Weekend Societies: Electronic Dance Music Festivals And Event-Cultures

Graham St John (ed.)
New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-5013-0931-1 (hardcover), 9781501343773 (paperback), 9781501309335 (e-pub)
RRP: $108 (hardcover), $39.95 (paperback), $28.76 (e-pub)

Charles De Ledesma

Independent Researcher (UK)

Weekend Societies sets out to explore what festivals—mostly from the Electronic Dance Music Culture (EDMC) family—look like today, how they operate, who goes to them, and why. Under the sturdy editorship of Graham St John, who has written widely on this intermingled, kaleidoscopic and often psychedelic topic, a wide palette of festal event types are explored, and in many different ways. Contributions range from tobias c. van Veen’s exploration of Montreal’s tightly curated MUTEK—which nominally excludes DJ performance while “inviting” top names—to the late Ed Montano’s informed history of the multi-city Stereosonic festival (now defunct), which pinpoints a commercial peak of EDM culture in Australia where the DJ is an elevated, even anointed, figure of adulation.

Although theoretical backbones across the collection are varied and often loosely applied, one appears as a fairly firm anchor in an ever-shifting sea of heterogeneous cultural expression. In St John’s introduction, Dance Music Festival and Event Cultures, he discusses the value of the idea of a “transformational festival”, promoted by documentary film-maker Jeet-Kei Leung in a 2010 TEDx talk and further developed in the documentary webseries The Bloom. St John explains, “I have long been cognisant that festivals, especially those across the alternative spectrum of events, are transformational. In fact, this is among my chief motivations ... [in that] they permit entrants to become liminars (literally: threshold dwellers) while occupying the demarcated time-space framework of the event” (10). The festival here is more than mere bacchanalian fun and frenzy over throbbing and variously sync-ed BPMs, but can promote “the interwoven agendas of personal growth and global consciousness that are the legacy of the transpersonal culture” (11). A prime Weekend Societies project then is to explore how this could be done, or at least attempted, at the featured festal spaces.

The collection’s most fascinating inroad into the purportedly transformational ethos comes in Deirdre Ruane’s Harm Reduction or Psychedelic Support? Caring for Drug-Related Crises at Transformation Festivals. Wasting no time on festival charms per se, Ruane draws on fieldwork from three psychedelic support organizations—KCUK (UK), the Zendo Project (USA) and Kosmicare (Portugal)—documented at seven festivals during 2014’s northern hemisphere season. The central element of transformation for Ruane emerges in the dramatic tension between apparently opposing professional strategies for dealing with the bad Class A trips of entrants, and other, often-connected episodes, across the festal events attended. Opening the chapter with useful fieldwork data edits, Ruane asks if it would be possible to sit with or talk to one man receiving help at Burning Man’s Zendo camp. “The shift leader quietly points me towards one guy sitting cross-legged on the floor, swaying and moving his hands fluidly...I ask him what he took...and he closes up and pulls away (saying), ‘I don’t see why I should tell you that...it’s irrelevant to my personal quest’” (116). Ruane consequently explores the deep debate between the more dominant “harm reduction” approach which looks for ways to bring the entrant safely away from enveloping darkness and isolation towards a perceived “normalcy”, while the psychedelic support mission, pointed to above, attempts to work with difficult emotions, and behaviour, which can rise in a psychedelic “phase of (self) dissolution” (121). This in turn aims to aid an entrant’s potentially transformational episode. Ruane concludes, “Psychedelic support training sessions propose an alternative view, in keeping with the more fluid concept of self within psychedelic culture. Volunteers are encouraged to respect visitors in deeply altered states, which may indicate valuable internal processes—as one participant said, “we don’t know if they are meeting God” (131).

A contrasting depiction of the transformational festival emerges in a colourful account of California’s Raindance Campout. Researcher Bryan Schmidt contextualizes the small annual event, which is only slightly bigger than a private party, through the founder, Little John’s perspective. John is less interested in putting on a show, and more eager to “summon artistic display enacted by the participants themselves” (96), which include dance, painting, poetry, sculpting, installation-building and more. Now we arrive at, for Schmidt, an inter-connected concept that he finds useful in Raindance’s peculiar situation: Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002), which helpsin integrating all these kinds of artistic expression, flow and play, seemingly almost de rigour at the campout. Relational art extols “being together” as a central theme, elevating the encounter between beholder and picture, thus allowing for—even leading to—transformation(s). Another example of a transformational approach to festival-making can be found in Anne Petiau’s masterly discussion of the gift exchange process underpinning many of France’s teknivals. Introducing the concept of the donation principle, Petiau walks us through a potted-history of the French outdoor rave tradition —its ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, from the free-spirited ’90s to the harder, repressive later years. Built on gift economy principles, the researcher finds a complex and often contested social ecology at work: “the party-as-gift and the gift of music (can) also generate social superiority ... [while] a certain pleasure be find in...a generosity that makes sense of itself” (170). It is not unlikely that large numbers of teknival adherents have experienced both personal and social transformation in the very material acts of co-creating these vast events, often with dozens of sound systems, which, at their peak, lingered on from days into weeks.

Further chapters explore equally fascinating and instructive avenues of the EDMC, or wider alternative festival, experience. Judy Park starts her ethnography Searching for a Cultural Home: Asian American Youth in the EDM Festival Scene with a reminder that “few scholars have focused on non-white participants’ negotiations of race or class” (71). While applying notions of belonging and authenticity to her debate, Park concludes “Asian American youth have turned to the EDM festival scene to fill the cultural void created by their status as perpetual foreigners” (87). Based on her data, she arrives at the sober assessment that, for many ethnic interviewees, white people are still the main characters at events. Likewise getting her boots muddy in the field, Alice O’Grady, in Dancing Outdoors, return to the almost prophetic theorizing of Hakim Bey in applying the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” (TAZ) to Britain’s persistent alternative party circuit, and reminds us of the impact of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Oder Act; a draconian measure intended to snuff out outdoor party action. At smaller scale DIY events like Alchemy and Magikana she finds a healthy, fulfilling TAZ at work where activities like blacksmithing demonstrations sit easily alongside eclectic DJ sets, dancing and play for all ages. Last, Paolo Maguadda’s Towards a Cosmopolitan Weekend Dance Culture in Spain analyses two contrasting cases from Spanish electronic music cultural history: the wild ruta destroy techno bashes of the ’90s, and Sonar—the Barcelona electronic music happening, which, unlike the ruta parties held in warehouses and clubs in Valencia’s dock areas, lasting only for a brief giddy period in the ’90s, has helped construct “a legitimate discourse of electronic music as art” (176).

By the time the reader reaches the concluding chapter she may well be in need of a good old festival yarn, transformational or otherwise, and that is ably provided by St John in his history of Burning Man, held annually for upwards of 70,000 on the Nevada desert playa. The editor eschews cultural anthropology stances, delving into a kind of Mad Max soap opera for an imagined anarchic age, starting with the widely acknowledged view that Burning Man organizers were for many years opposed to sound system culture. A true latter-day veteran of Burning Man, St John ventures to all vectors of the vast playa to see the changes, and interviews some fascinating characters. Terbo Ted, recognized as the first person to play a DJ set there, remembers, “ravers were always pariahs...we were the poor people on the wrong side of the tracks and the wrong side of the man [the central burning figure]” (226). St John regales us with tales of resistance such as the time a crazy man tried to chainsaw through sound system cables and when shadowy people dropped poo bundles from a helicopter onto a repetitive beats dancefloor. In time, however, the account reaches the Space Cowboy’s vast flamboyant Mog, a mega-beefy mobile system, and mutant vehicles such as the out-of-this-world Dancetronauts system verily crush all opposition. These shenanigans lead St John to offer thoughts on the playa’s various shades of “discommunitas”, but the reader leaves with a fundamentally warm glow from the high octane party, and its multi-tendrilled desert cosmos.

Weekend Societies is a welcome and valuable contribution to an expanding literature on the alternative festival phenomenon, offering numerous avenues for further investigation given an eager researchers’ capacity to fend off chain saw-wielding critics, party round-the-clock, and hunt for the most innovative of creative expressions wherever the transformational path may lead.