Writing the Vibe: Arts of Representation in Electronic Dance Music Culture

Graham St John

Griffith University (Australia)


I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff. And I want in.[1]

Has the craft of writing ossified in electronic dance music cultural studies? Perhaps the craft has never been suitably honed in a field where text takes a back seat to sonic and body arts, where the artifice of music production and the technics of DJ performance are championed, and where dance is an art form irreducible to the written word. But if researchers aren’t coached as writers—and thus as performers—then EDM culture studies will (still) reek like your footwear after sustained punishment. And while EDM culture studies remains a nascent field, debate on the methodology most suited to its domain is integral to its maturation. This impetus has given rise to the current edition of Dancecult, with its contributions confirming the complexity of a field that has multidisciplinary inputs, multiple foci and enjoys varied methodological and representational approaches. It also demonstrates that EDMC studies needs a research culture in which debates about appropriate methods transpire. In the spirit of this edition, this essay is intended to assist the growth of that endeavour. In particular, I pursue writing as a self-reflexive discipline that is not dismissive of sensory impressions. I invoke the participatory “research artist” whose work, as Tamy Spry (2001: 709) had it, is a “weave of performative autoethnographic poetry and theoretical prose”. It is recognised that the art forms of EDM demand unique representational techniques in the formulation of an artifice not divorced from the field of sensations, where methodological solutions are literally forged on the floor, in the club, at the festival, inside the vibe. Finally, I introduce an experimental approach, a sampledelic research adventure if you will, shaped in response to stale heuristics, and adopted as one strategy in my struggle to transpose the experience of psychedelic trance.

In the autoethnographic tradition, researchers have grown accustomed to the phenomenal blurring of distinctions between the personal and the social, the self and other, the field and the non-field.[2] In a research field where the experience of dance music—involving the dissolution of boundaries between self and other—remains pivotal, these distinctions are routinely subject to annihilation. And yet researchers hold the responsibility of transposing what happens in the field (there) into academic discourse (here). How can we negotiate this transposition? In the self-reflexive approach, a researcher will adapt practices and techniques of representation in-situ. These techniques are often unlike or modified from those originally carried to the field. This process of revelation and adaptation is grounded in experience, and ways researchers transpose their experience from the field into scholarship offers a typical measure of acceptance (within academia and EDM cultural industries) of the results. I do not wish to repeat the now recognised problem of researchers being hygienic and detached without offering solutions to endless abstraction. What do I mean by experience? I take heed from Michael Jackson (1989), who encouraged the lived experience of the researcher in dialogue with his/her subjects, an “epistemological openness” where none of the senses are to be excluded from ethnographic reportage, as in the strategic use of poetry, personal reflections and other perceptive methods. By experience, I also mean its absence or lack, the acknowledgement of failings, inadequacies, paucity in awareness or comprehension. Can a single researcher, or team of researchers, hold sentience over an entire field, with multiple participants and a shifting terrain that is as global as it is local, as if possessing an all-seeing-eye?

How might a radical empiricism of the vibe differ from journalism? In most print journalism, commentators are only briefly, if at all, immersed in the scenes about which they commit to write. Their exposure to scenes is usually brisk, brushing up against artists and event-goers typically on assignment from editors or producers. They “break stories” on scenes in which they are not experienced and for which they care little. There are exceptions of course, with some reporters taking to scenes like a stylus to a groove, whose commentary shapes the very cultures to which they commit as scribes. While some, like Nik Cohn, whose fictive 1976 article for New York magazine inspired Saturday Night Fever (see Gilbert and Pearson 1999: 7–12), effectively misrepresent entire scenes, others have offered genuine accounts of scenes in which they’re participants, fans, collectors, selectors, players, dancers. Simon Reynolds stands out here. In fact, he went a long way towards seeding EDM cultural studies. It is Reynolds to whom we‘re indebted, along with Altered State author Matthew Collin (1997), for inspired translations of EDM aesthetics and cultural context. We should not underestimate the value of these unwitting midwives, for left to academicians whose prose may be as opaque as it is derivative, the alternative too often lies somewhere between the torturous and the banal.

There are clearly traditional methods (e.g. quantitative, musicological) useful to EDMC studies, and those adopted should by necessity reflect the research inquiry. Yet too often we find projects closed to interdisciplinary perspectives and new possibilities for percipience, a disciplinary myopia untenable in a world where illumination is merely “a few clicks away”. One also wonders about the benefits of short-range projects, such as, for example, research conducted on psytrance participants in Western Massachusetts by Maira (2003). The position at the outset catches my attention.

This paper does not include a standard confessional; however, underlying my research is a question about betrayal, or perhaps the risk of betrayal—not because of an anxiety about communicating an “empirical truth” gleaned from “being there” but rather, due to the risk of mis-translating the sensory, embodied experience of electronic music and dance culture into a medium that is unable to convey its rhythms and pleasures, of betraying the textures of the music and dance and the investments in it of the young people I interviewed (Maira 2003: 3).

There was to be no authoritative statement from inside the vibe, supposedly because this realm of the extraordinary cannot be translated via the “house” styles of cultural studies and related academic disciplines prioritizing the textual, verbal and visual elements of cultural products (Desmond 1997: 30). This is not an uncommon problem, as I think many researchers, especially those who’ve dabbled in fields of study for short-range objectives, would agree. But the comments reveal an intellectual fallacy recognised by phenomenologists, among others: that symbolic expression can stand in equivalence to experience. As Charles D. Laughlin understands, it never can, and it’s a mistake to think that experience, especially non-ordinary or transpersonal states of consciousness that we might associate with transcendent dance states, or listening to music even, can ever be accurately transposed in symbolic media outside of direct experience. And yet, as Laughlin writes, “it is a copout to science to take refuge in the claim of ineffability and attempt no description of experience whatsoever” (2012: 30). So while the gulf between lived experience and expression, the somatic and the semiotic, is essentially unbridgeable, researchers are nevertheless obliged, indeed compelled, to find creative rhetorical techniques to transpose their experience. Such transposition is reliant upon ethnographic methods where both experience and its artful expression are central preoccupations. EDMCs are far from structurally identifiable cultures possessing unique symbol systems—and thus possess their own unique perplexities for ethnographers. Laughlin’s insights are nevertheless applicable: broaden the range of fieldwork experience and “become as clever as possible when creating modes of symbolic expression of experience” (2012: 31).

Since cultural studies emerged at a time when researchers of “youth subcultures” identified “ritual” through a cultural Marxist lens, subsequent deficiencies in methodology might be accounted for. But while cultural studies, and perhaps more so sociology, cultural geography and cultural criminology, may be among those disciplines producing researchers ill-equipped to read and write the vibe, in Discographies, Gilbert and Pearson (1999) had already shown how researchers could adequately convey the state of the floor in a discourse heavily inflected with the critical theory of Kristeva, Derrida and others. In disciplines such as anthropology, music, performance and queer studies, new multimodal methods have emerged that outmode approaches reliant upon critical distance (from the senses), and yet which enable critical engagement. As Spry wrote: “Coaxing the body from the shadows of academe and consciously integrating it into the process and production of knowledge requires that we view knowledge in the context of the body from which it is generated” (2001: 725). Autoethnography, she further stated, “is a felt-text that does not occur without rhetorical and literary discipline, as well as the courage needed to be vulnerable in rendering scholarship . . . to step out from behind the curtain and reveal the individual at the controls of academic-Oz” (ibid: 714).

Against the life-less discourses of academia where theses are defended like impenetrable fortresses, and where context takes a backseat to theory, Reynolds gave us something close to a bible, in which whole aesthetics came to life on page after page. One thing was certain. Scholars may jostle for recognition as experts, but when I read Generation Ecstasy I knew no greater authority on how to write about EDM culture. And like many readers, I wanted in. Generation Ecstasy illustrated how the vibe, perplexing and ineffable, could be translated using the artifice of the written word. It provided insight on how the media-ecology of the EDM event—in Reynolds’ mission, hardcore—was accessible through the craft of immersive and absorbent individuals who mediate the experience with skill, enabling the reader to be literally transported inside the vibe.

Finally I understood ecstasy as a sonic science. And it became even clearer that the audience was the star: that bloke over there doing fishy-finger dancing was as much a part of the entertainment, the tableau, as the DJs or bands. Dance-moves spread through the crowd like superfast viruses. I was instantly entrained in a new kind of dancing—tics and spasms, twitches and jerks, the agitation of bodies broken into separate components then re-integrated at the level of the dancefloor as a whole. Each sub-individual part (a limb, a hand cocked like a pistol) was a cog in a collective “desiring machine”, interlocking with the sound-system’s bass-throbs and sequencer riffs. Unity and self-expression fused in a forcefield of pulsating, undulating euphoria (Reynolds 1998: xvi).

Reynolds was all over it. In studies of EDM shaped by a variety of disciplinary perspectives there are comparatively few successful efforts to translate the experience of the vibe, even though fields like anthropology have long undergone subjective turns. Expertly conveying the “chemical intimacy” of the dance experience, Phil Jackson’s Inside Clubbing (2004) is a commendable effort. While Jackson held a surprisingly dismissive attitude to religion and ritual, other ethnographers have recognised the religious character of mediated sensations in EDM events. “Sensing is what people come for”, writes Irene Stengs in her analysis of the Dutch Sensation White parties (2007: 237). Articulation of the embodied self and sense-making came of age in EDM research in the ethnography of Fiona Buckland (2002) whose study of “queer world-making” appears to offer as faithful a transposition of the dance floor experience—in her case, New York garage and HiNRG clubs—as you’ll find. Without formal attention to ritual theory, Buckland’s Impossible Dance offers incisive detail on a rhythmic movement-scape “predicated on a balance of stability and novelty”, making careful observations of the “kinespheres” of dancers who “create their own dramas within the matrix of the soundscape” (2002: 73, 79). By contrast, adopting a direct approach to ritual, in Trance Formation (Sylvan 2005), the author is largely absent in a faithful application of liminal heuristics derived from Van Gennep’s rite of passage model (1960 [1909]) by way of Victor Turner’s “liminality”, a processual contrivance inherited by researchers of contemporary cultural performances.

Ritual studies has a complex background, but efforts to conceptualize, classify and circumscribe “ritual” have routinely robbed life from cultural practice, which is why in the 1970s one of the most renowned ethnographic partnerships (Victor and Edith Turner) became immersed in ritual process. As Victor Turner wrote, “deciphering ritual forms and discovering what generates symbolic actions may be more germane to our cultural growth than we have supposed. But we have to put ourselves in some way inside religious processes to obtain knowledge of them” (1975: 32). The Turner’s elected Catholic pilgrimage, a trajectory which would have a strong bearing on “communitas”, a concept which continues to be taken up by researchers without the critical attention it merits. That said, Victor Turner’s work, both the Africanist material and that produced in his later career, bears a stamp of authority. Despite the belaboured efforts to forge a theory of “comparative symbology” and a labyrinthine discourse on liminality, it offers unmistakable clarity on the subject matter of ritual, assisted by a vast analog language forged from a lifelong exposure to fiction, poetry and stage theatre—and thus to the quality and colour of lived experience as conveyed in performance arts.

But while Turner was a remarkable exponent of writing as method, perhaps best illustrated by his early monograph Chihamba, the White Spirit (Turner 1962), he was not engaged in African ritual in the way that scholars of EDM are engaged in their studied practice, as DJ/producers, as dancers or contributing to the culture in other ways. The study of the Ndembu healing ritual Ihamba is among the most renowned in anthropological literature, as recounted in The Drums of Affliction (Turner 1968). But Edith Turner has explained that her late husband had “practically analyzed away the true meaning” (Engelke 2008: 291) of Ihamba. Returning to the Ndembu following Victor’s death some 30 years after their initial field research, and participating in the ritual herself, she claimed to have perceived a spirit in the form of “a large grey blob about six inches across” exorcised from the patient Meru (E. Turner 1992). While Edith’s immersive approach might well be an extension of the “anthropology of experience” to which Victor was contributing at the time of his death (Turner and Bruner 1986), the anthropology of extraordinary experience characterised by the work collected in Young and Goulet (1994) and Goulet and Miller (2007), may set us down nearer to the vibe proper.

But having negotiated the long route to the party, we remain in the queue. The “anthropology of experience” was taken up directly by Michael Jackson, whose work serves as a reminder of the challenges and responsibilities of research. To refer to a public dance event of the kind with which we are familiar as “an event” or “the event” is inherently problematic. As Jackson explained in Existential Anthropology (2005), events can hardly be disentangled from an individual’s experience, as each participant will have their own account of an event, and will have a unique relationship with it. The dance floor, as Buckland (2002: 3) astutely observed in New York clubs, “is packed with stories all pulsating with their own experiences and needs”. Yet, while experiencing an “event” in singular terms is disingenuous, and while liminality is hardly homogeneous, that to which participants seek to return, or commit, is so often reported using this language: the singularity of the vibe, the sensation of connectedness, of telepathic communication and other paranormal experiences, of states of awe shared with others, notably those who are strangers to one’s self. But unlike traditional anthropologies in which experiments are undertaken to get inside religious realities that belong to those who are culturally other to the ethnographer, in EDM, regardless of stated purpose, methods have been sought to understand those who are not so different culturally from one’s self. Which begs the questions: who are these people? And who, for that matter, am I?

Weird Initiations

My entry into EDMC studies has been shaped by formative moments at outdoor events around Melbourne—seasonal parties and festivals at which I’ve formed many of my closest relationships. My family. The experience of being altered together in strange, lush and exotic locations gave me motivation to chase the rabbit into the global warren of psychedelic trance. My first doof was during Easter 1995, and it was unexpected. I was attending Australia’s annual alternative lifestyle festival ConFest, near Moama on the New South Wales bank of the Murray River. My doctoral anthropology research on ConFest, an event recurring annually (and then biannually) since 1976, had been underway for a year or so. I’d grown accustomed to the freakish all-night clothing-optional hand-drumming “tribal” dance explosions. But that year, it all went next level. My friends and I were exposed to an anarcho-psychedelic guerilla operation. In serious dreadlocks and wearing fluoro-camo gear, the conspirators of this insurgency unloaded sound equipment and rigged strobe and black lights in the branches of ghost gums. As the sounds were launched from what seemed like a home-made Katyusha rocket truck, hundreds of decorated festivalgoers marshaled in a spontaneous flowering of energy, back-dropped by fire dance performances and foregrounded by an undergrowth of rare gesticulations.

It was a crude rinky-dink sound system by today’s standards, but that night, my torso spiraled loose from its moorings as my bare feet stepped into a shimmering landscape of which I was at that time unaccustomed. The electronic sounds DJed from CDs were new to me for the most part, but the most arresting I later learned were releases on labels like Dragonfly Records, Matsuri Records and Psy-Harmonics—much of it labeled Goa Trance, although not exclusively. But I didn’t know any of that then, just that I appeared to be downloading an iridescent overture thick with the scent of kerosene—soaked on the Kevlar wicks of fire staffs twirled by lissome feraliens in sync with the sonic whorls concatenating throughout the forest. This exposure seemed like the perfect segue to ConFest’s “tribal” scene, a palpably novel lens on a memory that was very old. In my recollections and that of my compatriots, then and since, it felt like we were co-conspirators in an anamnesiatic adventure—we were unforgetting. As the vooor, vooor, vooor, vooor propagated across the billabong and reverberated inside my head, and as I caught smiles, knowing nods and brilliant genuflections from familiar strangers, I knew implicitly that I’d come home.

It was a strange homecoming. I vividly recall a jubilation that was not unanimous. That Wonderland came over for many like a sinister racket hailing from Sauron’s own bowels. What was liberatory for some was basic oppression to others. Among the adversaries were yoga disciples, folk singers and raving technophobes kept from sleep throughout the forest—for whom these sounds were received as an abomination, more or less. The dispute manifested in the struggle for the control of the diesel generator powering the rebel hoedown. In the shadows, assailants disabled the genni, causing the power to fail, and the dance floor devolved as a haggard swarm hammered 44-gallon drums with tent pegs. Despite resistance, doofs of a rebel and legitimate character became a frequent occurrence at subsequent ConFests through the 1990s.These intense self-optimizing outlands became contexts for diverse expressions and extreme states of abandonment. Breaking into expert commentary, Hallucinogen’s (Simon Posford) classic “Demention” (The Lone Deranger, 1997) broadcasted the zeitgeist:

There is an area of the mind which could be called unsane, beyond sanity, and yet not insane. . . . Think of a circle with a fine split in it. At one end is insanity, you go around the circle to sanity, and on the other end of the circle close to insanity, but not insanity, is unsanity.[3]

As sanity was challenged and decibel meters appeared, by the late 1990s, amplified music was prohibited at ConFest, which today features a “silent disco”.[4] Over this period, I came to understand the vibe as contested terrain, a veritable leitmotif in world EDM cultures, psychedelic trance or otherwise.

Who among raving raconteurs and dance ethnographers have not known an extraordinary encounter inside the dancescape? It’s no great secret that altered, even life re-evaluating, conditions, have given common inspiration to research careers in this field. While generally not undergoing classical rites of initiation, most researchers have undergone an initiation of some kind; a noetic interlude, an anomalous encounter on some enchanted evening, weird experiences through which one is vested with an unprecedented awareness. Such may approximate what is commonly identified as “connectedness” (Olaveson, 2004), but until research artists remove the cap and let the ink flow on their own felt motivations for getting involved and continuing to be involved in scenes as researchers and writers, it’s all academic. Transitional experience is typical to entries to the field, or what may become “the field”. In contrast to traditional passage rites, the transit is not presided over by ritual specialists or cultural authorities, but is undertaken according to the imperatives of the self; according to the individual whose biography, networks, desires and emotional resources assist entrance to optimal states of liminal being and facilitate interpretation of incoming data associated with those states. This self-liminalisation is known in shared contexts, and indeed, contexts of shared intoxication. So while one’s status as insider is not conferred through official channels, one must be accepted nevertheless.

For researchers, acceptance could be understood from at least three angles. Firstly, there is the affirmation that is available to any participant among one’s immediate friend networks. As event-cultures, EDMCs can cultivate deep and lasting affinities, in part because the social contexts encourage individuals to be genuine and honest, to be responsible for others, including those with which one forms intimate relationships. Dance cultures, especially those involving long term commitments and seasonal outdoor festal environments in which one lives with others for up to a week at a time—and thus cannot accurately be circumscribed as “nightlife” cultures—are contexts in which one’s perceptions of self-inviolability are challenged through being altered together, and where affective communities revive their energies, harness resources and optimize events so as to revisit these conditions year after year. Of course, given the need to be respectful and discrete in their methods of transposition, the responsibilities of researchers as opposed to non-researcher companions is considerable. Secondly, there is the potential for acceptance (from loose tolerance to partnerships) among stakeholders within the EDM industry, including artist/DJs and event management. For instance, in addition to respectful methods of collecting research data, a researcher’s efforts as a music producer or performing DJ may consolidate trust and assist accessibility, as would their capacity to promote club and festival culture in scene publications and other media. Thirdly, legitimacy can be established within the EDM research community, a circumstance figured through the presentation of research data and critical analyses in official fora or in the content of undergraduate curricula and course modules. Not insignificantly, various factors such as a researcher’s age, gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity and music aesthetic preferences determine acceptance and in/accessibility across these areas.

There are signs that the forms of acceptance, admission and legitimacy mentioned are converging—for instance, where researchers present ideas at EDM events such as visionary arts festivals which host “speakers nodes” and “lifestyle villages” like the Liminal Village at Portugal’s Boom Festival or the Lifestyle Village at Australia’s Rainbow Serpent Festival. This speaks to the formation of cultures in which academics play a keen role, as practitioners, brokers, critics, teachers, etc. We can look to hip-hop studies for a precursor development. As stated by Murray Forman in the introduction to the first edition of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004: 3), whether journalistic or academic scholarship, writing about hip-hop is “cultural labor” integral to its formation.

Without embodied knowledge and exposure, most researchers would struggle to gain access to interlocutors requisite to conducting fieldwork of much value. While gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity hold determining influences with regard to accessibility, for many scholars these identifications are intimately tied to the passionate realm of the dance floor and the music that animates or enchants. These passions and those expressions are found in careers committed to dance worldwide, where the passion of producers of music and events derives from original highs, transgressive adventures, transfigured consciousness known within parties and among the communities forming in their wake. Spontaneous, sensational and transformative experiences give life to a vast network of blogs, electronic fora and social networking pages. And many researchers are keepers of blogs that may be part fan-sites, part production hubs (if the researchers are also music producers for instance), and a platform for cultural commentary facilitating the cultivation of writing skills. For instance, my occasional blog,[5] has sometimes functioned like a field diary where the “notes”, once posted, are always live. This interactive platform has been an indispensable means for generating feedback from interlocutors, enabling the updating and refinement of narratives subsequently tuned for publication in books and other literary venues. This practice has been adopted, often unintentionally, by other researchers uploading their thoughts to the blogosphere.

EDM researchers recognize that in order to successfully mediate the vibe, one has to be there. We’ve travelled a long way from the work of Sarah Thornton, who in Club Cultures stated that she was “an outsider to the cultures in which I conducted research”, and who had “intents and purposes alien to the rest of the crowd” (1996: 2). The finest accounts are insider’s stories which in the case of “House Music 101” (Apollo n.d.), has been available on the net for well over a decade, and is among the most moving of narratives, all the more given the author’s proximity to his subject, and which is unrestricted in relating the pleasures and the pain in the evolution of house music club culture. While the pleasurable aspects of EDMC have moved into research vogue by 2012, given the nature of state-sponsored research, much writing is guarded when it comes to psychoactivating compounds—for instance, psychedelics and other compounds subject to prohibition and control. Most students writing about psychedelic dance culture, for instance, are boxed in and stifled by their obligation to follow “human ethics” protocols possessing debatable applicability to their research projects. The standard procedure is that students must colour within the lines such that innovation is minimised and graduate students, as a matter of survival, simply trot out their deadlined dissertations within the guidelines. Given the gradual lifting of the 40–45 year moratorium on official research into the effects of psychedelic compounds, effectively led by Rick Doblin of MAPS—Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies—(Shaw 2008; Sessa 2012), the coming years will be important, as relevant research groups, forums and conferences evolve worldwide. When I observe, for instance, the paucity of non-epidemiological and prevention oriented research on psychedelic EDM culture in countries like Israel, where psytrance became a popular music, there is a long road ahead (although see Schmidt 2012).

Significant progress has been made in the face of an institutionalised taboo, for published research over the past fifteen years or more has added to our knowledge of EDM cultures.[6] Phil Jackson’s (2004) account of underground clubs in the UK impresses since the researcher did not baulk at his own experience with a variety of drugs integral to what he regarded as the reconfiguration of the habitus performed by regular participation in dance clubs. But most ethnographic research on drugs has focused on usage in socially marginal and lower socio-economic environments—research dominated by epidemiological and pathology concerns. Research into EDMCs requires altered methodologies suited to its compounds, populations and locales. Demonstrating in their Comprehending Drug Use how the ethnography of drug use “produces both new areas of knowledge and new areas of inquiry”, Bryan and Singer’s (2010: 2) approach has far reaching implications, for it suggests that drug ethnography has a transformative effect on method as well as the understanding of drug use. That said, it’s rather pointed that their book pays little attention to “dance drugs”. While the latter is an evolving field of research that is beyond the scope of this commentary to assess, it is pertinent to state that in efforts to overcome the limitations of specific methods—i.e. quantitative, epidemiological, phenomenological—and to become sensitive to the practices of risk and pleasure within the consumer settings of EDM events, researchers have begun to seek a distribution of cross-methodological approaches to make sense of their fields of study (e.g. Hunt, Moloney and Evans 2010).

As a global cultural phenomenon, EDM is internally diverse, with a multitude of scenes inflected with class, race, gender, sexual and age variables, impacting the character of experimentation with diverse compounds the adoption of which has shaped music and culture in ways that are only beginning to be understood. Screened on the UK’s Channel 4, the 2012 documentary Idris Elba's How Clubbing Changed the World demonstrated that MDMA stands out in neon across all of these variables. Ecstasy was rated by those ostensibly surveyed as # 1 among twenty “defining moments of the greatest cultural phenomenon of our generation”. Although expansive medical scientific studies abound, research on the experience and socio-cultural contexts of ecstasy-using populations remains disproportionate to its recognised status as defining.[7] Focused investigations on the use of psychedelic compounds in EDM communities are even thinner on the ground, although for rank disparagement in a “contact zone” see Saldanha (2007). Generally, we’ve needed to travel outside the halls of academia to largely unconventional formats like the Liminal Village at Portugal’s Boom Festival, the Entheon Village at Burning Man, or Australia’s Entheogenesis Australis, or in the activities of Frankfurt’s Alice-Connecta project and other organisations who follow Sasha Shulgin’s wise council to “be informed, then choose” (1991: xiv). It is in these locales that we find appropriate fora for the discussion of themes crucial to event-goers, like cognitive liberty, harm reduction, entheogens, spirituality and “dance drugs”.

But what are “dance drugs”? Many researchers of EDMCs have discovered music scenes and their events host to an assemblage of sensory technologies. These assemblages are never simply “chemical”, nor cultures commensurable to the psychoactive compounds (or “substances”) that circulate within them. In these environments, technics facilitating dance, or trance dance, such as sound design, amplification equipment and lighting, as well as DJ techniques, are designed to enhance the sensory experience of participants in ways not dissimilar to “dance drugs”. Research on the cross-media ecology of EDM events is in its infancy, and finding a route past the “bouncers”—including institutional bouncers—is tricky. The solution, I suggest, will involve ethnographic intimacy in creative approaches that remain open-ended, such that models of analysis effectively derive from the field itself. While this may seem unconventional, and the results unexpected, there is nothing unconventional about cultivating method and theory in-situ. There are precedents. While Newcombe (2008) expressed the merits of a “psychonautic” model in which the researcher observes his/her own subjective experience with psychoactive compounds, others (Demant, Signe and Kirstine 2010) have suggested a “socionautic” approach which recognizes the social setting of EDM contexts and incorporates ethnographically informed interviewing based on experiences shared by the researcher and the researched, including that which is informed by psychonautics. Shared experience is crucial here, but what I would like to add to these immersive approaches is a required intimacy with cross-media practice; one which recognizes that assemblages of sensory technologies and popular cultural resources are programmed, synthesised and remixed to affect altered states of consciousness within the optimised design frameworks of EDM events.

A radical empiricism of the vibe therefore involves an intimate understanding of the effects of media assemblages, their sources of simulation and how they are experienced in situ. This perspective informs the remainder of this commentary. To rejoin my earlier discussion, the following is part of an effort to textualise the vibe, a subject to which I’ll contribute through an exploration of the differentially liminalised media-ecology of the psychedelic dance floor.

The Media Ecology of the Psychedelic Dance Floor

It’s like you come on this planet with a crayon box. Now you may get the 8 pack, you may get the 16 pack, but it’s all in what you do with the crayons—the colours—that you’re given. And don’t worry about drawing within the lines or colouring outside the lines. I say colour outside the lines, you know what I mean. Colour right off the page. Don’t box me in. We are in motion to the ocean. We are not landlocked, I’ll tell you that![8]

Laughing Buddha & Pogo’s “Dragon Wings” (Pogo—Wingmakers, 2004).

Waking Life’s Boat Car Guy is a popular resource plundered by producers within psychedelic trance and other styles. I distinctly recall his cameo in what I later learned was Laughing Buddha & Pogo’s “Dragon Wings”, a track I first encountered over New Year’s Eve 2002/03 at Exodus Cybertribal Gathering, Bald Rock Bush Retreat, NSW, Australia (released on Pogo—Wingmakers, 2004). Don’t box me in echoed over a well-stomped dance ground as wave upon wave of jubilant techno-ferals threw down under a new moon. Leading with the exclamation, “you’ve all been exposed to a psychotropic compound”, the composition’s producers adopted a common technique by which hardware and software samplers are used to mediate advanced states of liminality. This is no place to embark upon a complete analysis, but this EDM tradition draws inheritance from an esoteric cut-up heritage which has included Dadaists, Surrealists and Discordians, as well as Jamaican dub, hip-hop, break beat scientists and house and techno DJs who have broken down, re-versioned and synthesised existing works to create new form. In electronica with a distinctively progressive accent inherited from psychedelic rock, the remixological synthesis is inflected with occultic revelations and romantic sentiments, and is intended to augment wholeness, often by way of charming kōans and reconfigured kernels of illumination. As sound alchemists in league with a host of artists right down to the dance floor habitués themselves, producers are sampledelic emissaries of altered states, mystical conditions and expressive individuation (see St John, Forthcoming 2013a). As part of their stock-in-trade, producers adapt vocal material to encapsulate transcendent conditions such as those anticipated at convulsive sites of performance like Bald Rock.

While such techniques are but one element of this transportative assemblage, what I call nanomedia consists of fragments sampled from various sources—e.g. cinema, TV, documentary film scripts, radio broadcasts, podcasts, etc.—and programmed into the music itself. Fleeting, heavily edited sound-bytes, entire film scripts condensed into a few carefully chosen lines on eight minute tracks, and conveyed to habitués in those principal locales of reception: the dance floors of clubs, parties and festivals.[9] Typically shorter than the clip from Waking Life, these fragments are programmed in productions like epigraphs, or dropped like audio-bombs detonating at the breakdowns and sometimes reignited throughout. Scripted syntax from science fiction cinema, political speeches, psychonautical insights and vocal material from countless unknown sources are appropriated, détournéd and repurposed by producer/DJs to amplify liminal conditions familiar and desired. Like opening stanzas in poetry, captivating epigrams, or unexpected punch lines, these carefully selected fragments affect the vibe on dance floors across clubs, parties and festivals worldwide. Enabling dialogue with non-ordinary states of consciousness, they hold the uncanny familiarity of an inner-voice. “As your attorney I advise you to take a hit out of the little brown bottle in my shaving kit. You won’t need much, just a tiny taste”. As the pace builds to a consistent thud and effects are used with an impact not unlike that of a slow tightening head clamp, a sonic billboard lights up: “That stuff makes pure mescaline seem like ginger beer, man”. The track by Hungarian Para Halu (Adam Hohmann) is “Adrenochrome” (from Daksinamurti, Shanti Jatra II: Shamans And Healers, 2012), named after a questionably psychoactive compound the use of which was mythologised in the fiction of H. S. Thompson. But while some texts, such as the familiar voice of Dr Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam, 1998) rewoven here by Para Halu are exploited to connote mythically transgressive states, others are deployed to invoke quests associated with compounds and decoctions revered as “entheogens” that ostensibly awaken the divine within. Visionary artist, Alex Grey, for example, recalls “a kind of taunting voice in the back of my mind that was saying to me, ‘get in touch with the ayahuasca’”. Here, on Serbian act Sideform’s progressive “Santo Diame” (Santo Diame, 2011), audio graffiti effectively promotes the mystical experience commonly associated with the Amazonian brew ayahuasca. Switching floors and venues, Grey’s voice appears again and again. Amid exotic wildlife and shamans’ song backed by a slow burning arrangement care of Merkaba, he whispers in the ear of the entranced: “the plants are talking to us, we need to listen” (“Hooked On Jungle”, Awaken, 2010).

As Reynolds illustrated with MDMA, dance floors are testing grounds for psychoactive compounds, sensory technologies infusing digital soundscapes and visionary mindscapes. With a powerful impact on sensory perception and enhancing creativity, LSD deserves deep, intuitive and subtle cultural analysis. The potency of LSD, and its overt influence on style, music and aesthetics is in notorious contrast to its invisibility. While psytrance “conceptechnics”, to use Eshun’s (1998: 00[-003]) phrase, are literally inked in psychedelics, the references are often coded, using triggers of varying subtlety and familiarity. At Exodus in 2003, splashed with water descending from the stars like liquid mercury, absorbing the bass at a cellular level, joined by partners in the sublime, I was floored by the sanguine news: “Welcome to you, the lucky finder of this golden ticket. . . . Oompa loompa, oompa loompa, oompa loompa, doopity-doo”.[10] By contrast with colour- and odour-free compounds, if you could smell the music at a host of open-air events in Australia and elsewhere, it has become infused with the pungent aromas of consciousness altering compounds, noticeably DMT—dimethyltryptamine, a crucial ingredient in ayahuasca—often by way of blends like changa, which contains herbs infused with DMT containing alkaloids from various plant species. The effects of smoking DMT have been integral to psychedelic trance, as conveyed on the debut of popular ethnodelic act Shpongle. “Vapour Rumours” (Are You Shpongled?, 1998) had broadcast the news: “It’s three o’clock on what may well be the most important afternoon of the history of this world. Humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial species”. And later, having scrambled to check the condition your condition is in: “we’re receiving the transmission. . . . We’re seeing some sort of vapour. I don’t know, some sort of gas or something. . . . Wait, something’s happening”. Ten years later, pressed into psychedelic trance productions like a sonic imprimatur, vapourised at a high temperature and inhaled, DMT had become more than a rumour. With commentators endorsing “heavy doses of dimethyltryptamine” transporting users into “another fucking dimension”, as comedian Joe Rogan exhorted on Quantize’s “Dymethyltryptamine” (sic) (DJ Osho, Borderline, 2009), the floodgates were opening. More recently, in a standard progressive arrangement, Hypnoise programs a digital storyboard for the phenomenon: “. . . and then I noticed there is this woman off to my right with a real long nose, green skin. She was turning this dial and I realised she was turning the volume of lights up and down on the city in the distance. And as soon as I looked at her she noticed I was watching her and she said ‘What else do you want?’ I said, ‘What else do you have?’”[11]

Complementary to the remixing practices of producer/DJs, and the sampling of psychoactive compounds among habitués, vocal samples are repurposed from their original media and intent to service different narratives. And they are typically received in a sensationally altered way than audiences in a cinema or seated before a TV screen. With re-mediated fragments from popular cultural and other sources programmed into the sound and media ecology of the dance floor, habitués embody, perform and respond to these remixed narratives in unique ways. While film and television have been recognised as popular media through which religious sensibilities are expressed and received (e.g. Martin and Ostwalt 1995; Lyden 2003), how EDM performs this function through the iteration and recomposition of media content (such as film scripts, or song lyrics) is little understood. A formative approach is offered by Buckland observing the impact of lyrical samples—especially that of female African-American singers—in queer performance in house clubs in New York where this content “could prompt dramatic or generally representational gestures, facial expressions, or body attitudes from participants” (2002: 74). It is recognised that, performed in garage and Hi-NRG clubs where “the girl gets to sing her song”, and where the range of movement is wider, the appropriated samples effectively enable personal and communal meaning. By contrast, within the more restricted confines of hard-house where these same voices are often cut-up and sampled in shorter bursts, “the samples were repeated to such an excess that the meaning became abstract, and the vocal primarily became another element of rhythm rather than the discursive or narrative performance of a subject with whom dancers forged an identification” (2002: 76). Complex, interactive, polysemous and highly idiosyncratic contexts pose a challenge for researchers, not least because music aesthetics are diverse, shift rapidly and participants enter spaces with varying intent.

The voices accumulate, nevertheless, channeled by music and scene producers complementing other sonic and visual media building to affect a blizzard of sensory impressions. As illustrated by Shpongle, among countless others, common to the material sampled in Goa/psytrance are extraterrestrial space travel narratives edited to mediate transpersonal experiences. Cutting it up on the floor, half out of their minds, the receptive are offered garbled exegeses on momentous thresholds of ascension with which they may be distinctly familiar. Carving obtuse shapes into the night, they’re audio flyer-dropped with imperfect maps charting uncertain and yet potentially transformative outcomes for the self.“The hour for which people have been waiting for centuries. . . . Man is stepping into the unknown world with caution”.[12] Enthusiasts have long grown familiar with redeployed scripts from space programs, science fiction cinema and other narratives, whether the voice of Carl Sagan (“The exploration of the cosmos is a voyage off self-discovery”)[13] or the enquiry from Heywood Floyd (“what’s going to happen?”) to which space avatar Dave Bowman responds (“something wonderful”).[14] Reading between the lines, mediations evoking the journey into outer-space insinuate the inner journey of self-discovery. And in the cosmic liminality of space, contact with the alien other appears to allegorize the becoming of one’s divine self, consistent with progressive, transpersonal and evolutionary psycho-spiritual discourses. Producers typically filter a litany of material relating to ancient astronauts, alien abductions, UFO visitations and transmissions that effectively blur the boundaries between self and other, consciousness and unconsciousness (see St John 2013b, Forthcoming). While this artifice of self-discovery effectively translates the narratives of science fiction cinema and TV (see Cowan 2010) onto the dance floor, the difference is that, in the EDM event, psy or otherwise, transcendent otherness is a multisensorial design imperative. Sound, video, décor, black-light and visionary art installations are configured such that events—especially those in the psychedelic continuum—appear like off-world contact zones, landing craft and motherships in which participants become abducted from their routine selfhood, in the company of others—fellow contactees—who are strangers (alien) to one’s self.

This is complex terrain, of which vocal sampling is one aspect. Many tracks and entire artist albums do not possess any vocal samples, many DJs will not select tracks with vocal samples, and, perhaps due to textual polysemy, muted narrative or misrecognition, there is no guarantee that anyone will receive the material in ways intended by producers. Popular cultural artifacts, as George Lipsitz (2001: 13) argued, have no fixed meanings. Consumers of popular culture “move in and out of subject positions in a way that allows the same message to have widely varying meanings at the point of reception”. Each participant is exposed to the media-ecology of a dance floor carrying a unique set of knowledge, intentions and expectations. There is a veritable pharmacopeia of psychoactives to which participants are exposed, and not only is it the case that reactions vary in accordance with pharmacology, the same compound at the same dose can have dramatically different effects on users given standard variables of “set and setting”. And this is to say nothing of polydrug repertoires and abuse.

And yet producers of “progressive”, “dark”, “psybient” and other psychedelic electronic styles, continue to poach lines from a variety of sources to evoke self-potentiality. In a not uncommon strategy, through remediated material from science fiction and horror cinema, spiritual teachers and altered statesmen, enthusiasts are offered guidance to follow their inner voice, to find the keys to unlock the mysteries within, and to achieve their potential. The persistent message is one of self-divinity, and more specifically what has been referred to as “entheogenic esotericism” (Hanegraaff 2013), often with allusion to the gnostic effects of ingesting ayahuasca, DMT or hallucinogenic mushrooms, posing a challenge, for example, to Christian exegesis on original sin. Thus, Israeli duo Streamers project Terence McKenna on “Power and Light” (Power And Light, 2012): “We have no idea what it would mean in our own lives if we could throw off the notion of ourselves as fallen beings. We are not fallen beings. When you take into your life the gnosis of the light-filled vegetable . . . the first thing that comes to you is: you are a divine being. You matter. You count. You come from realms of unimaginable power and light and you will return to those realms”.

While such narratives reveal decidedly progressive and gnostic aptitudes, other tropes reverberate across these interstices that resemble carnivals as much as New Age festivals. While many events host workshop areas with the practitioners of a range of disciplines of the mind and body promoting their styles, and while “chill” zones are popular spaces of gentle repose where music is curated to calm and relax, psychedelic electronic event culture is infused with the subversive, chaotic and liberatory mood of the carnival, amplified, with the assistance of samples from popular film detonated inside the mutant theatre of the dance floor. Before breaking into a driving rattle, the prologue on Canadian producer Monkey Machine’s “Horned Goddess” (Neurotransmitter, 2011) projects the croaking of electronic frogs within a thick forest-scented atmosphere. And then:

[Janine Melnitz]: I bet you like to read a lot too.

[Dr. Egon Spengler]: Print is dead.

[Melnitz]: Oh, that’s very fascinating to me. I read a lot myself. Some people think I’m too intellectual, but I think it’s a fabulous way to spend your spare time. I also play racquetball. Do you have any hobbies?

[Spengler]: I collect spores, molds and fungus.

Plundered from Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), the lines are syntactic audio decor strung up in the psychedelic carnivalesque, the parameters of which amplify and distort the “grotesque realism” Mikhail Bakhtin (1968) observed in popular carnival and literature. In Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, that which is “low” (e.g. lower body strata) is exalted, and the high inverted and derided—a perennial source of amity. In the “second life of the people”, disorder, freakiness, the anomalous, hold sovereignty, a rollicking circumstance fuelled by mind-alterants such as the psychoactive compounds and research chemicals circulating within EDM event cultures, like THC, 2C-I or methoxetamine. In the psychedelic carnivalesque, the excessive “violation of natural forms and proportions by exaggeration and hyperbolism” (Vitos 2010: 166) is facilitated in experiments with psychoactives. Dogmatism, rational control, propriety, the finished and the fixed are challenged through the effects of ingesting a variety of compounds and plants, the iconography of which, like that of psilocybin-containing (i.e. hallucinogenic) mushrooms—intonated in the repurposing of Spengler’s statement—pervades event culture. Redeployed media received by interactive audiences serve to make a mockery of sanity, subservience and inflexibility, and at the same time evoke, sometimes reverentially, other times stridently, the tools by which these conditions are subverted. When dance floor habitués are alerted to the realisation that “my mind is going, I can feel it”—the familiar voice of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey—the open-ended and desirable consequences of surrendering control is burlesqued.[15]

Cultural datafacts may then be purposed to gnostic clarity, while at other times, on other dance floors, and under the direction of other DJs, or perhaps within the same track, they may be purposed to subvert, confuse, mystify. The pursuit of a carnivalesque aesthetic can be observed across EDM styles, and is not reliant upon nanomediations. Recent work released by Russian psy-artist Kindzadza (Leo Greshilov) is characterised by a fast-paced cartoonscape that is decidedly nonsensical. Material on Nano Ninja (2012) possesses a fusion of styles, from furious “psycore” to dub and jazz. Thrust amid this torrent, dancers aren’t provided opportunity for contemplative pauses. In “Way Of The Nano Warrior”, a character from the animated science fiction sitcom Futurama exhorts the massive to never look back: “If you stop partying for a single second, you’ll explode and kill everyone here in a fireball of melted gears and splattered bones. . . . Keep dancing. Keep whooping it up. You must burn off the doomsday energy as fast as it’s produced, or it will build to critical levels”. In “Future True” a persistent heavy power trance-like buzz backgrounded by a bpm riding over 170 cuts into breaks and what sounds like a squealing electric kettle. In the unrelenting, convoluted and scatological soundscape sometimes referred to as “neurotrance”, such as that produced by Psykovsky, Fatal Dischord or Erofex, the effect is like brain surgery prizing loose a torrent of memories. Though in this case, as multitudes cut sick, the effect pushes closer to psychosis more than anamnesis. Much of what is today referred to as “night” music is designed to make as much sense as genius improv comedian Reggie Watts, who seems to cameo on “My Little Pony” by Hallucinogenic Horses,[16] before occupants of the floor are corralled by a spooked cacophony.

Sampledelic Research

Rather than censor their senses, researchers of EDM and its cultures need to get creative. As an experimental writing technique, in this essay I have resampled vocal material from audio compositions performed on psychedelic trance dance floors. Undertaking a brief cultural archaeology of the electrosonic digital arts, these samples—constituting material drawn from a variety of sources—are textualised with the rather challenging goal of transcribing the vibe. In this brief montage, I have selected and reanimated vocal datafacts remixed to illuminate the superliminal sensibility producers/DJs routinely augment in their sound-art practices, and to which dance floor habitués are exposed. As what I have been calling nanomediations represent one element in a liminal arts industry involving sound craft, stage design, fashion and textile, visionary art, research chemicals, etc., the treatment of this media offers one tactic of representation which would ideally be developed in conjunction with other methods, including conventional techniques like interviews and participant observation—indeed sampledelic techniques of this nature could hardly be conducted successfully without one’s exposure as a participant. This offers an example of a technique developed in situ, an experiment that has furthered understanding of the phenomenon under study, a phenomenon for which standard liminal heuristics were found insufficient. Textual analysis of remixed media redeployed to different outcomes—e.g. augmenting gnosis / obliterating meaning—has assisted perception of the psytrance vibe as a realm of complex potentiality.

In the end, the dilemma remains: how do we transpose the field into scholarly discourse? Focusing on experience as a primary research asset, this essay can be considered as part of a process in an effort to resolve this problem. First hand sensory experience facilitates perceptive modification of existing heuristics enhancing modes of transposition. At least that’s the fiction. There is one thing clear: sensory technologies are integral to EDM and its cultures. The reading and writing of that which is as scintillating and sensuous as the vibe demands appropriate research arts. An experimental artifice of scratching, remixing, repurposing draws influence from the practice of EDM itself. As DJ/producers and dancers are remixologists and bricoleurs, so are researchers of EDM cultures. This interpretative method could be scrutinised via perspectives deriving insight from musicology, phenomenology, psychoanalysis and gender studies. The method outlined could be expanded through attention to the sampling of visual media like film and documentary sources by visual artists and VJs, often in montages of repeating images that are projected in sync with the DJ performances to enhance the atmosphere and gestalt of the event. A comprehensive approach would offer comparisons with other EDM scenes and aesthetics. It would also query producers and participants about the significance or otherwise of remediated fragments in the context of EDM events. Such analyses would further our comprehension of the media-ecology of EDM.


I thank the casts and crews of interactive dance floor theatres fragments from which I have attempted to transcribe in this piece. I thank Guest Editor Luis-Manuel Garcia for comments on an earlier draft and Haanumaan for incisive suggestions.

Author Biography

Graham St John is author of six books including Global Tribe: Spirituality, Technology and Psytrance (Equinox 2012) and Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures (Equinox 2009). He is Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Cultural Studies, Griffith University, Australia. He is Executive Editor of Dancecult. His website is Edgecentral. Email:g.stjohn@warpmail.net


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[1] Homer Simpson sampled on Mumbo Jumbo’s (Bill Halsey & Mitch Davies) “Weird, Sick, Twisted” (Psychedelic Electronica 3, 2000). Cosmosis’ remix, “Weird, Sick ‘n’ Twisted” (Contact, 2002) can be heard at: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mkuyhr9ojMA> (accessed 12 February 2013).

[2] See Conquergood (1991), Ellis and Flaherty (1992), Spry (2001), and Tedlock (2005).

[3] The words are spoken by psychoanalyst Sidney Cohen and lifted from the BBC documentary The Beyond Within: The Rise and Fall of LSD (1987).

[4] Where music is a signal broadcast via FM-transmitter picked up by wireless headphones worn by participants.

[5] <http://edgecentral.blogspot.com.au>.

[6] There is a user-updatable list of scholarly EDMC sources at: <http://www.dancecult.net/bibliography>

[7] Although see Beck and Rosenbaum (1994), Malbon (1999) and Leneghan (2011) who provides a useful literature survey.

[8] Bill Wise, the Boat Car Guy in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001).

[9] For an elaboration of nanomedia and its interpretation see St John (2012a), and for the role of nanomedia in producing the pretense of the outlaw vibe, see St John (2012b).

[10] The lines are from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Stuart, 1971) sampled in Mr. Peculiar’s “Charlies Trip” (Liquid, 2001).

[11] Hypnoize’s “Demetrium” on Bom Shankar & Alexsoph—Transmissions (2012). The words are from Mitch Schultz’ documentary DMT: The Spirit Molecule, inspired by the book by that title (Strassman 2001).

[12] From Meander & Ridden’s “Space Navigators” (DJane Malana & Sunstryk—Royal Flush Vol 4, 2012).

[13] From the TV series Cosmos (Sagan, 1980–) sampled on “Self-Discovery” by Cosmosis (Fumbling For The Funky Frequency, 2009).

[14] From Something Wonderful’s Ukajin (1999). The dialogue is from 2010: The Year We Make Contact (Hyams, 1984).

[15] HAL 9000 (from Kubrick, 1968) as sampled, for instance, on Sandman’s “Bad News” (Witchcraft, 1998).

[16] Released on debut The Golden Years The Very Best Of mastered by Tim Schuldt (2012).