On a recent sunday afternoon my husband was taking a disco nap reclining on faux-fur cushions in a gazebo bedecked with hanging saris and tie-die fabric. Some fifteen hours before he’d been playing records stage left of here, illuminated by crazy visuals projected onto a panoramic screen behind him.
I’m delighted and impressed to see that since 7am, when we left the dirt dance floor and now, a clean up crew has been through and meticulously lifted every cigarette butt and denuded the altar of many beer bottle offerings. We are guests in the un-incorporated town of Belden which used to host biker parties back in the day and has recently embraced the rave scene, giving a new home to the Sunset campout, the favorite event of the year for a crew who throw free parties, boat parties, and club parties all year round. The venue which runs by the side of the Feather River is thoroughly occupied by around seven hundred party people who are either drifting between outdoor dancefloors, their pop-up tents and the bathrooms or floating in the cool green river. Hakim Bey would be proud of us; this is a dedicated Temporary Autonomous Zone – folks are eager to do their rave thing, especially their ritual hours on the dancefloor: getting on with being in the moment for as long as the moment can last.
On the cushions here, while dad augments his hour and a half morning snooze (no more was possible in our unshaded tent) I sit smoking and thinking about how relevant or interesting writing about a rave in 2010 might be. It has been over twenty years since the advent of rave culture when house music, acid house and techno brought a new all-night underground dance experience replete with mind-expanding psychedelics to the masses. The first rave I went to was in an old school building in south London which had been squatted and groovily adapted as a venue. My life transformed as my mind tuned into unknown sensations and my body became a medium for music that drew me and my two left feet into a space I had never imagined existed. My fervor for this experience led me away from the preoccupations of the commercial art world where I’d been busy curating “warehouse shows” this had all seemed quite radical until I segued with rave culture, whose creative modus operandi went far and beyond my callow hopes of art world success. Raving constituted a full visceral and intellectual experience for me and nothing could hold a candle to it: I threw out my trendy Wittgenstein and Derrida and turned to McKenna and Leary who held the roadmap and the ciphers to this type of boundary-dissolving social phenomena.
Rave never had so much as a honeymoon with the mainstream media, the shock horror stories of Ecstasy use and unlawful, unregulated parties have been standard fare since the get-go. By 1994 in the U.K. the Criminal Justice Act was passed and raves were essentially outlawed, heavy penalties were meted out to organizers and the party scene migrated to the confines of commercial clubs and venues. Though this somewhat compromised the rave atmosphere, there was no going back for many: the combo of house music, techno and MDMA induced an inexorable desire to dance, laugh, love everybody, wonder fearlessly – basically engage in that elusive boundary-dissolving activity that humans enjoy so much.
Unlike the countercultural movement of the Hippies, whose ideals have entered the mainstream and are seen to have enriched society, Rave has a lousy reputation for irresponsible hedonism. Despite the tenacity and global reach of the rave scene and the undisputed originality of electronic music, ravers are largely considered to be epicurean knackerbrains of the first order.
So I set aside my notebook, gloomily noticing a spent whippet nestling in the cushions as I liberated a copy of Harpers from underneath my slumbering, raved-out partner.
As I turned pages I could hear the bass bins of the sound system down by the river and imagined the afternoon dance floor teeming with dancers who’d sporadically cool off with a dip in the river or another chilled beer from the cooler.
As soon as I saw the article “Improvable Feasts” I felt the flutter of a synchronic moment in effect—one of those nanoseconds where a glint of the hidden weave of the multi-dimensional cloth of life is revealed.
In this cleverly titled piece, Alain De Botton, ruminates on what greases the wheels of a well-functioning society. Feasts, he believes, were the origin of communal worship; once the average serf was well-fed he was disposed to think more kindly upon the societal strictures which bound him to both neighbor and god. Alain also favors the Judaic mechanism of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement where a touch of confessional humility will win the man-god’s absolution from most crimes.
I agreed with Alain on the failure of modern social locales (restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries) to promote community or companionability while projecting a simulacrum of that potentiality, but I don’t agree with his analysis of The Feast of Fools. He argues that this festum fatuorum, The Feast of Fools, was like a doctrinal safety value for both the Church and the wider dominator society, where everybody got to participate in sanctioned anti-social behavior. The priest was at liberty to cavort around with an outsize woolen phallus strapped on, the mothers got loaded and ran off to the woods and the donkey pissed on the altar — after the fest the populace settled back down to another year of medieval drudgery, apparently satiated.
Wild feasting in the name of god and community is a pleasing idea but I believe those early feasts, for example the Agape feasts of the early Christians had other components, perhaps more important than the fatted lamb on the menu. De Botton chooses to ignore the significance that Agape translates as love and that if the fare of these festivals was just food why did the Council of Laodicea in 364 A.D. ban them from the religious calendar? It was the free-form carnal exuberance of Agape that the early Christians sought to eradicate; the vestiges of our ancient pagan practices, our boundary-dissolving goddess worship that they cleaned up and reinvented as the Eucharist. The medieval incarnation of the festum fatuorum might well have been presented to the peasants as a “chance to be naughty and get away with it” and this is clearly De Botton’s take, but I believe its roots were older and pagan and not anti-social at all. Terence McKenna, beloved of ravers, had a radical theory about human consciousness and societal evolution: he believed that psychedelic excursions on psilocybin and other plants were the catalyst for our adventurous step into language which then gave the means to create the ecstatic rituals, which like social glue, bound us deeply together.
Mckenna and Leary, and other counterculturalists made a point of alerting our raver generation to the importance of boundary dissolution and the nature of psychedelic experience: in the psychedelic landscape we are explorers stepping outside of our cultural programming, looking for usable ideas and perspectives to bring back to our dominant physical reality for consideration.
This lofty task, the heady territory of the ancestors, is a place that boundary-dissolving ravers are equipped to negotiate, but this rite of dimensional passage is not necessarily for every brain.
Terence often referred to Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher and communications theorist who wrote prophetically in the year I was born that “the medium is the message” – he believed that our contemporary means of communication were the pertinent subject to study rather than what was actually being said.
Thus, as the DJ awoke, craving a vegan wrap and requesting a last late trip to the dancefloor, I grasped the essential idea that has kept so many of us endeared to rave.
The medium is dance and boundary-dissolution – the ecstatic building blocks of culture which has served us throughout time. These psychedelic tools held our early cultures together, in times when true loving kindness, charity and selflessness were essential to survival.
So turn up the bass, brothers and sisters, we need real community in the face of our imploding dominator society, and the vibe we share on the dancefloor is the one to take home to Mama.
fabulous foto courtesy Alyson Kohn