Phoenix Festival: Rave Never Died

The future is going to be much more like the extremely distant past. It’s not that technology is going to disappear. It’s that technology is going to be much less obtrusive. I can imagine a future where the entire culture has been shrunk down and downloaded onto a pair of black contact lenses that you implant behind your eyelids. And you’re naked, tattooed, scarified, and wearing your penis sheath and so on. But when you close your eyes, there are menus dangling in mental space. You go into that and have the complete database of the Western Mind.
-Terrence McKenna, Mondo 2000 vol. 1, issue 10, 1993

Whether open only to a few friends, like a dinner party, or to thousands of celebrants, like a Be-In, the party is always ‘open’ because it is not ‘ordered’; it may be planned, but unless it ‘happens’ it’s a failure. The element of spontaneity is crucial.
The essence of the party: face-to-face, a group of humans synergize their efforts to realize mutual desires, whether for good food and cheer, dance, conversation, the arts of life; perhaps even for erotic pleasure, or to create a communal artwork, or to attain the very transport of bliss- in short, a ‘union of egoists’ (as Stirner put it) in its simplest form-or else, in Kropotkin’s terms, a basic biological drive to ‘mutual aid.’
-Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, 1990.

I’m sitting in front of a sound stage in the middle of a horse pasture watching robotic kids shift and rotate to electronic music. A computer thumps out crunchy, mechanical melodies over the funky beats oozing from turntables. Neon drawings float under the black light from the plywood dance floor. Off to the side of the stage, a guy sits cross-legged and meditates. I’ve been up since 6:30 in the morning, it’s 2:30 at night now, I’m freezing, and have no plans of going to bed. Fatigue has given way to fascination. I feel great.
It’s the first night of Phoenix Festival 2002, one of many week long outdoor art and dance festivals to offshoot from Nevada’s Burning Man festival. Although the organizers didn’t have Burning Man in mind when they created the festival – some of them have never even been to Burning Man – the festival has become a refuge for people fed up with Burning Man’s commercialization. The theme of this year’s Phoenix Festival is rebirth, the final stage in the cycle of the phoenix myth. It’s the final Phoenix Festival and the first to acquire the required permits to hold the event. In previous years the festival’s location was announced the night before the event, like many other electronic music parties and festivals. But despite the festivals legit legal standing and increased promotion, the festival remains largely underground. Only about 2,000 people are attending. According to Chris “Fussik” West, who helped organize the festival, this year’s festival attracted a more diverse crowd but didn’t significantly increase the total number of people attending.
Phoenix Festival seems to be a perfect embodiment of Terrence McKenna’s “Archaic Revival” concept and Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” idea. McKenna believed we are striving to recover ancient social forms to escape the oppressive nature of modern living. He expected people to return to tribal forms of living, with an emphasis on ritual, organized activity, and ancestor consciousness. He sees everything from New Age-ism, UFOlogy, body modification, and of course raves as manifestations of this tendency.
Bey proposed a complex network of “pirate utopias” where people could be free to do as they pleased without state intervention. Once the state got wise to a temporary autonomous zone, its inhabitants would up and find a new location.
Phoenix Festival is isolated on private property in rural Washington and people are camped out in tents. Primarily they’ve brought their music equipment, and they’re powering it mostly with biodiesel. Oakes, a guy I picked up in Portland in exchange for a ticket, told me on the way down that the electronic music scene is a community. Oakes’ own plan is to “become so integrated into the scene that I can make a living on it.” He designs and makes clothes, and plans to launch a music journalism career as well. He’s certainly not the first to make a living in the community. There are vendors at the event selling home-made fashions, musical instruments, and food. There are large groups of production companies that throw parties and festivals on a regular basis. DJs and musicians who try to live off their music. Glass blowers. Drug dealers. Homeless drifters relying on the kindness of strangers.
Of course, the community isn’t entirely self-sustaining yet. Most of its members still have to work day jobs. My friend Brian, a long time electronic music community member who told me about Phoenix Festival, makes a living manufacturing circuit boards.
Fussik doesn’t believe that the model the Phoenix Festival is based on can work in the real world, but he does believe that Phoenix Festival is “A safe place for people express themselves in a free area with as few rules as possible.”
FXCannon, the group playing in the stage right now, is from Houston. They work day jobs and spent all their money getting here. They brought a bunch of burned CDs with them to give away, but now they’re selling them to try to make enough money to get home.
Jeff Montgomery, who does a live PA set from his laptop for the group, used to be in an industrial noise group that traded boxes of tapes with other musicians all over the world, and then sold the other musicians’ tapes to make money. When asked about how he feels about peer to peer music trading he said, “I don’t give a fuck. I just want people to hear my music.”
This is a pretty common attitude in the electronic music scene, where cutting and pasting sounds from other musicians’ work is a standard technique. For them intellectual property is a moot concept. The musicians mostly self-publish their albums and live a traveling minstrel lifestyle, depending on donations and day jobs live. The members of FXCannon have day jobs in addition to seeking extra money from gigs and throwing their own parties.
Between sets, conversations often turn to politics. Someone discusses how government officials threw Ralph Nader out of the 2000 presidential debates, essentially meaning the government was using tax payer money to subvert democracy. Others criticize Bush’s foreign policy, or his plans to drill for oil in Alaska.
On the second day of Phoenix Festival the members of FXCannon and I are sitting in an old Ford school bus that has been converted into the tour bus of Aura, a Seattle performance art troupe. Aura will perform tomorrow’s nights “death ritual.” We’re hanging out with a member of a troupe, who makes his living as a glass blower. We talk about the economy and the collapse of Enron, and Jeff points out that the electronic music scene is on the cutting edge of the coming economic change. “We’re going to go back to the way this country was meant to be by the founders. Everyone was meant to have their own business, not to work for megacorporations that own everything,” he says. Here people are founding the new new economy, consisting sustainable personal businesses.
I met a girl from South Carolina, who has a degree in public relations and has she says she’s just been laid off from a job designing circuit boards for MCI and that it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. “I’m on severance for the summer, then I’ll be on unemployment for a year. Then I’ll figure out what to do next,” she said. Oakes is in a similar situation: he’s launching his new career as a cog in the electronic music community wheel while receiving unemployment.
On my last night at the festival before returning to Olympia, WA early for my day job, I watch Aura’s “death” ritual. Fire is twirled, people are entranced by the performance. Fussik says that he and the organizers were never big on the ritual aspect of the festival, but last year they left the ritual out and people missed it. It’s back this year to provide some closure to the series of festivals. Next year Fussik and company will organize a new festival, designed with Burning Man in mind, that he hopefully get away from the rave scene. “We’re sort of the darling of the rave scene right now,” he says, “We want to create a new festival that rips away the facade. With a rave, you’ve gotta have particular elements. So the new festival will be purely a community art and music project, with no myth, no religion.”
Though Fussik sees Phoenix Festival as being a vacation from the real world, rather than a permanent replacement for civilized society, many of its attendees don’t agree. They’ve made electronic music parties a way of life. Phoenix Festival is but one of many other large outdoor gatherings this summer, and many more will occur indoors during the rest of the year. A high tech, nomadic tribal community has emerged and is thriving despite government intervention. Whether they realize it or not, they’ve incorporated Bey’s TAZ model into their organizational process, and are the living embodiment of the Archaic Revival.
More Info:
Official Phoenix Festival web site Includes a complete list of acts playing at Phoenix Festival, photos from previous years, etc.
Seattle PI’s Phoenix Festival coverage
Pyrosutra the web page of one of Phoenix Fest’s headline performers.
FXCannon website
Burning Man the official Burning Man web site.
Northwest Tekno a guide to the electronic music community in the northwestern United States.

Hyperreal the web’s authoritative guide to electronic music culture.

DeOxy’s Terrence McKenna page one of the best Terrence McKenna sites on the web.
Zero News Datapool, Hakim Bey An excellent collection of Hakim Bey’s writings
Douglas Rushkoff a media theorist who has spent much time studying rave culture.

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