December 20th, 2010 by acjohner
Transformational Festivals and The Industry of Experience
by AC Johner
Chapter Proposal for Graham St. John’s:
“CFP. Weekend Societies: Electronic Dance Music Festivals and Event-Cultures”
When we go to see a movie at a theater, we are paying for an experience. We stand in line, pay for a ticket, enter a large auditorium filled with other ticket holders who had stood in line with us; all of us anticipating and destined for the shared experience of the film. The lights are dimmed, leaving us in darkness. For a moment we are alone again, forgetting the crowd all around us. Then a gigantic glowing animated picture of mesmerizing lights dances in front of us. Soon, we forget the auditorium altogether. For moments, we are in the film. We are the actors, we begin feeling their joys, their sorrows, and a rising intensity building to a climactic moment that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Sometimes it’s as if there were no space between the end of our noses and the bright fluid radiant picture of life in front of us.
We are taken to places in movies that we are not able to venture in the real world. Our field of vision becomes sweeping crane shots through the lenses of dozens of cameras capturing multiple angles of selective focus. We are drawn into the narrative of the characters, guided by the sonic engagement of millions of dollars worth of studio-engineered sound effects, and gripping choreographed videography swinging us all around the stage of players in the story. Through the amplification of sensory imput- with sound and picture technology- we forget the screen is even there separating the theater from the action. A film not only mimics life, it amplifies it beyond the ordinary. Films make us feel enchanted, electrified, empathic, panicked, and give us a sense of reward when resolution is found and the credits role. I
f you have ever read Ray Bradbury’s fictional novel, Dandelion Wine, you might be familiar with the character Leo Auffman, and his invention, the Happiness Machine, an electrical box that could produce a person’s wildest dreams through sound and picture. Auffman dreamed that his joy box would one day develop into a common appliance. Everyone needed happiness, Leo Auffman thought to himself. Why not invent a machine that provides just that. The story also offers some moral- the dark side of push-button joy. While Auffman’s machine produces a wondrous euphoria, the world outside the machine seems only more dimmed and depressed. In the end, the machine short circuits, nearly killing it’s inventor. In the end, Auffman finds himself staring out the front window of his living room at and finding a rejuvenated splendor in the mundane and ordinary.
The film industry, sporting events, Broadway shows, fan conventions, health spas, and yoga retreats are all in a way similar to Bradbury’s happiness machine. While Ray Bradbury’s story provides an omniscient moral for future industries of experience, they have non the less continued to develop and populate the global economy. Emotional encounters are in demand. What is being marketed, requires active participation in an event that engineers an anticipated set of emotions. It is this package of emotional experience which we are actually paying for when we buy tickets, entrance, or membership to one of these events. When was the last time you walked out of a film that was so boring you fell asleep and still felt you had gotten your moneys worth? Or a sporting event in which the team you were rooting for is beaten out ten to one, and made it home filling fulfilled?
Of the more thought-provoking industries of experience in our modern world are electronic music festivals. Akin to the experience of film, electronic music festivals celebrate immersion into an aural and visual playground of empathic pleasures. Through sonic entanglement and visceral chemical rapture, techno carnivals offer a unison of music, magic, humanness, and for some, a personal transformation.
Most of those who attend electronic music events will claim it’s more than just a party. Participants attest to experiences of ecstasy, communal and cosmic oneness, therapeutic healing, and spiritual awakening. Attendees of these events often claim that a unified consciousness, or ‘hive-mind,’ is born on the dance floor in the spilt seconds when the music brings everyone through a crescendo of intensity.
Pleasure, pain, catharsis, awareness, despair, and happiness underlie such accounts of non-ordinary sensations and states. Telepathy, mystical visions, paranoia, ego dissolution, excruciating pleasures, deep insight, serenity, and cosmic love are not uncommon. It is not that the experience awakens a particular feeling, but rather, that amplified feelings are the source of a limit- experience. As an exercise of intensity and impossibility, these transpersonal practices engender experiences of personal derailment—deterritorializing asignification [sic]—sacred madness with rewards and dangers.
The euphoric, and often surreal apex of dancefloor intensity at a rave is only the beginning for many attendees. Beyond the momentary experience, participants are interested in expanding the mind, amplifying the imagination, broadening awareness, and testing methods of evolving their own psychology. Many attendees will identify the events as sacred gatherings, the dancefloor as a hallowed ground, the music as extraterrestrial, and their personal stories of attending electronic events as a spiritual quest.
The electronic music culture is a modern day quest culture, as defined by sociologist Wade Clark Roof in The Spiritual Market Place. In the book, building upon the work of Jack Miles the Pulitzer Prize winner for the book God: A Biography, Roof sets out to articulate a new form of culture arising out of an era of secularization and lost religion (49). According to Roof, a quest culture is a culture, which is in an open and consistently engaging journey of inabsolution, constantly seeking the next working alternative to the spiritual dimension of life outside of traditional religious institutions (49). Quest cultures find themselves both collectively and individually engaged with the task of seeking new rituals, religious structures, mythologies, and above all, new meaning. Roof argues the near entirety of American culture has become a quest culture in the last several decades since the 1960s. Arguably true, quest culture seems to be the most vibrant among the modern day cultures of Burning Man, psychedelics, and electronic music.
In recent years, the popularity and growth of festivals within the electronic music community has aided in the expansion of the spiritual dynamics of the group. Events like Burning Man, Symbiosis, Rainbow Serpent, Boom Festival, and Lightning in a Bottle, are centered around ritual, co-creation, community experience, and participatory art, thereby enabling the expansion of the event beyond the stage, music, and dancers. Such events offer workshops, yoga, ceremony, installation art, and community bonding activities.
While electronic events engage individuals with what many participants consider a genuine spiritual experience, large portions of the culture have sought to further engage this dimension of the rave and convert it into a source of religious transformation. While refuting and disembarking from the conventions of the word religious- as well as religious organization- these portions of the electronic music culture remained undefined, open-sourced, spontaneous, and hidden from mainstream searchability for several years.
In 2010, a Canadian DJ, Jeet Kei Leung, gave a TEDx presentation comparing the above-mentioned festivals (and others like it) with ancient pagan festivals. According to Leung, such festivals were “Transformational Festivals,” for their incorporation of workshops, value-setting perimeters, ceremony, and communal celebration. His evangelizing speech on the spiritual progeny of electronic music festivals set off a chain reaction in festival marketing, quickly popularizing the buzzword, “Transformational Festivals”, among the music festival culture on the west coast of North America.
While Kei’s presentation of transformational festivals was meant to define a broader range of festival events- the buzzword was quickly territorialized. While elements of spirituality, yoga, eastern medicine, and shamanism were already taking a rising precedence in festival identity, dozens of event producers began claiming the “transformational festival” as a genre of their own, segregated to a particular community, style format, and “class” of festival.
As Keyframe-Entertainment writes on their website:
All festivals are not created equal. While the EDM industry is in a frenzy over mainstream festivals, there’s a culture of Transformational Festivals that has been around for many years. A Transformational Festival is a multi-layered event that espouses a community-building ethic, and a value system that celebrates life, personal growth, social responsibility, healthy living, and creative expression.
Both the event’s producers as well as their attendees were divided over what could be labeled “transformational” and what could not. Others outright refused the labeling, arguing that identifying music festivals as transformational was an attempt to sacralize an experience which was best left open to interpretation. Events such as Lucidity and Lightning in a Bottle prominently identified as transformational festivals, while other’s whom Leung had identified, such as Symbiosis, and Goa Gil, repudiated the label. Many argued that the “transformational” label risks the stigmatization that befouls many new religious movements. Others argued that the label set an expectation from attendees to be transformed, or positively changed through attendance of the event.
In a recent article about Symbiosis Festival, organizer Kevin KoChen tackled the ambiguity of the word:
“Transformation” has recently become a buzzword in the festival scene. While I can appreciate being considered a transformational event, I have some difficulty in how transformation is being defined. Transformation is a messy business. Transformation is not eaten with a knife and salad fork. People can’t just ‘show up’ to a ‘transformational festival’ and ‘be transformed’.
While the word may still be loosely used outside of the United States, here it is becoming a badge of identity for attendees, and a marketing brand for event producers. The rising popularity of events deemed “transformational festivals,” such as California’s Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, and Wanderlust are expressing new commercial potentials of the “transformative experience” through pharmacological, sonic, luminescent, and event technology. Offering such experiences at the cost of an event ticket, transformational festivals are a modern recalibration of Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous line “buy the ticket, take the ride.”
More than becoming just another new church, or organized religion, transformational festivals retain their image as a form of marketed entertainment. Events are advertised, tickets are sold, and elaborate entertainment is erected. Thompson’s phrase, “Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride” can be interpreted as an early ode to the exchange of cash for the drug LSD, which engendered enlightenment despite its material packaging as a tiny slip of paper. Similarly, with Transformational Festivals, a physical ticket purchased in exchange for admittance into an “experience,” as many transformational festivals bill it.
The transformational festival arose out of rave culture’s high-tech pleasure playground of musical rapture, hyper-sensory stimulation, and group ecstasis. While traditionally raves were known for marketing communal ecstasy as a form of entertainment, the transformation festival advertises itself as a life-altering experience, one that fulfills a deep spiritual need. Is the transformation festival a commodification of spiritual experience, of deep love, communal ecstasy, and self-healing? We traditionally think of a commodity as a good or service produced to be bought and sold. In terms of the transformational festival, a “transformational experience” is the product on the market. Is this a new amusement park of transcendent love and communitas? Or is their emergence foreshadowing a loss of the sacred and the emergence of a new form of ticketed religion?
I began research on the spirituality of electronic music culture back in 2006. Before my exposure to the culture, I had hypothesized rave parties were a revitalization of shamanic trance rituals, and would by default produce sacred discourse among ravers themselves; simply stated, raves have a progeny of religion. While the culture and its dancefloor were originally erected for entertainment and Dionysian leisure, a spirituality and quasi-religion grew out of it.
As I had set out to study the mysticism of electronic music culture in 2006, my search naturally gravitated towards rave events that included more pronounced signs of religiosity; these were the outdoor festivals, and full-moon gatherings. In that year, spiritual themes, performance ritual, ceremonial aesthetics, and the addition of workshops in yoga, tantra, and permaculture were beginning to take on a significant presence at the outdoor music festivals I was attending.
A majority of my participant observation, interviewing, and exemplary confessionals were focused on the portion of the community which came to be labeled Transformational, or Visionary culture in the United States. When I first encountered this group in 2006 they were yet struggling to identify themselves. “tribal dance community,” “intentional dance community,” “visionaries,” and “indigo children,” were among names being used to provide them a distinguishing moniker from the rest of the electronic music community.
Throughout my years investigating the social movement of electronic music, and the rise of transformational festivals on the west coast of North America, I admittedly anticipated their crusade would congeal into a beautiful, counter-cultural movement and would bring about tremendous change in the rest of world. I expected these small transformational events to soon include the general public, generating free events in impoverished urban areas, music parks in ghettos, and a strong organized army of activists in constant pursuit of transforming the ecology of our world for the better. Of course I was young, hopeful, and full of idealisms. The year 2012 had been prophesied by the more evangelical of the transformational community to mark the birth year of their emergence as a legitimized human movement of social and ecological change. As the date came ever nearer, the parties got bigger and better, as well as their production value and the elaboration of the spectacle. As far as changing the world…well…everyone still seemed to be waiting. As the 2012 due-date came and past, the culture had emerged into mainstream appeal as they had all anticipated, and right on schedule with the Mayan doomsday. Yet, the armies of activists out to change the planet were too few to make a scene. The culture transformed as expected, but into something that I had not anticipated all those years of research…a big business.
For many of those whom were my informants in the culture for so long, active in participating and growing the community, the transformation became a fiscal endeavor; a struggle for legitimizing a place in a quickly commercializing industry of transformational parties. Of course, this is also reflective of the massive expansion of commercialized electronic music into the mainstream from 2012 on. The emergence of the transformational festival was an indication of more than a rat race to grab a piece of music industry pie, however, it was also exposing a new industry altogether- an industry of transformation.
While Reality Sandwich author, James Orac, offers several distinguishing differences between the transformational festival culture and the counter culture of the 1960s, another major difference Orac does not mention, is that the movement of the 1960s had been rebelling against all forms of capitalism, commodification, and big business. Everything back then was free; free love, free entry into Woodstock, free gatherings, free music. Hippies were uprooting from the machinations of currency and the economy and creating free communes, free art, growing free food, and interested in generating free energy. While the transformational festival culture began with the same liberated discourse of breaking away from the “system,” the culture has instead shifted its perspectives towards participating in the global economy, and mainstream world as a legitimized industry with market potentials that were sure to attract big investors.
The transformational culture is driven by an economy of elaborate hand-made festival clothing, high-priced art, lavish events priced for the posh, and luxurious spiritual retreats. The group is among the few that began trending gifting circles, social groups advertised for acceptance, healing, and rejuvenation through communal support. Participation in gifting circles comes at a high dollar buy-in cost; you pay to play, and your membership and success in the circle is dependent upon your ability to recruit others to buy into the larger circle; akin to pyramid schemes however propagated as sacred therapy. Like their “gifting circles,” the transformational festival culture requires an entry fee, not only for admittance into the event, but for participation in the larger community once the cost of lifestyle is added into the equation.
The ever-increasing success of the black market marijuana industry in the United States has also been a cause for an increase in economic wealth, as well as an affluent elitism where it is otherwise unexpected. The influx of black market capital created such an astonishing divide between haves and have-nots among the festival community on the west coast, that soon the haves were spawning new high-vibe high-dollar events in an upper echelon of boutique vanity and affordability.
When I revived my curiosity of transformational festivals for work on this chapter I found it to be the perfect opportunity to explore some of these issues that had left me curious of what had become of “the movement,” and why it seemed to be growing into such a prosperous industry.
The Business of Transformation
Despite, their spiritual veneer, transformational festivals are extruded from the hard-set dogma of traditional religions. It is replaced with an arsenal of spiritual techniques and technologies- from the yogic and tantric, to the sonic and psychedelic. They include practices of the ecstatic, dancing, high-intensity music, as well as an available smorgasbord of psychedelic substances like a seafood buffet in Vegas. Festivals couple these experiences with extensive psychedelic decorations, immense art installations, video projections, as well as light and laser systems that create an alternate and awesome world of light, sound, and vibrant color. Experiences of these alternate realities are no longer confined the movie theater or concert auditorium, but are spread through a large outdoor landscape incorporating the surrounding nature. Spiritual symbols and sacred geometry are on display throughout the events. The festivals are generally filled with playful signage wrought with messages such as “You are loved,” or “We are all Onesie.” It’s not uncommon to see individuals practicing yoga, or meditating out in open spaces, sometimes in large groups, or in classes organized by the festival itself. At different stages during the event, guest speakers are brought in to lecture on subjects of shamanism, tantra, meditation, and yogic practices. Beyond the scheduled speakers, subjects of permaculture, sustainability, spirituality, and self-transformation fill the conversations of festival attendees. At the end of the event, it’s not uncommon to find many attendees embracing one another, some in tears of joy, or relieved trauma. Individuals will exclaim to one another how much they actually feel “completely transformed” by the event, and will converse about various iconic or revelatory moments, new found friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, epic DJ slots, lectures they had heard, or psychedelic visions they may have had. Many individuals leave claiming a renewed sense of purpose and belonging.
At the end of the event however, when the festival lot clears of patrons and the cleaning crews moves in on the now empty campground, artists reconcile about getting paid, volunteers reconcile about getting tickets refunded in exchange for labor hours they have put in during the event, costume and craft vendors count the amounts of sales tallied against their lot fees, and the festival production itself tallies up a profit margin. A transformational festival is no doubt a business. Like any music concert, the production relies on the sale of tickets, venders rely on the sale of food, clothing, costumes, paraphernalia, glasswork, jewelry, massage, and recreational substances.
More than selling food, clothing, and musical entertainment- “transformation” is also on the market. Transformational festivals advertise themselves as both the high-tech pleasure playgrounds of conventional electronic music events, as well as an amusement park of transcendent experiences filled with workshops, classes, ceremonies, chanting, and often a promoted ethic of community, openness, and sacred intention. Transformational festivals offer ticket buyers an “experience,” as indicated on their websites:
We offer you the chance to experience a taste of the next level paradigm in a synesthesiac [sic] environment of future psy frequencies, visionary aesthetics, conscious learning, community connection, and much more! Together we will co-create an intimate west coast experience like no other!
Many websites such as Lightning in a Bottle’s, will host a category called “experience,” or “offerings,” under which one can find the events musical line up, a list of workshops and classes, speakers, or scheduled ceremonies. The “experience” is defined as of “Oneness,” “community,” “belonging,” “ecology,” and “self-transformational.”
When you go on to the website for the event Lucidity, you will read this opening:
Join us, Lucid Dreamer, for our continuing epic transformational saga. Kindered Quest marks the beginning of our collective exploration of community, family and tribe. In this chapter we are seeking guidance from our past – from our ancestors and elders. Ever looking, ever learning, ever loving, ever lucid, we are coming together as One community with One voice.
Below this heart felt invitation is a red button with the words BUY TICKETS inscribed in bold, with a bright red click-box behind it.
This form of marketing was used continuously throughout various sites. Generally, the words Buy Tickets were inscribed close to other inspirational, spiritual, or therapeutic language.
Of course this sort of marketing is not unfamiliar too us. While it may be the first time we have seen it used in the marketing of entertainment, it seems to have first emerged in other spiritually oriented markets. Kimberley Lau, author of New Age Capitalism defines the rise of the new age market as a response to an increased pursuit towards health and wellness. The self-proclaimed spirituality of alternative health practices catalyzed the transformation of such practices into commodities, thereby giving rise to the new age market. This market seems to have been on an upswing in recent years with the spread of yoga, raw-food dieting, and campaigns for “greening” everything. Along in the same bracket, we find the emergence of these new age festivals which are growing in popularity among millennial and the next generation of youth.
While transformational festivals are primarily electronic music festivals, a distinguishing trait among most their websites in comparison to other electronic music events are the careful and pronounced placement of such words as “transformational,” “community,” “consciousness,” “education,” “sustainability,” and “intention.
The websites will often announce the presence of a temple, or sanctuary as a primary stage or area of the festival. It is also widely not uncommon to find these websites awash in imagery of people doing yoga, participating in prayer circles, with pictures of participants in loving embrace- images which reflect emotional, spiritual, and communal aspect of the events.
In Lau’s, New Age Capitalism, she examines the advertisement campaigns of yoga, macrobiotics, and aroma therapy as exemplary of the commodification of new age concepts. When aroma-therapy first became hot on the market back in the 1990s, Lau sought to unravel the marketing strategies used to create and target the new age market. Through her study of the advertisement campaign for aroma therapy, Lau presents three specific characteristics of advertisement which appeal to the new age market: 1) presented as ecofriendly 2) is a remedy of psychic ills of modern civilization and 3) is able to function as a hip consumers status symbol. Reconnecting mind, body, and spirit become the primary theme of these products. Transformational festivals also present themselves as characteristic of these three identifiers. Transformational festivals are eco-friendly in their promotion of sustainability, permaculture, and reusable energy resources in event production. The festivals promote themselves as a remedy to the cultural disenchantment, and also promote kinship and the building of solidarity among the community of organizers and attendees. Like transformational festivals marketing this culture-construction, the aroma-therapy company, Avenda, had discovered a means of also marketing participation in culture critique. By purchasing aroma-therapy candles, consumers were driven to think they were living in accordance with ancient philosophies, as well as participating in a counter-cultural, ecological, and conscious lifestyle. As Lau points out, consumption in such new age markets becomes a mode of addressing cultural disenchantment, by reenchanting the self with products, services, and experiences believed to belong to a better cultural alternative. Individuals who buy into the new age market feel as though they are actively participating in the production of a better culture for all.
The same marketing tactics Lau describes of Avenda, are closely parallel those of transformational festivals. The events themselves are advertised as “conscious” events- meaning that they are ecologically, spirituality, and emotionally aware events. One event, appropriately titled The Conscious Culture Festival, displays these words on their homepage:
The Conscious Culture Festival brings together music, art & education that promotes equality, sustainability, justice, healthy living, organic farming, and an all-around conscious lifestyle.
Participation is perceived as having a progeny of conscious patrons. While the events are hosting the facilitation of learned and ecstatic experience, which often do promote such awareness in individuals, this sought after product of “becoming conscious” relies heavily on the individual. It is true that a multitude of participants go to party, and leave having done nothing more. Despite this factor, many individuals believe that through their attendance alone, they are being or becoming conscious individuals in association and participation in the creation of a more conscious culture. This element of identify, and belonging, believed by many to legitimize spiritual selfhood, is a significant attractor of attendance. As Lau writes:
Each product comes with a tag, an address, a lifestyle. The act of purchase locates the individual within a tribe, and in this way, fashion functions to regulate lifestyles and produce the belief that every consumer choice is a free choice, a way in which individuals invent themselves.
Not only are events and attendees intensively insinuating they are involved in the production of new culture, many events also advertise a list of core values which the event chooses to identify with and express as intentions for a moral ethical insemination upon the attendees. These have also been identified as “Pillars of Intention,” as they are listed on the website for the event Transcendence!
The core values for South Carolina’s 2014 Gratifly festival, listed below, exemplify the general tone of their core values:
1. Personal & Collective Transformation: We believe that the power of the collective is force that can insight change on both a personal and collective level and we aim to harness this energy to support our core values.
2. Empowering & Activating Genius: We believe that all people have an inherit brilliance. We aim to facilitate a space for that brilliance to shine forth and be recognized.
3. Innovation, Creativity & Artful Living: We believe that all things have room for improvement and strive to innovate new techniques and technologies to allow
4. Education & Wisdom Sharing: We believe in the power of story telling and skill sharing and that everyone has something to offer and empower all beings to offer their skills and passions.
5. Safety, Guardianship & Stewardship: We believe that all people have a right to feel safe and that there are ways of being that are in right relation with ourselves, each other and the environment around us.
6: Accountability & Integrity: We believe that and community accountability and personal integrity are of the upmost importance and strive to speak and act in accordance.
7. Community Building & Fostering Resilience: We believe that community is at the heart of everything that we do and aim to bolster our local community as well as the global community.
8. Regeneration & Thrivability [sic]: We believe not only in the sustainability of Gratifly, but the ability for it to generative for us, the community and the land and it to create a thriving ecosystem of community and culture.
9. Honoring the Sacred: We believe that all things are sacred and that it is important to take moments to honor that.
The incorporation of a value-system is a dominant feature of transformational festivals that exhibits a sacred or self-transforming intention. These values, which attendees call “core values,” are a shared ethos of spirituality and positive personal change. These core values are not only listed on organizer’s websites, but also on promotional flyers, press releases, and even on décor signage posted at the events themselves.
The presence of spiritual language, value listing, and self-branded culture-production exposes more than an underlying intention to sell tickets and make a buck. While we can argue that the direction of transformational festivals and other old or emerging new age markets are consequential to culture on a whole, we can just as easily explore the genuine interest in pursuing spiritual change and cultural revitalization which is also expressive in the market dynamics of these event. In either perspective, positive or negative, a new industry is emerging and is meeting an existing demand
While the websites, as well as the festival gates, require an individual to purchase a ticket in order to engage in the transformational “experience,” entry-tickets are not the only major cash/experience exchange happening at transformational festivals. Patrons purchase body-work, such as reiki and massage therapy. They pay for healing crystals, flower essences, and psychedelic substances.
The monetary exchange for substance induced altered states of consciousness is another exhibition of the cost of transformation. Transformational festivals are psychedelic events. While the word “psychedelic” is rarely advertised at these events, at least here in the United States, the festivals are inspired by, and engineered for drug experiences. The psychedelic ingredient is an implicit requirement of full immersive exposure to the “experience” of the transformational festival. Psychedelics, and empathogens like MDMA, play a significant role in creating the sense of euphoria, ecstatic bliss, unity, and empathy; catalogue offerings of the transformational festival. While directly producing emotional and psychological states, the substances themselves are purchased.
The exchange of hard currency for a drug which produces a psychological and emotional states exhibits a microcosm of how transformational culture has grown to perceive experience as a commodity. Individuals in the culture are already predisposed to this sort of market exchange in order to engender transformational states of consciousness. The transformational culture is rooted in the material. Not only are their experiences of spirituality rooted in the physiology of trance and ecstasy, experiences are most often produced chemically with substances, vibration through speaker towers, visually with projectors and screens, and enhanced by lasers, LEDs, and sonic entanglement through electronic music mixed on a computer. The culture produced at these events reverberates deeper and stranger ties with technology, often through a techno-mysticism. A large portion of the knowledge traded at festivals, in workshops, lectures, and in the general social atmosphere, revolves around the production of ecstatic states- through traditional spiritual practice, yoga, music, sex, and entheogenic mixologies. Perspective of the spiritual as an engineered production of ecstatic technologies develops an ethos within the community that is rooted in a direct form of spirituality, homogenized as a science of emotion. The assemblage of “experience” is so push-button, and systematical that the “transformational” culture which grows up around these events perceives spiritual experience as an engineered man-made object.
In display of this change in consciousness, we investigate the word “transformational” itself. What is meant by transformation in the context of these festivals? The buzzword “transformational” has populated new terminology in multiple industries over the recent decade; transformational leadership, transformational outsourcing, transformational change, and the list goes on and on. With the word taking on new popularity and purpose in industries of entertainment, business, and education, it’s not surprising that it would also make an appearance in a psychedelic culture seeking to redefine itself as a form of therapeutic healing for positive personal change, in exchange for their more stigmatized party culture identity.
Within the context of transformational festivals, the word transformational may often seem an uncanny replacement for the word spiritual. The two are arguably interchangeable for meaning and definition when used among the community. So why not just call them spiritual festivals? Why transformational? The use of the word “transformational” among the weekend society of transformational festivals, exhibits a desire for a new interpretation of what spiritual is. While we find ourselves caught in the landslide secular argument of being “spiritual but not religious,” the participants of this community are seeking a new way to express spirituality and spiritual experiences beyond the boundaries of religious discourse, while maintaining a sacred identity.
In our modern world, individuals are seeking spirituality for personal development as opposed to narratives of dogma, connection with omnipresent entities, second comings, prophets prophecies, soul-selling, and life-devoted religious traditions.
In the United States, American’s have been following a long pattern of upgrading religion by ditching the old for new interpretations, and always in times of social, economic, and political change. As Wade Roof writes, “In times of great population shifts, occupation and geographic mobility, and rapid cultural changes, religion reinvents itself in response to its social circumstances.” One of those biggest shifts in our religion has come in the recent half century, typified by the dissolution of traditional forms of religion, the emerging popularity of holistic medicine, yoga, and other Eastern practices in the United States. This is all reflective of a new increased interest- not in the religious- but in the therapeutic.
People are seeking the life-hack for spiritual growth. They want enlightenment in a pill, or a simple technique they can squeeze in on their lunch hour. In the fast-paced era of Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, there is little time or focus, left to devote oneself to the often-exhaustive requirements practicing a traditional religion. But traditional methods of fulfilling our spiritual needs offer more than the ecstatic and euphoric. People also practice in organized religion to feel a sense of community, belonging, identity, and moral direction.
While traditionally in the West, monotheistic traditions rely on scripture, creed, hard-set dogmas, fear of damnation, and insinuating the need for salvation. Traditional Christian churches, for example, offer much more- a feeling of connection to a higher power, a sense of communion with other members of the congregation, a feeling of belonging to a larger community, and feeling that your individual life has power and purpose often through the reinforcement of other members. The traditional church is more than just the pulpit and the preacher, the church provides access or a means to access higher emotions; feelings of unity, oneness, life-purpose, life-value, compassion, salvation, and forgiveness.
In a study done by Michael Korpi and Kyong Liong Kim on the effects of televangelism, it was found that gratification and a sense of religiousness was not linked directly to the television program, or the televangelist- instead gratification came from the financial contributions made by viewers. William James who wrote The Varieties Of Religious Experience, a field guide for religious studies scholars, shed light on the fact that all the world’s varieties of religion can be dissected down to the core component of religious experience- extrasensory and extraordinary experience. According to James, the foundation of all the dogmatic texts, religious myths, and sacred teachings were sourced from a shared wellspring- a chemical and physiological fusion of body and psyche. James argued for the existence of what he called- religious emotions. Just in the same way that we can feel happy or sad, we can feel spiritually uplifted, or connected into some divine center of the universe. Ecstatic bliss, communal ecstasy, feeling the presence or unification with an omnipotent supreme being- all are varieties of religious emotion according to James.
Mysticism, in a limited definition, means “union with the Absolute,” (or God); or as we are describing here- extraordinary experience. These experiences of union with the almighty, moments of oneness with the universe, cosmic revelation, and visionary rapture are all varieties of spiritual experience. Religion packages these experiences for us. They make them readily accessible, easy to obtain- efficient and affordable.
The idea of selling spirituality, salvation, enlightenment, or profound personal revelation is nothing new. As a matter of fact, religion has evolved with and through various economic spheres over millennia. As far back as our days as hunter gathers, the services of the witchdoctor for healing, fortune telling, or curse removal came at a cost-generally an offering of food and game. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church would sell tickets granting forgiveness called indulgences- allowing Catholics to drink, copulate, and carry out unholy acts against the testament of God. Social punishment as well as damnation in the afterlife was spared through the purchase of these certificates of salvation. The church itself, in Judea-Christian traditions, has always been a basin of public offering. Historically, Jewish law includes several forms of tithing, or giving a tenth of your earnings to the church. The rise of televangelism is also noteworthy example, especially for intermeddling religion with the digital era.
In the book Holy Mavericks, Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere suggest that the success of any religious group depends upon the market dynamics of their individual economies, their ability to customize their image- as well as core teachings- in order to conform to the religious demands of society; conforming to a transforming culture, as opposed to transforming a conforming culture. The authors bring to light one significant aspect of organized religion that most fail to recognize- supply and demand.
Society needs salvation, a sense of solidarity in a higher purpose or function, a sense of feeling okay with the way things are, as well as the rhyme and reason of why.
Like Terence McKenna, psychedelic mushroom evangelist’s, infamous phrase “culture is your operating system,” while culture maybe the graphical user interface like Windows, or OSX, religion often seems the MS-DOS the underlying structure upon which our user friendly culture functions. Religion organizes the psyche, which in turn informs behavior and allows an individual existential and moral direction to participate in culture at large. According to Clifford Geertz, in “Religion as a Cultural System,” a religion is a system of symbolic meaning which establishes a sense of emotional sensibility, a motivation to participate in fulfilling purpose, while providing a basic understanding of the order of existence.
It is long been debated whether or not religion is a basic human need. It seems that today, the popular contention accepts spirituality as natural need and function, while religion is merely an optional carter- among many other delivery systems gaining popularity- ones that have do with the body, breath, brain chemistry, social communion, or sex as opposed to the traditional codex of a prescribed dogma. It is through these secondary and physiological outlets of the extraordinary that a new spiritual marketplace is growing within the United States. If spirituality is a basic human need, why would it not also become a commodity along with our food, water, and basic utilities for survival?
Selling experience, and marketing spirituality is historically customary in the United States. Through secularism, and dilution of national identity, and an increasing interest in the self, have moved society further and further away from traditional forms of access to spiritual experience, and opening them towards new alternative methods less focused on dogma, belief, or rigorous practice.
The process of turning religion into a psychological reality is shown in the contemporary popularity of the idea of ‘private spirituality’ which emerges as a product of capitalist psychology. Psychology controls individual consumers by giving them the illusion of unrestrained freedom. It offers the psychological product of “spirituality” as an apparent cure for the isolation created by a materialist, competitive and individualized social system. Paradoxically, such notions of spirituality only reinforce social isolation because they tend to be construed in terms of a privatized model of human reality.
A prime example of how this sort of spiritual commodification has happened in the United States is the proliferation of yoga. Yoga is big business. Yoga, historically, reaches all the way back to a pre-Vedic Indian practice with has roots in Hinduism. Despite its religious history, it has sense been popularized in the United States to the point of being recognized as an industry. It seems there is a yoga studio on just about every square block of every major cities. Target and Walmart now sell yoga mats, bags, blocks and other equipment. Yoga is no longer handed down through rigorous work with a guru, but through exercise centers, YMCA’s, and now offered at transformational festivals. In all of the photo imagery that emerges out of the events, group yoga is generally used iconographically to exemplify the “transformational” atmosphere of the events. Ethan Nichtern writes on the commodification of yoga for Huffington Post, “It has to do with our tendency to compartmentalize our life and our work into areas where the appearance of ethical behavior is expected (the spiritual), and those in which unethical, mindless, selfish behavior are allowed and even cherished (the secular, business or entertainment).”
A new form of spirituality is emerging today, one that is reoriented towards self-indulgence, self-admiration, productivity, the accumulation of profit, social success, and therapeutic healing. The concept of God is being internalized, sought as part of an individual’s make-up; endowing them with powers of self-creation, or control over success and social wealth. All of this is yet packaged within creeds of amalgamation with larger systems of social, ecological, and cosmic ecologies. The self as seen as an intricate part of the fabric of the larger universe, with self-improvement and self-care perceived as sacred practices through a biological harmony of mental and body health. Individuals are seeking classes, cleansing products, new diets, styles of living, and forms of identity, which are believed to confirm an embrace of the sacred. The new spirituality of our capitalist society is one that is market-driven, and consumer oriented.
The rise of the transformational festival is one of many responses to a century long search for existential reenchantment in an age of extreme secularization. Today, change is in strong demand, and not just any change but a significant change in consciousness and cosmology. The culture in the United States, and many other parts of the world are demanding new methods for coming together, finding the sacred in a unified way, healing the self first, and the collective self of the planet in the process. This is not the progeny of the transformational festival, this is the progeny of many years of cultural dissolution in mainstream society, the breaking down of the nuclear family structure, the shifting economy, the transformed dynamic of human interaction due to the instant infinitude of virtual spaces, the rediscovery of nature, plant medicines, and a revitalization of meaning in ecology. God is not dead, only transformed. While the new age market and new industries of experience may be offering spirituality in a pill, transformation occurs nonetheless. It is challenging us to broaden our perspectives on the untapped potential of spiritual and ecstatic engineering, and the ability to manufacture a significant and sacred sociogenisis.
The transformational festival did not arise out of corporate capitalism, while it now participates as an active part of the economy- it grew out of a genuine demand for love, compassion, celebration, and transcendence. By its participation in the economy, and its structuring in order to market, sell, and attract consumers to ecstatic experience was not born out of a quest for wealth, but a quest for legitimization, identity, and profound social growth through economic stability. The culture is not a repeat blossoming of the counter-culture of the 1960s, while representing an evolution of that early movement, the movement seeks to participate in the dominant world culture- serving as a source for cultural novelty to spill over and integrate into the mainstream world; and what better way than as a popularized form of weekend entertainment. Through reenchantment of ecstatic entertainment they are seeking to sacralize celebration, churning the festival back into the ritual celebration for community solidarity and ecological harmony with nature as it was historically.
Yet like Ray Bradbury’s happiness machine, there is a dark moral lurking beneath the image of the transformational festivals commodification of spiritual experience. While they are exhibiting new potentials of therapy, healing, and expanded social, ecological, and spiritual awareness through ritualized leisure celebration- their methodology for change, while effective, requires an extensive amount of temporal and financial resources for participants to be “transformed.” Many attendees at transformational festivals avow to life-long changes made by the events, however complain of a severe dilution of the “transformed” effect once continued involvement with the events have ceased. The ecstasy of the dancefloor, or the social solidarity of the campground, or the unified bliss of a group mediation often dissolves post-reentry into normalized profane lifestyles. While the festival is rejuvenating, the experience is temporary and unsustainable for long durations of time. Like the experience of a film, while adventurous and mesmerizing, eventually the plot is resolved, the credits roll, and the lights in the theater are flipped back on. We shift around in our seats, coming alive again, stretching and looking around a the bright winking faces in the crowd and the popcorn littered floor. Some attendees of the festivals have discovered other methods of spiritual practice after first being introduced to spiritual ideas at the events, and have gone on to find practices that work for mores sustainable durations. Many however, will only seek to return to the event to revitalize that portion of themselves.
The “transformed” or “conscious” progeny of the transformational festival may be more of packaged product that many would like to think, one with an expiration date- forcing consumers to purchase the experience again and again in order to retain the “transformed” or “enlightened” state. While many discredit the seemingly outdated methods of traditional religious dogma- any man can go into dollar store and purchase a bible for 99 cents and go sit in a room with a single candle and download the entire Christian religion for as long as his memory will serve him. His spirituality, while dependent on a strong codex of mythology and symbolism, does not require much in the way of calisthenics. While new methods of a physiological and leisure spirituality may be seemingly more effective, and have certainly allowed for the birth of new culture at transformational festivals, their method is far more costly.
While transformational festivals may provide society with a new source of spiritual communion, they may also be foreshadowing the expansion of this form of commodification into a massive corporate run industry. Given the high-cost of transformational festivals now, can we surmise that a possible future for the consciousness of mankind may be dependent on an individual’s economic privilege. As Lau writes, “Alternative consumer culture can only be consumed by those who are able to afford it. This is where these hip commodities function as a status and antistatus symbol.” Will the expansion of consciousness become an item of luxury, spiritual comprehension a form of status, and the “transformed” a social class of their own?
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