Fear and Loathing in Atlanta: Racism and the War on Drugs

Content warning: racism, violence, forced miscarriage.

I was on my way to the airplane that would take me back home, to Canada. I boarded the train between the Atlanta airport’s two terminals, eyes bleary from sleep deprivation and last night’s makeup. A blind man and an airport employee helping him walked onto the train, led by his dog. Minutes passed in silence before he told a story, out of the blue, foggy eyes staring at nothing.

“One time I was leaving a store, and my dog, she led me into the wrong car,” he said to his helper. “It wasn’t my wife in the front seat. ‘I think you’re in the wrong car,’ I heard a woman say. ‘I think you’re right,’ I said.”

I shifted my backpack and smiled at the story.

“I’m just glad she didn’t have a .45 on her,” the blind man added.

“Yeah. That would have been messy,” the helper responded.

They said it seriously, but so casually. Like it was nothing. Normal.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down crying.

* * *

Just five days in the U.S. south, at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, changed how I view the work I’m doing. I’m a PhD student who studies the effects of drug prohibition on drug users and sellers. I know about gun violence, about racial oppression, about how the War on Drugs systematically targets the poor and people of colour. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, I’ve watched the documentaries, I’ve talked to people, I’ve done a Master’s degree’s worth of ethnographic research on the subject. I’ve lived in Mexico and seen the ugly effects of cartel power in person. There’s a reason I’m doing this work. But I’d never seen what I saw in Atlanta, so much in so few days.

Monstrous things that seemed to faze no one. Monochromatic homelessness, all black. I was catcalled constantly on the street, and then later told I was an idiot for walking alone at night at all – you can’t do that here. The transit security guard on the subway had a gun. I guess all of them do. I got a physical shiver when I saw it, a weight in my stomach. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a gun in person. I live in the kind of place where you can go months, even years without seeing a gun.

Photo 2017-10-11, 1 04 06 PM

A group of black men being bothered by cops for no reason I could discern, one of the first things I saw when I got into the city.

I heard story after story of people being arrested for drugs, years of their lives and their mental and physical health taken away from them, families destroyed. Racial tension was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Buzzing, insidious, toxic textures at the periphery of the senses. Fear seeped from the walls and coated every interaction. Hackles raised, human connection difficult without concerted effort. I made the effort and was rewarded with tiny moments of solidarity, bright sparks, smiles. Atlanta, like the US as a whole, is full of good, kind people, trapped in a cultural venn diagram of overlapping toxic systems that are slowly killing them and keep them turned against each other instead of against the systems themselves.

White supremacy is real, and it is everywhere. The geographic and economic segregation along racial lines was astounding. I sat eating a Big Mac in a McDonald’s at 11 pm on a Wednesday, the only white person among 30 black people. I then walked six blocks north and was hit by a wall of white bodies in confederate flag shirts—returning from a Garth Brooks concert, I later learned. I was very uncomfortable in the latter situation and felt fine in the former, but the sheer, naked, normalized segregation in both made me deeply uneasy.

I sent my partner a drunk text about how the food here didn’t feel digestible. That Big Mac haunted me. It was like eating ash and plastic, no nutrition at all. You don’t have to believe me, but I mean this honestly when I say that American fast food is worse than the fast food I’ve eaten in any other country. You can taste the difference in agricultural production and food standards. It hurt to think that it’s all that millions of people can afford. It’s barely food. They deserve so much better.

Photo 2017-10-14, 3 21 11 PM

These signs don’t exist where I live

I fended off catcalls as I walked home that night, a deep sense of shame and disgust at my skin colour setting in already, at how I was necessarily perceived to be one more white link in the chains that hold half that country hostage. I couldn’t hide my whiteness, so I shamefully found myself hoping people would at least notice my broken glasses and crappy old boots and think I’m poorer than I am. I’m not wealthy—I just barely identify as middle class—but I am not poor. Not like the homeless man to whom I gave my change instead of all the money in my pocket like I should have. My partner and I don’t make much money, but with free health care and the various other social and academic supports I have access to, I can afford to fly to conferences in other countries where I deal with the embarrassment of being a walking pile of privilege by hoping my taped-up glasses camouflage my relative wealth. I have to remind myself as I walk by that those people don’t have nothing because I have something: those people have nothing because a small handful of people have everything, and will not share until we make them. I channel that knowledge back into my work. Guilt is not productive. Action is.

jeff sessions is an absolute monster

So much blood on this man’s hands

The next day at the conference, I listened to a formerly incarcerated black woman on a panel tell her story. She was in federal prison for selling drugs, and she was pregnant when she was locked up. The water that came out of the taps in the prison was brown. She told them she couldn’t drink it, and they told her to go thirsty. One day, she began feeling pain in her belly. They took her to the infirmary—they didn’t have the right paperwork to get her to a hospital, and didn’t bother finding it. They shackled her, bleeding, to the bed, as she begged for help. She miscarried and lost her child. They threw her sheets, and the fetus, into the trash. Soon she was forced to return to her “job,” welding bunk beds for the men’s prison. Three beds high, three feet of vertical space per bed. The audience quietly cried as we listened. She sold things to people who wanted them, and the state robbed her of unborn child and gave her post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hers was not the only story like this.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-12, 3 59 53 PMI was saved by the people at the conference, hundreds of tiny lights in a landscape of confused darkness. Activists, scholars, authors, health care workers, psychonauts, researchers, patients, libertarians, socialists. All of us bound together by the knowledge that drug prohibition is the modern day Jim Crow and the driving force behind death and destruction in the Americas. We clung to each other for sanity, sharing our successes and failures, our experiences, our self-care rituals. Every victory was tainted by the knowledge that while capitalism stands, its vultures will always find a way to profit and oppress. Marijuana is being legalized—great! But anyone with a felony record is barred from working in the legal market, meaning all the people of colour who were selling it before—shit. Companies who make ankle GPS trackers, video call systems for prisons, and opioid medications pour billions of dollars into lobbying to maintain the system the way it is, while Black and Latinx communities have their young men stolen from them and their women and children surveilled by the state through the welfare system.Photo 2017-10-12, 6 42 40 AM

“Poor activist communities are being destroyed by the prison system,” said one panelist. “If you want to disrupt social justice, put all the men in prison and all the women under welfare surveillance.”

One woman on a psychedelics panel was asked about her experiences. She said she could never fully relax and enjoy a journey, given the space she occupies in the world. “Not even psychedelics can bring me to a place where I can escape from the reality of being black in America.”

Later I sat and watched Falcons fans on the way to a football game, laughing and shouting like everything was fine, and wondered if I was going mad.

Photo 2017-10-13, 8 31 07 AMSometimes, among drug policy activists, it feels like we’re the band playing on the Titanic. Sometimes it feels like maybe we can make a difference, like we’ll win. Like there’s no way we can’t win when all the evidence, and all the empathy, is on our side. But it doesn’t matter either way. We have to try. There’s just no other option.

We have to do this work. Or who will?

* * *

Tiny squares of paper, an unlikely team: Leslie, from San Francisco, and Mark, a 21-year-old from New Mexico who’d never been outside his home state. All conferences have a culture of drinking—the culture at this one is a bit more unique.

Fear and loathing in Atlanta, hotel escalators like an Escher drawing. We managed to get to a club, where I danced like I could drown out my thoughts if I just moved hard enough. I listened to the lyrics of all my favourite hip-hop songs as if I’d never heard them before. Pain, power, poetry. They wrapped around my heart and pulled it down into the ground. The energy on the dance floor, the smiles, the movement—they crackled with intensity. I never wanted to leave.Photo 2017-10-14, 9 17 08 PM

Later, we stayed up til long past sunrise, trying to make sense of what we’d experienced that week. Legs stretched out on the hotel carpet, ears ringing. Talking to Leslie that night had been a moderating influence in the stark differences I kept seeing between our two countries. There were certain things she said didn’t exist in San Francisco either. But still, I began to feel terrible for how many times I pointed out how things like needing to carry mace with you is not normal in Canada, and should not be normal anywhere, let alone a country with this much wealth and resources. Transit officers with guns on the subway should not be normal. Having to ask whether the tap water is potable should not be normal. Fearing shootings in public should not be normal. Spatial segregation by race and class in a multiracial society should not be normal. Having to create GoFundMes to pay for surgery should not be normal. People fighting tooth and nail to keep professional sports team names that are straight-up racial slurs should not be normal.

Canada, like every country, has many serious problems that need immediate attention. I could write endless pages about what’s wrong with the capitalist, colonial state that I live in (and I often do.) Racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia—they all exist in my home too. But it’s not the same. It’s just not.

Sometimes, we just sat in silence, the weak morning sun peeking through the hotel curtains.

“I’ve been very angry and afraid of other people for a very long time,” realized Mark numbly.

* * *

Photo 2017-10-14, 11 26 02 PMI’m not naïve: I knew all of this existed. I’ve been obsessed with American politics, how similar our two cultures seem until you scratch beneath the surface, for years. It’s not possible to be a hip-hop fan from a young age, or study the War on Drugs for a living, and avoid the global vortex of injustice and power that centres on the US. But knowing about it, and coming face to face with the sheer day-to-day mundanity of it all, are two different things. I’ve been all over the West and Northeast, where the cracks in the cultural pavement are more subtle, but touching and seeing and smelling a Southern American city for the first time, while listening to first-hand stories from around the country, poured gasoline on my deep belief that to accept conditions like this as “just the way things are” is the most dangerous possible reaction. The normalization of structural violence, white supremacy and drug prohibition allows all of it to continue, at a scale that boggles the mind. I don’t want to become complacent. I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want to accept it.

Judges who own bail companies and have shares in private prisons is not okay. A man facing five years in prison for picking mushrooms in a forest in Washington is an outrageous injustice. Thousands being held without even being charged, imprisoned for the crime of not being able to afford bail. Dozens of people shot every day by police. Women sexually violated by roadside cavity searches. All because human beings like getting high, and a group of wealthy, powerful people figured out how to turn that desire into capital by weaponizing racial oppression.

None of this is okay. Nobody deserves this kind of life.

I love Americans, I really do. They are incredible people, and so many of them have accomplished amazing things in the face of all this oppression. Watching American activists at work, fighting tirelessly under such difficult conditions, inspires me every day to work harder, work better, listen more closely, see more critically. But the country itself, the ideas that prop it up… How can we wake up the white American prohibition-supporting mainstream—which includes most liberals—to what is happening to people in their own country because of their complacency? I want to run around and shake people. Rip out the tentacles of media propaganda poisoning their minds, convincing vast swaths of the US that it’s their neighbours who are the problem, not corruption and inequality.Photo 2017-10-11, 12 54 33 PM

I guess it’s easier to be in denial, to feel like surely all those black people are wrong, overreacting with their protests and kneeling, than to confront the fact that your whole worldview is based on a mammoth lie. They’re like cult members—they just double down on their beliefs when they’re confronted with reality, because changing those fundamental beliefs, admitting the lie, would be too painful to bear. Maybe that’s how we need to start treating Trump supporters: like cult members who need deprogramming. They’ve bought into a certain narrative, that the US is fundamentally good, and to shatter that illusion would destroy a part of their very identity, their sense of self. Maybe we need to give them an out that allows them to shift that narrative towards something that provides the same positive identity, but acknowledges the truth: if you love your country, the most patriotic thing you can do is help to make it better for everyone in it.

* * *

It was Sunday morning. I’d slept for two disoriented hours. As I walked towards the subway train that would take me to the airport and the sweet sanctuary of home, I was torn between desperately wanting out, and feeling an urgent need to stay—there’s not enough time, I need to talk to more people. As if there could be an amount of time, or enough conversations, that would quiet the existential dread in my belly.

I passed a Muslim family outside the subway station. I wanted to run up to them, to every person of colour I saw and tell them I’m sorry for how hard it is to be them on this continent. I want them to know that I see them, I see what the world is doing to them, and it’s not okay, and I’m doing what I can to change things. That their experiences are real and valid. I don’t want to be one more person feeding into the twilight zone society that pretends this isn’t happening.

Photo 2017-10-12, 7 06 38 AMI’ve been texting with Mark regularly since I got back. We supported each other through our re-entry. “I was in a weird fugue state for a week when I got home,” he told me. “It felt like everything was going in slow motion.”

The airport alone was a surreal experience. I kept seeing innocuous but slightly bizarre things. I saw ads about “shopping for health care” and thought, those words don’t make sense together. I watched a man in the seat ahead and across from me sit and read all of the Wall Street Journal. He spent a particularly long amount of time on an article called “NFL weighs new anthem rules.” At one point, he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, counted them, and then put them back in his pocket.

I watched the guy next to me do a crossword puzzle, and it felt… I don’t know. Amazing. Ridiculous. Something. How can you do something so benign and simple and quaint and pleasant when the world around you is falling apart? How can you be so calm when 96 of your fellow citizens will die today from being shot with a gun? How are you not screaming with pitchforks at the front gates of every billionaire’s house?

I wanted to turn to the people across from me and ask, “Did you know that we’re living in the darkest timeline and everything we’re told about the way things work is a racist lie?”

But I couldn’t figure out exactly how to word that, so instead I asked them about football.
Photo 2017-10-11, 12 06 11 PM

I did talk with another Canadian headed to the same flight as me, and told her how I was feeling. “Atlanta is nothing,” she said. She’d gone to school in North Carolina, and left when she was done her degree because, she said, “it was too racist.”

* * *

When I started crying on the train after the blind man’s story, I couldn’t stop. I made my way to a fast food area with tables in the airport, sat down and sobbed. A woman—this woman—was playing the cello nearby, and I lost myself in the music, slow and sad. My body heaved as I wept. I was ignored by the other people at the tables. No one said a word to me.

By the time the music finished, I had too. I locked eyes with the cellist, whose name turned out to be Jenn, and she walked straight over to me as I stood up. She embraced me tightly, and I felt everything all at once.

We broke apart and I thanked her for her music. “I needed that,” I said.

“I could tell,” she answered. “Is there anything you want to share?”

We talked for a while, with another woman, and every second was both confusing and nourishing. Nothing I managed to verbalize about my feelings seemed to surprise them, and they were sympathetic. “It’s important to accept that not everyone is capable of feeling as deeply as you do,” one of them told me. It makes sense as a short term strategy, but it’s a pill I still refuse to swallow for the long-term. Everyone is capable. We’re just torn away from each other. We can rebuild empathy.

I had to go. They both hugged me goodbye as I wiped away tears, trying not to be embarrassed. “It’s okay,” I sniffed. “I’m okay.”

Jenn held my shoulders as she looked into my eyes. “It’s alright if you’re not okay, too.”

I felt the warmth in her words, and smiled. “I will be.”

* * *

Photo 2017-10-15, 1 49 54 PMOn the plane, I listened to Kendrick and let every word cut into me like wounds I never want to heal, wounds my soft, safe body will never actually have.

I’ll prolly die anonymous, I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, fuckin’ with bitches
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused
I’ll prolly die from thinkin’ that me and your hood was cool
Or maybe die from pressin’ the line, actin’ too extra
Or maybe die because these smokers are more than desperate
I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges
Body-slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’
Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax
Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast
I’ll prolly die tryna buy weed at the apartments
I’ll prolly die tryna defuse two homies arguin’
I’ll prolly die ’cause that’s what you do when you’re 17
All worries in a hurry, I wish I controlled things

If I could smoke fear away, I’d roll that mothafucka up
And then I’d take two puffs
I’ve been hungry all my life
I’m high now
I’m high now


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

The intangible narcotic: What does ‘vibe’ mean, really?

There’s a term that comes up pretty frequently when talking about electronic music events. A search within my interviews (excepts from which are quoted here) and field notes found it mentioned 88 times. Everyone knows what it means, but no one knows exactly how to define it.

Daniel: Vibe is almost a different narcotic of its own. Vibe is… it’s intangible, you can’t touch it, you can only feel it, sense it.

It’s a word I found myself using and implicitly understanding long before I began to think about what it really means. The vibe of, or at, an event can be all levels and qualifiers of ‘great’ and ‘amazing’, or it can be chill, or it can be strange, aggressive, sketchy, even hostile. (Yeah I know. Describing this explicitly is awkward already. Bear with me, we’ll wince together.)

Sunnyside 2015-07-12_169

On the dance floor people move from one area to another, soaking up as many different sensations and feelings as they can. I say sensations because each area has its own vibe, or energy, that can be felt. Participants have described this vibe primarily as a subtle form of communication among people. It is both body language and an intangible energy that is given off by people and can be felt by others. – Brian Rill (2010)

As usual when I’m trying to unpack terms we all take for granted in the rave scene, I feel a little silly doing it. (Trying to define, in academic language, what exactly a ‘bro’ is was one of the funniest things I’ve had to do while writing up my research.) Pulling apart the concept of ‘vibe’ felt like deconstructing a joke – talking about it explicitly ruins what makes it special; its very existence is made of an implicit shared understanding of a subjective experience. The word started to lose all meaning, as it will soon for you if you keep reading this post.

But there was still something bugging me. Some important meaning hidden in the way people talk about it. It seems trivial, but it turns out that the vibe of an event indexes much more than it would appear.

Hilary: So you say the crowd is really important to you. Can you describe the kind of vibe that you enjoy?
Mandy: Um… Open-minded. Uh, I like weird people. [Laughs] Like, a diverse crowd, I think. I can tell when people are there for something other than the music. And then it kind of just ruins, like, the vibe.

Steven: All the frat boys were showing up and pissing on the trees, and it was just not the right community or vibe anymore.

Ali: You get a certain vibe when you go into places. Like, I don’t know, I’m a very intuitive person, I feel like I read people well, and I just know whether I’m like, in a safe place or not. [Laughs] It sounds so corny, but it’s true.

Veld 2015 (219)

What are the things that affect the vibe of an event? The décor, the lighting, the music, the attitude of the staff members (especially security), the size of the event, the theme (if any), the type of clothes people are wearing, the time of day or night, the type of drugs being consumed, and the age of attendees. But dwarfing all of these factors in its impact on the vibe is one key element. Pinpointing and exploring this element became an important focus of my research, as it underlies one of the main problems at raves, particularly the mainstream ones that young and inexperienced people are more likely to attend.

The first event I attended where the overall negative vibe began to stray into very uncomfortable territory due to this particular factor occurred late in July, and it’s a story which incidentally includes some good illustrations of harm reduction in practice. My partner Diego, our good friend Jake and I were at a techno event. Jake had taken three hits of acid, which had made him unusually chatty, though he was also feeling self-conscious and not fully able to articulate his thoughts.

“I’m going to rely on you guys tonight, ok? You’re my guides,” he told Diego and I. I told him he seemed to be keeping it together pretty well. “I have no baseline for what would be considered keeping it together right now,” he responded. I laughed and told him he was doing fine, trying to make sure he felt he had a basis of support for his trip.

The place was still pretty empty. Two girls were sitting on some flat leather seating around a low table in one of the corners. Since there was plenty of room, and my legs were still sore from an event the night before, I went to sit down. The girls whispered to each other and stared at me. I ignored them, but suspecting what was going on, gave them the courtesy of exaggeratedly rubbing my knees and back for effect. Finally one of them walked over.

“This is a private booth,” she said.2015-06-14 00.13.17

“Oh,” I responded, looking at the empty seats. I briefly considered playing dumb and making her spell it out even more for me, but decided on being straightforward. “Can I just sit here for a few minutes?”

She looked unhappy, but was too shocked at my shameless impertinence to argue. “I guess so.”

I could tell she wasn’t going to be able to enjoy herself until I left. Diego, highly unimpressed with her attitude, told me to take as much time as I needed. Her indignance made me think about the purely relative basis of wealth and status. How could she enjoy the exclusivity of having paid for a private booth if it was no longer private? A bottle-service booth so empty that non-VIPs could accidentally wander in and sit down throws the arbitrary and pretentious nature of these booths in their occupants’ face and devalues the experience completely. Despite feeling bad for the type of person whose feathers could become so ruffled at such an absurdist challenge to their power, my own distaste for being asked to leave an empty seat that could fit five people kept me in place. Wanting very different things from the same event, we were both clear examples of ruining the vibe for one another, for very different reasons.

After a few minutes—enough time to preserve my Marxist dignity without causing her glares of annoyance to turn into sad, sad rage—we went to dance. The music was excellent, but I could already tell that the general feeling of this event was not to my taste. I found that I could not face the DJ, as a blinding strobe light was positioned directly above his head. All I could hear was the incredibly loud bass, which is apparently an acquired taste, as I frequently disagree with my musical connoiseur friends Brad and Daniel on the value of being able to hear anything but said bass. The smoke machine was so intense and the venue so small that when I opened the door to the bathroom I actually wondered if there was a separate smoke machine in there as well. Regardless, none of these factors were all that bad, and the venue was unique, so it seemed worth staying.

2015-08-23 01.23.51

With all this stimulation, however, Jake began to feel somewhat overwhelmed. I took him outside for some air and gave him a water bottle that I’d been filling up in the bathroom. I went back inside and wrote down in my fieldnotes to “Google ‘smoke machine toxicity’” which made me laugh at how inadequate the conception of ‘risk’ in the rave scene really is, as I’m considered to be a risk taker. Soon, however, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Jake had returned, looking anxious. He asked me to come help him outside.

In the smoking area, I found out that two young men were accusing him of drugging their friend, who I’ll call Pale Sweat-Face. Seeing that Pale Sweat-Face looked sweaty and pale, Jake had offered him some of the water I’d given him, which they were convinced for some reason contained GHB as well. Apparently, Jake, in his acid-influenced reasoning that communication barriers were all that stood in the way of understanding, reconciliation and friendship, had tried to use meticulous honesty and tell them that since the water had been out of his possession for a few minutes while I filled it up in the bathroom, he couldn’t technically guarantee there was nothing in it, but that he trusted the person who filled it up. I swore to them that it was just water, and that of course none of us would give someone GHB without knowing. I could feel the eyes of the security guard watching us. Pale Sweat-Face had clearly taken something; he looked disoriented and woozy. I was more concerned about Jake, however; this type of conflict can easily set off a bad trip for a person on psychedelics. I knew Jake fairly well and had seen him handle LSD capably before, but three hits is a sizeable amount for anyone, and bad trips can be a terrifying experience.

2015-08-16 04.22.03

I couldn’t place something about the attitude of the young men, however. I couldn’t tell if they were accusing us because they actually thought we did it, or because they were choosing to be intentionally antagonistic and argumentative, something I’d rarely seen in the rave scene but have definitely witnessed from intoxicated men and women many times at ‘regular’ bars. When I realised the latter might be the case, I stopped trying to convince them we’d done nothing, grabbed Jake and went back inside.

We attempted to shake off the unpleasantness by dancing. We reassured a frazzled Jake, still peaking on LSD, that he’d done nothing wrong; he was just trying to be nice and share water with someone who looked like they needed it. He shook his head and gave me a hug. “Reality is so complicated right now,” he muttered.

We were just starting to enjoy ourselves again when a tall blonde man in his early twenties approached me. “Do you want to dance?” He placed his hand on the small of my back.

Being a woman in the rave scene, I had quickly become adept at conveying the body language of thanks, that’s enough, and that is all the interaction we will be having tonight. It is an essential skill and one that all women who participate in nightlife develop in some way. Fending off unwanted advances is unfortunately a standard part and parcel of the experience of women at many of these events. When body language fails, things get even more awkward and you’re forced to try words instead. Words are tough when you’re socialized to never be direct and assertive, though, so these little messy situations happen neverendingly, and they always suck.

2015-06-14 00.39.47

I began to run through the familiar rolodex of conflicting emotional responses to the blonde guy’s question. The heart of the conflict, which most women are intimately familiar with and which is being challenged in contemporary feminist activism, is the perceived need to be gentle in declining a man’s advances, and appreciative of their supposed inherently complimentary nature. How do I say no without being rude? It’s an exhausting and ridiculous question women find themselves asking over and over. We should be asking an entirely different one, but I won’t get into that right now.

“Sure, if you’re ok that my husband is right there,” is what I chose to respond to the blonde guy. The idea behind this approach was that, in the unlikely case that he still didn’t lose interest upon hearing this, it would indicate that he was genuinely just interested in dancing briefly and nothing more, which would be fine.

But Jake and Diego were already intervening on my behalf. Diego put his arm around me and Jake asked the man to back off. Knowing them, I am sure this kind of overprotectiveness would not have happened if we had not already felt an aggressive, unwelcome vibe from the event. I talk to strangers all the time at these things, I am doing research after all. But the whole situation, it seemed, just smelled wrong to them. We hadn’t been meeting friendly, smiling, open people at this place. Why should this person be any different?

Yet I felt no better for not being allowed to deal with the situation on my own. When I told them this, Jake mused reflectively about his instinctive drive to intervene. “Maybe I’m more protective of you because you’re like one of my herd.”

The whole thing felt gross. We eventually decided that the music was not good enough to make up for the aggressive vibe of the event, and decided to go to the after-hours club to keep dancing and attempt to salvage the night (and Jake’s trip). As we turned the corner outside on the street, we saw a group of four young men. One was the blonde who had asked me to dance. The other three were the same men with the ambiguously aloof and hostile attitudes who had sent Jake’s trip spiraling into a bad direction by accusing him of giving one of them GHB. Things clicked into place. I hadn’t even realised they were in the same group. They’d apparently been kicked out because of their friend’s drugged-out behaviour.

Despite having had more than enough of all four of them, I couldn’t fight the mama hen instinct in me to check on Pale Sweat-Face and make sure he’d be OK. I tried to convince them once more that I hadn’t put GHB in the water by showing them one of the business cards I made to give to people interested in my research. “I work in harm reduction, I’m the last person who would drug someone.”

One guy examined my card and looked up at me. “You’re not just being a bitch right now?”

We left.

2015-08-23 01.14.48-2

The real heart of the ‘vibe’ at an event isn’t the decor, or the venue, or the age of the attendees. Though of course it’s not the only factor (which I hope was made clear by the above narrative), by far the most important one seems to simply be the reason why the men are there. Are they there to dance and enjoy the music, or are they there for basically any other reason? If it’s the latter, it’s going to end up fucking up the night for some or all of the poor kiddos who just want to dance.

Vibe is basically summed up in how the men at an event behave. Towards each other, but particularly, of course (sigh) towards women. Either way, if people don’t feel safe, they won’t have fun. And the only real dangers at raves come not from something inherent in drug use, or from a risk of fires or some bullshit (looking at you, Toronto FD, couldja stop?), but from the unpredictable and self-reinforcing behaviour of some men.

There’s a dance version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (can we call it Agro’s hierarchy of rave needs? Cause I would totally love that to be my legacy), and not worrying about walking piles of aggression when you’re trying to party is right at the bottom. It’s foundational. Talking to people all along the gender spectrum, and digging into their thoughts about the vibe at their favourite (and least favourite) events, it became clear that the comfort and safety of women is the key factor that determines everything else. Right above safety is a lack of judgement from other people. We’re all at these things to get away from the constant social judgements we receive on a daily basis for being the weirdos we are, and play with the arbitrary rules and boundaries about what to wear, say and do that we’re forced to follow in everyday life. When people say, “the vibe of that place is awesome”, what they’re really saying is, “I’m a woman and nobody grinded their dick into my hip at that place even though I was wearing only my bra” and “I’m a guy and I felt like I could hug my male friends without getting hit by a stinky wave of judgemental testosterone from those unsmiling dudes in flat-brimmed hats in the corner”.

Ahhh, bros.

Happy International Women’s Day.

2015-08-23 04.32.12

As always, names have been changed and if you think I’m right, wrong or completely full of shit, feel free to let me know.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Feelings into words: Harvest Festival Part 2

Read part one here.

Describing, in words, what it’s like to be at a rave is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do for my research. How can one possibly describe what it feels like to be there, in the moment? The unbounded ego loss, the embodied sensations, the immediacy of the act—by its very nature, the meaning of the experience is lost in any attempt to translate it into text.

It’s as it should be, really. The space in which we live our daily lives is one in which everything we do and see and think is translated into language. Language is the only means we have of shortening the distance between each other, that maddening asymptote at the root of all human conflict and knowledge and love. If coming together to dance is one of the ways we manage to climb out of that mediated space, out of our heads, our worlds constantly defined and categorized and re-defined and re-categorized, over and over—then this liminal experience being impossible to truly put into words is what makes it so special.

But it sure as hell makes it difficult to write a thesis on it.

Crystal 6

So there we were, dancing in the Crystal 6 tent at Harvest Festival. This was it, the culmination of weeks of preparation and hours of driving and money and excitement and hassle and anticipation. Dirty Decibels were on stage, killing it as always, and we lost ourselves in the beat. Our collective movements were punctuated by those delightful, individual moments of weirdness and joy that are unique to these types of gatherings. At one point I discovered that the person whose homemade LED-lined suit I had been admiring earlier in the night was an old friend I’d known since childhood but not seen in a decade. At another point, I tried on a friend’s kaleidoscope glasses, which were so ridiculously intense in that environment that it took me a good few minutes to come back down to earth after the experience.

But mostly, I danced. We danced. Sharing the space, the sound, smiles, water, we vibrated inside a transcendent cloud of music as millions have before us and will long after we’re gone in one long continuum of human experience. Under lasers and smoke and what looked like gigantic pink Fleshlights suspended from the ceiling, we danced.

* * *

After a few hours, the Crash tent began calling my name. I’d been hearing cryptic rumours all day about something extraordinary waiting inside the mythical psytrance tent. Diego, Erica, Dave, Zach and I got into a huddle. We knew that if we didn’t make an effort to check it out now, we risked getting stuck in the dancing equivalent of an ass-groove on the couch and never leaving Crystal 6 at all. So, like toddlers about to play in the snow, we bundled and layered up for the cold trek down the hill.

Harvest 2015 - 100

Moving shapes and distractions passed by on either side as, on autopilot, my vision stuck to the familiar pattern of the front-back-side-to-side world of eggshell-white ceilings and hallways. By chance, though, I looked up. And the sky exploded above me.

My breath caught in the cold air as we all stopped to stare up at the magnificent cathedral of stars that the city hides from us year-round. Here was yet another one of those indescribably magical moments where my communication medium of choice can do nothing but yield to the power of my second favourite, photos. But of course, photos need to be captured in the moment. And it was too cold for that. So, resolving to postpone serious photographic exploration until next year, on we went.

If the sum of the earth’s beauty is a double sided coin of the greatest treasures that both nature and humanity have to offer (under, of course, the debateable assumption that these are separate spheres), stepping into the Crash tent after that natural display was like getting immediately punched in the face by the other side of the coin. I mean, holy shit.

I spotted my friend Daniel, who stood a head above everyone else. He was not surprised by my flabbergasted reaction. “People walk into this tent and are either blown away and fall in love, or look as if they just witnessed a horrific beating,” he told me with a grin. “There’s not a lot of reactions in between.”

Harvest 2015 - 168.jpg

Psytrance Squid had a fun time at the glowstick factory.

We got lost in a time vortex. I spent an unknowable amount of time staring at the wall of meticulously crafted string art alone. This was the most ridiculous place I’d ever been inside. Blacklights and artwork and some sort of enormous alien vortex hanging above us that looked like a giant squid broke into a glowstick factory owned by Timothy Leary. The five of us who went in thought we’d be there for just a couple minutes. But we couldn’t look away. We staggered out 45 minutes later still unable to entirely comprehend what we just saw. We walked back up the hill, carrying the fortunes from cookies we’d been given by a random stranger, and blinking through the neon shine leftover in our fields of vision.

Then, just because, Aurora fucking Borealis happened. Out of nowhere. In the sky. So, there was that.

I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

* * *

We decided it was high time to finally head to the Pyramid. Bundling up once more, we wove our way out past the ping-pong table and ran into Bobby, a friend who works on the sound crew. He was carrying a shovel and looked exhausted but cheerful. “I’ve been digging trenches for power cables for the past two hours,” he sighed, wiping his forehead. Of course we hadn’t even noticed the hardworking people in the background of the event, making sure everything went smoothly. We just took for granted that everything seemed to magically work out. I gave him a hug and thanked him for doing what he did.

“This is a world-class festival,” said Zach, as we looked out over the multicoloured river. “Justin is a visionary.”

Harvest 2015 - 170-2.jpg

Afterwards, I talked to Daniel, one of my go-to people for answers to complex questions about the scene in Toronto, about how on earth a thing like this exists. “I could literally talk for hours about what makes that event so special and spectacular,” he told me. “But it boils down to this: incredible achievements are possible if nobody is trying to take credit for them.”

I’d still like to hear more about WHY they do it,” I asked him. I thought about the other, bigger, more commercial festivals I’d been to. “It seems obvious of course, but it’s really pretty amazing to resist the temptation to allow monetization to just chip away at the thing.”

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the ‘why’ you speak of—it is there, and not something easily explained in a few words,” he replied. “But it is a ‘why’ that speaks to the inherent good that is possible with humans if we accept that each of us mean well, but have weaknesses that we are both honest to others about and, more importantly, with ourselves about.”

“It seems so difficult to really not be cynical about it. It feels too good to be true,” I admitted to him. “We’re like wounded puppies that have been beaten so much by unbridled consumerism and the invisible hand of the market that we don’t recognize the warm, loving hand of actual, no-fine-print-or-hidden-catches human positivity.”

Harvest 2015 - 125

“I’ve told the organizers of Breakandenter and Boxofkittens, Harvest Festival, Justin, who continues to be a good friend to this day, and Bobby who now works for him, Dave, Irving, this whole circle of organizers—guys, I’m a better human being as a result of what you’ve done.”

* * *

At the Pyramid, finally, I had my first experience hearing a well-known DJ named Medicineman, and his (along with Dirty Decibels) was my favourite set of the weekend. It blew me away and kept me dancing despite the creeping fatigue setting in. Still, the frequency of breaks I was needing to be able to keep going was steadily increasing. The Crystal 6 tent where we’d spent most of our time did not have any seating—the one thing I would have changed about the setup—a fact which I was feeling in my legs hours later. At one point I sat down on a leather couch next to a man in a steampunk outfit. The smile I gave him turned to a frown of deep, deep disappointment as I realised that I’d sat down squarely in a freezing cold puddle of water. But it all worked out, as his sympathy turned into a long conversation about salsa dancing—he was an instructor—and relationships.

Harvest 2015 - 182.jpg

I went outside and watched the sun come up as I peed on the grass at the edge of some trees, revelling in the glory of not using a portapotty, one of life’s little joys. As the last of our dance-generated body warmth began to fade, we finally gathered up our things and went back to the tent to add more layers on before the final leg of the journey—one last trip to the Screaming Heads.

Leaning up against the monument in the weak, misty sunlight, I reflected on all the tiny little moments that come together to make a weekend like this so unforgettable. Sharing a chat over the fire of a warming barrel. Seeing the joy on someone else’s face and feeling it through them. Saying you wish you had something and the other person has it on them at exactly that moment. Or telling someone you need something and they end up going way out of their way to get it for you (thanks for the batteries, Brad). Sharing a pee in the woods with a stranger, squatting and bonding. Walking by dozens, hundreds of unique, fascinating individuals, who each one you could spend a lifetime getting to know and it wouldn’t be enough—like the most contented-looking man in history stroking a fox-fur around his shoulders, or the guy in the purple wig and “Peanut-Free Elephant” sign—the many strangers-turned-friends you end up recognizing at events all the time. The Wizard making you sing Bird is the Word as you cross the river. (It didn’t work out very well but it was funny.) Shared water at just the right moment. Surprise hugs from behind. Exchanging smiles with a stranger who you know, as far as it is possible to know the inside of another person’s experience, is feeling the same way you are.

2015-09-27 21.24.45

Photo Credit: Cory Richardson.

That moment in your tent when your head finally hits the balled-up sweater that is your pillow, and all you can do is dream, wide awake, as reality converges on half-asleep fantasies and you drift blissfully in between, not caring about sleep because when life is that sweet you can’t tell the difference, and it doesn’t matter.

* * *

There was a beautiful five-second period between when I woke up and when the morning tent-sweats hit me. Had we been teleported to the surface of Mercury? No, the sun had just turned our tent into an orange dome of FIRE.

I staggered out, opened the cooler and began stuffing my face with grapes. I overheard a conversation just ahead of me that I was intrigued by, and wandered over to join in. It was indeed a very fascinating conversation. And I would very much love to tell you about it. However, I can’t. I can’t talk about something which is an integral part of the experience of these precious spaces for many people. Because no matter how looming or far away it seems from moment to moment, we live under the constant threat of having everything taken away from us due to stigma- and fear-based legislation and moral scapegoating.

And it makes me angry. It should make you angry too. This bullshit needs to end.

My conversation with this intelligent, fascinating person eventually turned, somehow (ahem, so weird how this happens when I’m around), to the topic of capitalism and wealth disparity. Floating on a cloud of unshakeable post-dancing contentment as I was, I think it was the first time that I’ve been able to calmly converse with someone who believes that “Having ten times more stuff comes from doing ten times more stuff,” and “wealth comes from adding value to the world”, while maintaining a straight face and completely open mind. Maybe money does make you a better person. Maybe you can save the fucking spotted owl with money. Who knows. Anything is possible.

Cough.

Harvest 2015 - 211.JPG

Diego and I decided to go for a quick walk around. We followed the sound of raucous music coming from the Pyramid and ended up at the ferry. A few naked bodies were swimming in the water, and I wished I had the energy to join them. I knew it would feel good, but that first two-second shock was enough to keep me from jumping in. Two of them climbed onto the ferry as we crossed. “How’s the water?” I asked.

“Amazing,” beamed the naked woman.

The dripping-wet guy beside her caught my eye and shook his head surreptitiously with a grin. No, it’s freezing, his expression said. I laughed. I was just wondering what the older woman in pastel golf clothes beside me thought of the whole scene, when she jokingly complimented the girl’s butt. So I didn’t dream up this whole magical place, then. It was real, at least for another few precious hours.

Harvest 2015 - 233

What I did to this sandwich was practically indecent.

We danced to Osunlade’s lovely, unpredictable set with a remarkable amount of unexplained energy. Our “ten-minute walk” turned into two hours of a dusty encore as we enjoyed the first real sun all weekend. At some point I ended up eating a bacon and avocado sandwich that tasted like a thousand rainbows dipped in Thor’s chest sweat, provided by the infamous Charlie Brown. This doesn’t really add anything to the narrative, I just think you should know how good that sandwich was.

As we made our way onto a small hill to survey the crowd, I was fascinated by a girl in mushroom-patterned socks and a straw hat with tiny sunflowers who was simultaneously walking, dancing, drinking a beer, and hooping at the same time. I complimented her when she arrived near us, and she told me about what discovering hula hooping had done for her.

“Hooping is my centre, my meditation, my connection with the universe, where I find myself,” she smiled. “If I feel a negative thought coming, I lose focus and drop it,” she gestured to the hoop. “So it just keeps me centred.”

As I watched people dance and talk and laugh, I tried to spot figures I recognized in the crowd. I thought about the two uncomfortable-looking bro’s I’d spotted the first night who looked like they were utterly bemused at how all their high school bullying victims had managed to all gather together in one place. I smiled, imagining their transformation over the weekend as they become one of us. Swallowed up and neutralized by the hippies, like white blood cells converging in.

I popped the last of my sandwich into my mouth and we began to make our way home.

Harvest 2015 - 225.jpg

 * * *

I like life. A lot. I didn’t use to. But knowing what it feels like to not enjoy life, and having climbed all those hills and won all those battles, I now try to wring as much joy out of it as I possibly can. This has ended up with me sometimes getting a little too excited about the things I get excited about. I’m used to friends rolling their eyes at me and taking my enthusiastic recommendations with a grain of salt. I don’t really care, because fuck it, if I want to have 50 number-one-absolute-most-favourite songs, I will. If I have several best friends, it’s not because I can’t pick, it’s because they’re all the single best people I’ve ever met. Yes, this show will change your life. Yes, that massage was the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Yes, this cheese is making me reevaluate all my life choices and dearest belief systems in the attempt to reconcile its very existence. Yeah I know it’s from Costco. Doesn’t matter.

The thing is, when you live your life in constant hyperbole like this, even if it’s based on a deep, ineffable appreciation for all that humanity has to offer, it really screws you over when something like Harvest comes around. You’ve used up all your words and there are none left that really do it justice.

But sometimes, even if you want so badly to be able to turn it into words and make sense of it, a feeling is good enough on its own.

Yin and yang at Harvest Festival: Part 1

NOTE: I will not be discussing my regular research topic (drug use) in this post–despite how much I hate the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ status quo between festival culture and the outside world that regulates us–out of respect to the organizers of Harvest. All names have been changed.

I inspected the external flash and took a few test photos. I’d found the flash on Craigslist. The eyes of the Richmond Hill man I was buying it from widened in shock when I told him we were on our way to a music festival.

“You’re going to bring your camera equipment?” he asked. “I’d never bring mine to something like that. Won’t it get stolen?”

I packed up the flash and got out a wad of $20 bills. “I think it’ll be fine. This isn’t a big festival full of drunk people,” I said as I handed him the money. “It’s called Harvest Festival. It’s just a bunch of nice hippies.”

“I wouldn’t trust anyone at a festival,” he replied. He clearly thought I was being naïve, but accepted the cash without further comment. Was I being naïve? I’d never actually been to this festival before. I mean, I wasn’t going to just leave my camera lying around or anything. But from what I knew about Harvest, it wasn’t the type of place to worry too much.

What could go wrong? No really, that's not foreshadowing.

Just a bunch of nice hippies.

Diego and I drove up with two friends of ours, part of an extended group of people we’d met and became close to through my research. To be honest, we’d never really spent quality time with Erica and Dave before. We had slept in their house, though, when they were out of town. On their wedding night. “We won’t be needing it,” reasoned Erica when she offered, as if it was no big deal to add ‘last-minute houseguests’ onto the list of wedding day preparations. “Make yourselves at home!” That’s the kind of people they are.¹

Arrival: Welcome to your wildest dreams
As we rolled into the campgrounds, we were greeted by bright lights and 15-foot stone faces wearing 3D glasses. Diego carefully threaded the car through lines of campers dragging bags and coolers. “Happy Harvest!” chirped the man who exchanged our tickets for wristbands. We’d hear that refrain a lot over the weekend.

What a perfect welcoming sign. Photo credit: Becca MJ

Concentrating on bringing our stuff to our campsite was difficult while being blasted by unexpected weirdness from every angle. Disoriented but excited, we passed the sounds of drums ringing through the chilly autumn air from a hill dotted with bonfires. Grown adults wearing galaxy tights and onesies spilled out of a gigantic pink dome pumping out tribal techno. Chinese lanterns and hand-painted signs—one said “Beware! Clothing optional past this point”—lined the crooked pathway. We reached our spot near the enormous LED owl that one of our several dozen campmates had created for the occasion. As we set up our tent in the wet grass, I remember being glad I’d heeded the many warnings beforehand from seasoned Harvesters on Facebook to bring rain boots or spend the weekend regretting it.

DSC_5529 - CopyThe first night was low-key, spent drinking beer and socializing in the Thermodome, the pink structure near the entrance. (“Thunderdome?” I asked as we entered. “No, Thermodome! There’s no fighting in here,” called a grinning stranger.) I was told that this understated Friday is intentionally planned by the festival’s organizers, to ensure most people wouldn’t be too wiped out before the main night. They carefully design the entire weekend’s flow to maximize how and when the majority of people will be able to spend their energy without burning out. Their plan worked for us at least, as we were in bed before 3 am.

As I would soon discover, the fact that the work of the organizers is centred entirely around curating the most unabashedly creative experience possible, rather than maximizing profit, comes through in hundreds of ways. The collaboration of countless people on endless delightful tiny details adds up to a weekend where everywhere you turn, something new and weird and delightful is waiting to make you wonder, once more, how a perfect place like this can exist in a world so often full of pain and sorrow.

Weather and unity
Rain pounding on the tent woke me up then lulled me into a contented semi-slumber. I didn’t know what to expect of the day ahead of me. I had heard very few specifics. But the knowing smiles, the glint in the eyes of the people who’d strongly recommended I go to Harvest for my research formed the foundation of the anticipation coursing through me.

A rare break in the clouds.

A rare break in the clouds.

About when I gave up on sleeping in, knowing I’d regret it later, I heard voices approaching outside. A man in a yellow rain slicker combo, purple tie and Santa hat walked into our campsite with a boom box, talking about the spirit molecule. I smiled and felt the familiar feeling of being at home with my fellow eccentrics.

I left Diego snoring in the tent and went with Erica and Dave to visit a few buddies in a nearby campsite, where they got to discover that being friends with me involves hearing me explain my research to someone at least once every hour anytime I’m at an event. (For purposes of informed consent and all that, but also it’s just my favourite topic and I never get tired of talking to people about it.)

I chatted with a guy about Burning Man as his friend made cup after cup of individually-brewed coffee for anyone who wanted one. Another man offered tea. “Is it caffeinated?” I asked, aware of the irony of being wary of the most benign of substances, considering the specific ways in which I usually respond to joking accusations of being a narc.

“I’ve got both. Black tea, and a non-caffeinated mix of green and white tea,” he reassured me. With a subtle nod to my topic of interest, he poetically explained the reason behind having both options: “There’s a lot of yang at these things, so I always make sure to have some yin.”

Suddenly, we heard cries coming from the camp next door, just up the hill. A girl ran down to our tent. “Can we get some help over here?” Their canopy had blown over in the strong winds. Several of us sprung into action and went to help out. I unclipped heavy hanging decorations then went to find rope as Dave joined in the group of people attempting to keep the weight of the huge burlap top from further breaking the metal supports. Within minutes, we’d moved and stabilized the canopy. Ad-hoc festival teamwork at its finest. When the sun broke through the clouds, a cheer rolled through the festival from all corners of the grounds.

We decided it was high time to go for a walk and check out the infamous Crash tent. As I waited for Erica and Dave to get their rain ponchos, I watched our campmate Ian painstakingly cut out pieces of cardboard and tape them together for his costume, undaunted by the misty rain. His creation didn’t look like much so far, but he certainly seemed determined.

DSC_5615

The live music stage.

During our walk, we discovered why Crash, the psytrance stage, is called Crash: It’s in the shape of an enormous cartoon spaceship, crashed into the ground. This was my first taste of the extent of the unbridled creativity that went into that unbelievable tent (which I’ll talk more about in Part Two). Our visit was cut short, however, when a torrent of rain began in earnest. On the way back we passed by the rope-powered barge that led towards the Pyramid, from which bass music was already climbing out in waves. That barge would be my nexus of introspection throughout the coming day and night. It would be the source of both an anxious dilemma about the double-edged intersection between my research methods and my personality, and fleeting moments of zen-like calm that could muffle the surrounding chaos into soft wisps of pulsing sound, buttressing an untouchable, serene joy.

Liftoff
At 3 pm, we decided to begin the day’s real journey. For the next two hours, we got our costumes on and made food, including the most pathetically utilitarian pot of Kraft Dinner I’ve ever seen – chunks of cheese clinging to dry, sticky clumps of noodles. We shoveled it in regardless, juggling makeup brushes and clothing layers in the indecisive rain, under a layered chorus of giggling fits. The important thing was to get some sort of sustenance inside us, as difficult as it was during that particular point in time. Food is often more of a nuisance than a pleasure at festivals, especially as night descends and lengthens into near eternity. But constant maintenance of food in the belly is crucial to festival success for many, many reasons.

The mural that anyone could add to. It was different every time we walked by it.

The mural that people THOUGHT that anyone could add to. It was different every time we walked by it. Turns out it was supposed to be one artist’s work and people didn’t know that.

“Let’s go check out the Pyramid,” suggested Dave. Decked out in a hodgepodge of feathers and thrift store miscellanea from head to toe, we walked past murals and giant spiderwebs and port-a-potties towards the barge to cross the river.

Wizard, the bargeman, gestured to the rope that needed manning. “Can I get someone to do the thing with the things?” With an impressive balancing act between jovial and sarcastic, he peppered our journey with casually hilarious banter as we were slowly pulled across. Just as I was about to get out my phone to take a video so I could remember exactly why it was so funny and prevent what’s happening right this second, which is that I can’t remember what the hell he said, he began a speech about putting away electronic devices and living in the moment. Well. So much for that.

I perhaps could have remembered that I was actually intentionally there not only to experience, but to document, and done it anyway. But though the ravenously obsessive documentarian inside me is not inclined to agree, I’ve gotten the sense from some people that it’s good once in a while to just let go and be able to remember only vague feelings rather than specifics. “I’m always trying to find a balance between capturing moments as they happen, and experiencing them to the fullest while they’re happening,” Dave told me later in a conversation about taking photos. My instinct to obsessively document stems from a frustratingly unpredictable memory, and though the kind of research I’m doing (ethnographic) is a perfect outlet to harness and utilize that instinct, finding the limit has been difficult and the source of much perfectionistic agony. I’m lucky that some of my friends have been very accommodating about giving me permission to turn my recorder on when we’re out at events.

DSC_5597

Go to the Pyramid, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

Our walk into the pyramid was framed by a square tunnel of rainbow LEDs. I teetered a little as we went, with confused sea legs from barely a few minutes’ ride. We followed a man who looked like he’d inherited Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat’s jacket and found a matching wig and pants. As we approached the booming, colossal yellow shrine, music pulsated from the walls, grinding into the ground and making my hair shake. Erica looked back at me with the same overwhelmed expression that was likely on my own face. We took a deep breath and the four of us walked inside.

I’m a little fuzzy on exactly what happened in the next sixty seconds. All I have are flashes of memory and a very strong feeling of being entirely not at all in the right state of mind for the seething cacophony of humanity that was inside.

We turned around and went back to the campsite.

“I need a nap after that nap.”
Waiting out the rain once again, our plan to have a snack break and disco naps turned into about an hour and a half of pretending the inside of our tent was a palace made of cheese, and a spaceship, in that order. It made perfect sense in context. Maybe you had to be there.

“Don’t forget we have to rave later,” Dave reminded us. We lamented having spent all our potential nap time giggling and eating tomatoes. Festivals are a marathon, not a sprint, and an ironic amount of planning has to go into lasting the whole night. It’s funny how much work having fun can be. “To think that it’s only seven o’clock is terrifying,” groaned Erica. At least twelve hours of partying still lay ahead of us.

I know. To jokingly complain about this is the quintessence of privilege, and we’re fully aware of it. There’s no guilt involved, really; it’s not a productive feeling. There’s only so much you can do. No, it’s not fair that we get to live this life. It’s not fair that we’re able to spend our weekends seeking pleasure rather than safety from gunfire. But fairness is irrelevant when nobody deserves anything, and everyone deserves everything. As long as our days in the real world are spent trying to chip away at all those infuriating inequities that blight our species, this utopic respite from that real world is medicine for the soul.

We devoted some time to preparing for the night ahead of us. Hot dogs scarfed, water bottles filled, granola bars packed, sweaters and onesies chosen. Earplugs, magnesium, Gatorade powder, chapstick, gum, headlamps. Harm reduction and benefit enhancement all wrapped into one responsible package. All the necessities of experienced campers and ravers, tucked away in our fanny packs so our future selves would spend the rest of the night thinking about how thoughtful we are. “Type A partying” became the running joke at an event earlier in the summer.

Ethnography is not an exact science

Getting our water ready for the night: This is me doing “science”. Ethnography is a strange endeavour.

As prepared as we were, there was something worrying me. Something in the form of shooting pains running from my right knee to midway up my back. All day, they’d been worsening. The sun had only just set and I was already scared that I wouldn’t make it through the night.

Enter… The Masseuse. Just a few feet away from where I sat munching on a cookie in front of the fire, a girl was sitting in front of a guy, receiving what looked like a possible solution to my problem.

“What do I have to do to get in on one of those?” I asked him. “Just come over here and sit down,” he answered with a warm smile.

This massage… It wasn’t just the solution to my aching back problem. It felt like the solution to every problem I’ve ever had. Unicorns and rainbows fell from his hands directly into my back and kicked the shit out of the Party-Pooping Pain Monster that had taken up residence there. I don’t think I ever need to try heroin because I know what it feels like now.

Sometimes, at the very best festivals, exactly what you need can just fall right into your lap. Harvest provides.

Partial photo credit to Diego for putting up with me constantly climbing on his shoulders for a better shot. Photography pro tip: marry a human tripod.

Partial photo credit to Diego for putting up with me constantly climbing on his shoulders for a better shot. Photography pro tip: marry a human tripod.

Waves of ecstatic cheering grew louder as we walked towards the Crystal 6 stage for the 8:00 circus show. We joined the crowd of people and strained to get a good view as fireballs exploded into the air to the tune of absurdist commentary from the loudspeakers. I climbed on Diego’s shoulders to snap a few photos but we eventually gave up and went to go see the “Screaming Heads” we’d heard so much about.

There they were, perched like dominoes in the moonlight. A monolithic hall of mirrors, giant stone faces swallowed up by the darkness. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat and basked in the sounds of a hippie drum circle around a campfire. I’d never done it surrounded by the Canadian transformational festival version of Stonehenge. It was nice. These moments of reflection and peace balance out the laughing, dancing insanity that takes up the majority of our time, giving meaning to both experiences that would otherwise be lost. The yin to the yang.

There would be a lot of yang happening very soon.

Continued in part two!

Notes:

¹ Later we went to their reception where Dave, the groom, was wearing zebra tights, a tank top with a pepperoni pizza pattern on it, and a bow tie. You can see why we knew we’d get along famously. On the drive up we skipped the small talk and went straight into a political analysis of socioeconomic disparity and the pros and cons of research thereof.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

12038997_10204148720952067_8781627875984675219_o

A state of trance: Inner peace rising from chaos

The experience of getting inside Sound Academy for Armin van Buuren was the low point of the night.

After an evening of rain and dancing at the electronic music festival Digital Dreams in Toronto, we’d somehow made it across town to finally experience the king of trance live. While waiting in line, I learned something interesting: the reason the bouncers take their sweet time checking IDs is because they have incentive to keep people waiting. The bribe to get inside without waiting is called a “line bypass” and that night they were charging $40 per person. What really shocked me, though, was that the people in line behind us were actually considering paying it.

Armin.

Armin.

When we finally got past the first step, the bag-searching girls were seriously pissed off at life. They were lined up in two rows of three, with a seventh girl ushering people forward from the lineup. “Next! Next! …NEEEEXT!” one of them yelled angrily. “Hey, nicely!” the usher in front called back, looking just as annoyed. The woman who searched my bag almost didn’t let me in with my own medication. “This can’t come in,” she said, squinting at the orange bottle. “It’s my own medication, with my name on it… My legal prescription,” I emphasized to her incredulously, when she still didn’t give it back. She looked at me, examined it, then tossed it back into my bag. She took my sealed bag of cookies and a half empty bag of cashews. “Does anyone want any cashews?” I called back to the line. Big mistake. The ladies were pissed. “We don’t have time for this shit!” one said. When she realised that I had not one, but two (very small) bags to search, she let out a noise indicating her thorough disgust for how difficult I was apparently making her job. She stuck her hands underneath my bra through my shirt, and I was glad I had stashed my single precious electrolye tablet in my pants. (They’re called Nuuns, like portable, bottle-cap-sized Gatorade tablets. I’d only brought one inside a ziploc, but my suspicion that they would have taken it away was confirmed by this thorough shake-down.) My partner Diego said they made him dump out his Platypus and gave his junk a good squeeze. To their credit, at least they were getting people in as quickly as possible. I suppose this efficient, grabby circus is still better than waiting even longer.

It was 1 am by the time we got in. But it was worth it. Oh my, was it ever worth it.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

At Digital Dreams, a few hours earlier.

Armin was incredible. That was the first thing I noticed as my eyes adjusted to the flashing lights. I could feel the music shaking the floor and my brain. I was surprised at how gigantic Sound Academy was inside. The light show was a nonstop onslaught in time with the beat; the strobes were even a bit too bright for my tastes.

It was very, very hot in there, especially once we started dancing. I eventually took my shirt off and danced in just my bra and zebra tights, joining the hundreds of other men and women who’d done the same. It’s a beautiful thing, being in a place where a girl can take her top off and nobody bats an eye, aside from maybe a concurring high-five or two from the also-shirtless around her. The PLUR ethos notwithstanding, slut-shaming and misogyny is rampant in some darker parts of the electronic music scene, especially online. Every single woman I’ve talked to has shared negative experiences about their comfort, and sometimes safety, at some point. There are some events at which I would never consider taking my shirt off, even if it felt like we were dancing on the surface of the sun (which it often does). Even just dancing on my own sometimes draws uncomfortable attention from leering, droopy-lidded eyes, though I should note that happens significantly less in electronic music-focused environments than in regular clubs. But here, it didn’t matter. The connections with the real world of social cues and self-consciousness were cut and forgotten inside a sea of sound.

I became lost in the music. I’d been dying to see Armin for years and it was every bit as beautiful as any set I’d heard by him, multiplied by the inimitable sensation of being able to see and feel it and experience it with other people who felt the same way. Later I would find out that this was his second show that same day, the other one being in Ottawa. Which means that he closed out a festival 450km away, got on a plane, flew to Toronto, and went straight to Sound Academy to play. Knowing that, the energy and feeling he put into the show was even more impressive.

Dance 'til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

Dance ’til you literally need to tape your legs together to keep going.

By 2:30 am, three straight days of dancing were screaming from my lower back. I went to sit down against the wall, joining a few others who’d set up camp there. I found a poncho and spread it out on the floor to cover the miscellaneous liquid spills.

“Hi, I’m Karen,” said the girl beside me. She was sitting for the exact same reason. We had one of those great chats where later, you can’t remember exactly what you talked about, just that it was lovely. I do remember that her best friend, who came to sit with us at one point, had blown out her knees—from raving too much. Which is as unbelievably badass as it is shitty. She used something called KT tape to “keep her knees from falling apart”, which I made a note to look into, thinking about how all of my favourite activities are terrible for my knees (hiking, snowboarding, dancing). They already hurt sometimes the morning after a long night.

A guy that turned out to be Karen’s boyfriend came up to her. “Are you alright?” he asked. “Yeah I’m fine,” she reassured him. “My back hurts, I’m just chilling.” He gave her a kiss and walked away. Karen explained that they’d made a check-in plan, where he would come find her at 3 am. She showed me her phone. It was 2:55. The mix of sweetness and responible raving genuinely warmed my heart. (The More You Rave!™)

Karen's diffraction glasses.

Karen’s diffraction glasses.

As I stood up to dance, Karen lent me her diffraction glasses, which turned the lights into an overwhelming kaleidoscope of colours. Now, I’m no good at meditation. I want to be, I really do. But until I get better at it, or my knees give out, there is another way to calm the nonstop onslaught of thoughts and memories and emotions and analysis that cycles from the first drawn breath in the morning until sleep overtakes at night. For myself and many others, the only way to quiet the mental noise is to be immersed in sensory overload, rather than sensory deprivaton. Your eyes are flooded with colour and light, your entire body is an extension of the music that’s being sculpted in real time all around you, and with every person you lock eyes with, you know they’re feeling the exact same thing. There’s an untouchable inner peace that rises out of the chaos, and connects you to others. It’s raw and it’s real, no matter how often it’s dismissed by those who don’t understand it.

* * *

A state of trance.

Toronto Trance Family, representing in the front.

I met Matt, a skinny guy with a very calming presence, in the same spot where I’d met Karen. “So what kind of music do you like?” he asked me. I looked up at Armin from our vantage point on the floor, across a sea of faces, visible through white and pink flashes. He had just mixed “We’re All We Need” by Above & Beyond into his set, officially melting me into a mushy pile of joy. “…Apparently I like trance!” I replied. The smiling, knowing look on his face—eyes closed, hands raised, yet another trance convert—reminded me of a young woman I’d interviewed. She’d told me about going through various different genres of EDM before realising that trance was the one that resonated with her the most. I still don’t have a single favourite genre, but I now have a top three.

Matt was sober that night. “I drew the short straw. I’m DD tonight. But as long as I have trance,” he said as he spread his arms wide to the world of ceaseless movement in front of us, “I’m good.”

Matt’s friends were upstairs. “There’s an upstairs?” I asked. “There is. Grab your husband and I’ll show you.” There were only a hundred or so people up there. Deep Dish, who was almost invisible, was buried in the darkness with people dancing on all sides of him, making him seem like a part of the crowd.

We went outside for some cold air. The view of the Toronto skyline, lit up in the dark sky, was beautiful. The slightest hint of a sunrise was warming the deep blue atmosphere. I didn’t bother to take a photo, figuring stupidly that I’d be back some other time to take it. I wish I had. Some other time will not be that time.

2015-06-29 02.34.18

I would get much better photos if they’d let me bring my damn DSLR into events. But this blurry mess actually captures the essence pretty well.

Back downstairs, a new song came on, and Diego froze and listened for about two seconds. He then ran so fast to the front he left a dusty trail like a cartoon roadrunner. Armin had started remixing the Game of Thrones theme song.

* * *

I tried to keep dancing through my exhaustion, savouring every second of the music. Armin slowed it down, and spoke.

“Many people ask me, what is trance for you,” he said. The lights surrounding him were blue and vibrant.

“Let me show you. If I can.”

A gently rising piano cushioned his words.

“Trance is a feeling.”

Every eye was on him. Even the cheers had died down. I felt Diego’s hand clasp mine.

“Now if you will, please. Raise your hands, and close your eyes.”

A State Of Trance

The music grew stronger as we all raised our hands high. Armin did too. I closed my eyes. A second later, the beat dropped. It was Ferry Corsten/Gouryella’s Anahera.

“Do you feel that?”

Cheers were erupting. I opened my eyes. The guy beside me had tears in his.

“I said Toronto, do you feel that?” LED stars shot from Armin where he stood. Thousands of hands were up in the air, and he was right. This wasn’t something you just heard. You could feel it.

“This… is a state of trance, ladies and gentlemen.”

* * *

It was 4:15 am. We hugged Matt goodbye outside, and talked about interviewing him for my research. “I definitely have lots of stories. Lots of good stories, lots of…” he paused. “Well actually, no bad stories.” I was surprised. “No bad stories?” Matt shook his head and smiled. “They were all learning experiences. Not bad stories.”

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

The photo I did end up getting of the skyline, on the walk home. Using my shitty, shitty iPhone 4S.

We walked the muddy 3.5 km to Union Station, refusing to be party to the disgusting system of late-night Toronto cab extortion—they wanted $50 to take us, and would roll up their windows if we asked about putting the meter on. Apparently most of them won’t even take you unless you’re going somewhere well outside of the Toronto core, like Mississauga or Richmond Hill. As we started walking, we watched a couple of guys trying to flag down cabs that would drive right by them. I had a flashback to scenes I’d seen in shows of black guys in New York not being able to get cabs. It was eerily familiar, though I’m pretty sure these cabbies didn’t care that they were black—they just knew that if these two guys were willing to walk away from the club, they weren’t willing to pay the outrageous fees.

It took us an hour to walk to Union. We got directions from a guy on the side of the road who looked like he had no good reason for loitering underneath the Gardiner at 5 am on a Monday. It was a rough walk. We were thirsty, hungry and exhausted. It felt like being on a hiking trip, at the end of a long day when you’re still not close to your campsite and have no choice but to keep going. My brain was full of happiness, but my body was hanging by a thread. A few other people were walking home too. We walked for a bit with another couple, all of us too tired to say very much, but feeling the same glow.

As I waited by the bus stop at Union Station for my partner, who went to find us some food, I lay down on a low concrete wall behind a bench, drinking water and watching a building slowly turn pink with reflected sunrise. The windows were wiggling and the walls were bending. I could still hear music in my head. The sight of ­Diego walking back from his long journey to the train part of Union was like a bolt of sunrise warming my face. It might have been the worst bagel I’ve ever had, but it was food. Seagulls crowded around to grab at our fallen crumbs.

Off camera: The pink building.

Off camera: The pink building.

The bus left at 5:50 am. As soon as it pulled up, I was hit with a strong need to pee, but it was too late. We spent the whole ride reminiscing, snuggling, and talking nonstop. We were glad that we’d taken our chatty selves all the way to the back of the bus, away from the silent and tired early-morning commuters. Diego told me about how he’d run into a group of guys inside Union while he was getting us food. They’d also been at Sound Academy, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us because “there were no girls!” The idea of boner-blinders strong enough to make a person oblivious to the magic happening between Armin and the crowd was astounding. Not to mention, they could have chosen a less expensive event if they were just trying to pick up.

A terrible shot of an amazing sunrise on the bus ride home.

An amazing sunrise on the bus ride home frames an amazing billboard.

At 6:30, the bus dropped us off and I immediately ran down a hill to pee behind a tree. The people from the bus could probably see me, about which I gave absolutely zero fucks. My bladder hurt. Twenty minutes later, home and exhausted, I stuffed a bunch of chips and tzatziki in my mouth and fell asleep with my clothes still on.

I didn’t wake up until 7 pm. But I woke up smiling.

Note: All names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.

Thanks to Saruj Patres, who posted a video of Armin’s speech on Toronto Trance Family facebook page. I went on there the next day, hoping that someone had captured it, and he did.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

A happy ending for 30,000 mollyed-out kids running around Toronto.

My heart dropped into my stomach when I first saw the announcement.

Fireworks during the finale

Fireworks and junk during Zedd’s finale. “You’re welcome for this 3-second photo op,” thought the cleanup crew as they swept up 300 trillion tiny pieces of paper for the rest of their lives.

Day 1 of Digital Dreams was cancelled, one hour before the doors were scheduled to open, due to a surprise winter hurricane (in June! How adorably anachronistic!) bringing rain and high winds. I was already getting ready to go, I had my fanny pack on and everything. I was supposed to see Armin van Buuren that night. Gramatik. Haywyre. Porter Robinson. I was going to do some participant-observation for a while, but then allow myself to just fully dance and enjoy the music for once. Despite my scene-savvy friends’ utter underground disdain for the festival—”more like digital nightmares,” they’d joke, over and over—and my own distaste for many things about corporate-sponsored events, this was supposed to be my night, damnit.

I spent the next four hours obsessively checking social media, taking notes on the collective outrage. I successfully fought the urge to join in by reminding myself that if this was the worst thing that had happened to me all month, life was pretty fantastic. Which gave me some much-needed perspective. However, Facebook and Twitter imploded into a trainwreck of 30,000 frantic ravers, many of whom were already drunk and high and ready to party, as they tried to find tickets to one of the afterparties at clubs that were heavily rumoured to be picking up the artists who were supposed to play that day.

I gave up on buying re-sold afterparty tickets for my partner and I when they hit the $100 mark. I focused on the positive side: the cancellation meant that we could go to a house party we’d been invited to that night by a friend I’d made through my research. We’d joked that this would be my opportunity to prove that I wasn’t a narc (a common theme when talking to people that I’ve yet to find a solution to—everything I think of to reassure them that I’m not a narc is probably something a narc would say, so… I got nothin’).

It ended up being one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. So, thanks, Hurricane Shitwind. But that’s a story for another time.

It was still pouring rain when we woke up the next afternoon. We listened to some Zedd tracks as we got ready for our only day at Digital Dreams: Camelbak, electrolyte tabs, portable phone charger, test kit, snacks, fanny pack, hand sanitizer. I turned myself into a zebra because why not, and we hopped on the GO bus to Toronto.

It's a festival. You've gotta blend in and stuff.

It’s a festival. You’ve gotta blend in and stuff.

“I like your makeup!” said a boisterous young woman as we sat down on the bus. “Thanks!” I replied. “It’s for Digital Dreams, we’re on our way there.” “Ahh,” she nodded. “Got your molly ready?” she added with a grin. I thought back to the Digital Dreampocalypse on social media the day before.

MDMA use is so normalized at these events. The idea that festivals can pretend their superficial efforts to keep drugs out have the slightest effect is ludicrous. Yet people still think having harm reduction outreach is going to make more people use. That’s not true, but it’s also barely even possible when everyone is already high.

We joined the collectively building excitement the moment we walked into Union Station to get our train. Young people in shorts and rain jackets flitted around trying to figure out schedules, drinking from spiked lemonade bottles. When we got off the train near Exhibition Place, I asked a group walking with us if anyone had any water. One girl gave me a bottle and said I could keep it, and her friend jovially offered us some vodka-Gatorade too. It would have felt wrong to say no, given the spirit of the whole thing; sharing and reciprocity is a big part of festivals, and rave culture in general. But also I enjoy free alcohol so I said yes.

Can you spot the sombrero?

Can you spot the sombrero?

Security was much less stringent than they probably would have been if everything had been going as planned that weekend. As it was, they’d opened up two hours late that day on top of Day 1 being cancelled, so it felt like they were just trying to get people in as quickly as possible. “Last year they were making people take off their shoes,” one guy told me. The security guard did make me lift up my bra and shake it underneath my shirt to see if any drugs fell out. Though it was sort of pointless, I noted, because if something had fallen out, it would have fallen into my shirt and he still wouldn’t have seen it.

* * *

We watched seagulls fighting over pizza crusts as we ate the cheapest food we could find ($5 a slice). A couple of cops tried to buy pizza but were denied because of the wristband-only payment system. “I got you,” a raver behind them said. They gave him the cash and high-fives before walking away with their slices. I’m mentally developing an “everything is awesome in rave-land!” logo, in the style of “The More You Know!”, that pops up in my head when I see a heartwarming moment like this happen.

If someone could make one of these saying

If someone could make one of these that says “The More You Rave!” I would love you forever.

We wandered around, people-watching and taking notes. A tall girl wearing kandi-clad arms and furry rainbow boots (and not much else) was walking in circles, mouth open, muttering incomprehensible lyrics to herself. Acid? DMT, maybe? “I hope that if I ever get that high, it’s somewhere where I didn’t spend $200 to get in,” said a guy beside us, watching her with one raised eyebrow.

Wading through a sea of crushed Bud Light and Red Bull cans, we went to check out Adventure Club, who I’d been looking forward to. But the crowd seemed sort of bored. They were mixing in a lot of pop music. I squinted at them as they played the same track twice in a row, trying to figure out why their set sounded so weak when all the songs I’ve heard by them are fantastic. Later I found out from a friend that apparently Adventure Club are great producers, but shitty DJs. “It’s a running joke with my friends and I,” he explained. “Every time they come to Toronto we’re like, goddamnit, go away. You guys suck, stop coming here.”

ZEBRA!

Have I mentioned that I love my thesis topic?

The mood changed as Martin Garrix finally showed up. I was picky about finding a spot in the crowd around people with “good energy”. (This is about as hippie-ish as I get with that word, but what I meant was people who were smiling and dancing.) We found a spot that was pure Goldilocks and melted into the music and the crowd. Garrix was good. Really good. We exchanged gleeful, dancing smiles with a guy named Gordon. He was just a terrific human being and ended up being one of our temporary dance-floor buddies, a phenomenon which is hard to describe but which ravers know about instinctively, and which occurs at 100% of dance music events. “That’s awesome that you’re married and that you’re still raving together!” he said when we told him about our recent wedding.

2015-06-28 20.40.39

It’s nothing but tank tops, all the way down

Martin Garrix was having a ball onstage. So apparently now DJs mix by standing on top of their decks and fist pumping. Technology advances are incredible these days, I texted to a friend.

A guy walked by with a Mexican flag tied onto his back like a cape. “Heyyyy! Mexicoooo!” I called out. He shook his head. He obviously didn’t understand me. “But, yes! Mexico!” I insisted, pointing at his flag-cape. He walked away and I got a better look at it.

…Oh shit. That’s definitely Iran.

Well, my contacts aren’t the right prescription anyway.

2015-06-28 21.13.15

This is my “so that definitely wasn’t Mexico” face

As Zedd replaced Martin Garrix, crowdsurfers and shoulder-sitters were breaching the lower level of the crowd with varying success. Either way, the crowd was always willing to help out. One girl was fully standing up on a guy’s shoulders, gracefully gripping with only her feet and smiling serenely. A few feet away, a large, extremely drunk guy was attempting to crowdsurf, but couldn’t get enough people to lift him up by his flailing limbs. Myself and a guy I’d been chatting with tried telling him that it probably wasn’t a good idea, but he was too wasted to hear us. Every time he fell with a thud, we rolled our eyes. I kept thinking each crash would be the end of his attempts, but it wasn’t until the people around him gave up that he wandered away.

Zedd played the theme from Zelda, with matching LED visuals. A couple of different people asked my partner if they could go on his shoulders, and he obliged. The view from up there is good, but I’m not a huge fan of it for very long. It always feels somewhat disconnected and distant from the rest of the crowd.

My partner and our buddy Gordon, bonding over Zedd

My partner and our buddy Gordon, bonding over Zedd

Given how strict about scheduling and noise bylaws these events usually are, every minute after 11:00 that Zedd played felt like a gift. Our buddy Gordon left before the show ended. “Next year,” he told us as he said goodbye, “When I’m the one playing at DD, you have to come and support me!” We heartily agreed.

* * *

My body immediately started to cool down after the show came to an end and we slowly surged with the crowd towards the exit. I wrapped myself up in every layer I’d brought, feeling sorry for the girls in bikini tops. Later I spoke with some of the EMS and medical staff, who said that their biggest rush of the day was exactly when the festival ended—the collective body temperatures of thousands of people dropped at once, and for some the crash was too much.

We tried to get the train before realising why Gordon left early—we’d missed it by five minutes. “Well, I guess we’re walking.” A few blocks away, we managed to push our way onto an extremely packed sardine can streetcar along with a mob of people.

But the night was only half over. The day before, I’d impulsively bought tickets to see Armin van Buuren at an “official afterparty” for Day 2. My partner and I have been fans of Armin for years now and have never seen him live, so not seeing him on Cancelled Effing Day 1 was first-world-problem devastation of the highest degree. So we were going to do whatever it took to see him that night.

That’s where things got messy. And really, really awesome.

This many people were on the streetcar with us.

This many people were on the streetcar with us.

[The whole story including Armin ended up being over 3,500 words, and ain’t nobody got time for that. So I’m gonna post about Armin in a couple days.]

Note: All names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Psytrance, a world unto itself

Most of what I knew about psytrance (psychedelic trance) raves before I actually went to one came from this article in Vice:

Psytrance really is a counter-culture in the truest sense. The music is harsh, the clothes are weird, the drugs are strong, the best parties are illegal. This isn’t a scene you can enter half-heartedly; nobody is having their birthday drinks at places like this – it’s too intense, too esoteric for the casual partygoer.

It’s a piece that has always stuck with me since I first read it. I have loved “ethnography for the masses” journalism since before I knew what anthropology was; that fish-out-of-water, Gonzo style, with authors who are able to successfully suspend their WASPy disbelief and experience a new and strange environment with a more-or-less open mind, broadening their view of how life can be lived. Though at one point the above article devolves somewhat into gawkish weirdo-porn—”Look at all the funny clothing! Are these kids nuts or what!”—it hints at something unique about psytrance that I was curious to see for myself.

File 2015-07-01, 1 13 07 AMMy partner and I showed up around 11, dressed in shorts for the beach theme. Blow-up sharks and beach umbrellas hung around the dance floor, which was sparsely populated by a core group of around ten people, mostly men, already dancing hard. Leaning into the intensity of the music, arms pumping and flailing. More people stood chatting and dancing throughout the rest of the club. Everyone looked happy, even if some were too focused on dancing to be smiling. It was a relatively older crowd in here (mid- to late-twenties) than at some other events I’d been to. Some were in classic raver outfits—fur boots, kandi, huge baggy pants, stuffed-animal backpacks, that same sort of neon-sexualised childlike look, like laser-show camoflauge.

“I have no idea what kinda drugs that guy must be on.” My partner pointed to a man who was swaying from side to side with a vacant look and half-open mouth. My guess, a dissociative of some kind. Ketamine, or GHB maybe. A bit too much, either way. But most people seemed clear-headed, if not exactly sober.

A beach ball went flying past my head as I went to buy a beer. The music was good, already stirring up a pretty strong desire in me to dance. We went upstairs to a second level overlooking the dance floor and sipped our beers. A man wearing an “I Believe” alien shirt walked past us and pulled out a small baggie of blue pills. It was done so blatantly out in the open, my partner figured he wouldn’t mind if he asked the guy what he was going to take. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear under the pumping music, and I saw my partner laugh. He came back.

Do a google search for

Thanks, disembodied tangle of arms! (Source)

“They’re not pills. They’re earplugs,” he grinned.

I ended up having a great chat with Derek about the rave scene, after I complimented him on his decision to wear earplugs. He’d been going to dance music events since the birth of acid house in the late 80’s. We watched the crowd stomp around from our second-floor vantage point. Everyone looked a little different, a little unique. Though most of the crowd was white, there were people of all shapes and sizes and configurations of dreadlocks. There were no binary gender categories in charge here. Visually, this was a very different crowd from folks at more popular EDM events. It was the misfit table in your high school cafeteria, all grown up and not giving a fuck. I liked it. I felt at home. These weirdos knew how to party.

“Everything’s changed,” said Derek, as we continued to chat about the dance music scene. “It used to be about the people—the DJ wasn’t the centre of attention, now it’s all about ego…” This wasn’t the case at the events hosted by the organizers of this one, though, he said. He liked events held by these guys. But his words made perfect sense in what has become an increasingly monetized and corporate electronic music scene. The fact that a formerly niche music genre like EDM (contested though the term is) has exploded in North America in the last three years is shaping a lot of how the scene functions today. The effects of this explosion are everywhere. DJs are the new rock stars. Huge EDM festivals are popping up overnight on the map like mushrooms after a rain, so much that talk about market oversaturation has already begun—young people only have so much money to spend on summer festivals, and most can only afford one or two a year (though social media and FOMO are affecting these decisions as well). Celebrity actors-turned-DJs are using their clout to cash in on EDM’s popularity—Hodor from Game of Thrones calls his bookings “Rave of Thrones”, Bryan Cranston made a surprise appearance at EDC a couple weeks ago, and Paris Hilton is slated to DJ at Cabana in Toronto soon—though most of the online buzz around this fact ranges from not taking her seriously, to outright hostility at her “buying her way into the scene” where talented DJs could play instead. (To his credit, Hodor (Kristian Nairn) is apparently pretty good.) Gigantic rave cruises are spawning knock-offs and the Full Moon Parties in Thailand get bigger by the thousands every year. And Superbowl-sized LED screens blast the names of DJs in multicoloured glory as they pose for that iconic shot in front of the ecstatic crowd, arms wide, godlike, drinking in the adulation.

I'M YOUR GOD NOW

I’M YOUR GOD NOW.

Back at the beach-themed psytrance rave however, it was 12:30 am, the dance floor was filling up and a pink-haired DJ who turned out to be my favourite of the night was taking over. No LED screens, no antics, no huge crowd. The dancers cheered him on after a particularly complex bit of mixing. He shook his head and bowed to them, arms out, palms down, as if in worship.

There was an unique kind of unity in the dancing style I saw at this event, different from that seen at more mainstream EDM events. This was very… Well, what you’d have to call ‘frenzied’. It matched the music perfectly. Everyone is in their own little world; there’s less dancing together in tight pairs or groups, more space to move around and be creative. But you can still feel that it’s a collective activity. We’re all still in this together as a group, united by the music and the freedom to just be weird and dance however we want. Interestingly, there was a noticeable lack of sexuality about the dancing here. I wasn’t sure why, but I got the feeling that someone trying to dance provocatively, or any sort of sexual attention-seeking, would be frowned upon and probably mocked. It would be out of place, an unwanted break-in from the mainstream world of bros and Kanye’s “drunk-and-hot girls” that these people are trying to escape. Where they don’t fit in and don’t know the rules, don’t know how to fake it and have rejected the idea that they should have to.

1:50 am.

1:50 am.

However, just as I was thinking to myself, “Everyone is dancing so damn hard, it would be pretty difficult to hit on someone here anyway,” my partner pointed out a hip-humper (a guy dancing crotch-first against a girl) at the front. Turns out she was into it, though. Later on in the night, my partner ended up accidentally interrupting them upstairs outside the bathroom, his hand up her skirt.

At 2:35 am, we hugged Derek goodbye and began our journey home. We weren’t sure exactly what we’d just experienced, but we knew that we liked it. We’d be back for more.

Note: Real names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Field Notes: This data collection is interfering with my dancing.

The following is a selection of some of the more entertaining notes from my first official field research night. (The last post was a preliminary getting-a-feel-for-things outing.) I took out a lot of the reflections and will be putting those into a separate post. If any real anthropologists are reading this… Forgive the crude and candid nature of these notes. I have never been able to maintain the illusion that I am above using words like “clusterfuck”. I see no point in censoring my notes before the real analysis has begun in earnest. I’m sure that buried deep somewhere in Margaret Mead’s field notes, she talks about sick beats and squashing everyone’s buzz. She just didn’t have social media outlets to gloriously rip down the curtain that obscures the raw unfiltered human idiocy from which eventually crawls coherent insight.

Whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s happening.

For the same reason that motivates most of my decisions. Because it amuses me.

* * *

Hey, it wasn't me who said it.

Neo-tribalism in action.

Arrival: 12:30 am. After a clusterfuck of ridiculousness involving forgetting my ID. They wouldn’t let me in. I had to go back to the house to get my passport. I should be happy that they’re being strict about IDs, but right now it’s just a pain in the ass.

Bathroom attendant is a black Caribbean woman. Again. What is up with this town? It makes me super uncomfortable since 90% of the partiers are white. A girl came up and asked her, “can I sneak a piece of that gum?”

“Tip,” she said flatly.

“Ahhh…” The raver walked away. I made eye contact with the bathroom attendant and she rolled her eyes. “I guess she didn’t want it that bad,” I said.

I can already tell that the bathroom is gonna be a gold mine for overheard conversations. If I’m only listening it’s not unethical right? I’m peeing, I can’t close my ears.

Coat check guy liked my shirt. Friendly. Though a guy once told me that any time a guy compliments your shirt, he’s actually complimenting your tits. He was really nice though so it didn’t seem offside.

The Uniform: Girls in short shorts. Guys in tanks or shirtless. Lots of hats. Reminds me of Thailand.

I’m more worried about my bag than I should be considering everyone in here is probably wealthier than I am.

Holy shit this DJ is really good! Frank Walker?

Dude with LED finger gloves! Ha haaaaa! I love his face, his enthusiasm!

I really will need better ear plugs. Fuck it’s loud in here. It also reeks of weed which is always oddly comforting, even though I don’t smoke anymore.

Second finger glover. This one is definitely high. He’s really working one girl. Do they use these things to get laid?

3LAU!

3LAU kills it.

1:00 am

I can literally feel the heat emanating from the guys beside me. It’s like standing next to an oven.

More men than women here for sure. There’s a group of shirtless dudes dancing together. Gay? Bros? Who knows?

Guy in a giraffe mask. Love it. He is loving it too. I feel like a douche not dancing right now and writing things on my phone.

There’s a guy trying to catch my eye. I guess he didn’t notice my engagement ring. I just want to talk to him about my topic. …Ethical? Can I smile at him on to make contact, even though I know he’s trying to flirt? Use my female-ness to my advantage, since it’s not my goddamn fault that so many men have zero interest in making a genuine connection with another human being unless she’s DTF? I didn’t make the system and I don’t like it, but can I still work within it?

Ohhhhh 3lau. It’s really fucking hot in here. But 3LAU. Amazing beats. “London… I have a lot of Canadian friends who tell me that you guys party the hardest!” (He could say that everywhere, but London, ON is actually pretty well known as a party town.)

SERIOUSLY THIS DATA COLLECTION IS INTERFERING WITH MY DANCING. …OK that double shot kicked in pretty quick. That’s enough for tonight.

Sweaty muscley beef guy just sold some drugs behind me. I want to ask what but for several reasons I won’t.

How the fuck does everyone know and agree when a particularly sick beat is happening? I was getting so pumped up because it was awesome. And somehow everyone else’s tastes were the same. How much influence do we have on each other?

It’s so hot in here and I’m not even on MDMA. I can’t imagine how brutal it feels for everyone who is. This has to be… [interrupted by a guy telling me to get off my phone] I am squashing everyone’s buzz with my seeming phone obsession. Should have brought my shirt.

Research uniform. It's come in handy.

My t-shirt brings all the participants to the yard.

1:37 am

Made friends! Lewis*, who was the one to tell me to get off my phone, introduced me to everyone as “This is Hilary! She’s here on her own!” Which made me very popular. They all seem to just absolutely love how badass I apparently am for coming on my own at the last minute. Girls probably don’t do that too often. But because of it they’ve welcomed me into their group. Really friendly of them.

There’s a guy walking around with a folding fan, cooling people down with a big smile. This man is a best friend machine. I love him.

Guy says to me: “I know a guy who did that (mushrooms all the time) and now he’s retarded.” …..OK

Random people are still getting mad at me for using my phone. The night is supposed to be about getting away from the tech-obsessed, alienated world – me on my phone is like an affront to the rave ideals, it’s almost rude, indicating that I’m not as into the music and the atmosphere as everyone else. I might have to keep my phone usage on the floor to a minimum, and move to the side to take notes. Though Lewis decided that my research was an acceptable excuse.

Offered MDMA a couple times by guys in the group I’m hanging out with. Being offered in this context is really a nice gesture, truly – reminds me of the joke saying, “if a stranger offers you drugs, say thank you – drugs are expensive.”

“I’m gonna have to drink a Culligan jug tomorrow” – Lewis. He is indeed sweating so much he looks like he just climbed out of a lake.

A girl bumped into a guy and knocked his beer all over him. She started to apologize, but he smiled and said “no worries” and offered it to her! I’ve found Rave Jesus.

To break the ice, it always goes:
First question: “Are you having a good night?”
Second question: “What’s your name?”
Guys shake hands, girls hug – though this might be me taking the lead on the second one. I like hugs.

“Are you studying me right now?” Asked sort of jokingly but also hard to answer because, well, yes. Surely this is a question encountered by lots of anthropologists – need to get feedback on how to answer it.

Girl in the bathroom: “I’m never wearing jeans to a rave again!”

Accepted a paper towel from the bathroom lady. Awkwaarrrrdddd. I put a dollar in her jar.

2:25 am

I need a dancing break. Geez, I’m not even taking my own advice. I need electrolytes!

Gotta get in touch with those Colombian girls! Rave scene in Colombia? Anywhere else in Latin America?

I really need to work on my courage. I feel too shy to talk to bartenders or the bathroom attendant but they’d have lots of great insights.

3LAU: “For stealing my London virginity, this was awesome!” I love it when DJs are just as into the vibe as the crowd is.

After telling a guy that I’m an anthropologist: “Oh yeah, I went to see that T. rex in Alberta!” What I thought: …Sigh. Yeah I study dinosaur bones. At raves. Man, not all anthropologists are archaeologists, but archaeologists don’t even study dinosaur fossils, that’s palaeontologists! What I actually said: “Oh awesome!”

I should ask my optometrist if all these lasers are bad for my eyes. Lol.

Light finger guys who gave me a show… Wanted to ask more about it, why they do it etc. (pretty sure I have some ideas but still), but it felt like it would ruin the spontaneous experience to start digging into it, to bring the implicit shared bond out into the open. Once again this applies to so many little social situations… Saying it out loud changes everything, like explaining a joke, or pointing out that someone’s flirting.

4 am

When the music was over I went around looking at the garbage to see what kinds of leftover drug baggies were littered around. One of the guys cleaning up got excited when I told him about my project. “You looking for drugs? There’s lots! I’ll help you find them!” We swept the place for tiny ziplocs. He got an idea when I told him I had a test kit, and ran away and came back with some white powder crumpled up in tinfoil. “It’s a prescription drug from Russia we got online!” he said. We chatted about ‘cocoa puffs’ and how dealers put cocaine in weed to get you ‘hooked’. I’m not sure I believe it. Need to ask around.

I called out to the crowd leaving: “If anyone lives off Richmond, I have two spots in my car, I’m sober, I can drive you home.” No takers. One guy yelled out “STRANGER DANGER!” Hah. I’m both affronted and strangely proud of their reaction. Good little ravers, dont accept rides from strangers! Except when its a clearly sober woman. Enjoy your $30 taxi.

Drove Lewis and his friend home. He tried to invite me in. Lol no. “Nah I’m good.”

Going home. So tired. This research is really gonna mess with my sleep schedule. It’s also gonna be really fucking expensive. Gotta plan ahead so I can email events beforehand and tell them I’m researching harm reduction, maybe get in free. Maybe.

*Not his real name.


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro

Eat, sleep, anth, repeat: It begins

Sunglasses in the darkness. White shorts, no shirt. Perspiration shining on his skin in the wild, flashing lights. A familiar-looking backpack on his shoulders, strapped over his muscular chest. I used to sell those backpacks. I worked at an outdoor gear store for a year and a half—tents, sleeping bags, hiking poles, boots. And Platypus backpacks. They come with water bladders and an attached tube that sits on your shoulder so you can stay hydrated while you’re hiking. “They’re amazing,” I used to tell customers, and I meant it. “You don’t have to keep stopping to get out your water bottle.”

The dancing man in front of me took a sip from his pack. “Check it out,” I grabbed my partner and pointed. His eyes widened. He was as delighted as I was. “A Platypus?” We both looked at the water bottles we were holding. Six bucks and they throw away the cap so you can’t easily re-use the same one all night. You have to hold onto it while you dance. Big pain in the ass.

Baggi Begovic was rotating in a circle on the stage in front of us. My ears were drowning in “Call of the Wild”. The bright orange earplugs hidden by my mop of long, sweaty hair were doing a passable job at keeping out the highest amplitudes. But the bass was vibrating my bones. I fist-pumped up to the shirtless raver.

Bangarang.

Dancers come out to wave giant glowing balls around for some reason during Sensation in Toronto.

“That is amazing. So smart,” I yelled into his ear. He gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up.

“I know right?!” he yelled back. “I don’t get why everyone doesn’t do this!”

“How did you get it in here?” asked my partner as he joined us. They were searching everyone’s bags at the entrance to the Rogers Centre. Not that well, judging by the pupils of everyone around us. But they were more concerned about liquids, anyway. The event was sponsored by Bud Light. They only sell one kind of drug.

“Just walked right in,” said our new friend, like worrying about security’s sometimes overzealous zero-tolerance policy was naïve of us. “No big deal.” His joyous grin grew even wider as his movements rode the wave of sound washing over us. The beat dropped and he became a one-man riot.

Jackpot. This guy was a pro. My last-minute decision to go casually check out harm-reduction activities at a rave in Toronto was shaping up beautifully.

* * *

This summer I’m doing ethnographic field work and interviews for my Master’s on the subject of drug use, harm reduction and EDM (electronic dance music) culture in Toronto. Techniques that ravers use to minimize the potential harm stemming from drug use are varied and inconsistently applied. But they can be found everywhere, in sometimes subtle ways, embedded in behavioural quirks.

From what I’ve learned so far, there seems to be a hierarchy of harm-reduction priorities for party drug users, personalized based on their individual cost-benefit calculation, the norms perpetuated by the people around them, their access to accurate information, and which drugs they use. Since, when it comes to MDMA (and its cathinone variants), dehydration is the main enemy—an equal-opportunity destroyer of one’s precious verticality—water is the key to success. Water is the source of all solutions to the most dangerous potential disasters that lurk behind every too-strong dose. MDMA raises your body temperature on its own while simultaneously making you want to do things to worsen the impact even more, such as dance for hours without a break. At some point, we’re not sure if it was before or after a few sad and media-hystericalized cases of deaths from dilutional hyponatremia (water poisoning), someone figured out that H2O alone wasn’t enough. And as fast as you can say, “Look at those marathoners, do as they do!”—electrolytes got thrown in the mix. Later came vitamin supplements, testing kits, tums, magnesium, 5-HTP, pre- and post-loading, a haphazard mix of urban legends, old wives’ tales and scientific research. Everyone’s trying to make life easier for the noble raver. But let’s not get too crazy. Just getting these adorable bug-eyed dance machines to drink enough water is step one. It’s still the holy grail of MDMA safe practice in the land of harm reduction advocates.

And here, at my first preliminary outing, was a man who was beautifully exemplifying that practice. His scant clothing ensured that he kept as cool as possible. His sunglasses protected him from both the intense laser lights and the scrutinizing gaze of police officers at the event. And having a constant source of water allowed him to stay hydrated and keep dancing for however long he was there at this eight-hour-long event. These techniques to mitigate the negative effects that the drugs he was on (he told me later, MDMA and “a few bumps” of cocaine) could cause was not only about about minimizing harm, but about not letting anything stand in the way of dancing more, dancing harder, and dancing longer.

* * *

Note: These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. Real names and specifically identifying features have been changed. My ideas and conclusions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective. 


If you like my writing, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or sending some diapers for my baby from my Amazon list 🙂 I’m a low-income grad student and new mom trying to fight against the devastation of the Drug War—every little bit helps.

Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro