Cybernetika’s curtain raiser sets a course towards peril. Oxygen levels are low, breathing is abnormal, and in the remainder of the album one plunges into a chorus of spectral noise. In an exhilarating tale of danger and ingenuity followed closely by TV audiences world-wide, guided by ground flight operators the crew on board the Odyssey would use their lunar module as a “lifeboat” before re-entering the command module to swing back to Earth via the moon’s gravity. On the last track, the psybreaks inflected “Finale”, the Apollo 13 performance dialogue resumes:
Johnson Space Center: “Coming up now on three minutes until time of drogue deployment. Standing-by for any reports of acquisition. (pause) We got a report that ARIA 4 aircraft has acquisition of signal.”
Houston: “Odyssey, Houston. Standing by. Over.”Captain Swigert: “Okay, Joe.”Houston: “Okay. We read you, Jack.”
Houston: “Odyssey, Houston. We show you on the mains. It really looks great!”
Johnson: [Applause] “Extremely loud applause here in Mission Control.”
It’s a rejoiceful return to Earth, to consciousness—splashed down, resurfaced, forever changed. The depths of space teem with mystery and possibility, the human exploration of its vastness analogous to the drift into the unconscious associated with dreaming, a universal source of visions brought back to benefit the world of traveler-visionaries. But “the catch” cannot be obtained without having first risking one’s life, confronting life-threatening uncertainties, the danger implicit to the Odyssean narrative and the perils risked by Argonauts transferred to the space odyssey. Francis Goodwin’s 1638 utopian lunar story Man in the Moone, or a Discourse of a Voyage Thither offered the tale of an astronaut named Domingo Gonsales who negotiated devils and wicked spirits en route to the Moon. In the Space Age, the “devils” or “ghosts” were in the machine, the risks technical. That the perilous circumstance of the Apollo 13 mission finds appeal among EDM practitioners is possibly because they too know the risks of technical hitches, the possibility of a ruptured journey ever present in machine malfunction, crashed hard-drives, mixing errors—the competency with sophisticated hardware manipulated towards the functional outcome lending favorable comparison with the aeronautical engineer in command of the mission.
It’s easy to see why the adventures of spaceflight, instilled with boys-own tales of adversity and invention, would become so popular among a male-dominated DJ culture. The Apollo 13 incident and recovery evokes the heroic adventure stories built into spaceflight narratives popularised, for instance, in Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947). Moreover, the narrative sequentialises Joseph Campbell’s monumythical “hero’s journey”, which was built largely from masculine narratives. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), Campbell articulated the panhuman mythical narrative: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30). There are several stages to this common mythic structure where the hero is called upon a quest, encounters a strange world, faces trials and overcomes challenges, often with assistance, and is awarded a gift as a result of experience gained. The “boon” may be used upon return from the journey to improve conditions in the world. The basic narrative involves—in the fashion earlier recognised by Van Gennep in Rites de Passage—phases of departure (or separation), initiation, and return, a narrative later put into the service of the psychedelic heroics entheonaut Terence McKenna deemed necessary to the survival of our species. Here, the challenge of goal-oriented spaceflight (i.e. NASA’s lunar missions) offers raw material for the monumyth. Twenty years following the publication of Campbell’s book, a Space Age version of the myth was performed on an international stage. And in a further 20-25 years, it was resurrected by Goa trance artists.
The entire mythical structure had been envisioned in the early 1960s when, in a Special Message to the US Congress, on May 25th 1961, President John F. Kennedy stated: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. The message was sampled by Digital Sun on “Men on the Moon” (The Spiral Of Power, 1997), amplifying the inimitable desire of artists to adopt the goals and achievements of NASA’s lunar programme to narrativize the hero’s journey.
In the wake of the self-spirituality movement post-1960s, the digital electronic revolution post-1980s, space conquest is typically repurposed to the goal of visionary transportation. In psytrance, we find the visionary zeitgeist translated into sites of reception where dance-habitués are enabled to interpret their non-ordinary states via narrative devices conflating the vacuum of space with the unconscious. Inside the cosmic vibe of the over-night trance floor, participants are cast upon a sea of audio disturbances and entropic noise, confront anomalous chemical reactions and diabolical event horizons. If travel through such space, the “voyage thither”, presents an odyssean challenge, its overcoming potentiates a successful transit, where the re-aggregation (to the morning, the Earth) potentiates interstellar rebirth, celestial satori, the re-evaluation of the self. Here, the successful negotiation of adversity is the mark of achievement, as consciousness breaks through the radio silence. Thus while “Hyperion” by Silicon Sound (Synthetic Chronicles, 2008) possesses many unanswered radio requests from Houston, the ultimate return is reassuring: “Buzz, this is Houston. Radio check. All systems are go, over” (from Phaxe’s “Secret Effects”, French Plaisir, 2008). For re-evaluations to take effect, what goes up must come down. And so divinity commands, as it does on Astral Projection’s “One”, that “you will return safely to Earth”. [But with what gnostic manna?]
The 1969 Apollo 11 mission is the most visited resource in this story telling. As the lunar module descends towards the Moon, pilot Buzz Aldrin announces via AFGIN’s cosmic Goan “Apollo 11 (The Eagle Has Landed)” on Art From The Heart (2009): “we are now in the approach phase, everything looking good, altitude 4200 feet”. Before it dumps its arpeggiated payload, in the decent to the lunar surface “Destination Milky Way” by Opium of the Masses (The Lost Planet, 2007) also offers the guiding voice of Aldrin: “13 forward … Coming down nicely. 200 feet, four and a half down… five and a half down… 60 seconds….” Crossfading back to AFGIN’s "Apollo 11" now, only a matter of feet from the surface and evoking feet shuffling on an outdoor dance floor.: “three feet down, 2 ½, kicking up some dust, 3 feet two 2 1/2 down, faint shadow, four forward, drifting to the right a little. OK”. The interfacing of deep space and deep mind appears to motivate Tikal’s “Black Space” (Cosmic Dragon, 2008), the title track deploying some of most significant dialogue in the history of the Apollo programme. Neil Armstrong from the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility: “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” A likely smirk in recognition, for example, of the implications of post-DMT inhalations, the response of Houston Flight Centre crew to the Apollo 11 astronauts (and the world): “Roger Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”
A host of artists have stepped into this momentous exhalation in space-time. Part of a masterful achievement in sonic psy-fi, Space Monkey’s “Game Over” (Psychotic Episode, 2004) approaches the cosmic threshold with a rousing horn section and a towering bass line. On the threshold of the doorway to the Moon:
Armstrong: “Everything is go here. We’re just waiting for the cabin pressure to bleed to a low enough pressure to open the hatch. It’s about .1 on our gauge now”
Houston: “We’re seeing relatively static pressure in your cabin. Do you think you can open the hatch at this pressure?
Armstrong: “We’re going to try it. The hatch is coming open.”
Over on the chill floor, ambient artist Alpha Wave Movement picks up the soundtrack on “No Mans Land” (A Distant Signal, 2002). “I’m gonna step off the LM [lunar module] now,” Armstrong announces ahead of Floyd-like synth melodies. And from “Mapping The Heavens” on that album, Armstrong recites his immortal line: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. Having crossed into the Sea of Tranquility an astral euphoria has been achieved from which a sense of universalism is obtained, perhaps best conveyed through the announcements of President Nixon in radio conversation with Armstrong and Aldrin at their off-world base, Tranquility. It is a popular speech, sampled by Astra Projection on their euphoric testament to the moment of singularity, “One” (Psy-Trance Euphoria 2, 2009).
With omission of any reference to national identity, and with Nixon’s identity hidden to those unfamiliar (I assume the great majority of listeners), it comes over as the outcome of a kind of cosmic communitas, and an affirmation of self mainlined in communion with the Godhead: “This has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join … For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one; one in their pride at what you have done”. The Moon landing was the context for an unparalleled televisualised peak experience, one in which differences of state were momentarily set aside, and where the project of the self became, to paraphrase Turner, coterminous with that of the human species. The narrative would be popular in trance. For instance, singing an ode to the Goa foundations on their epic “Summer 89” Israelis California Sunshine use “all of the people of this Earth are truly one”, from the hypnotic album Trance (1997) which also includes “The New King” where a boy repeats: “we came in peace for all mankind”.
This peon to communion in space had been early forecast by science fiction editor and founder of the American Interplanetary Society, David Lasser, in his book The Conquest of Space (1931) where rocket-propelled spaceflight would facilitate the transcendence of national jealousies, racial differences and class conflict, with rocket science, as De Witt Douglas Kilgore demonstrates in his fascinating study Astrofuturism: Science, Race and Visions of Utopia in Space (2003) functioning as a grand unifying project orchestrating the evolutionary leap into global peace. Human presence on the Moon had long been imagined as the marker of transition from inter-ethnic strife, a theme that can be read in the voice of Neil Armstrong who speaks from the Moon on Tikal’s “Overdrive” (Carnival, 2005): “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States, but men of peace of all nations and with interest and a curiosity and with a vision for the future.” The lunar revelation was brought home by Goa trance collaboration Moog (Jean-Loup Kehrig, Nicolas Ledent and Thierry Gotti), who, in 1994, produced the track-length odyssey “Euromotors” in which Aldrin reports to Houston that the lunar-landing crown-chakra communion “inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth.”
Coming Down, to Earth
It could be argued that this lunar performance have been deployed by the transnationalists of psychedelic trance to convey their investment in a planetary vibe, one readily articulated, for instance, at Portugal's Boom Festival or Total Solar Eclipse Festivals. But probably the most significant space-borne revelation sampled within psychedelic trance can be detected on Astral Projection’s second CD release, where the only words on the track “Black and White” are retrospective commentary from Apollo 8 mission Commander Frank Borman: “And the view of the Earth, it was the only place in the universe that had any color. Everything else was black and white” (Trust in Trance, 1996).
The comments speak to what has been identified as the greatest revelation of the Apollo missions—deriving not from rocks gathered on the Moon, but from Earth, the awesome spectacle of which over the lunar horizon startled Borman and his crew, the first humans to witness the Earth from the Moon’s orbit (literally from the “dark side” of the Moon). Indeed the “Earthrise” photograph taken by crewman William Anders would become the Rosetta Stone of the environmental movement. The image of our blue turning globe, small and vulnerable in the vastness of space was, according British space historian Robert Poole, “an epiphany in space… a rebuke to the vanity of humankind”.
In an essay he wrote in the early 1970s, “The Moon Walk – the Outward Journey”, declaring the lunar mission and its broadcasting as a moment which should unburden humanity from enthrallment to external divinity, Campbell himself stated: “Now there is a telling image: this earth, the one oasis in all space, an extraordinary kind of sacred grove…. the entire globe now a sanctuary, a set-apart Blessed Place. Moreover, we have all now seen for our-selves how very small is our heaven-born earth, and how perilous our position on the surface of its whirling, luminously beautiful orb”. As “an outward journey …. into our selves”, the trip to the Moon, he declared, “has transformed, deepened, and extended human consciousness to a degree and in a manner that amounts to the opening of a new spiritual era".
Offering what has been referred to as the “Overview Effect”, Earthrise and the later Whole Earth image taken on the Apollo 17 mission (1972), would confirm the idea of “Spaceship Earth” (a phrase coined by Buckminster Fuller), provide the stimulus for the “Gaia hypothesis” and inspire the popular expression of ecological and humanitarian concerns, illustrating for the first time that the Earth is an autonomous, self-regulating biosphere.
“Spaceship Earth” was memorialised by numerous artists from the Goa period. Sheyba’s “Into the Fourth Dimension”, first released on the EP by that name (1995), features an enthused astronaut: “When I was in space, the most profound experience was to see this little planet from that distance”. The following year, the space-struck Asia 2001 laid down the gnosis on “Râ” (Râ, 1996): “Gaia became visible through the new knowledge about the Earth gained from space. Gaia is the Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive”. By using these samples, Goa producers were enabling dance floor habitués to approximate the revelatory satori, to make the “leap of the human spirit”, as Campbell had it, already made by NASA's space voyagers.
The theme persists. Over ten years later, Filteria attempted to reproduce that moment of speechless ascension on the space operatic “Earthrise” (on Daze Of Our Lives, 2009).
Apparently, the Overview Effect also impacted Frenchman Brice Fruyt (aka Merr0w) whose Goa-inspired concept album Born Underwater (2009) was produced to evoke the Overview Effect, his “Blue Planet” promoted as “a heartbreaking ambient ode to the beauty and fragility of our planet and its seas”. And, having initiated a launch into zero gravity, Aphid Moon’s ascending opus “Go For Orbit” drops the payload delivered by the last man to walk the moon, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan:
You really know where you at this point in time and space, and in reality and in existence, when you look out the window and you’re looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens, the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and know it as home, its humanity, its people, family, love and live. You can see from pole to pole, and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up. And its moving in a blankness that is almost beyond conception (from Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary For All Mankind).
It might not be "Thus Sprake Zarathustra", but Ovnimoon’s “Sacred Earth” (Geometric Poetry, 2009) might be one of many soundtracks to the frisson by which one is gripped in that first moment when Earth (the Mother) is sighted in naked space. Beyond conception.
The awesome spectacle of Earthrise is often recaptured in poster art and event décor. For instance, as advertised in the November 2000 edition of Mushroom Magazine, an event called Euphoria in Hamburg on 11-11-2000, and featuring Star Sounds Orchestra and Haldolium, was promoted using the Earthrise image. Such imagery would become pervasive, indeed integrated in artistic conception and stage design as in the concerted efforts by the Orb in the early 1990s during their U.F.Orb tour. But the concerted space flight would be taken much further by the awe-struck violin-electronic virtuoso Kenji Williams in his ongoing multi-media performance Bella Gaia: An Experience. For participants, the performance is designed to reproduce the effect of a flight into space, delivering an experience that is said to “evolve our perspective of, and connection to, our home planet.” Inspired by astronauts for whom the Overview Earth had been a life-changing experience, and performed in planetariums, Bella Gaia involves NASA/MODIS satellite imagery, orbiting visualisations of Earth from space, along with earthbound imagery celebrating the diverse cultural heritage of Earth’s human inhabitants. In promotions for the performance, it is stated that the sight of Earth from space is characterised by:
a dramatic cognitive shift in which the significance of man-made boundaries is eclipsed by a deep awareness that life on Earth operates as a borderless, interconnected whole. The striking clarity of this realization often triggers a keen sense of stewardship that seeks community beyond the limits of nationality and religion. The strength of this conservation instinct tends to grow even after the return to Earth, driving those who share this experience to reach out, and become highly active participants in the preservation of our common heritage. And, furthermore, Williams states, the performance is designed to stimulate a renewed purpose to "maintain, preserve, and protect the Earth, as if the Earth itself is a world heritage site" (see performance trailer).
The planetarium might be remote from the dance floor, and it might seem like a long way from the new spiritualist commitment to an evolving self inflected within cosmic trance where an assemblage of digital, cyber and chemical tools have been the prosthetics for the remastering of subjectivity. But the ultimate result of the self-transcendence is the emergence of a global perspective, and the descendants of cosmic trance and other musics are deploying their multi-media tool kits in the service of the planet.
Within the context of spaceflight and intergalactic travel, transcendence becomes especially interesting when contextualising the encounter with aliens, or indeed our alien self. Stay tuned for that story.
This piece has been produced as part of a larger project on the intersections of technology and religion in psytrance, to be published in my forthcoming book Global Tribe: Religion, Technology and Psytrance Culture. Parts of this will also be published in Hyper-Real Religions edited by Adam Possamai.
Many thanks to Kathleen Williamson for allowing me to gaze aloft from the observation deck near Nimbin, Australia. For more work by Graham St. John go to: http://edgecentral.blogspot.com
by Graham St John.
A cultural history of global electronic dance music countercultures, Technomad explores the pleasurable and activist trajectories of post-rave culture.
“Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures is the most wide-ranging and detailed of all the books on rave. More than the study of a musical movement or genre, Technomad offers an alternate history of cultural politics since the 1960s, from hippies and Acid Tests through the sound systems and ‘vibe-tribes’ of the 1990s and beyond. Like Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Technomad makes unexpected but entirely convincing connections between people, movements and events. Like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, St John’s book introduces us to unknown heroes, committed geniuses and genuine revolutionaries. Beautifully written, with a genuinely international perspective on electronic dance music culture, Technomad is one of the best books on music I’ve read in some time.”
Professor Will Straw, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University
The book documents an emerging network of techno-tribes, exploring their pleasure principles and cultural politics. Attending to sound system culture, electro-humanitarianism, secret sonic societies, teknivals and other gatherings, intentional parties, revitalisation movements and counter-colonial interventions, Technomad investigates how the dance party has been harnessed for transgressive and progressive ends – for manifold freedoms. Seeking freedom from moral prohibitions and standards, pleasure in rebellion, refuge from sexual and gender prejudice, exile from oppression, rupturing aesthetic boundaries, re-enchanting the world, reclaiming space, fighting for “the right to party,” and responding to a host of critical concerns, electronic dance music cultures are multivalent sites of resistance.
Drawing on extensive ethnographic, netographic and documentary research, Technomad details the post-rave trajectory through various local sites and global scenes, with each chapter attending to unique developments in the techno counterculture: e.g. Spiral Tribe, teknivals, psytrance, Burning Man, Reclaim the Streets, Earthdream. The book offers an original, nuanced theory of resistance to assist understanding of these developments. This cultural history of hitherto uncharted territory will be of interest to students of cultural, performance, music, media, and new social movement studies, along with enthusiasts of dance culture and popular politics.
1. Introduction: The Rave-olution?
2. Sound System Exodus: Tekno-Anarchy in the UK and Beyond
3. Secret Sonic Societies and Other Renegades of Sound
4. New Tribal Gathering: Vibe-Tribes and Mega-Raves
5. The Technoccult, Psytrance and the Millennium
6. Rebel Sounds and Dance Activism: Rave and the Carnival of Protest
7. Outback Vibes: Dancing Up Country
8. Hardcore, You Know the Score
Available from Equinox
“Technomad offers important insights into the meeting points between countercultural discourses and post-rave techno cultures. Optimistic regarding the progressive potential of outdoor techno-trance gatherings, this well-documented study traces the complex genealogy of a global nomadic ‘technoccult’, with emphasis on Europe, North-America and Australia. Not to be missed by anyone interested in the study of rave cultures, countercultures and festivals.”
Dr Hillegonda Rietveld, Reader in Cultural Studies, London South Bank University
“A critical utopianism is articulated and celebrated with a textual energy too rare in today’s cultural studies. Graham St John is wide-eyed in order to look more closely. I recommend his shining and grubby doofscape to all interested in the radical possibilities and limitations of contemporary culture.”
Professor George McKay, University of Salford
Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture is a peer-reviewed, open-access e-journal for the study of electronic dance music culture (EDMC) edited by radical anthropologist and regular Undergrowth contrbutor Graham St John
The first issue of Dancecult is now available with downloadable PDFs accessible at http://dj.dancecult.net with full description of contents listed below.
Dancecult 1.1 2009 Contents:
IDM as a "Minor" Literature: The Treatment of Cultural and Musical Norms by "Intelligent Dance Music" - Ramzy Alwakeel
Decline of the Rave Culture Inspired Clubculture in China: State Suppression, Clubber Adaptations, and Socio-cultural Transformations - Matthew M Chew
Neotrance and the Psychedelic Festival - Graham St John
Too Young to Drink, Too Old to Dance: The Influences of Age and Gender on (Non) Rave Participation - Julie Gregory
DJ Culture in the Commercial Sydney Dance Music Scene - Ed Montano
From the Floor
Convergence and Soniculture: 10 Years of MUTEK - tobias c. van Veen
The Hardcore Continuum? - Jeremy Gilbert
The Abstract Reality of the "Hardcore Continuum" - Mark Fisher
12 Noon, Black Rock City - Graham St John
The Inverted Sublimity of the Dark Psytrance Dance Floor - Botond Vitos
We Call It Techno! A Documentary About Germany's Early Techno Scene (Sextro and Wick) - Hillegonda C Rietveld
Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno, und der Easyjetset (Rapp) - Sean Nye
Chromatic Variation in Ethnographic Research: A Review of Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race (Saldanha) - Anthony D'Andrea
Global Nomads: Techno and New Age as Transnational Countercultures in Ibiza and Goa (D'Andrea) - Charles de Ledesma
Breakcore: Identity and Interaction on Peer-to-Peer (Whelan) - Emily Ferrigno
The High Life: Club Kids, Harm and Drug Policy (Perrone) - Lucy Gibson
Dancecult is to be published twice annually, the journal features an advisory board of international experts,
and has emerged as an extension of the international EDMC research network, Dancecult:
Graham St John
Executive Editor for Dancecult
Photo: Kyle Hailey
1 > Metaraving: Bright Lights and Sweet Spots
Burning Man, the annual festival held on the vast canvas of an ancient lake bed (called the "playa") in the Black Rock Desert, northwestern Nevada. As an unparalleled universe of radical self-expression and non-dogmatic ritual initiated on San Francisco’s Baker Beach by Larry Harvey and Jerry James in 1986, Burning Man would become, following its transition to the Black Rock Desert in 1990, an outlandish pilgrimage center for alternative art and performance communities in the Bay Area, the West Coast, across the US, and around the world. The event is backed by decades of Californian freaklore. In his discussion of the “cults of Burning Man”, Erik Davis (2005: 17) outlines “cultural patterns” manifesting in this “promiscuous carnival of souls, a metaphysical fleamarket, a demolition derby of reality constructs colliding in a parched void”. Refractions of Californian spiritual counterculture more generally, these milieus of participant gravitation—the Cult of Experience, the Cult of Intoxicants, the Cult of Flicker, the Cult of Juxtapose, and the Cult of Meaningless Chaos—are cultures of performance and praxis overlapping with on-site vibe tribes, and their variant styles.
With a diverse array of musics ranging from neo-tribal rhythms to breakbeat, hip hop to lofty intelligent soundscapes alongside jazz and punk rock etc, as Robert Kozinets and John Sherry (2004: 289) point out, “multiple musics demarcate, blend and merge on geographic boundaries, spilling into one another … pooling into pure concentrations near encamped banks of speakers”. In this staged city such may coincide with the concentrations of responsibility constituted in Dionysian, outlaw, exile, avant-garde, spiritual and other vectors emerging within electronic dance music culture and gaining admission to this outland. As an ocean of vibes orchestrated and nurtured by “tribes” trained in these “cultic” practices and amplifying variant audiotronics, this vast counter-matrix appears as a miscegeny of bright lights and sweet spots, a sonic hyper-liminal zone like that which I experienced on my initial visit to Black Rock City in 2003 when I camped with the crew at Low Expectations right by the House of Lotus dance camp.
Burning Man was and never will be a “rave”. Yet its status as “the ultimate metarave” (the phrase comes from tireless media producer and impressario Michael Gosney who initiated San Francisco's Digital Be-Ins) seems to have solidified in recent years. In 2006, the year of my most recent Burn, the evidence was manifest in the wake of the torching of the 40 foot figure—the city’s limit experience which sees most of its inhabitants and hundreds of “art cars” encircle the blazing Man, with the scene approximating the Drive-in At the End of Time. Packed with fireworks and mortar-rockets, the towering icon cascades with sparks and bursts apart in a spectacular series of detonations, its demise willed by the bold and the sumptuous who've arrived in their tens of thousands. Kozinets and Sherry (2004: 293) suggest that “like many elements of post-rave, the burning of the Man opens up opportunities to embody a popular dance orgiasm facilitated by modern technologies”. Following the burn in 2006 I realized what they meant, for I found myself amidst mobile dance camps who’d unloaded their systems equipment, in one case go go cages, and were pumping bass and breaks across the alkaline desert night, attracting thousands of Burners wired-up and el-wired.
photo by Scott London
This post-burn tradition goes back to 1997 to the unassumingly named “Community Dance” event. Operated by Gosney’s Radio-V, San Francisco’s Anon Salon along with the pioneer Howard St warehouse party collective the Consortium of Collective Consciousness (CCC), Dimension 7 and LA’s Tonka sound system (not to be confused with the original UK outfit by that name), that event featured trance progenitor Goa Gil (who played for 7 hours).
But standing tall beyond this was the most outlandish scene of all: “Uchronia” an installation 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall, funded by Belgian artists and built using rejected timber from a Canadian lumber mill by dozens of volunteers. Used in the title of Charles Renouvier’s 1876 novel Uchronie (L’Utopie dans l’histoire) and replacing topos (place) from ‘utopia’ (which literally means ‘no place’) with chronos (time) to generate a word that literally means no time, “uchronic” refers to an “alternate history” that enables its observers to question their reality. For its creators, Uchronia was a “portal, showing us what the world could be like if creativity ruled supreme” and time is hung differently. What one observer in the San Francisco Chronicle described as a “giant’s haystack twisted into a computer model of a wave with curved entrances on three sides”, was thus an intentional parallel-world posing the question to its occupants (“Uchronians”) in the fashion alternate histories pose for their readers: “what if?” And the principal activity within this time-machine, this spatio-temporal question mark in which most were undoubtedly oblivious to its meaning intellectually yet might have understood viscerally? With the desert night a welcome reprieve from the frying sun and white-outs, its occupants bathed in neon-green light, what would become more widely known as “the Belgian Waffle” was a dance club. And of course, on the final night, it burned.
With its image seared into my retinas for almost a week, Uchronia became a cavernous conflagration, an allegory of impermanence, the flaming whispers of which engulfed all who bore witness. In the wake of its desolation, on the celebratory margins of its dissolution, sensual acts of beauty transpired in blinking conclaves upon the playa. In its remarkably short life, surely one of the most spectacular clubs ever created.
2 > The Techno Ghetto
But it wasn’t always like this. What was then known as “rave” music was first amplified at Burning Man in 1992 when a small “rave camp” appeared a mile from the main encampment, “glomming parasitically”, according to Brian Doherty’s account in This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground (2004: 66), “onto the Porta-Johns.” The camp was organized by Craig Ellenwood of the early Oakland acid party crew Mr Floppy’s Flophouse. The headline act was Goa Gil, who played from Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo” on digital audio tape to no more than 25 people. Also playing to hardly anybody were Brad Tumbleweed, Dave Synthesis (aka “Dsyn”), Craig and Terbo Ted. Terbo Ted has the mantle of being the first person to DJ at Burning Man. Ted informed me that in 1992 he “played on Friday afternoon to literally no one, with only ten miles of dust in front of me. It was awesome”. While he can’t recall it with precision, the first track played was some “spacey stuff” from a Jean Michel Jarre 12 inch from Craig Ellenwood’s record pile, “a record he was willing to sacrifice to the elements … it was literally a sound check” (ibid). Here is a link to a short excerpt from Terbo Ted’s live acid techno set in 1995, which was the first electronic music recorded at Burning Man to be released on CD (“Turbine time” on Shag).
Burning Man, 1995 CCC.
These years were sparse to say the least. As Charles A. Gadeken reported in 1993: "I remember going out to the rave camp, it was five guys, a van, a couple of big speakers, a card board box covered in tin foil, colored lights and a strobe light. It was all cool". But the reception was generally less than enthusiastic. Ted recalls how the punk (add your own prefix: anarcho, cyber, steam, shotgun, etc) sensibilities predominating held DJ culture complicit with “consumer society and a stain on an otherwise anarchistic, art-oriented event”. On one morning near sunrise in 1993,
a hippy dude came up to me while I was playing music on the sound system and he holds up a knife towards me and yells “are you crazy?” And I say “no, you’re the one with a knife”. And then he says he’s going to cut me or the speakers. So I turn it down, ditched the decks and circled far and wide off into the desert. He tried to cut the speaker cones with his knife but they had metal grills on the fronts, he looked like a fool and gave up and wandered off. I put on a cassette of Squeeze’s Black Coffee in Bed as he was walking away.
Burning Man forced the techno reservationists to maintain their isolation a mile from Main Camp between 1992 and 1996, during which time the camp evolved into a kind of outlaw satellite of Black Rock City. Over the following two years, San Francisco’s DiY music and culture collective SPaZ (itself co-founded by Ted and D syn, along with Aaron, No.E Sunflowrfish and various others) orchestrated the sounds exclusively. It was extreme, eclectic and haphazard. Ted recalls that at one point in 1993 “we put on a cassette of the Eagles’ Hotel California by request of these two cowboys who rode in from the desert on horseback. They were thrilled.” According to Aaron, that same year “a wind storm blew down our speaker stacks, but they were still plugged in and we never stopped playing”. Listed as the official “rave” in the Burning Man brochure for 1994, SPaZ would effect a great influence on sound system culture at the festival.
In these years, SPaZ, members of which later initiated the Autonomous Mutant Festival, were effectively encouraging Burning Man to be “more like the UK festival vibe where anybody could bring their sound, big or small”. So, in 1995, while SPaZ set up their small system at four points amplifying everything from minimal techno and drum-n-bass to psytrance under a four story three-cornered scaffolding with lights and “variously garish and random streamers, banners and tarps, from punk to dayglo-indian-balinese-cybertrance-batiks to outright monstrosities” visible from Main Camp, Wicked (the famed UK derived outfit who held full moon and other parties on beaches and in parks around the Bay area between 1991-1996) arrived with their turbo rig and scaffolding supporting their black and white banner. SPaZ hosted artists including Minor Minor (Gateway), Theta Blip, Chizaru and Subtropic. Featuring himself, among with DJs Markie and Bay area guest’s Spun, Felix the Dog, Rob Doten and Alvaro, Wicked co-founder (and now running Grayhound Records) Garth stated to me that they “played for 4 days and nights through hail, wind, rain and electrical storms”. North America's first free party tekno sound system, Pirate Audio, also made an appearance that year. On the windblown frontiers of techno, in this nascent vibrant ghetto accommodating the eclectic, experimental and inclusive sounds of SPaZ, the house sounds of Wicked, and other sounds besides, Burning Man had begun to attract a variety of socio-sonic aesthetics, paving the way for the mega-vibe it would later become.
In this period, besides differences between the habitués and proponents of varying dance aesthetics (from the inclusive to the more proprietary) there was considerable conflict between those who regarded themselves true Burners and those they held as little more than raving interlopers. As Ted remembers, “ravers were always pariahs at Burning Man …. it’s like we were the poor people on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of the man”. At one event, a bag of human excrement was dropped on the dance camp from a low flying aircraft. According to Garth, Burning Man had the porta-potties removed from the rave camp before the festival ended. “When people started crapping on the desert for lack of options, someone carried over a bag to main camp .... Burning Man was so enraged by this they flew over and apparently dropped it on one camp."
1996 was the year of the “techno ghetto”, the brainchild of Terbo Ted and an attempt to make the ghettoized rave camp a legitimate outer suburb of Black Rock City (BRC). According to Ted, who had the support of Burning Man organizers, as a “mega-theme camp” the “techno ghetto” idea was a “fractalized imprint” of BRC’s Main Camp at the time. “We were into pre-planned zoning, using surveying flags to plot out an orbital city with sound systems on the outer ring and encampments in the center”. “Ghetto” sound systems included SPaZ, the CCC, Gateway and Wicked. Together with a live PA from local electronic producers E.T.I. and Astral Matrix, Wicked DJs played along with DJ Dimitri of Dee-Lite all performing under a projection pyramid constructed by VJ and laser outfit Dimension 7.
But, things didn’t go according to plan in the ghetto. According to Garth, “the honeymoon ended that year. The theme was “Hellco” and that was what they conjured up… by this point there were too many [sound systems], all bleeding into each other…. it felt more like a super club on the playa”. As Terbo Ted recalls, the “ghetto” was an “abysmal failure … DiY gone mad… Music snobbery and cliquishness and DiY anarchist tendencies prevented an orderly camp from forming and the resulting spread-too-thin sprawl proved to be dangerous in an era when cars were still driving at every vector on the playa at high speeds in dust storm white outs”. Both Garth and Ted are in part referring to a tragic incident in 1996 when three people were seriously injured sleeping in their tent near the Gateway sound system, one in a coma for months, after being collected by a stoned driver. Together with an apparent perception that the “rave” was giving Burning Man a bad name within official circles, and the likelihood that techno was perceived as disturbing electronic chatter for many participants (including Doherty, who recounts hostilities in This is Burning Man, 2004: 171-173), this incident generated an unofficial “anti-rave policy”, which was effectively countered through the compromise entailed in Gosney’s innocuously named “Community Dance” in 1997.
3 > The Veg-O-Matic of the Apocalypse vs Goa Gil
That known DJs were being targeted by Burning Man organisers was a circumstance endured by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), who was apparently pursued on the playa by “Pipi Longstocking” in the mid 1990s. But the tension between ravers and Burners seems to have been appropriately dramatized in a performance which saw a standoff between Goa Gil and a giant peddle-powered flamethrowing drill and Margerita maker called the Veg-O-Matic of the Apocalypse—or, more to the point, anti-rave crusader Jim Mason who was peddling the beast. Mason’s Veg-O-Matic is described by Robert Gelman in his article Trial by Fire: “It’s straight out of hell, suggesting engineering from the industrial revolution transported to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Part vehicle, part flame-thrower, part earth drilling device, I envision this machine being used to battle creatures in a 1950s monster movie, or to torture souls of the damned in the realm of satan”. With a pressurized gas-charger spurting flames as far as seventy feet from its barrel, and a gathering mob inciting it to greater acts of destruction, the Veg-O-Matic was known to burn installations in its path following the demise of the Man. On its post-Burn rampage, when the Veg-O-Matic rolled into the first Community Dance camp in 1997, Mason found Goa Gil directly in his path:
The crew of the machine is tilting the flamethrower’s barrel up at the console. Gil is staring down the 12-foot barrel of this jet powered char-broiler. I had to remind myself that this is theatre, or is it? I’m still not sure. “Burn it!” the mob chants, “Burn THEM!” Like an opposing pacifist army, the ravers are standing their ground, some shouting in defiance of the threat, some in disbelief that this could really be happening. Chicken John, like the demented circus ringmaster that he is, issues his now-familiar warning over the bullhorn [“Stand Aside”]. We seem to have travelled back centuries in time. I don’t remember ever feeling farther from home than this.
The mob were even demanding Led Zeppelin. It was perhaps in this moment so far from Kansas—when Gil stood his ground, even turned the volume up, in the face of obliteration—that EDMC gained credibility at Burning Man.
Yet, such gains are not synonymous with legitimacy. To this day, disputes rage over the validity of arrant “loudsters”, “monotonous computer loop music,” and the presence of some of the highest paid DJ brand names like Paul Oakenfold and Tiesto. See, for example, this discussion on tribe.net. When the biggest names in commercial dance music perform “45-minute showcase sets to massive crowds at MTV-Beach-Party-style setups”, it is recognized to be the “EDM equivalent of putting a Starbucks or H&M on the Esplanade”. In a typically avant response, which notably does not reject electronic music, the author of this comment, ST Frequency, states in a post on Reality Sandwich that he would rather “something a little more eclectic and unexpected, like funky industrial bluegrass, or ambient dub-zydeco” than “a cacophony of 22 different epic trance records ‘blowing up’ from every imaginable direction”.
4 > A Rhythm Remorseless Blue Room fire truck, 1998, CCC.
While concerns are held about the presence of what Mark Van Proyen refers to as the “Ibiza set” and other “tourists” swamping the festival (in Gilmore 2006: 151), after several Community Dance events, which were promoted by producer Gosney’s Radio-V as a “techno tribal ritual celebration” (involving the likes of Gil, Shpongle, Ollie Wisdom, AB Didge, Medicine Drum, Kode IV, Tsuyoshi, X-Dream, Nick Taylor and Tristan, and with contributions from techno-tribes such as the CCC, Anon Salon, Koinonea, Sacred Dance Society and Dimension 7), the audiotronics and culture of post-rave would become integral to the event.
photo: Landon Elmore.
In 1998, a community sound system featuring New York's Blackkat collective, The Army of Love, SPaZ and Arcane was unpacked on the playa. Holding their own desert dance gatherings over the previous five years in the Mojave, Moontribe also set up that year, with artists performing for three consecutive nights next to The Temple of Rudra, with the final party drawing 2000 people following Pepe Ozan’s opera. Symptomatic of the ongoing tensions, as Ozan apparently neglected to inform the Burning Man organization about his deal with Moontribe (they were providing the soundcheck for his opera), the event’s unique peace keepers, the Black Rock Rangers, unplugged the generator at dawn on the first night. With the all-too-familiar experience of having “Rangers” shut them down, Moontribe’s Treavor successfully pushed for an agreement for an all-night party after the opera on the Friday night, which also happened to be a full moon. According to Treavor, with himself, Petey and Matthew Magic performing: “we kicked in with some full on Psy Trance/Techno madness and tons of people came over and stayed in front of our system until around noon when it was about 110 degrees and time to end”. Given their commitment to throwing free Full Moon Gatherings in the Mojave desert since 1993 in the face of considerable adversity (remote conditions, the law and internal conflicts included), a Moontribe association would draw considerable kudos in an environment which would continue to contest the presence of “commercial muzack”.
Radio-V's Flying Saucer dance disc, 2000. Michael Gosney.
Conflict continued at the turn of the Millennium. Thus, after threatening to douse the mixer and CDJs, the Burning Scouts of Gigsville camp (home to the "Burning Scouts of America", i.e. those who are "too cool, dumb, weak, punk or gay to have made it in the Boy or Girl Scouts") decided to execute their community service at Radio-V’s Flying Saucer in 2000. The CCC’s Brad Olsen remembers the scene on Sunday morning:
[The Burning Scouts] appeared walking around our camp, coming at us banging on pots and pans, no expressions on their faces, as they slowly made their way over to our RV. They must have thought Sunday morning we were all crashed out and they were going to teach us what making racket was all about! We looked on in amazement. When [one assailant] attempted to come into the RV someone threw old bath water at him and we closed the door. After they left we came out and noticed that they pulled down our art and banners and vandalized the camp. We broke our camp and slowly drove over to the CCC system on the other side where DJ Perez (Perry Ferrel from Jane's Addiction) was just coming on (& so were we still).He added, alluding to the rumour that there was a “quite” and noisy” side to BRC, “that was the last of the ‘Quiet Side’ myth”. Now the sound systems are ubiquitous on both sides -- but it wasn't without heavy resistance!” Ultimately, internal compromises, collaborations and concessions within Burning Man would see what was initially a source of much derision and contempt—and ghettoized one mile from Main Camp—gain greater acceptance within its sprawling inner but mostly outer conclaves (the loudest camps are now placed in the "Large Scale Sound Art Zone" at the periphery of the city, where speakers must be faced away from the city, and where a maximum power amplification of 300 watts is permitted).
Burning Man art project funding reveals the persistence of an uneasy relationship. As author of the forthcoming ethnography on Burning Man (Theater in a Crowded Fire), Lee Gilmore, informed me: “many organizers of dance oriented theme camps complain that the Burning Man Organization never funds their artistic contributions, so they have to foot the bill themselves. For their part, the organization says they simply have limited resources and other priorities. And that the EDMC scene has many other self-funding and/or commercial venues.” In 1998, the “techno ghetto” was no more. By 1999, when the final Community Dance camp was staged in Landon Elmore's recreation of the Barbury Triangle Crop Circle, the sounds of psytrance, breakbeats, tribal house etc had become flush with the soundscape of Burning Man.
Aerial view of Community Dance Camp 1999. Barbury Triangle Crop Circle. Landon Elmore.
Emerald City, 2000. Michael Gosney
In 2000, eccentric inventor Patrick Flanagan funded Emerald City, a one-time dance camp extravaganza with Joegh Bullock and Gosney providing the entertainment. By 2007, with Large-Scale Sound Art Camps like the Opulent Temple of Venus, Lemuria and the Connexus Cathedral, electronic dance music culture had become integral to Burning Man. The audio-visual aesthetics and style of venues are diverse: from performance troupe's like El Circo with their post-apocalyptic "dreamtime imagery" and Bag End sound system to the Deep End groovement; from salacious theme camps like Bianca’s Smut Shack and Illuminaughty, to the Rhythm Society’s Blyss Abyss or the Church of WOW chill camp (which seeded Gosney's Cyberset artist family and label) and the recent Sacred Water Temple;and from fixed sound art installations like the House of Lotus to mobile units such as the Space Cowboys "All-Terrain Audio Visual Assault Vehicle" (a Unimog fitted with video projectors, displays, a bubble for a DJ, and a sound system, which they claim is "the largest off-road sound system in the world"), and the shape and location shifting vehicles of the DI5ORIENT EXPRESS.
5 > Decompressions and Recompressions
The spirit of Burning Man is raised throughout the year in San Francisco at events such as the pre-Burn Flambé Lounge, the annual Decompression Street Fair, the How Weird Street Faire, the Sea of Dreams New Year's Eve events and numerous sound art camp fundraising events held between May and August every year. The Decompression events have become hugely popular multi-area dance parties, and attracting many who’ve never been to Burning Man. The San Francisco "Heat the Street Faire" Decompression party is a reprise of the Burn held on 8 city blocks two months after the event.
By 2007, there were Decompression events in various US cities including Los Angeles and New York, and international events such as those in London and Tokyo. There were even “pre-Decompression parties” like the one I attended in October 2007 at a warehouse at 1300 Potrero produced by Want It and Ambient Mafia (watch a video of the party here) and, of course a host of Decompression after-parties.
This seemingly endless series of events provokes inquiries about the boundaries of Burning Man. When does the event terminate? When does it start? And for that matter, where is it? While the annual event transpires for a week from late August into September out beyond the small town of Gerlach-Empire in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, its spatial and temporal boundaries are getting fuzzier. It might be stated that this was always the case. Historically the event has been a virtual imprint of San Francisco arts, technology and visionary cultures, its mutant-vehicular and theme-camped topos inscribed with emergent aesthetics and prevailing trends (such as the fairly belated Green Man theme of 2007), with remote experiments drifting back into the city proper, morphing the Bay area in often unseen and surprising ways. Indicative of scenes evolving within San Francisco, Burner fashion, body-mods, multimedia, performance arts, alterna-kit and desert punk filter back into what Burners call the “default” world. And so, to stay with my theme, the sounds and styles of Black Rock City are evident in San Francisco clublife at venues like 1015 Folsom, Sublounge and Mighty in SOMISSPRO or in art spaces like SomArts Cultural Center, Nimby and Cellspace along with parties in countless warehouse spaces. As Steven Jones makes clear in his San Francisco Bay Guardian article "Burner Season", Burning Man art and San Francisco club scenes “have merged and morphed, symbiotically feeding off one another to create something entirely new under the sun, a sort of code for the freaks who like to dress outrageously, dance madly, and be embraced for doing so.” As promoter Joegh Bullock explains, the term "Burner" has become “shorthand for a certain style of party”. One of the main sites of Burner sensibility has been Bullock’s Anon Salon. Referred to by Gosney as San Francisco’s “cyberdelic speakeasy”, from the early 1990s Anon Salon had hosted interactive, avant-garde, no–spectator style events reflective of cutting edge trends (such as the “New Edge Salon for Movers and Groovers”, Ambiotica), and buoyed by a camaraderie poorly grokked by non-Burners.
6 > Residual Burn
New York city resident DJ Spooky recently (see film) referred to Burning Man as a context for "the prolonged present”. Out there, he stated, “the demarcation lines we’ve all been conditioned to accept dissolve… time blurs, you lose all of these strictures of New York, waking up, or going back to sleep, people, parties, events, blur, scenes blur, camps blur…” This is a common experience: playa life is an altered reality in which day and night, camping spaces, pounding rhythms, weird pants, strange laughter and familiar people, merge in the disorienting carnivalesque. Out on the playa, "now" is an extended experience seemingly lasting longer than most other "nows" in the lives of participants, generating a powerful compulsion amongst devoted Burners to relive the liminal experience of the playa over and again, year after year, often modifying and optimising the experience to suit their personal pleasures, dreams and visions. In making the return journey, pilgrims are not only revisiting the same place but are re-accessing the same time. But it is a "time" that is not so much a duration as a "time out of time", an "eternal presence" reminiscent of that explored by Roy Rappaport in those intensive ritual phases in which one experiences “the sheer successionless duration of the absolute changelessness of what recurs, the successionless duration of what is neither preceded nor succeeded, which is ‘neither coming nor passing away,’ but always was and always will be” (1999: 231). Awash with synchronized melodies and off-beat rhythms, under the rule of the sun and the heat of controlled burns, playing chicken with a fleet of motorized tarts, in the gaze of an androgenous BRC denizen with cyberdreads, in this “successionless duration”, “one returns", to revisit Rappaport, "ever again to what never changes”: playa time.
It may be a "place" out of time, but the prolonged presence of this place seems as fine and persistent as the white alkaline dust one carries home from the playa. Many Burners relate how the experience of Burning Man impacts their "default" existence, that their "pilgrimage" effects and shapes everyday life on the street, at work, in their homes, how they interact with others, how they raise their families, a theme considered in Lee Gilmore's ethnography, and by contributors to the book she co-edited (with Mark Van Proyen) Afterburn, and worthy of further research.
So what happens when banana time is snuk out at carnival's end? When elements of "the quick and the changeless" steal back to the "default" world? When impermanence gets an encore? Burning Man clearly leaves a compelling impression on its habitués many of whom reboot eternity the year round in a proliferation of Burn-inspired intercalary events. The event appears to be at the center of a burgeoning creative counter-cultural industry whose mission is to make now last longer, to enable one's "freak" to be more often set to "on", to facilitate the distribution of playa time across time and space. As the commitment to extending Burner artistic practices, ethos and identity beyond Burning Man possesses a reverse correspondence to that of "leaving no trace" on the playa, as the dedication to mobilizing Operation Enduring Freak appears to hold a strange equivalence to reducing MOOP ("Matter Out of Place") in the desert, Regional and other residual burns immolate the present across the continent and further afield. As announced at the official Burning Man webportal, "dozens of satellites orbit the Mother ship," with this cultural movement now encompassing "over sixty communities in seven countries, spread out over four continents."
As bike-saddled and begoggled Burners, drunk on playa time, in pink leathered chaps, pith helmets and home-made masks, ride the tall curling white-outs through the streets of San Francisco, as the Bakhtinian "second world" of the people floods the thoroughfares and habitats of the "first", as the remote cosmic life revives local lifestyle, it seems reasonable to assume that one's "social time", to again cite Rappaport, becomes enchanted by the ecstatic theater of "cosmic time". Research on the growing network of Burner tribes, and the accelerating frequency of Burn-inspired events, would shed light on this. The name for Vancouver's regional event, Recompression, might indicate something of the extended liminality desired. New York's Freak Factory, Santa Barbara's Clan Destino, or the network of virtual groups on tribe.net and Facebook et al. might illustrate what post-Burn liminalisation looks, sounds and is encoded like. And the name (along with the activities) of the extra-event disaster relief initiative Burners Without Borders may provide us with some insight on the borderless future.
But, amidst this accelerating and expanding presence, this prolongation of the prolonged present, what becomes of Burning Man, whose "spirit", like that of any "event", is its own ephemerality?
- Doherty, Brian. 2004. This is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
- Erik Davis. 2005. “Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man”. In Lee Gilmore and Mark Van Proyen (eds). Afterburn: Reflections on Burning Man. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press.
- Gilmore, Lee. 2006. “Desert Pilgrimage: Liminality, Transformation, and the Other at the Burning Man Festival”. In William H. Swatos, Jr (ed) On the Road to Being There: Studies in Pilgrimage and Tourism in Late Modernity, pp. 125-158. Leiden: Brill.
- Kozinets, Robert V. and John F. Sherry, Jr. 2004. “Dancing on Common Ground: Exploring the Sacred at Burning Man.” In Graham St John (ed), Rave Culture and Religion, pp. 287-303. New York and London: Routledge.
- Rappaport, Roy. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Thanks to Scott London, Kyle Hailey, Landon Elmore, Michael Gosney, Steve Fritz, CCC, Leo Nash, Mickey and Tristan Savatier for the beautiful images reproduced here. More of Kyle Hailey's images at the following: Burning Man 2007, Beautiful People from the Future and West Coast Dance.
Alien Bride. Photo: Kyle Hailey
Graham St John's Blog : Edgecentral
(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>
Thursday, April 13, 2006
I recall reading on the refreshingly irreverent psyreviews.com about an unconfirmed report that the former Portuguese colony of Goa was considering renaming itself `Progressive'. It's an intriguing quip, reflecting current anxieties over the rampant marketing of counter-cultural communitas and the formulaic standardisation of a sound (distributed as `Goa Trance') that now more accurately evokes a Fruitopia commercial, than the new spiritual experiments around Anjuna village way back in the day - such that the experience in Goa might now effectively approximate, well, a Fruitopia commercial, or a kind of `freak Club Med', as Erik Davis would have it.
While the renaming of the exotic locale in the East which gave birth to an electronic music juggernaut now convulsing with sub-genres, neo-styles, fluid labels and more DJ name changes than can be tracked by the human eye, might capture the ambience of the particularly cosmopolitan sophistication of a dance music scene with counter-cultural pretensions, what would we relabel the Indian state in a further five years? Will `Progressive' still be progressive?
The issue of commercialised communitas aside, the quip evokes an underlying dilemma. That is, while sound might evoke sensations similar to the original experience, may even be engineered in efforts to reproduce it, and party goers might seek to recapture the original experience, sound doesn't tend to be experienced in exactly the same way again. Though this seems the case for all musical experience, a `progressive' music is a (sub)cultural recognition of this tendency. To become committed to the progressive experience, literally living on the edge of the progression --- where nothing remains the same --- is to commit to a lifestyle as ephemeral, perpetually upgradeable and permanently unfinished as the intended character of the sound.
Seeking the edge involves journeying to transgressive margins, especially international psy-trance festivals, where transgression is the context for progression. Having danced on the verge, for the experienced this `otherworld' becomes likened to a pilgrimage destination, a centre out there sought by the those who'll board the Psy-Trance Express (I'm reminded of DJ Krusty's so-named van here), make sacrifices, endure ordeals and wear outlandish pants in order to re-obtain it.
While `progressive' is (arguably) impossible to capture due to its necessarily shifting audiotronics, and variable interpretation, I've recently encountered something of a rock in the quicksands of the present, a mountain range towering above the arctic tundra of Goa trance, the wastelands of `full on' and much of which now holds `Progressive' pretensions --- a veritable Gibraltar of the genre. You can't deny the body's desire to respond with the wildest trouser-splitting gesticulations known to human-kind. Blue Planet Corporation's (Gabriel Masurel) Cosmic Dancer performed this trick on me and, unlike my pants, should withstand the intense pressures of time and interpretation (well, perhaps a couple of years) marking a `novelty wave' in the progression. This will be the soundtrack of a remake of Dr Seuss's The 10,000 Fingers of Dr T. Or it should be. Performed in the right context, such functional dreamsonics, familiar yet novel, effect a strange gnosis.
And such was the experience of the uncanny enveloping me in Paradise Canyon on the fast flowing Koprulu Canyon River near the Mediterranean city of Antalya in Southern Turkey for Soulclipse, a celebration of the eclipse, when, as Hallucinogen appeared to have flicked the switch, the sun was engulfed by the moon and Venus burned bright in the clear mid-afternoon sky. A three minute cosmic snapshot, the dark flash of which left an indelible imprint on the thousands of naked retinas belonging to the howling massive (around 7-8000 people) - all the weirdest kids in the classroom.
When a hail storm had collapsed the Soulclipse main stage on Monday afternoon just before the opening ceremony was due to begin, what appeared to be a disaster was eventually turned around. Quite miraculously, nobody was seriously injured. While it didn't look good at that point, praise must be handed to the organisers, the Indigokids, since after major logistical challenges and set times gone into orbit, the main stage was operational by Friday night. In the meantime, the Liquid stage and chill --- a lush area on the river, graced by a gallery of amazing art works and tall luminescent mushrooms - were pulsing. Given the many difficulties holding an event of this kind and magnitude in this location, my hat's off to the Indigokids for building the context for the vibe.
And this brings me back to my rather indulgent tangent. The Zen phrase `nothing remains the same' indicates that the trance experience is as much about permanence as it is about movement. There appears to be a deep-seated paradox at work here. Perhaps the closest we might get to resolving this is demonstrated by the commitments of those who rise from their deep-seatedness and gravitate in numbers to aesthetically evolved nodes of progression manifesting at the earthly junctures of major celestial events across the globe. And perhaps the nearest and most eloquent designation for the optimum experience sought within what is a largely non-textual and non-vocal socio-sonic space (i.e. the dance floor), is the phrase identifying an experience most recognise but are hard pressed to articulate any further: the good `vibe'.
These parties reconstitute the sixties `vibe' in what is possibly its most evolved contemporary state (regardless of whether Vibrasphere is playing). Having made transit to such sites of ineffability at remote locations in a fashion resembling the now mythical Goa Full Moon parties, habitus will camp on the edge of the progression, remastering themselves under the pressure of the bass. At least that's the potential, for these are uncertain realms pregnant with possibility --- digital-chemical interfaces whose outcomes cannot be predicted. Emersed in black light baths and probed by laser light, undone by the crankingest sounds of unreleased `acid', even as sensoriums are aswamp in liquid LSD, the interfaced and off-their-faced yield to the threshold, potentially re-programmed in the mix.
In a place where everything potentially unravels, nothing happens. Perhaps this explains why the experienced labrats of these digital-chemical laboratories are troubled describing --- and maybe don't seek to describe - what they've experienced (beyond statements of `avin it', being `out there', going `crazy', `mad' or in near-heroic tales of munterment). And perhaps this in part also explains why trance critics are so disapproving of the apparent vacuous, empty and `non-politically' progressive characteristics of psy-trance. Is Progressive little more than a treadmill? Trance festivals psychedelic theme-parks? Mindless escapades? Given the branded bottling and resale of `experience' as Trance (btw. participants were required to sacrifice up to 180 euros before entering Souldclipse), you can't ignore the criticism, but there is something wearing about the moralism in the motives of detractors, replicating in some ways those who've mobilised against subcultural contexts for accessing alternative states of consciousness, who've sought to eliminate or domesti cate the `savage trance' (a term attributed to researcher of Brazilian and African trance rituals, Roger Bastide, in Frank Gauthier's translation in his chapter in Rave Culture and Religion), triggering epidemics of puritan self-discipline along the way.
In the language of Tony D'Andrea, who also contributed to that book, the abandonment of rational mind states might involve an `oceanic eroticism' enabled by MDMA, and/or a psychedelic asceticism' facilitated through LSD and other entheogens. And with the addition of ganja, alcohol (from beer to absinthe) and ketamine, the seas are rarely calm. Sailing towards the edge of the known universe where cosmic love and personal derailment are reported, the trance-massive want their MTV (mindscape trance vacation).
For those who hear the noise but cannot feel the music, it will seem unfathomable that the `singularity' could be obtained amidst the carnivalsque bustle of the dance floor, seemingly as unfeasible as the prospect of achieving enlightenment at Burger King. But these hyper-liminal landscapes of (un)becoming and heterotopias of serious fun are thresholds to which the experienced will, as circumstances allow, gravitate time and again, anticipating and perhaps even achieving, nothing. Permanent-neophytes, they are travellers who, in a fashion consistent with those populating what D'Andrea calls the transnational techno `freak-scape', do not move. Perhaps it's just this promise of an indescribable familiarity, that drives these vibe-fanatics to converge from points across the globe --- like Israel, Japan, Russia, Italy, Brazil, Sweden, Poland, Peru, Spain - since for them, nothing is sacred.
In revisiting such an experience, trancers relive a time-out-of-time frame so often reported to parallel the experience of ancestral forebears who, if traced back far enough, are believed common to all (as far back at least as those high times when primitives enjoined effervescent happenings in Day Gloed torsoes). An ongoing commitment, the party constitutes a cosmic housekeeping ritual, ultimately ensuring that nothing does in fact remain the same.
The total solar eclipse psy-trance festival, Soulclipse, was such a return. Many had stepped through space and time from previous eclipse festivals like Outback Eclipse in South Australia in Dec 2002 (I travelled from Istanbul and camped with one of the makers of the documentary film The Outback Eclipse Story, Gareth Moon). Perhaps this was because many of the pilgrims to Turkey were indeed Australians, trancers recruited along the way, fixated by this strange attractor lying somewhere between the speaker stacks when heavenly bodies and the earth are in correct alignment.
It takes planning, resources and a good social support base to potentiate abandonment. Campsites and campfires are nexus points for exchange and support --- like that provided by the crew I travelled and camped with in Turkey, establishing a good base in the field near the top of the valley. After a chance meeting with Paris (operator of Australia's Psyclone Events) in Istanbul's Saltanahmet district, I hooked up with a posse of mostly Australians and New Zealanders all making the journey south. Van loads of black sheep --- and over the course of the ensuing days, there were more than a few loose in the top paddock. These weren't `Slippers and Pipe Trance' types. More Gum Boot Psy - hardcore mercenaries.
Possibly the biggest Aussie (and Kiwi) landing since Gallipoli (around 700 Australians present and most of those from Melbourne), and we still got annihilated attempting the heights . But if it was a sacrifice, the cause had nothing to do with national identity, but a desire to abandon desire and identity. Commanded by the bass, called by the melody lines orchestrated by the likes of Freq and Echotek, comrades in arms, legs and utility belts crossed into No Man's Land. At the Liquid floor on the night of the eclipse (Wednesday March 29), as camp fires dotted the valley, I sacrificed the flesh on the soles of my feet and toes for the rhythm. Old hands Atmos and Ticon had prepared the build through the afternoon.
From dusk onwards, D-Tek, Onyx, Par a Hula, Hyper Frequencies and other unknowns (since the set times had gone awol), combined to form the most wonderfully sustained sonic assault I've ever experienced. Misshapen bodies caught in laser light, smoking torsoes here, a stray foot there, we were pinned down by precision programming. Bandaged and battered, two nights later Echotek rallied me out of the trenches towards the edge of the progression. And I was not alone. Amongst Turkish comrades, many of whom seemed to have ventured out of Antalya on Saturday night for the final push, we passed into the whirring rhythm, and were taken to pieces. Shrieks of exhilaration could be made out over the driving beats.
Capitulation was complete.
Thanks to Superblasta, deadreamer, Digitalex, kata, Marc, Mfractal, Michinio, Robin and Vapours for all the eyecatching images. Tristan White has an excellent and amusing photo and video journal), and MALEX has great shots (see Performance section especially).
reprinted with permission from http://edgecentral.blogspot.com/