Electronic Awakening

Dir. Andrew Johner
USA: Federation of Earth, 2011.

Garth Sheridan

RMIT University (AU)

In the midst of the growing mainstream acceptance and corporatization of EDM cultures in North America, Electronic Awakening is a welcome glance into independent gatherings that have been ongoing since the early 1990s. Though touching on earlier events, the film focuses on the contemporary outdoor electronic dance music scene, and was shot between 2006 and 2011 at parties including Burning Man, Earthdance, Shambala and LoveFest. Alongside festival footage, the film interviews a wide range of DJs, promoters, religious figures, journalists and academics including Terrence McKenna, Robin Sylvan, Anthony D'Andrea, Graham St John and members of Moontribe, Wicked and Tribal Harmonix. The primary emphasis of the documentary is the deeply spiritual basis of the cultures and practices that have developed around these parties, particularly trance music and the possibilities this spirituality might offer for ravers and the world in general.

The interviewees suggest that for people organizing and attending these events, the raves are 21st century "tribal gatherings", where one can experience connectivity to the other ravers and the land, while experiencing states of ecstasy and participating in cleansing through collective dance. Executive producer Julian Reyes sees the experience as rooted in contemporary culture, while building upon older knowledge and belief systems, suggesting that "electronic music is modern shamanism; it is the evolution of ritualized drum circles" (Cronshey 2011). Arguably, the experience of attending raves and participating in spiritual activities potentially offers an alternative to organized religion and a more intuitive connection to divinity.

The development of America's outdoor rave scene is framed as a reaction to increasingly restrictive anti-rave legislation that pushed promoters outside of traditional club spaces, either into larger commercial dance parties, or underground to the limits of the city and into the desert. San Francisco house pioneer DJ Garth explains the motivation for the early outdoor parties thrown by Wicked Crew to be a move away from the restrictions placed on downtown clubs, and a chance to get in touch with nature with the freedom to dance on the beach at full moon. The full moon parties are considered a cornerstone of the outdoor scene in America, and led to the Wicked Tour over the summers of 1994 and 1995, which saw the group travel across America in an old bus with a sound system. This tour was instrumental in spreading the outdoor rave culture across America and culminated in Burning Man Festival. Director Andrew Johner returns to Burning Man throughout the film, and positions the festival as an experiment in an alternate, utopian organization of society based around community, spirituality, support and self-expression, devoid of judgment and capitalist exploitation. In this sense, Burning Man is representative of the values of the scene as a whole.

Through the interweaving of footage filmed at festivals and interviews, outdoor parties are presented as religious gatherings. Festival-goers are shown to establish spontaneous altars to a diverse range of deities, take part in handholding circles and enter altered, ecstatic states. The festival footage used in the film captures the ritualistic, spiritual nature of collective dance that participants experience. Many of those interviewed suggest that dancing to repetitive rhythms induces a state of bliss and transcendence, which opens the mind to positivity and reprogramming. Neo-pagan author Starhawk draws parallels between the outdoor party movement and Earth-based religions, in that they prioritize experience over specific belief systems or dogma. While the personal and non-prescriptive journey of festival spirituality is emphasized, moments where participants reflect on specific rituals, such as Goa Gil spreading Ganga water and building altars to prepare festival sites, ground the discussion and may be more accessible to those outside the movement.

The film presents outdoor raves as a global movement, with people all around the world organizing festivals and engaging in spiritual communion. The footage of Portugal's Boom Festival visually reflects this global dimension, however interviews with attendees and organizers could have been used to make these links explicit. For example, the interview with DJ Garth could have delved into the historical and global context of the outdoor party scene due to his background in London's acid house scene and role in developing UK-style, Jamaican-influenced sound system culture in America. Similarly, Goa Gil is a Sadhu and was predominantly based in the Indian state of Goa through the 1980s and 1990s and was a key figure in the development of Goa trance. Developing strong counter cultural and religious components, Goa trance bound the musical and spiritual together in a significant way, laying the foundation for contemporary gatherings.

Conceived as part of a larger work including the production of a book, the development of the project into other formats may provide possibilities for greater detail and a deeper, critical analysis of the varied manifestation of spirituality in electronic dance music cultures. Electronic Awakening is aimed at a wider audience than those actively participating in the outdoor trance scene, but this is where the documentary is likely to find the most resonance. Indeed, the film has been screening at outdoor parties and chill out spaces globally to great response since 2011.


Cronshey, Terra. 2011. "Dancing to the Digital Shamans". Catalyst Magazine. 30 November: <http://www.catalystmagazine.net/component/k2/item/1818-dancing-to-the-digital-shamans>(accessed 23 June 2013).