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Why I’m Studying Psychedelic and Visionary Art Culture

Hi! I’m Maia :)

[pic]

I’m currently in the second year of a PhD, and have been lucky enough to secure
funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to conduct research into
the community that I’ve been a part of for more than ten years: the transnational
culture surrounding psychedelic music and visionary art (or ‘psyculture’). I’d like
offer something to my fellow participants, particularly those who may be
considering taking part in my research, that explains a little about what I’m doing
and why; so here it is!

The Liminal Village, a space of knowledge sharing and discussion at Boom festival,
Portugal. Image source: Good Mood Productions

The psycultural community is one of the most reflexive and progressive arts
communities in the world. There are myriad philosophical, ethical and educational
discussions taking place at visionary arts festivals, and myriad voices speaking
through samples in music, their words inspiring and encouraging rebellion against
the status quo. If there is any kind of overarching belief that unites its diverse
participants, it may be a belief in the possibility of a new form of human
consciousness rooted in compassion and co-operation, and in our responsibility to
bring it into being.

Psyculture has inspired a wealth of research and commentary exploring its


significance and its potential as a consciousness-shifting movement (see for
example the work of Chiara Baldini, Erik Davis, Graham St John and Psyence
Vedava). However, increasingly I’ve been feeling that there is something missing
from the discussion. It might not be something we talk about very often, but
psyculture is also remarkably progressive in terms of its gender politics.

It’s easy to take it for granted because it’s now such a fundamental part of the
experience, but psycultural dancefloors and events offer a particular freedom to
women. Personally, I feel relatively safe from the casual sexual harassment that
seems common in mainstream bars and clubs; this is no small thing. Back in the
nineties, a scholar called Angela McRobbie noted that there was a form of social
dance emerging in rave culture that enabled “pure physical abandon in the
company of others without requiring the narrative of sex or romance”. With less
pressure to conform to stereotypical ideals of femininity and masculinity in order to
play the heterosexual courtship game, ravers were comparatively free to
experiment with gender or to minimize its effects on their experience. As another
scholar, Maria Pini, suggested a few years later, for some women rave culture
provided the “conditions for the explorations of different embodiments of
femininity”. For me, these freedoms and opportunities are an important part of
rave’s legacy in today’s psyculture, and I hope to discover more about how other
participants make use of them, whatever their gender.

More recent research into electronic dance music (EDM) culture (see for example
the work of Rebekah Farrugia, Maren Hancock, Magdalena Olszanowski and Tara
Rodgers) has shown that women face various barriers when they contribute
towards their scene as DJs and producers, though many of them are in the process
of overcoming and/or dismantling these barriers. What stands out for me, as a
woman who has been contributing towards psyculture as a DJ for some years, is
that my experience in this role seems to have been different in many ways from the
experiences reported by women mixing other forms of EDM. I’ve never, for
example, been treated with a lack of respect or assumed to be technically clueless
because of my gender. I’m interested in finding out why this is so. What is it about
psyculture that has provided me with a comparatively empowered and empowering
experience as a female-identifying DJ? Does this kind of experience resonate with
those of other women contributing to psyculture through music, performance or
visual arts? And how is this aspect of psyculture experienced by men in similar
roles?

It’s an obvious point but it’s worth making: the names of most DJs and producers
found on festival and party lineups in psyculture, especially those near the top, still
belong to men. However, there are many women making sound vibrations in the
community (see for example the artists promoted through the Psy-Sisters
collective), and some festivals and parties are doing a good job of holding space for
them. There are also many women involved in the visual and performing arts, and
though I know much less about these areas than I do about music, I’ve become
more and more fascinated with them since I started mixing out at festivals and
parties in 2014.

The theme for 2014 at Boom festival, Portugal – ‘The Feminine’. Image source:
Good Mood Productions
2014 was the year of ‘The Feminine’ at Boom festival in Portugal; the largest
gathering of the global psycultural community in Europe. For the organisers, this
was something that could “rebalance our lives, both on an individual and a
collective level”. As part of the Liminal Village program, there was a talk with
visionary artists Amanda Sage, Emma Watkinson, Jessica Perlstein, Carin Dickson
and Olga Klimova entitled ‘The Other Side of the Moon: Feminine Perspectives in
Visionary Art’. From this talk, and from spending time in the beautiful gallery space
at the festival, I got a sense of the authentic power of female-identifying visionary
artists.

Billboard highlighting ongoing gender issues in the mainstream art world. Image
source: Guerilla Girls

Compared with the mainstream art world, in which women’s art is still woefully
under-represented in exhibitions (see for example activist work by the Guerilla
Girls), I recall a strong presence of women’s art in that gallery. And the most
exciting thing for me, both at Boom festival and in what I’ve seen of visionary art
culture more widely, is that women’s art forms an integral part of what Graham St
John refers to as the “collective participation in visionary artifice”. Women’s art is
neither ignored nor swept into a separate exhibit; it is at the heart of visionary art
culture.

[pic – Eve Olution and Kalya Scintilla]

Later that year, Kalya Scintilla, one of the most excitingly resonant psybass artists
whose music I’d had the pleasure of sharing, released Open Ancient Eyes with his
partner, ritual theatre artist Eve Olution. Through their work, they consciously tap
into and amplify the transformative power of the sacred feminine and masculine
(see for example their discussion of these ideas in an interview by Parisa Eshrati).
On the website for her ritual theatre collective, Evokation Sacred Art, Eve states
that her art

“absolutely wishes to dissolve sexual objectification (common throughout


mainstream media in it’s [sic] depictions of the female form) with the TRUTH
of seeing a female in her authentic expression in all its multi dimensional
layers”.

These are just two examples of what I see when I look at psychedelic and visionary
arts culture through feminist eyes. I see a community that is capable of holding
space for the expression of more authentic, autonomous and multidimensional
forms of womanhood. I see women making space for themselves as artists, their
visions being witnessed and their words being heard. I’m particularly interested in
how ‘the sacred feminine’, as invoked by Boom festival and Eve Olution, relates to
this situation. The use of this idea as a creative, spiritual or political resource is not
without potential pitfalls, which I will be examining more deeply as the research
develops. However, it seems to me that it has the potential to not only stimulate
our sense of ecological belonging and responsibility, but also our capacity to
confront continuing gender imbalance and injustice, both in our community and in
the wider world.

My experience of psyculture has inspired a confidence in myself and in my role as a


cultural co-creator that, as a woman, I wouldn’t necessarily have found anywhere
else. This is why I believe it is worthy of study. It’s also why I think we’re missing
out if we don’t attempt to become more conscious of how we’re creating new ways
of thinking about and experiencing gender, and of how we can continue to work
towards balance and justice, both within and beyond our community. So this is
what I’ll be getting my teeth into over the next year, and I’d love it if you joined me
for the journey!

Thanks for reading. With love,

Maia

I’d like to thank two amazing people for their invaluable help with the creation of
this article: James, my wonderful partner, who is a psychedelic historian; and Jo,
my beautiful psystarling, who is a mighty fine DJ.