on the joy, necessity and ephemarility of optimism

From the archives, I wrote this over three years ago, February 2010, for a student magazine. It’s funny, I force -edited it into a style that is just slightly unnatural. I’ve developed my perspective on each of the things described and wouldn’t phrase everything the same if I wrote this now. I dug it up as I’ve been coming into contact with positive minded people, with more than a hippyish tinge to them recently, which is provoking some thoughts which link back to the thread in this article.

“ we are the ones we have been waiting for”

“Paradise is where I am” proclaimed a sign, as we came to a gateway shaped with contorted figures, where we were greeted by beautiful dusty women. ‘Going Nowhere’ had become a mantra over the past months, especially during my hitchhike from England, and finally I was there, in the ‘desert’ of Los Monegros, Spain. Nowhere is a festival inspired by the Burning Man festival- which has become a temporary city in the Nevada Desert shaped by principles including ‘no commerce’, ‘no spectators’ and radical self expression. These principles are given living meanings as diverse as its population-peaking 35, 664 in 2004.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just a big party in the desert” I was told. This ‘party in the desert’ is, however, the focal point for a passionately dedicated community of Nooners- it is where they live the community they imagine and maintain all year. To me the atmosphere at Nowhere was one of a tangible but ephemeral euphoria. Maybe Nowhere has no purpose beyond itself and so exists on a purely hedonistic basis. Daniel Pinchbeck thinks not:- “The essential point of Burning Man [this applies equally to Nowhere] is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for community.” A man, while being body painted, explained how he envisioned a future driven by creativity transcending the work/life divide, and how spaces like Nowhere were laboratories for future forms of society. I wanted to share his optimism.

One week later Nowhere was a deconstruction site, reverting to a barren dustbowl. Many people left early on Sunday, to return to work on Monday, putting away their dusty booty shorts for another year. The community dispersed, maintaining threads of shared experiences and dreams. I met other friends and continued on the road, exchanging labour for experience, facilitated by the internet based HelpX. Our first hosts were building a straw bale house, and were escaping soulless timetabled ‘modernity’ for a more integrated lifestyle. In another valley we stayed with an offshoot of Rainbow gatherings, people hoping to gain a permanent escape from ‘Babylon’, as they referred to capitalist society, through becoming a permanent nomadic egalitarian community. The atmosphere resonated with that of Nowhere- a focus on existing in the present, coupled with a hope that this rightness could spread in the world. My friend, meanwhile, was frustrated with the self-contained contentedness of the gathering. “But how will they actually change the world?” he demanded.

Four weeks later I was at the Camp for Climate Action- 1500 activists living in a temporarily autonomous zone on Blackheath, within sight of the Gherkin, united by the aim of demanding ‘social change, not climate change’. Here people were united, not just in living a vision of alterity, but in pushing to radically change society.

Climate Camp justifies itself in terms of its political purpose. Despite this, the driving emotion may be shared with that of Nowhere, Rainbow gatherings and seekers of alternative lifestyles elsewhere- a desire to declare otherness from the apathetic inertia of a flawed society. Some ways in which this optimistic yearning for change is realised may be more explicitly and effectively engaged with reality than others. It seems, though, that they all draw on the energy expressed in the grand narrative of a ‘Great Turning’ – a term used by David Korten to describe an awakening into a better era, placing us as “the ones we have been waiting for”.

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beautiful chaos

I wrote this in 2010 or early 2011, for the Nowhere community, in parallel to writing up my dissertation on Nowhere. Some thoughts last night on attending a Q&A meet-up with Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, have prompted me to post it up. 

Saturday night, Nowhere 2010

beautiful chaos in the jungle dome

this space was without straight lines, an immersive space,  with the huge, bulging, glowing cephadaria filling the top half of the dome, ropes enabling the fantastically present and highly decorated humanity to spill upwards, the dancing filling the whole dome, blending into the green foliage-esque decor. it was utterly beautiful chaos. I immersed myself to dance, withdrew to the edges to take air, inverted myself at the edge to experience a new perspective, shared this excitement with other revellers. I realised that a game I had learnt in the woods with a children’s charity was ideal for the moment. I set up two people playing- one person is a ‘camera’ and the other controls what they see. The ubiquitous use of digital cameras often transforms the present into something to be filed away and remembered in the future, the documentation of doing something. To be a human camera is to focus on a beautiful image that your friend seeks out to show you- to have the appreciation of a sight that is often expressed with photography, but without the removal from the present.

“it’s hilarious. everyone’s so utterly fucked in there” a man in board shorts shared with me. I didn’t like this phrasing of it. In sixth form I hung out with people who would become drunk and do ‘hilarious’ random things. Like downing dirty pints, non-consensually drawing on passed out people. When I snogged a female friend, something which made perfect sense at the time, this was presented to me on Monday as ‘hilarious’. I resented this label (but accepted it at the time, for social reasons, innit). The things we do when we are partying, in chemically altered states, are sidelined in mainstream culture, into a space where they are groaned about and laughed at the next day. People distance themselves from revelations about the importance of love, appreciation of beauty, the hollowness of their employed life or their will to change the world by the words ‘I was wasted’. I once overheard a lucidly drunk banker on the tube at 6.30am spill out revelations to his friend, feeling he had worked down to the core of his psyche, describing his utter disconnection to his work. He was going to go to work on Monday, putting on what he recognised as ‘a face’. His mate would probably remind him ‘you were so fucked on the tube, remember?’.

How do we deal with liberated openness at nowhere, whether combined with altered states of minds or not? Is it different from the ‘default world’?

Dumping the ‘we’ to return to my own perspective… I didn’t first find the attitude of accepting open self expression or questioning the world at Nowhere. I found it in various places, and took it inside myself, and I seek out these places. It didn’t stand out to me during my first year at Nowhere, I found people working together voluntarily natural to me, though I noted that it was remarked upon as remarkable by others. I was distracted from the event on its own terms by relationships with the people I’d come with. This year (2010) I immersed myself more in the community, hearing from many people how transformative Nowhere and Burner culture had been for them. It seemed most important personally for the people who found it an utter contrast to their experience of the ‘default world’. Inspiration leaks, however, from Nowhere to the lives of participants, and the inspiration generated at Nowhere is only what participants bring with them, given a platform to be expressed and to grow. The surreality of the event- the physically extreme location and abnormality of costuming creates an environment where people can feel removed from their everyday routines, and so are free to question them without having to immediately be confronted with a situation where they must either drastically change their habits or else admit hypocrisy. Recognising the efficacy of Nowhere in creating a platform for transformative thought and experience made me value it as more than a fun place to be. I realised I was interacting with people who I would normally have no connection with, as they move in such different ways from me in their daily lives, through income, age and inclination. People at Nowhere are away from their usual life paths, and are reduced to our shared humanity- we can interact as beings in the world without regard for social divisions that might normally be between us.

At Nowhere it seems there is a culture which does not ridicule openness displayed during the night before in the daytime. Is this because the day of Nowhere is still within the event, and the event is to the return to the default world as the lucid night out to the following week?

I believe this is partially true. The entirety of Nowhere is a space where openness, and distance from one’s routine is explored and celebrated. However, while this is partly dismissed and boxed away -“yes, I know when I was doing that I thought it was beautiful, but that was at Nowhere. Wasn’t it crazy!!”, the insights gained through experiencing Nowhere also spill out. We learn that we can enjoy interacting with strangers, that we can express ourselves without fear of ridicule. Some find it difficult to take these things from the context of the desert to elsewhere,  others they already know these things in other contexts. The appreciation of the beauty of humanity existing at its best, once freely experienced, can be tapped into again.

frankie and I climbed the mountain for sunset It w150187187056

note: photos are from nowhere 2009. and not closely related to what I’m talking about here!

Loving anthropology, Hating anthropology, and beyond

When I went to uni, I was initially delighted to find that, for the most part, my interests aligned fairly closely with the subjects I was studying. During the first year, I had a paper in each of Sociology, Politics, Psychology and Anthropology. By the end of it I came to find the frameworks into which arguments and data were forced in politics and sociology overly rigid, and realised that the psychology I was most interested in was that which was ethnographic in its approach. For the first two terms the anthropology, despite some fascinating content, was fragmented,  but in the third term a reassuring and enthusiastic supervisor guided and empowered us to knit together the elements of the course. Suddenly anthropology seemed less bounded and more flexible than the other disciplines. Realising that choosing a discipline was to choose a medium of study, rather than a topic, I continued in anthropology.

I interpreted second year as the year with less pressure, and allowed myself to follow my interests more freely, and to prioritise my sanity and state of mind over academic work. I was excited about my plans for dissertation work based on a participative arts event, “Nowhere”, held in an arid, dusty part of Northern Spain. When volunteering for the event, I consented, despite angst centred on the difficulty of separating out my academic and participant documenting roles, to also help with a documentation project for the community. Once I was on site, I settled in as participant, building, cooking, and hanging out, and once I was established I was delighted to find everyone around me supportive of both the ‘historias’ documentation project, and for my academic work. Not only were people supportive in theory, but were incredibly willing to talk. Seeking out personal stories both made me empathetically tuned in, and emotionally exhausted. However, despite experiencing a snapping point, where my capacity for social interaction shut down, the experience was resoundingly positive. I gained insight into the inspiration that participants gained, and also developed my own sense of the value of the event. Subsequently to the event I was offline, as I cycled round the Pyrenees. Contact with the internet reconnected me to Nowhere with dozens of friend requests and photos on Facebook. However, in September, I felt distant from the community, I felt an inertia that utterly disconnected me from the energised, socially secure and confident self I had been during the event.

Faced with the task of writing, in academic format, about Nowhere, I felt the truth of the critiques I had intellectually appreciated during the past years of studying anthropology. Facing the task of translating the lived experience of Nowhere into a piece of writing with the purpose of getting as good a grade as possible brought up many problems that were not just academic hurdles, but affected me emotionally.

I came to hate viscerally that experience is treated as raw material for a product, judged only by its worth to the academic institution, not its value to people. I produced something of limited interest both to ‘academia’ and to nowherers. Though my supervisor enthusiastically predicted me a 1st, it was marked a low 2:1. Maybe some differences of opinion there.* At Nowhere 2011 I had absolute fatigue of talking about any aspect of Nowhere, and particularly of my dissertation, though I brought a couple of copies along out of debt to the community. And I more or less fell out of Burner circles for a while, not going to Nowhere the next year, busy with other things, not planning to this year either.

A few days ago, however, I went to Nest. And it was transformational for me. Many, many things linked up, and suddenly I was intensely involved, stepping into the gaps left by multiple unfilled lead positions. The thing that allowed me to see what there was to be done, and do it, and link people to things that they would like to be doing, to let their contributions flow, was absolutely my experience of researching Nowhere. Finally, that energy of ethnographic investigation of Nowhere, and the insights I gained through it, has flowed back into me, and into a community. I’m happy to attribute how I’m able to think about things in part to my academic training, and I think I might be revisiting some of those academics that I found exciting three years ago. Feels like I’m become whole, healing my soul, and hell, I’m not going to be studying for the academy for a while, I’m going to be keeping busy building links between all the different awesome communities that I’m plugged into, I’ll be going with the flow, to go go go.

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