Issue 19 : Fall 2010








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How Ya Gonna Come? (2.0)

by Montgomery Cantsin

11 Sep 2010

Graham St. John. Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures.
Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2009, 312 pp.

[nOTE: the rOCTOBER version of this review takes the form of an interview with the author (which will be updated throughout the month). --ed.]


MONTGOMERY CANTSIN: I see your book as an important piece of scholarly work; you seem to be blazing a new trail. Although Simon Reynolds and George McKay ought to be acknowledged as forebears here, I think that your project does differ from either of theirs in significant ways. While 'Teknival' may now be (or for a minute was) a household word in the U.K., knowledge of the existence and significance of anarcho-autonomous and nomadic Techno-Punk communities is surely limited in this country. (Burning Man is of course well known, but it seems to me wholly inappropriate to compare it to something like CzechTek, as I am guessing you might agree).

For me, among the definite highlights of your book are the passages where Terbo Ted is terrorized at knifepoint (at Burning Man) and where Goa Gil saves the day after S.P.A.Z. gets hated by anti-electronic Rainbow-goers. As we see in
TECHNOMAD, S.P.A.Z.'s response to being unwelcome at existing free-for-alls was to co-create the Autonomous Mutant Festival (A.M.F.)--after touring with folks from the U.K.'s Spiral Tribe (a fact of which many current mutants may be unaware). I bring all of this up because the above photo was taken at the most recent Mutantfest! (Which, by the way, is not always held in Oregon as you claim).

Anyway, my first question for you is: Where do you call home? Has all the participant-observing you've been doing uprooted you in any significant way? I understand your next book delves deeper into psytrance--does the research involve traveling?

GRAHAM ST. JOHN: OK, thanks for giving me this opportunity and taking interest in the book. Yes I agree with what you write about Reynolds and McKay, whose work has had a considerable impact on me, as should be apparent in Technomad, though there is a need to develop heuristics suited to the diversity and complexity of EDM countercultures which I have attempted in Technomad via a cultural history of "the vibe".

My home is Australia - currently north-east New South Wales. Travel has been essential to my research, both in Australia and abroad. The work that was performed for Technomad and the forthcoming book on psytrance called Global Tribe (which effectively grew out of the Technomad project) has been conducted during my travels in over a dozen countries. I lost count. While Technomad is not strictly an ethnography, as a cultural history it relies on my first hand observations and participation in the various scenes documented. This is probably clearest in the Australian material. There are other scenes, such as the European teknival movement or the AMF in which I have had lesser involvement in situ. I have not yet been to the AMF, though I have been to Burning Man on three occasions since 2003. I had the option of attending that event again this year since I was in SF for a Technomad launch as part of a BM theme camp fund raiser at 1015 Folsom in late July, but decided to head out to Europe instead, since my book on psytrance is not yet complete and Portugal's Boom festival is the premiere festal site for the expression of psytrance, visionary and related scenes on the planet. And there is barely a skerick of psytrance at Burning Man, which is intriguing given its rather obvious presence there in the late 1990s.

My experiential immersion in the psytrance scene should become apparent in Global Tribe, as I have been to festivals in many countries (over a dozen as mentioned above), and in many cases multiple visits, for the purpose of conducting research. I have recently returned from a three month trip to Europe where, among other things, I attended the Ozora Festival in Hungary, Portugal's Boom, Indian Spirit in Germany and a massive squatted psychedelic warehouse party in London. For me, Portugal is the most inspiring event of the lot. There is certainly nothing that parallels this in the US. My report which was published on Reality Sandwich might offer you some insight on my experience there:

Despite all this travel, I do spend considerable periods of the year in sedentary mode - either in employment, or engaging in hardcore writing, such as that which I'm doing to complete the new book. Also when traveling i generally have the good fortune of staying at friends places at various junctures and oases around the world, places where i have been given access to living resources and spaces to think, live and write. And also to stimulating company! This is very important and I feel blessed.

Do I feel uprooted? I guess having lived in four countries and traveled widely for these projects has afforded me a kind of transnationalism. I feel very much at home at a psytrance festival on the other side of the world, in the company of similarly expatriate characters, fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, drawn to the experience for a diversity of reasons, including their dissatisfaction with routine states of consciousness or dominant and parent cultural impositions in their home or routine lives. In that sense I find the experience to be grounding rather than uprooting, and very familiar, as my identification grows more planetary and less nationalistic. The trajectory is that of movement from a nationalistic culture to a global culture, which is perhaps more accurately a counter culture or a psychedelic culture. But this psychedelic culture is diverse, as is expressed at Boom, where the organisers have moved away from the term "psytrance" in their promotions of the event. But what ever you want to call it, psytrance is likely the most culturally diverse of all the EDM scenes as expressed in the Boom festival which this year hosted people from 70 countries. Despite the aesthetic prejudice that psytrance music gets (and some of it probably deserved) this fact is significant and can hardly be ignored.

MC: Well, let's not get too deep into psytrance because I haven't read the new book. I admit to being prejudiced against certain kinds of psytrance (--the kinds that deserve it, as you say!) but in my case that is partly due to having more of a tendency to go in for harsher, noisier sounds. (Breakcore comes up a little bit in TECHNOMAD, I wonder who will be the first to write a whole book about that. BTW, Have you seen NOTES ON BREAKCORE?)

You admit that "the vibe" is beyond strict definition, but you seem to want to hold on to the idea that there is *one* vibe that is universal (and can maybe be defined). I hope I am not misrepresenting you too badly here, it is more just a case of playing devil's advocate.

Taking just the examples of psytrance and breakcore, on the surface I see hardly anything that connects the two scenes and their respective vibes. Rather than entrancing, breakcore aims at, well,
breaking spells. To be fair, you do repeatedly stress that there are many different sensibilities and roles and outcomes encompassed by the subcultures and events you've studied. One could be, I think, forgiven for asking: why is it important to get all of them under one microscope and examine them in an academic fashion? Why not just limit yourself to stories and stay away from definitions? (--One might note that you also have trouble defining "hardcore." ...And these days it seems impossible for anyone to adequately define "underground"...)

GS: That the vibe is native to the EDM experience, can hardly be debated. I've never claimed that there is one universal vibe. What I have claimed is that what is known as the "vibe" is a social aesthetic that is responsive to conditions in the life world of participants. This responsibility is universal. It is this that injects the dance party "vibe" with significance, even if it lacks meaning or purpose. But, as I attempt to convey in the introduction, there are various social aesthetics across a transgressive / progressive spectrum, though most EDM events harbour manifold aesthetics or behaviour modalities - e.g those that i have called Dionysian, outlaw, reclamational, reactionary, activist, etc All such modalities are responsive to conditions in the lifeworld of participants. Sharing in these aesthetics - some purely transgressive, others intentional, within the context of dance floors generates community and life long bonds. This is not exhaustive or comprehensive. Much more can be said about all this. unpacking the vibe like this, became my way of making sense of the vast material I was confronted with as a researcher. But I don't believe this is self-indulgent since I've offered tools to assist others in attempting to configure the similarities and differences between quite different EDM cultures and events. You might wonder what the point of all this, but i think its considerable if it allows us to observe parallels across vastly different scenes, such as breakcore and psytrance, for instance. And i think the historical roots (European and Afro-diasporic) of the vibe are also worthwhile to consider - which I have also attempted.

I wont be making an effort to circumscribe "underground". You may have missed the point I've been making about "hardcore". The point about "hardcore", which is not to be conflated with the socio-musicological concept of "hardcore" as adopted by Simon Reynolds ("the hardcore continuum"), is condensed in an article i recently published in Dancecult the journal. See:

Hardcore is the social anthropology/cultural philosophy of the vibe. Those who are "hardcore" (true, authentic), within any scene and its related vibe, will earn credibility through their responsivity to conditions in their lifeworld - including racism, gender and sexual oppression, and to other scenes and their aesthetics, the latter can be a principal motor for entire scenes, scenes that may not know what they are for, but certainly know what they are against. This negative drive fuels entire scenes (including those associated with subgenres - like dark trance).

Apart from the fact that they are both EDM cultures, that breakcore and psytrance actually have vibes is one of the key things that connects them. Enthusiasts of both scenes use the word "vibe" to describe their events. These vibes will have certain things in common. There are DJs performing relatively seamlessly all night long, and there are dance floors packed with people (often young people) who are consuming mind altering substances. Furthermore, within psytrance, which is a ravenous genre poaching machine, psybreaks is a fascinating phenomenon you seem to have overlooked or not yet discovered. Though this may be understandable since its more of a UK phenomenon. I've not seen Notes on Breakcore.

Your own hardcore sensibilities will be echoed in the prejudices you hold towards psytrance. In a certain sense, you know who you are, because you arent an enthusiast of psytrance, or Goa trance, or whatever it is you think psytrance is. You, like everybody else, shape your music loving and genre-focused identity against certain movements, formations and styles. Scenes shape their vibes set apart from other vibes. Right from the beginning of our conversation, you've felt it important to state that you dislike psytrance, or that you harbour some ill-will towards that genre or metegenre as it should be more appropriately designated. As a consequence you appeared to dismiss an entire chapter in Technomad which deals with psytrance (though that chapter, unlike the book im completing on psytrance, offers only limited attention to the music). To me, this is very interesting.

I make no apologies for approaching the vibe and EDM in an academic fashion. I am, after all, an academic(!), and Technomad is published by an academic publisher and will be read by other academics and students. But while it does reflect a disciplined mode of writing trained within academia, it is multidisciplinary. Also, I hope its recognised that it was written in a fashion that is largely accessible to a readership beyond any academic discipline.

[to be continued]