Sunday, November 29, 2009

Neotribal Festival

This is the first thing you learn about festival: to get there, you must leave here. You must, in other words, cross over, out of the ordinary world. Maybe you haul your tent to a glade in the middle of nowhere, and maybe you just hand some guy your ticket. But either way, you must cross a threshold. Without even noticing it, your normal body armor starts to slip away, as you instinctively recognize that the strangers around you are not quite so strange anymore, for even if they look strange, which could easily be the case, they are no longer judging you in the same way that people in the mundane world do. They are more likely to be friends you just haven't met yet, fellow conspirators of joy.

The anthropologist Victor Turner used the word liminal to describe the passageway between the known and the unknown, the path that takes you to a nomadic territory that lies in-betwixt and in-between. Turner was interested in traditional rites of passage, those tribal ceremonies that guide participants through the process of social transformation - from childhood to adulthood, say, or from novice to shaman. Such rites are important inspirations for today's neotribalists as well, both consciously and not. For though the festival rarely marks its participants with the obvious cuts and tattoos of a puberty rite, it does hold out the potential for real change, and this potential lies in the liminal: the deeply felt sense that the normal rules are suspended or warped, that a possible world is emerging, and that a new self can rise to greet it.

Every summer, tens of thousands of participants descend upon dozens of festivals and gatherings, great and small. The names of these clans and crews are legion: hippies, ravers, pagans, crusties, free spirits, burners, seekers, travelers, eco-warriors. They gather together to dance, to escape, to hold ritual and to craft a visionary culture based on community, creative self-expression and a celebratory earth wisdom. Labels are always dangerous, but an honest name for the scene is neotribal. These are the new tribes, recreating and reinventing patterns of organic culture that are inspired by the premodern past but designed for a high-tech planet hurtling through a period of unprecedented global change.

In festival culture, everyone is part of the picture - physical arts like poi and hooping are widely practiced, crafters make and sell art and ritual craft; and people treat fashion as an invocation and a performance. Everyone, in fact, is performing - not posing so much as actively participating in a collective game whose goal is beauty, wonder and transport. Festivals can be a wild time, but for many participants, the festival is also a vital space of cultural invention. Within the environs of the gathering, half sacred and half imagined, another possible world appears. Despite the variety of festivals and clans, certain values come to the fore: community over consumerism, the power of the feminine, the wisdom of consciousness exploration and the ethical call to develop a hands-on harmony with the earth. Some of these values grow out of countercultural movements generations old, others are modeled on the folkways of other times and places - sometimes with respect and sometimes with a hasty hunger. Like all ideals, neotribal values are rarely realized in full and are more complex and contradictory than they initially appear.

People have gathered in ritual celebrations throughout recorded history; and no doubt back through the depths of prehistory as well. At the same time, and despite the tremendous differences in human cultures, anthropologists recognize a shared language of the festival. People wear special attire, sometimes donning masks or fancy headgear; and sometimes painting their bodies. They drink and eat and dance, often with great exuberance and for hours or even days on end. Intoxicants are taken, if they have them, and maybe the spirits show up and join in the dance. Emile Durkheim, who believed that religion was fundamentally a social process, called the energy raised by such gatherings "collective effervescence." And though this powerful group buzz is invariably dedicated to the gods of earth and sky, it often generates its energies through the more secular strategies of a party. These entwined goals are key to the modern neotribal festival, whose exuberance bubbles up in the space between sacred and profane, ritual and fete, ceremony and celebration.

In his book The Eternal Return, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade described how certain rituals allow mythic time to erupt inside mundane history. In particular, Eliade talked about annual tribal ceremonies that stage the recreation of the cosmos. The idea, which is found throughout primal societies, is that by ritually returning to the chaos at the beginning of things, and then reenacting the emergence of our ordered world, the cosmos itself is renewed. Such ceremonies give us an insight into the deep impulses of the festival, within whose electronic noise and psychedelic chaos stir new forms of living and being together on this planet. The cutting edge festivals today are green and sustainable, with workshops on alternative fuel and carbon footprints rounding out the music and dance. Even more vitally, the infrastructure of the festival itself is becoming an experiment in right planetary living. This isn't just global warming window dressing. This represents an intuition, welling up from primal memory perhaps, that the festival is a foundation of world renewal.