Technology, Spirituality and Psytrance
Graham St John / 2012
Now available from Equinox
"From the esoteric traveler jams of Goa to the liminal zones of Boom and Burning Man, Graham St John guides us through the cosmic carnival of global psytrance with an intoxicating blend of deep research, empathic ethnography, and edge-dancing cultural analysis. This is the definitive book on what has become, from the perspective of planetary spiritual culture, the most resonant music scene of our transhuman century." ~ Erik Davis, author of The Visionary State and Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica.
Trance events have an uncanny ability to capture an era, and captivate an audience of travellers occupying the eternal theatre of the dance floor. As this book shows, the tendency within psytrance is to thwart the passage of time, to prolong the night, for those who adopt a liminal lifestyle. Amid the hustle and hubris of the psytrance carnival there is a peaceful repose that you sometimes catch when you’ve drifted into a sea of outstretched limbs, bodies swaying like a field of sunflowers in a light breeze. And you feel intense joy in this fleeting moment. You are the moment. You are inside the flow. You are all. Embodying the poetry of dance, you are living evidence that nothing lasts. And this is a deep revelation of the mystical function of trance. It is difficult to emerge from this little death, because one does not want the partyto end. But it must end, even so that it can recommence—so that one can return to repeat the cycle.
The result of fifteen years of research inover a dozen countries, this book applies a sharp lens on a little understood global dance culture that has mushroomed all over the world since its beginnings in the diverse psychedelic music scenes flourishing in Goa, India, in the 1970s and 1980s. The paramount expression of this movement has been the festival, from small parties to major international events such as Portugal’s Boom Festival, which promotes itself as a world-summit of visionary arts and trance, a “united tribe of the world”. Via first-hand accounts of the scenes, events and music of psychedelic trance in Australia, Israel, Italy, the UK, the US, Turkey and other places, the book thoroughly documents this transnational movement with its diverse aesthetic roots, multiple national translations and internal controversies. As a multi-sited ethnography and an examination of the digital, chemical, cyber and media assemblage constituting psytrance, the book explores the integrated role that technology and spirituality have played in the formation of this visionary arts movement and shows how these event-cultures accommodate rites of risk and consciousness, a complex circumstance demanding revisionof existing approaches to ritual, music and culture.
Ch 1. Transnational Psyculture
Ch 2. Experience, the Orient and Goatrance
Ch 3. The Vibe at the End of the World
Ch 4. Spiritual Technology: Transition and its Prosthetics
Ch 5. Psychedelic Festivals, Visionary Arts and Cosmic Events
Ch 6. Freak Out: The Trance Carnival
Ch 7. Psyculture in Israel and Australia
Ch 8. Performing Risk and the Arts of Consciousness
Ch 9. Riot of Passage: Liminal Culture and the Logics of Sacrifice
Ch 10. Nothing Lasts
PROLOGUE to Global Tribe
They occupy the Temple in the thousands. At the dusk of a scorching day, in outfits with vivid fractal designs, alien insignia, OM symbols and geometric mandala patterns, they arrive in cohorts who’ve journeyed from a multitude of national embarkation points. With utility-belts slinked at the waste and dreadlocks knotted back, imprinted with futuristic glyphs, etched in tribal tattoos and marked by facial piercings, they come bearing gifts of specially prepared decoctions, meads, herbal mixes, ganja cakes, crystal powders, beer and other intoxicants, along with fruits and energy supplements they will share among friends and strangers encountered through the night, and into the day. Entering this vast hexagonal covered arena, the noise of the surrounding festival recedes as occupants are enveloped in “3D sound” controlled from a stage upon which rests a stellated dodecahedron portal within which scheduled DJs perform the hypnotic bass and rhythm patterns of electronic trance music dictating a compulsion on the part of those present to become activated by moves. And as the natural light fades, the Temple is enlivened with psychotropic projections, morphing geometric laser patterns and blacklights triggering ultraviolet reactive designs and illuminating the awestruck appearances of Temple dancers who will carve shapes into the night. At one side of this structure, groups huddle under luminescent Day of the Triffids-like installations crafted from recycled material, and all around the edges the enthused are lost to engrossing acrobatic displays, spinning fire staff and twirling LED poi with stunning light-trail effects. Into the early hours of the morning, the intensity of furious-paced “darkpsy” transits towards uplifting and melodic sounds as the Sun clears the horizon and begins its journey over the sky’s proscenium arch.
It’s mid-summer in Portugal, at the tail end of August 2010, and I’m on one of the most expansive and impressive outdoor dance floors on the planet. The Dance Temple is integral to the biennial Boom Festival held in central-eastern Portugal near the protected area Parque do Tejo Internacional and the village of Idanha-a-Nova. An eight-day event, Boom is the premiere production in world psychedelic trance (psytrance) and visionary arts culture, with its Temple attracting near 25,000 people holding passports from approximately seventy countries. If there’s a global centre of psyculture, this is it. Inside the Dance Temple, I’m immersed in a soundbath of languages and caught in a blizzard of sensory impressions. Up on stage, an artist is DJing from a laptop and orchestrating a sonic broadside incorporating hypnotic melody lines around persistent and seductive bass-lines. Frequencies amplified through the sound system enervate my whole being. Time passes, and I too pass outside of normal time. And within this prolonged now, the optical grows rhythmic and sounds become visible. The national colour-codes and iconography of Japan, Israel, Sweden, Brazil and Australia, to name a few, blend with expatriate gestures, not dissimilar to those performed by forebears in Goa, India, the birthplace of Goatrance, the formative dance movement from which psytrance and its various subgenres grew. There’s possibly 10,000 people on and around this dance floor at this moment, a vast congregation of fleshy gesticulations, its habitués performing the international hand and foot signals of trance. I feel like I’ve landed among a community in exile. There’s multiple personal, lifestyle and cultural concerns this community’s inhabitants have sought exodus from, and at this moment they’re communicating their desires in the expressive mode of dance. And, as I slide into the groove, I feel like I’ve come home.
As I come about, I’m face-whipped by a woman with long black dreadlocks. Commanding a wicked stomp, she’s beside herself. Nearby, a Japanese freak in his early thirties stands astride jabbing at unseen soap bubbles up ahead. He’s joined by compatriots in carnage alive on the pulse. An Italian girl in fairy wings swivels gracefully four-stepping in perfect unison with the beat. A German freak, who I recognise by his unyielding grin, is cutting it up inside his own personal smoke cloud. Others clown around, hug their partners in the sublime, prepare a chillum, maintaining form amidst the mayhem. All about me, transnational beat freaks ride the 16th note loop of psychedelic trance, compelled by its progression, acting as if everything depends on its maintenance, as if a faltering move will cause a collapse in the rhythm and a diminution of the vibe. And as we pass outside of ourselves, it seems to me that everyone has fallen into the slot, that zone which everybody knows though few can articulate—that moment in which nothing remains the same. “This is it”. Grinning under bass pressure, my crazy Russian neighbour shouts something barely intelligible, something about the “mothership” we’ve boarded. Oscillating between self-dissolution and spectacular displays of the self, its passengers are blissful abductees. Many producers have collaborated to steer our ship through the night. In transit, time’s lost and the world is gained. Eventually, I snake my way across this incredible synesthetic stomping ground, idling to absorb kangaroo stilt performers jumping over gales of laughter. Leaving this dance floor is like finding the best route out of a metropolis. Floating on a wave of exhilarationand the aromas of chai, charas and changa, eventually I emerge out of the Temple and disappear into the wider festival.
'Graham St John writes more insightfully about psytrance than any other academic. He provides a sophisticated understanding of that subtle relationship between contemporary spirituality, dance and music. The festival and the party are also a window into broader cultural trends. He understands both the intensity and transformative experience of psytrance, and draws on, and develops, contemporary academic theory to interpret psytrance in a way that is both respectful and incisive. We need more work like this.'
Douglas Ezzy, Associate Professor, Sociology, University of Tasmania.
About the Author
Dr Graham St John is a cultural anthropologist with an interdisciplinary research interest in electronic dance music cultures, ritual and performance. He is the author of Technomad: Global Raving Counterculture (Equinox 2009) and the collections The Local Scenes and Global Culture of Psytrance (Routledge 2010), Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance (Berghahn 2008), Rave Culture and Religion (Routledge 2004) and FreeNRG: Notes From the Edge of the Dance Floor (Common Ground. Free ebook). He is Executive Editor of Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture.