Femme Savage

Femme Savage by Billee Sharp

I am at my absolute worst when I’m ill, even a minor cold will deconstruct the reasonable persona I possess in the full flush of health. My husband knows this well, he tries not to take it personally when I weep uncontrollably because the honey and lemon drink he has brought to my sick bed is either NOT HOT ENOUGH or TOO SWEET or  sob, ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME WITH THESE CHUNKS OF GINGER??  He quickly deposits my supplies: that imperfectly concocted beverage, the nose-blowing toilet roll etc and escapes my under-the-weather-breakdown. Usually I’m a stalwart and I’ll keep pretty upbeat even if things are really grim: I can be cheerful even when I’ve spent the piano lesson money on Frontline and the dog still has fleas, or I get a final warning from management for talking too much, but even a slight snivel and I’m wrecked. I know this irrefutable truth about myself and so I do try and isolate my loved ones from the onslaught of my immune deficient humors: I take to bed and let them fend for themselves. This can be a good time for a teenager,  last weekend the sophomore in the house ate Chinese take-away three times in two days and managed to silently turn his bedroom into a garment-strewn flophouse for three other teen boys (boys also have fashion attacks and try on all of each others clothes) without so much as a single bollocking from nasty bedridden mom.

So I stay in bed, drinking cold honey and lemon, blowing my nose and reading. I read a lot and sleep in between, when I’m not doing one or the other I’m weeping and berating anybody who comes close. The reading really helps, it distracts me from my neurosis that I am probably dying (the recent news story about the deaths from mouse-transmitted hantavirus didn’t help, the first symptoms being akin to low-grade flu) In seventy-two odd hours, propped up on every pillow in the house I read: (predictably) Northanger Abbey, (proudly) six chapters of The Secret Life of Trees, (guiltily) the long-unfinished tomes A Year in Provence, Bel Canto and a Nero Wolf mystery. Also many articles by Cat Marnell, Caitlin Moran and weirdly all five hundred and eight pages of Shirley Conran’s “Savages”.

I missed Conran’s furious output of fiction in the eighties, I was too busy trying to read Derrida and Lacan for christsakes. My friend Adam told me that Lace was the Conran of choice but demurred from lending it to me. No matter, “Savages” kept me busy and amused for at least five hours.  Basically the story is about a group of pampered executive wives who witness their husbands’ execution by dastardly insurgents at a luxurious resort on a remote Polynesian island. The wives secretly hate their bossy husbands anyway and openly despise each other, they are all miserable spoiled cows even though they don’t have to work or worry about money. After their husbands’ demise they are left with the captain of the day-tripping boat they’ve spent a boring afternoon with, they have no supplies to speak of  and have to survive in a terrain inhabited by cannibals. I don’t think that Conran is a great writer, but she certainly did her homework on how to eat weird shit in the jungle and make huts out of leaves and other bits of nature. Less than half way through I started laughing phlegmatically and underlying lines like , How fast could insects travel up your vagina? And making perhaps delirious notes, “Carey is still wearing a pale-blue bra!”

Why was I doing this? Perhaps to assuage my guilt about reading a trash  novel instead of  being diligent and dipping into Henry Miller’s glistening text “On Writing” where he goes on about writer’s block and all the French philosophy he read in the original. My  notes, naughtily made in ink, were to convince myself that I could make some smart contemporary remarks about feminism by gorging myself on her lengthy adventure story: after all, Conran was sort of writing feminist tracts she just wasn’t  using long words, except “inexorably” which is longish and she uses it  a lot.  The feminism of “Savages” is about how the patriarchy makes women merciless rotten bitches to each other and this is illustrated by how relentlessly they harsh on the pretty one, the lazy one, the downtrodden one and the athletic capable one. This is no rosy tale of  sisterhood, the ladies  do survive and develop a modicum more empathy and self-esteem but they definitely do not become significantly nicer. I started to do some meandering internet research on Conran but I could not find synopses of her other blockbuster publications (Lace I & II, Superwoman, the Superwoman Yearbook, Futurewoman etc) but I did find a clinically brief Wikipedia entry and discovered she has a website and she twitters! The website was not enticing, she uses “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom” as her by-line which was a turnoff for me even though she meant no insult to psilocybin. Basically her twenty-first century output is like reading a temperance granny’s diary compared to Cat Marnell or Caitlin Moran.

I just recently started reading Cat Marnell and now I think I’m done. The beautiful and  verbose Marnell, who writes mostly about her drug intake came to my attention because of an article Sarah Hepola wrote in the NYT mag, ostensibly about confessional tendencies in journo-land, blah blah, but really its an excuse for her to harp on about how she too has always wanted to be confessional about her own boozing-writing experiences. I missed chortling at Marnell’s output as Beauty Editor for xojane because I waste my online time elsewhere but now I’m up to speed ( no pun!) and I see her stuff  is a great read. Perhaps she is a better writer than hard drugette, she obviously has  so many brain cells left one has to wonders if her dealers sell her real angel dust or if its just reconstituted  Johnsons Baby Powder. She asserts her right (and all womens rights!) to do hard drugs and never rinse out  hair conditioner but it’s a bummer for me that she doesn’t elucidate what its actually like to be on angel dust or snort-cocktails of xanax and whatever. I would like to know because I’m sure as hell not going to do it myself.   She now makes a living working for the uber-cool Vice writing exclusively about  “pills and narcissism” instead of getting sent to rehab by xojane but unless she starts getting more descriptive re. the exotic highs  I’m out.

Moran is hilariously palatable, like Tina Fey but English, and I like that she is so brazen about wanking and thinks feminism should be funny. I’ve ordered her bound to be brilliant “How to be a Woman” and I’m glad that she is unabashed about how the incoming troves of  royalties are paying to make her house nicer. I tried to read some of her columns for The Times but it’s a pay site and there is no way I’m paying Murdoch for so much as a paragraph. I loved Moran’s piece about hanging out with Gaga, and now I get why dress-up girl is the pin-up for pubescent feministas. Moran is super clever too but hello no sympathy from me for having been home-schooled by “insane hippie parents” in a council house in Wolverhampton, no wonder she is so jolly, I save my tears for Jeanette Winterson’s miserable homelife growing up with uptight Baptists or whatever they were.

Feminism has struggled so hard for a workable public image, Moran, Marnell and Fey are its just desserts, and Gaga should probably be in that list too. These women  are smart, funny and honest about  the female condition without any lip-service to the evil empire of patriarchy.

Mrs. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, is the empire’s creature, she doesn’t do a lot of publicity because she was in TV for years and finds it all boring (at least that’s what her husb wrote in the Gruniad while hyping his own recently published novel.) Mrs Fifty is the antithesis of these formidable aforementioned  femmes, her writing is awful and her sex message is droopy. The good news is that erotica has surged in hipness and sales since she wrote her S & M saga and I’m a wannabe Buddhist so I’m trying to be  happy that she too probably has a new kitchen with  a bondage Jacuzzi next to her top-o-the-line dishwasher. It’s the least she deserves considering she did confess that her book didn’t spice up her own sex life.

Women are mostly savvy as well as savage and contrary to Shirley’s advice will probably get more satisfaction out of stuffing a mushroom than imagining that their spouses are cruel and handsome like Christian Grey.

Image: Wild Woman of the Woods” Wayne Alfred, ( alder, horse hair)

Billee Sharp’s book “Lemons & Lavender: the eco guide to better homekeeping” Viva Editions, 2012 is available at bookstores and on amazon.com.

Plastic Islands & District 11 Bread.

Plastic Islands & District 11 Bread.

By Billee Sharp

I had an awful dream the other week: it started off nicely, sailing a little mirror dingy with my kids on Lyme Bay in Dorset. After a few tranquil moments viewing the dark cliffs of Black Ven and my windswept offspring I began to see nasty beat up, corroded plastic bottles and containers bobbing around us. Cut to a distressing scene where our dingy is caught in a floating confluence of plastic trash; in the next scene I’m somehow under the floating monstrosity, face to face with an unfriendly looking dolphin. Maybe dolphins just have an angry look up close, certainly this creature’s unblinking visage gave me no indication that he intended to save me from imminent drowning nor assist me in an underwater dreambirth. Contemplating  this situation I found myself repeatedly sending my grim companion a feeble telepathic apology: I’m so sorry about all this plastic. One more daggers look from Flipper’s nemesis and then he made a sudden upward lunge into the ghastly underside of the plastic island, mercifully I awoke.

Not for the first time I decided that I was going to eradicate my plastic footprint forthwith and set an example to myself and anybody else with similar concerns. Easier said than done, plastic is the endemic choice for packaging in the 21st century and trying to avoid it will frustrate even the most diligent hippie. Unhappily I realized that even if I splashed out and purchased expensive organic milk in a glass bottle, the cap was still wretched plastic. Gloomily I had to acknowledge that buying my younger son’s supplements in glass would amount to paying at least an extra 20% for the same item. The most affordable bread is homemade, but my grim loaves, which resemble the little brown offering that District 11 made to Katniss in The Hunger Games,  are a hard sell even to ravenous skateboarders. Bulk-buying in reused containers is a reality at forward-thinking grocery stores like Rainbow Cooperative, however be prepared for impatient huffing from other punters waiting to use the digital scale while you painstakingly weigh and label your cartload of mason jars. Of course moves like this are only playing lip service to the packaging problem, our landfills heave with a vile trifle of  petrochemical castoffs and then there are the free-forming plastic islands, which are breaking down into the oceans momentarily. Minute plastic particles resembling yummy little plankton are unwittingly being slurped down by hungry fish and as such are entering our food chain, and have you heard about the sunscreen?  Fish suppers have become rare at our house: a combined awareness of the unsustainability of fishing practices and the fact that the oceans are swilling with oil, chemicals, radioactivity as well as plastic-posing- as-plankton have reduced our consumption to a guilty indulgence every month or so.

Forty-eight hours into my self-imposed plastic ban I capitulated, I have neither enough money nor mason jars to buy bulk exclusively at Rainbow neither can I take the time to really make anything beyond sprouts, ghee and that District 11 bread. Casting around for  some comfort I downloaded Marks and Spencer’s Plan A document which outlines their plan to become the most sustainable superstore in the world. To their credit Plan A, instituted in 2007 has made huge reductions in the carbon footprint of the company, from energy-saving in store locations to a commitment to have all packaging either recyclable or compostable by 2012. Cornstarch has been developed to replace petrochemical derivatives in the wrapping of perishable food, thousands of tonnes of cardboard are saved from landfill as the store has provided returnable trays for suppliers and distributors.  Good old Marks and Sparks, not only the comfiest knickers in the world also the greenest multi-national grocery on the planet! Now all I have to do is rematriate to the U.K. and get a job with a big salary (pricewise M & S is more comparable to Whole Foods than Safeways.) Still, it is reassuring to know there is somewhere you can buy a sandwich wrapped in something non-toxic. For there is the other downer about plastic containers: not only do they damage the environment wherever they end up there is growing concern that they poison the food they contain. Remember how we all went and bought the safe  plastic water bottles that were subsequently revealed to be leaking evil bits into the contained liquid?

Dreams of a simple life are harder to come by than nightmares featuring enraged wildlife. When things at their most dismal & the plastic islands are certainly that- its encouraging and barely surprising to some of us that mushrooms can help. Recently a team of professors and students from Yale were down in the Amazon rainforest and they discovered a fungi, Pestalotiopsis Microspora which can survive on polyurathane alone and can uniquely do it in an oxygen free environment. This could seriously impact if not utterly solve our waste problem. Really when the indigenous tell us that the Amazon is the cornucopia of the planet we should listen instead of bulldozing it down.

Corncopia reminds me of the Hunger Games which I read recently ( my earlier reference to the loaf from District 11 isn’t in the movie)  Its a great read, it reminded me of John Wyndham’s The Chyrsalids , one of my favorite books as a teenager, and I knew that I should pass Suzanne Collins bestseller  on to my fifteen year old son. I was disappointed when he said that he just wanted to go and see the movie and when I argued that the book would have enriching details that would improve his movie experience he reminded me how I’d ruined The Golden Compass for him and his brother as I huffed through all the plot changes in that flick.. Our kid was so taken with  the movie he enticed  me to go see it with him last night. It was impressive, if bloody, and the screenplay, co-written by the author, retained it’s integrity. Walking home, I enthused about the use of Roman names and woeful reputation of the later emperors, the betrayal of the Republic etc. he cut me short, “Dude,” he interjected, “I dunno about the Roman’s it seems like us, we’re like District 2, the tech people.”

Twenty-first century kids have a different apprehension of the world, one informed by the wide and various reach of the internet, note how the Kony viral video spread through the teenage networks. These kids are savvy though; they didn’t like the now-disgraced documentarian’s request for cash to participate in the huge anti-Kony campaign that he had planned.

This generation are growing up in the live-feed reality, they cannot and will not hide from the injustices of the systems we live in. The murky media era dominated by Murdoch is over and what follows will be influenced by the internet.  David Wood from the Huffington Post just won a Pulitzer for national reporting, Al-Jazeera have praise heaped on them.

In San Francisco we await the second dot.com boom and another bite at the cherry pie of consumerist internet activity, but the young consumers are savvy, they want what is free and what is there to know. They see the world unblinkered and are quick to recognize a tawdry sales pitch. I advise locals to abandon perfecting their apps and turn to the fine art of bread-making.

we are a baby by Lisdeath Ruiz

Banksy or Bankboy?

 

Once upon a long time ago humans made art so beautiful that it still speaks to us today. 35,000 years ago Upper Paleolithic people were adorning caves with their impressions of their world. Hertzog’s documentary “Cave of Lost Dreams” takes us deep inside, his commentary is thick with the sensation of being in the presence of those ancient people and it’s their art that brings them so powerfully to us. Expertly painted creatures run across the unhewn contours of the walls, a rockface covered in elegant hand prints sits alongside, a hanging outcrop is decorated with a vulva. From the multi-disciplinary study being undertaken in the Chauvet cave we learn that this was a ritual site that people continually visited for thousands of years. Other material evidence that comes to us from these people are the fragments of a small bone pipe, so if we know little else, we know they had art and music.

The Chauvet paintings show that our ancestors had anticipated the delights of moving pictures- many creatures are multi-legged which, analysts suggest, implied movement in the flicker of firelight. Carbon-dating reveals that the addition of a defining line to a brace of mountain lions occurred five thousand years after the original was drawn. It is no wonder that the researchers say that they dream vividly of wild animals –lions, real and painted and of the cave itself.

The development of human culture through the creative arts is an intriguing cipher: we look at the art throughout our history and the mindset of the time is revealed: religiosity, social conventions, apprehensions of beauty. As our cultures became more complex and class divisions codified our art changed too, it took on public and private forms and spoke to our different realities.

The art of western civilization has gamboled through many transitions in our few thousand years of documented existence and we set great value on this part of our material culture.

At an art opening a few weeks ago in a sleek well-appointed gallery, a woman came up to me as I was looking at an image projected on the wall, “Its crass” she announced squarely to stimulate some debate, I tried to throw her off with some unintelligible remark about Heidigger which made my friend’s husband snort at my bitchiness, but Madam misjudged me and was enthralled, she plied me with her business card and confided that she was a “high brow” investment collector from Sonoma.

I enjoyed the artists’ works in the show, but gallery settings are hard for me, the artworld vibe is difficult for me. I love art but my gut feeling is that art and money mix like oil and water: when fiscal value is invoked, commodity is created and the intangible magic of art begins to disappear.

It is not just that art is has become such a hot investment game, its very nature has become mega-loaded and difficult to define, especially as the last hundred or so years of art has taken so many forms and directions. The conceptual realizations of the last century have left` many feeling excluded, confused, outwitted and ultimately indifferent to art. The visual arts, superseded by film and encased in the business mechanism of the artworld no longer speak to all of us, it’s a privileged relationship mediated through education and wealth, cozy for insiders, bewildering and redundant for the uninitiated.

In 1917 when Marcel Duchamp gave up painting and exhibited Fountain, a readymade urinal, he scandalously proposed that everything can be art. Duchamp wasn’t the only intellectual that was challenging the perspective of art, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, the Cubists (to name a few) were diversifying the forms of art to address the proliferation of cultural expression. This trend led through the last century and gave us a dizzying array of artistic forms and our appreciation was reflected in the price of ownership. Duchamp himself retired from being an artist early in life, and concentrated his creativity on chess, particularly the “endgame”. Chess, he said was better than art because it could not be commercialized. He did remain involved in the development of art though, advising gallerists and collectors and founding the Societe Anonyme in 1920 with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray to promote the public’s understanding of modern art.

Chances are, whether you are interested in art or not, that you’ve heard of Banksy: a street artist, a self-created brand, his career was not kick-started by a savvy art dealer nor endorsed by critics. His earliest works were made on public and private property in his hometown of Bristol, sometime later his work started to appear in London and from there to cities all over the world. Stencil artwork and written edicts, comments, jokes and anonymity have been his trademarks- cute rats, picturesque children and acute one-liners [“Watch out for the Crap!” on the steps of the Tate on the occasion of the 2002 Turner Prize].  Banksy’s stencil work is very nicely done and his messages are easy to understand, thus he has many fans, some of whom have a lot of money and pay artworld prices for his work. The work he continues to do on the street is free of charge and his legal identity remains under wraps.

Last year’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was Banksy’s first showing as a filmmaker and he didn’t disappoint; the story of Mr. Brainwash’s haphazard and meteoric rise shows how Banksy has busted the artworld’s cartel-style money-making scenario, and the luminous dealers and museum directors have been, as the kids say, molded.

Through the exuberant and irreverent creativity of Banksy and his compadres, Street Art, formerly known as graffiti, (around since there have been surfaces to adorn) has finally managed to kick the art establishment’s time-honored pre-digital control mechanism to the curb. Ever since the internet revolutionized our communicative abilities, street artworks, which used to suffer from a rapid onset of obscurity, due to generally being painted out in a matter of hours or days, now has an eternal home online and has consequently aggregated a massive audience.

Banksy, Shep Fairey, Faile, Nick X, Conor Harrington, Paul Insect and Escif, to name a few, fetch prices at auction that match and often outstrip the market value of artists who’ve ascended through the conventional gallery system.It seems that the blend of street art’s situationist flavor combined with a blatant disregard for establishment approval has won the hearts of the public.

Not everybody loves Banksy though, the only debate among serious art commentators is whether or not Banksy is an artist at all. I’m familiar with the flim-flammery of art establishment attitudes so this doesn’t surprise me:  I fully understand how the business of art defines and defends it’s pitch. An unholy triad decides what is and isn’t art, namely, art dealers (commercial gallerists), the intellectuals (art institution honchos and their representatives) and the collectors. What enters the annals of the history of art is endorsed by the approval of these groups: a dealer invests his money and reputation and gets behind an artist, the collectors buy the work and then somewhere down the line the institutional establishment shows them too. Often the institution and the dealers collude and the artist’s rise is all the more meteoric… Accordingly contemporary artists often reference this mechanism and other weirdness around originality etc with the art they make, and to understand what they’re trying to say you’d better have some grounding in philosophy and the history of art. If you’re interested and you have a bunch of cash (think hedge fund) an art dealer will befriend you and fill in the blanks, so you too can drink the wine and shoot the shit confidently down at the gallery.  It’s a business and a monopoly, and in my view, utterly not what art is about.

I’m disappointed that Banksy’s contribution is so slapped down and disregarded by the mainstream art press. Banksy is their elephant in the room, perhaps even their nemesis.  Nevertheless Banksy called it — he wanted to engage the artworld on their territory and did so when he moved  from illegal street art to illegal gallery display: having first focused on the general public who walk the streets in 2003 he turned to the perceived art audience with his crass placement of  “UK Crimewatch has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us” ( acrylic on canvas, 2003) in the Tate Gallery. Critics barricaded the doors against him, Jonathan Jones , art critter for The Guardian, full of bile, wrote a show-off article about how as one of the Turner Prize judges  he’d never nominate Banksy or any street artist, snottily he wrote:

“The reason I don’t like street art is that it’s not aesthetic, it’s social. To celebrate it is to celebrate ignorance, aggression, all the things our society excels at.”

I wonder if anybody called Jones out on that as he scoffed canapés and sucked down his wine at the Tate’s 2008 Street Art exhibit, which featured a wide selection of street art but notably not Banksy’s.  Lewisohn, the curator of that show on the exterior walls of the museum, weakly explained away Banksy’s absence saying that the audience was already well-acquainted with Banksy’s work and had sought to bring a selection of street art from other countries and cities into view. Maybe Banksy preferred to outshine the Tate show with his Cans Festival:  staged just before the opening of the Tate show, in an abandoned tunnel near Waterloo station, it featured the work of  30 street artists and was visited by 28,000 people in three days. Perhaps world’s most blatant anti-capitalist artist was flipping off the establishment endorsed show with it’s corporate sponsorship budget.

The blunt charge of anti-intellectualism which disbars Banksy from the elite ‘real art’ club is difficult to take seriously –- really? Banksy’s graffiti is inane but Emin’s sprawling signage “My Cunt is Wet with Fear” or Hirst’s spin paintings are somehow not? I predict that as Banksy’s work soars in value, establishment attitudes towards his artistic credibility will change. As Banksy has noted himself, “Galleries are just trophy cabinets for a handful of millionaires. The public never has any real say in what art they see.”

As the value of his work rises I predict that the artworld’s issues with his artistic credibility will continue to dissipate. Damien Hirst, currently the art establishment’s most canny moneyman, invested early in Banksy and has also collaborated with him on salable works. Soon enough one of those insider artworld outlets will bring Banksy into the fold and poor Jonathan Jones will have to figure out another way to get back onto the gallery supper A-list.

I liked Banksy straight away: irreverent and audacious on all appreciable levels, aesthetically pleasing and populist, (no need for a degree in the history of art to get Banksy’s message)  daringly  Situationist, (surprising peeps with art in their generally inane environment). He is bold and strangely modest in his anonymity, he comes across as a smart, anti-capitalist stoner type, I suspect he knows a lot about art history.

On good days I believe that Banksy really is fully inspired to liberate Art, the captive muse of capitalism. We have heard his art statement: art is everybody’s and you can say whatever you want, wherever you want. But does it ring true when your work is selling for megabucks in commercial galleries and auction houses?

On the one hand I understand that Banksy’s street art needs a considerable budget, beyond materials, the work’s execution has expenses which might run to: international flights and accommodations, assistants, cars, trucks, ladders, coffees, sandwiches and big bags of weed. Pricing a month-long trip to Palestine for three people, fifty thousand dollars seemed to be a reasonable estimate, this kind of cash must be coming from a steady stream of  artworld sales.  There is no crime in earning a living from art, Banksy’s official website states clearly that the artist is not represented by any gallery, galleries sell his work ‘second-hand’, inferring that the artist is just taking his cut. Well, kinda.

I see that he walks a fine line and that he is the fifth column in contemporary art.  While still putting art on the streets he also organizes exhibitions on his own terms  and accepts invitations from institutions where and when he pleases. The art that he embellished the segregation wall in Palestine shows me just how true his artistic aim is and his support, (moral and financial) of dissident street art groups, like the Russian group Voina, underlines his position.

Back in the Sixties Bruce Nauman made his spiral neon sculpture “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” (neon, clear glass tubing suspension supports, 1967)  it’s a powerful piece, neon, at the time was used exclusively for  commercial displays, Nauman took neon and transplanted it into the territory of art and used it to remind us about the real message that artists try to impart.

For me the pudding-eating proof that Banksy is indeed a consummate artist is that he has given back a sense of self-determination to the viewer, breathing life into the  mystic truth of  an art environment where everybody is entitled to their opinion. It seems to me that in a decade or so, this shady figure has leveled the playing field and created a new agenda for art. When the conventional artworld stuck a player’s price tag on his work instead of fully capitulating to the establishment Banksy sidestepped to empower his  art paradigm.

One of my earliest memories is sitting on a little black toolbox in our garage, watching my Dad stone-carving. I was rapt as his chisel moved through the stone creating the whorl of a rose or the head of a lion. I knew the wonder of art as a child but when I was a curator and an art dealer I lost my connection to what art really meant to me.

Thanks to Banksy, the artist who dares to call the endgame moves on the artworld, I got it back.

Hopeful Mushroom or Lonely Arugula?

©MAYA HAYUK, Mushrooms 1 – 6, 2009  http://mayahayuk.com/

One of the first things I do every day is delete stuff out of my email inbox: heartlessly I trash LAST CHANCE TO SAVE POLAR BEARS along with many other invited entreaties from MoveOn.org, Greenpeace, Alvarez, WWF Canada etc. When I’m feeling particularly buoyant I choose one petition to sign and sometimes I’ll even post it to fakecrack. If I fail to cull these worthy invitations I start to feel symptoms of my (self-diagnosed) 21st century malaise — Systems Overload Disorder ( SOD for short) which manifests as a feeling of being helplessly over-informed and correspondingly unhappy about heavy shit I can’t do much about. My email deleting ritual is one of my many coping mechanisms, devised, I might add, without the advice or support of either a health care professional or a second-hand self-help manual. I have also made a habit of drinking an early cup of strong coffee, which generally propels me first to the bathroom and then to a high-speed writing jag which may or may not yield useful material. Then I look online for jobs: after the exhausting process of variously imagining myself working as a receptionist for a holistic veterinarian in the Outer Sunset, telemarketing for a dubious outfit in the Financial District or answering phones for a gay porn studio in the TL  I apply to a couple of vacancies and then turn swiftly to my Hopeful Mushroom project to jolly myself up.

I spend the next hour researching my ambitious idea for a slow food co-op which is also a storefront ambient café incorporating  gallery space, a weekly flea market, monthly underground party venue, possibly therapy rooms and a modest on-site mushroom farm. My research runs along the lines of legal requirements, organizational features of co-ops, possible funding and vacant commercial properties. I call this pipe dream project The Hopeful Mushroom because mycelia seems to me more optimistic than mostly everything else on the planet.

There are literally millions of species of fungi on this planet, around 150,000 of these are specifically identified as mushrooms , so far we’ve documented around 50,000 of them and managed to give around 14,000 their own names. Paul Stamets is probably the greatest living authority and advocate of mushroom-kind  and he believes that mushrooms suffer from a kind of ‘biological racism’ where many cultures regard mycelia as dangerous, ugly and potentially poisonous, while others have nurtured a love and respect for them and an awareness of the very positive benefits they give us. Stamets thinks that this biological racism might have grown from our ignorance at how mushrooms live and grow: contrary to popular belief, mushrooms don’t grow at night, its just that we notice where they have popped up in daylight. Mushrooms are everywhere, mycelia cover most of the landmass on the planet and some individual fungal mats cover thousands of acres and are hundreds of years old. Mycological research tells us that fungi are smart: the way that fungi react to sudden environmental changes is a testimony to their intelligence and awareness. When mycelia detect the bacteria E Coli in the soil the crystalline entities which live on the edge of the fungal mat send a chemical signal back to the mother mycelium that, in turn, generates a customized macro-crystal which attracts the motile bacteria by the thousands,  — the advancing mycelium then consume the dastardly E. coli, effectively eliminating them from the environment. Bioremediation techniques using mushrooms are just beginning to be utilized in human orchestrated ecological rehabilitation – take the phenomenal success of oyster mushrooms being employed to “eat” heavy oil – they do it and then internally neutralize the toxicity!

Mushrooms, in the form of saprophytic and parasitic fungi help create the organic components of topsoil and mushroom composting yields not just excellent dirt but will generate free tasty nutritional mushrooms, good to eat and to use medicinally. Stamets believes that the way mushrooms communicate with each other reveals them as a kind of Gaian Internet, and says that our current computer technology mimics their biological model of network integration. What more might this incredible life form be capable of ?  Maybe they can negate radioactivity as well as petroleum contamination.

Then of course there is the psychedelic dimension to consider: the far out fungi that McKenna and Wasson championed and believed had profoundly affected the development of consciousness in us precociously curious  humans. I am just a neophyte in the study of mycology and untrained in scientific thought it takes me a while to comprehend this kind of meaty discourse. Always ready to expand my scant knowledge I happily purchased Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A Cultural History of Magic Mushrooms ( Harper Perennial, 2007) last Christmas Eve. The colorful psychedelic cover led me to believe I’d scored the perfect gift for our friend Clancy, who likes a good read, but as he forgot to take it home with him after Christmas dinner I started to read it myself. Before I’d even finished Chapter One I realized that Letcher was on a mission to discredit the existence of a historic relationship between mushrooms and humans. Blatantly on page five he writes that “most all others before us have regarded them [magic mushrooms] as worthless”  and this is what the ensuing three hundred odd pages are dedicated to proving- that we contemporary psychonauts constitute the first “Mushroom People” and this amounts to nothing significant. What “we” believe or achieve never gets discussed but the midriff chapters wade through Letcher’s anti-psychedelic thesis which sets out to discredit the major psychedelic theories of the twentieth century. Gordon Wasson, the self-funded and published author who documented the pre-christian use of psilocybin by the cunanderos of Huatla, Mexico gets a vote of no confidence from Letcher. Wasson’s theories about psychedelic mushrooms being part of human’s religious consciousness are dismissed as Wasson’s lack of academic rigor are highlighted. Letcher manages to overlook that for Maria Sabina and her contemporaries to have been practicing pre-christian mushroom rituals in the 1950s the logical inference is that those rituals pre-date the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. Because Wasson wasn’t an academic by profession doesn’t preclude him from having a good idea or two and as a wealthy banker he was able to fund research which otherwise might not have happened. Wasson was not summarily despised by all social and scientific theorists of the day, Claude Levi-Strauss was a supporter and so was Albert Hoffman. Terence McKenna was inspired by Wasson’s idea of early religious use of mushrooms and developed it further, continuing to research in the field and theorizing even more adventurously about the interrelationship of mycelia and men. Letcher doesn’t get deeply into McKenna’s many theories but he does rubbish his Timewave Zero algorithm which for him justifies writing McKenna off as little more than a talented “senarchie” a rather patronizing way of calling him a “storyteller”. Robert Graves, whose The White Goddess ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948) attempted to grasp the origins of poetic expression and considers Druidic and other ancient belief systems is written off in academic terms entirely.

Letcher’s tone is politely apologetic as he breaks it to his readers that their mushroom experiences have no historic validity or corollaries. While he is obviously fascinated and even personally experienced in psychedelic research he cannot accommodate any kind of meaningful historic context, consoling us with many  amusing anecdotes of historic textual references to accidental ingestions. This doesn’t fly for me as Letcher’s own methodology is as flawed as the theorists he condemns as determinist: he accuses Wasson, McKenna, Graves et al for simply fitting their data to their pre-concieved ideas about human/mushroom history, he even accuses McKenna of enhancing the mushroom-like aspects of ancient cave art. However Letcher chooses to totally disregard existing archeological evidence and makes nothing meaningful of the continuing religious practices of indigenous cultures which use natural psychedelics. The archeological record continues to expand and advances in technology mean we can now retrieve more meaning from the data. Just a few weeks ago I read about the discovery of cave art near the Spanish town of Villar del Humo ( New Scientist, 6 March 2011) which shows a bull and a row of thirteen psilocybin mushrooms, carefully painted to show the species’ distinctive caps and characteristically twisted stems. It is not only actual evidence that Letcher ignores but current trends in archeology which acknowledge that our conception of history is colored by our own self-created human ethnology. Take for example  long-held ideas about the Roman conquest of Britain: native Britons have long been considered as having a much less developed civilization that their dominators who supposedly modernized the territory with innovations like their superior road-building skills. A recent archeological investigation in northern England exploring a stretch of Roman Road dug down and discovered that the road had actually existed several hundred years before the Romans arrived- thus the incursionists had merely resurfaced the highway. This new data reinterprets our view of history, now we regard the fact that many ancient pre-roman sites are found on pre-Roman routes differently and see that the Romans were working with existing structures. Similarly a recent excavation of an ancient British pre-Roman cemetery yielded funerary goods which demonstrate the technological sophistication of indigenous craftsmen as well as the far-reaching trade routes which imported Phoenician glassware and Italian pottery to these supposed barbarians. We have relied on the opinions expressed in the Roman texts to inform our own ideas about history which are now being challenged. Unfortunately new interpretations of  ancient history do not filter into mainstream consciousness quickly which is why the suppositions of  disenchanted hippies like Letcher are all the more problematic: we don’t need pseudo-intellectuals shutting doors that really original thinkers are nudging open for us. John W. Allen, author of the oldest guide to magic mushrooms, Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest ( Psilly Publications, 1976) which has sold over 100,000 copies  writes disparagingly of Letcher’s research:  Allen debunks the author’s unsubstantiated claims (eg. That English shroomers predated a modern North American tradition) and draws attention to many inaccuracies in Letcher’s 20th century timeline.

Personally, I keep an open mind to what may or mayn’t have transpired in the past, I believe humans will only survive if we are open-minded and do not cling sentimentally to ideas which may be irrelevant to us now. Our linear and human-centric apprehension  of world history needs close examination by vigorous thinkers ( not any chancer with a couple of doctorates, a word processor and the green light from a publisher fixated on potential best-seller material).

More useful ideas are voiced in  The TIME BEFORE History (Scribner, 1997) by Colin Tudge, a biologist who proposes we need to take a very long view of history to understand our human impact on the planet’s ecology over the last five million years. As Tudge points out, those civilizations which we consider ancient — the Assyrians, Eygptians etc are actually ‘modern civilizations’ coming along after our human trajectory of many thousands of years of existence on the planet.

There can be no justification for shutting down the creative suggestions of those who seek to understand our long-forgotten origins, our past which reveals itself in muddled mythological fragments. More thought-provoking than Letcher’s  revisionist denial of a psychedelic component in human history  is Alan Garner’s powerfully imagined novel Thursbitch (Vintage Books, 2007) a story about a remote English eighteenth century rural community which still uses standing stones as a seasonal almanac and pays respect to the unfathomable forces of nature through ingesting psilocybin.

And so to my lonely arugula, the sole occupant of my vegetable patch. When I’m feeling down I relate to it’s isolation, it’s bitter flavor, the unlikeliness of it ever becoming part of a tasty salad. Luckily I’m more of a hopeful mushroom type and just yesterday I planted two kale starts next to the lonely one. Underneath these three photosynthesizers the  dark earth teems with filaments of fungal mats: I was mistaken, that arugula was never lonely.

P.S. Clancy I have a copy of Thursbitch for you – merry chrimbo!

Art :

Maya Hayuk,  Mushrooms I-IV acrylic on paper   view more at  http://mayahayuk.com/

Books:

Andy Letcher,  Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Faber & Faber [U.K.] 2006 HarperPerennial/Ecco [U.S.] 2007)

Colin Tudge, The TIME BEFORE History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact ( Scribner, 1996)

Alan Garner, Thursbitch ( Vintage Books, 2007)

John W. Allen, Magic Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest ( Psilly Publications, 1976, repub. Raver Books, 1997)

Robert Graves, The White Goddess ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948)

Online sources:

Paul Stamets website MYCOVA

http://www.fungi.com/mycotech/mycova.html

“Earliest Evidence for Magic Mushroom use in Europe” 6 March, New Scientist

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928025.400-earliest-evidence-for-magic-mushroom-use-in-europe.html

“What the Romans didn’t do for us” Mike Pitts, 16 March 2011

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/mar/16/roman-road-made-by-britons?INTCMP=SRCH

Unworkable

Unworkable

I should be more excited about the prospect of gainful employment, I realize this. After benefiting from Obama’s  unemployment extension I should be refreshed and ready to rejoin the workforce. Frankly I feel like I never left it: the unpaid work of running a household keeps me quite nicely busy, available as I am for family members, friends  and the community which happily accepts my volunteering hours at my kid’s middle school. I didn’t feel the slightest bit of guilt drawing unemployment — call it my own small contribution to keeping federal money in the country rather than exporting tear gas to dubious foreign regimes at the taxpayers’ expense. Perhaps I’m just conforming to type here, one of the infamous slacker generation, but this would be too simplistic, because I have been applying for jobs, many, many types of jobs, all of which I seem to be unsuitable for. Strange really when I have so much work experience my true resume would cover pages. READ MORE

Queen Eileen and the Twisted Knickers of Feminism

As soon as I read Susan Faludi’s essay American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide (Harpers Oct 2010) I felt a little uncomfortable bunching in my undergarments. Faludi tells a lamentable tale concerning the history of the feminist movement where every succeeding generation denounces those that went before. Her premise is that there have been three significant “waves” of feminist activity and thought: the First Wave who were truly hardcore and suffered incarceration, force-feeding and widespread derision to win the vote for women: the Second Wave who emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s and worked to establish sexual equality, sexual liberation and rights for women and children: finally the Third Wave who have championed gender issues and delved into race, gender and pop culture studies and scandalized their predessessors by proclaiming  Lady Gaga as the future of feminism. READ MORE

Lucy & the Wagas: Notes on Playing Tribe

Lucy & the Wagas: Notes on Playing Tribe

After the long cold foggy summer in San Francisco we decided to chance a weekend camping trip to Tomales. The Marin coast is often just as gray and cold as the city in fog season but being out on the bay sitting round a campfire with friends is more fun than sitting at home alone with the heater on.

We take our holidays with a group of friends and most years in June we haul up to a spot on the Eel River, an hour from the nearest town and set up our tribal headquarters. At the end of the summer we regroup out on Tomales Bay and do our hippy hangout thing again before the winter sets in.

This wouldn’t be a lot of folks idea of a relaxing break, whether we go to the river or the bay there is considerable hard work involved, carrying in the off-grid supplies, washing dishes without soap, traipsing to the homemade outhouse & dealing with the mosquitoes there….

We are the last contingent to arrive at Marshall boatyard, dusk is falling fast but Jim is hanging on waiting for us, his little boat bobbing on the white caps just beyond the jetty. We clamber on board and head for the far shore, the wind low and persistent and the boat, heavier now with us and our stuff on board, slams magnificently into the waves. The boys scream with terror and delight as we are instantly drenched.

On the Bay our kids spend their time searching for arrowheads and dentillium beads; a sprawling midden at the far end of the beach is falling into the water, disgorging  many broken oyster shells and precious bits and pieces which the Indians left behind.

These sheltered coves on Tomales Bay were where the native Miwok spent their summers not so very long ago, fishing, swimming, eating and probably sweat lodging too.

In our hippy way we try to emulate them, revitalizing  ourselves from the rigors of our twenty-first century lives with a little time in nature. I always feel a streak of sadness as we sit here on their shore looking over the bay at these same carefully preserved rolling hills.

That night as we sat around the fire the moon disappeared into a fat black cloud, it was dark and Adela talked about their dog that had passed that week. That cloud seemed like a prompt to her and we all mourned Kemmet while the sky was black.

Chantal and I slept down by the shore, its an extraordinary feeling looking up to the stars and space, laying right on the crust of the planet: small yet connected. My dream before waking was of reaching for a pair of baby moccasins slung high up on a pole.

When the weather is good we swim in the bay, the kids  wakeboard or just tootle around learning how to drive the boat. Grown-ups generally hang out by the fire smoking, talking, drinking coffee, making meals and endless snacks. We’ve had up to thirty people camping out on this particular beach, looking like a wild hippy tribe, kayakers wave to us and beach further down.

We fall under the spell of the elements; the movement of the trees at the shoreline, the shift of the tides, the time frame of our normal lives fades away into irrelevance.

On this trip the resident night heron squawked her discordant friendly squawk and the local seals popped their heads out of the water to check us out. Our conversation  ran like a wildly successful discussion group; we don’t get to hang like this much and we talk a lot about what we are reading and what we think of it all. Lessings’ The Cleft and  David Grey’s new gender expose, Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice got a good work-out but we end up with our favorite, Lucy Thompson’s only book: To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman

Lucy Thompson, was born into an influential family of Yurok shamen whose ancestral lands are on the Klamath River. She was born in 1853 and named Che-na-wah Weitch-ah-wah, but became Mrs. Lucy Thompson when she married Milton Thompson and assimilated with the European incursionists.  To the American Indian was published in 1916, the first book by a native woman and Lucy certainly mastered the nuance of turn-of-the-century literature, but her story was not popular: she disses her fellow Indians for abandoning their traditional life so quickly  and pours scorn on the Europeans for their voracious appetite for territory and their greedy over-fishing practices.

The reason Lucy wrote at all was to try and preserve her tribe’s cultural history, the book details the Yurok way of life, their myths and religious beliefs. Lucy’s mother was on another tip with this process: Lucy tells us that her aged mom would walk some good miles back to their old village and spend the day smashing up ceremonial bowls and artifacts, what she couldn’t smash she buried, she didn’t want their holy items handled by unbelievers and set in glass cases for white people to gawp at.

Like most native tribes, Yurok religious customs were tethered to the natural world but part of their belief system centered on a very ancient myth: Lucy tells us that when the Yurok arrived on the Klamath there were already people living there, they were white people, with light eyes. They were called the Wagas  and they were very kind to the Yurok, teaching them everything they knew about animal husbandry and farming and sharing the land with them. The Wagas and the Yurok, never fought, they intermarried sometimes and shared the land for thousands of years. In the end the Wagas left, they traveled north and then ‘up to heaven’, they built stone lines and obelisks on high and exposed ground before they left and the Yurok maintained these sites in the hope that one day the Wagas would return. Needless to say that when the European hunters and trappers arrived it did not take the Yurok long to realize that these smelly folk were not their beloved Wagas.

I believe that there is a tribal trend in contemporary holidaying: people to want to be with like-minded souls not stuck with random others on a package holiday.It’s the allure of that mythic time that draws us in; like the partnership societies of the Neolithic, a true tribal life where humans have not yet imagined themselves outside of nature.While it is easy to dismiss these yearnings for tribal life as sentimental and unrealistic its easy to see why we romanticize.

Ever since the great coming-together of Woodstock, the camp-out festival has become a way to spend time with other people and engage on a different social platform.When I was a teenager living in the West Country I went to Stonehenge at the summer Solstice and marveled at the wild anarchist party aesthetic, it was mind-blowing to a provincial hipster like me. The rarified atmosphere of the counterculture at events like this enticed the masses and spurred the growth of camp-out parties like Glastonbury, which in turn grew huge and more mainstream. The English mega-fests, Glastonbury, Reading and Knebworth eventually spawned, as a reaction, what is known as the ‘boutique festival’ scene. The Big Chill, originally a Sunday afternoon ambient club in North London started putting on a campout festival in the 90s and quickly became well-loved by grown-up ravers who liked their music leftfield and the flavor high-brow alternative;  Spiralling popularity turns festivals into immense temporary cities and for some participants the conditions are intolerable, the tents too close to rowdy neighbors and uncomfortably proximate to the portable toilets. Other parties, recognizing this, impose a limit on numbers, choosing smaller venues, annual events like Free Rotation in Wales and the Sunset Camp-out in California are communal  experiences for the lucky few hundred they accommodate.

Burning Man is the ultimate expression of our contemporary tribal desire – Larry Harvey, spokesman and founding father, does not consider Burning Man to be a festival rather a re-invention of a public world. Harvey, a baby- boomer, believes that the rabid growth of consumerism in the last fifty years has commodified life and destroyed the meaning of community, our materialistic value system has led to moral coarsening and social cynicism. Black Rock City, the temporary municipality which has emerged on the desert playa for the last twenty years is the greatest expression of our desire to come together in  re-imagined community. The premise of Burning Man is that each participant creates their vision and shares it in the public environment, ergo, many amazing art installations and fellows either painted day-glo,  jiggling naked or dressed like chorus girls. Money is banned in BRC and  only gift-giving is allowed, this Harvey hopes  creates a moral bond instead of the cold abstract commodity exchange of buying and selling.  The exponential growth and popularity of Burning Man clearly illustrates that there is a global community dedicated to both surviving the harsh desert conditions and reveling in the true nature of community.

Harvey himself may or may not concede an element of tribalism at Burning Man, I haven’t found anything on the record to say either way but for me the Burners are a tribe: the best bad-ass art tribe ever and while I’ve never participated, I’m enthusiastic about their scene. My understanding of a contemporary tribe is one of alignment: a way that people create identity and a social reality which isn’t defined by the standards of the larger society. We are simply reaching out for each other in the artificial  world we find ourselves in.

As religion lost its iron grip on Western society communal urges filtered into other formats: in Britain the formation of Butlins, the first holiday camp initiative in the 1930s brought many families together to vacation in a entertainment–laden environment. The emphasis was on talent shows and bingo as well as crafts and sporting pursuits, and the initiative was wildly popular. These were people who as late as the 1950s and 60s went to the pub for a sing-song around the piano as much as for a pint. With the acceleration of technology the fabric of community life in the West has been rapidly worn down by the desires of a secular materialistic culture: through the twentieth century people accrued more and more sophisticated stuff: cars, televisions, telephones, all of which are widely acknowledged as advances in the quality of life. Perhaps we didn’t look too closely at what we lost as we accrued our luxuries.

We didn’t realize that living in community meant so much to us, although the phenomena of long-running soap operas should have given us a clue: we don’t know who lives next door to us but we know all about the fictional neighbors on tv.

I’m not sure that seeking a communal holiday experience is exclusively a sign of our times but like so many forms of contemporary cultural expression there is a sense of déjà vu, and perhaps this is a good sign, a harbinger of the Archaic Revival.

When I woke on our second and last morning on the bay I thought I could hear women singing together, I sat up and looked over to where our four camping girls were still sleeping by the firepit, but it was not their sweet voices I had heard.Before we leave Adela and I swim naked in the cold still bay. Kate has made more coffee and ululating modestly shows us the tiny dentillium bead she has found.

“You know,” she says, “Maybe we are the Wagas, we just don’t know it.”

Loving the Cyborg and the Mushroom


Two things:  Terence Mckenna’s insistence on the human desire to “shed the monkey body”  always scared me and then paradoxically  the cybernetically enhanced Borg of  Star Trek always seemed rather sexy.

Early one morning as I trawled fakecrack I found a friend’s post: an O’Reilly webcast by Amber Case entitled “Cyborg Anthropology: A Short Introduction”. Anthropology’s subject matter has leapt a paradigm since I sat in Joel Kahn’s class watching him smoke a million cigs as I tried to grasp his Marxist analysis of pre-capitalist states but I’ve never stopped being fascinated by the discipline’s theoretic overlay: the attempt to look, without ethnocentric bias, at human societies through a pseudo- philosophical/scientific lens, identifying social phemonena and describing cultural production protocols.  Nowadays cyborg anthropologists are looking at us human cyborgs, those of us (and that’s most of us) who are organisms, “to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.”

As far back as 1941 at the inaugural Macy Conference, cultural theorists, including luminaries like Margaret Mead, discussed the potential impact of evolving technology on cultural reality.

Fast forward to 2010  where our cyborgian reality has developed to consume many of our conscious hours interacting through our exogenous devices, not just for work but also for play. Admittedly we are low-tech cyborgs, most of us are not permanently augmented by our technology- although  many smart phone users seem unwilling  to relinquish the close physical companionship of their hand-held devices. In 1985 in an eerie and precocious essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,”  Donna Haraway wrote that as “hybrids of machine and organism” we were creatures of both fictive and lived social reality.

This rings very true in regard to online social networking  which is reaching endemic proportions in western society and let me make this quite clear — cyberspace connectivity is intrinsically different to our previous social pathways. Cyborg anthropologists theorize that online we create a “second self”, this is an identity generated in relation to others: if our body in virtual space is appealing to others they will approve and give our second self  “gravity”, for example a status update on Facebook which is “liked” by many increases gravity while being “de-friended” takes away from gravitational credibility. In cyberspace we sample ourselves and the bytes that we report are the ones which shape our identity. We consider our social networking to be useful for promoting ourselves and seek to appeal in our network, this means that we often make decisions not to articulate negative, contentious or questionable items which might also be described as personal truths.  Research from Intel suggests that current social networking protocols don’t often initiate successful new relationships but rather make those relationships  which already exist more visible. This visibility can become problematic, being peer-judged for the opinions of one’s  ‘second self’ might also impact your social reality in the offline world. I feel lucky that I’ve made one new friend through social networking,  I saw his comments on a mutual friend’s page & sent a request to be friended,  this positively counters my overwhelming personal trend of  getting turned off by network personas . Online our second selves are immature and tendencies toward discrimination, passive-aggressiveness and narcissism are often inadvertently exposed or created through sloppy memes, either way the outcome is as obnoxious  as halitosis in real-time.

I hear people offering up the platitude, “Facebook isn’t real” but I utterly disagree, it is hyperreal and what goes down on social networks can have grave implications: fifteen year old Phoebe Prince  killed herself last year after being harassed and abused on Facebook. Personally I feel that my second self and I are still very much conjoined and I don’t like exposure to haters on any platform. When I start to feel uncomfortable with an online friend I “hide” them and try and win a little distance back, after all, we have never been in such a high order of inter-connectivity as a species and while  most people are attractive at some distance, magnified and unedited they often become less appealing.  This kind of social interaction seems distorting and dangerous, the time-honored offline social etiquette which formerly mediated our social relationships is being thrown aside and emerging protocols are not yet beta-tested. Our lives online exist in an ocean of interactive sensations: ideas about time and space (we think nothing  of having multiple simultaneous conversations in different time zones), production of value (ever felt overwhelmed by opportunities to add more 99 cent apps?) social punctuation (like texting in company) or ambient online intimacy (the heady sensation of the collective now).  Offline life is changed by our increased connectivity too, public space now becomes private space when you are chatting on your mobile and places themselves can become “non-places” if we don’t have enough meaning invested in the location.

Fellow cyborgs, are we having fun yet?

It seems that we are amused and often we are engrossed: my husband’s recent edict that our house will go offline at weekends was met with a teen cyborg mutiny. We will not give up our technologically enhanced state of being but we owe it to ourselves to work on understanding what it is that we are doing and what it is we really want to do.

Terence McKenna believed that our species is evolutionarily longing for the Other – we yearn for the unseen mystery of the universe and alien playmates in particular. Our loneliness is as vast as infinity, as Heidigger  described so poignantly, “cast into matter, alone in the universe.” Connecting with each other’s second selves  24/7  helps us to feel better, we hum along to Kraftwerk’s gorgeous Computer Love while we look to artificially extend our ability to reach out into space.

McKenna’s search went off at a tangent into inner space exploration,  a place both vilified and sidelined for the last two thousand years of western culture, designated as the eccentric preserve of religious mystics. As an ethno-botanist studying plant-based shamanism McKenna researched psilocybin and became acquainted with the Other, which he calls the voice of the Logos. Psychedelic mushroom spores like stropharia cubensis can survive the harsh conditions of outer space and thus McKenna thought that maybe they came to us from distant worlds. When humans interact with the mushroom, the Logos communicates with us, drawing back the veils of dimensionality and revealing other realities, this ecstatic experience is fearful and generally undertaken by shamen, wise ones who can deal with this huge unchartered territory.  The historical importance of psychedelics has not yet been acknowledged, McKenna’s theory of human evolution into language through psilocybin use in early societies is regarded as renegade by  most academics. Times are a changing though: breaking news in the mainstream media this week tells us medical research into the treatment of  depressed, anxious, post-traumatic and dying with psychedelics is yielding positive results.   Lucky for us that adventurous McKenna and the Logos had an open bandwidth and his awareness as a scientist and theorist has enabled him to communicate the ideas and perspectives of the Other to us timid creatures in our empirically restrained culture.

In 1987 McKenna spoke of an emerging zeitgeist of hyperspace- he knew that electronic culture would add a dimension that would reverberate through our culture at every level and he saw our 21st century hyperdimensional collectivity coming. When I read Gibson, Dick, Vonnegut and M. T. Anderson  I can imagine the endgame of humanity as we know it. McKenna considered that first Neolithic age, imbued with the psilocybin experience had provided us with the essential tools which brought us to this point, and for him the re-emergence of the mushroom in contemporary times was the second Neolithic Age, the Archaic Revival: our chance to look through the hyperdimensional lens again. This opportunity could slip away from us he warned if we become too enmeshed in a hypertechnological dominator scenario.

Anderson’s  Feed is a futuristic tale of teenage cyborg-humans who have internet implants embedded borg-style in their brains, their software updates them constantly on what to buy, where to get it and who has already got it. This hypertechnological wasteland is highly imaginable and ultimately terrifying especially to those of us who seek the interconnected flipside trajectory for  our species.

It’s just a brilliant psychedelic idea that we can look out and the Other can look in when we commune with psilocybin. The fact that psilocybin  is part of our intrinsic brain chemistry should help us  little techno-monkeys understand that the mushroom  experience is valid. The dimensional envelope is awesome but like our ancestors who would have feared the wormhole of space and time that the telephone represents we stand like Tolkien’s hobbits at the border of the Shire, total scaredy cats. It is frightening to imagine the potentialities of the universe and thats reassuring: we only truly fear the real.

Amber Case “Cyborg Anthropology: A Short Introduction” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCvMWZePS8E

Donna Haraway “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology & Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” Socialist Review, 1985

Marc Auge “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” 1995

Terence McKenna ” The Archaic Revival” HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

M.T. Anderson “Feed” Candlewick Press, 2002

Raving On: The Archaic Revival in 2010


On a  recent sunday afternoon my husband was taking a disco nap reclining on faux-fur cushions in a gazebo bedecked with hanging saris and tie-die fabric. Some fifteen hours before he’d been playing records stage left of here, illuminated by crazy visuals projected onto a panoramic screen behind him.

I’m delighted and impressed to see that since 7am, when we left the dirt dance floor and now, a clean up crew has been through and meticulously lifted every cigarette butt and denuded the altar of many beer bottle offerings. We are guests in the un-incorporated town of Belden which used to host biker parties back in the day and has recently embraced the rave scene, giving a new home to the Sunset campout, the favorite event of the year for a crew who throw free parties, boat parties, and club parties all year round. The venue which runs by the side of the Feather River is thoroughly occupied by around seven hundred party people who are either drifting between outdoor dancefloors,  their pop-up tents and the bathrooms  or floating in the cool green river. Hakim Bey would be proud of us; this is a dedicated Temporary Autonomous Zone – folks are eager to do their rave thing, especially their ritual hours on the dancefloor: getting on with being in the moment for as long as the moment can last.

On the cushions here, while dad augments his hour and a half morning snooze  (no more was possible in our unshaded tent) I sit smoking and thinking about how relevant or interesting writing about a rave in 2010 might be. It has been over twenty years since the advent of rave culture when house music, acid house and techno brought  a new all-night underground dance experience replete with mind-expanding  psychedelics  to the masses. The first rave I went to was in an old school building in south London which had been squatted and groovily adapted as a venue. My life transformed as my mind tuned into unknown sensations and my body became a medium for music that drew me and my two left feet into a space I had never imagined existed. My fervor for this experience led me away from the preoccupations of the commercial art world where I’d been busy curating “warehouse shows” this had all seemed quite radical until I segued with rave culture, whose creative modus operandi went far and beyond my callow hopes of  art world success. Raving constituted a full visceral and intellectual experience for me and nothing could hold a candle to it: I threw out my trendy Wittgenstein and Derrida and turned to McKenna and Leary who held the roadmap and the ciphers to this type of boundary-dissolving social phenomena.

Rave never had so much as a honeymoon with the mainstream media, the shock horror stories of Ecstasy use and unlawful, unregulated parties have been standard fare since the get-go. By 1994 in the U.K. the Criminal Justice Act was passed and raves were essentially outlawed, heavy penalties were meted out to organizers and the party scene migrated to the confines of commercial clubs and venues. Though this somewhat compromised the rave atmosphere, there was no going back for many: the combo of  house music, techno and MDMA induced an inexorable desire to dance, laugh, love everybody, wonder fearlessly – basically engage in that elusive boundary-dissolving activity that humans enjoy so much.

Unlike the countercultural movement of the Hippies, whose ideals have entered the mainstream and are seen to have enriched society, Rave has a lousy reputation for irresponsible hedonism.  Despite the tenacity and global reach of the rave scene and the undisputed originality of electronic music, ravers are largely considered to be epicurean knackerbrains of the first order.

So I set aside my notebook, gloomily noticing a spent whippet nestling in the cushions as I liberated a copy of Harpers from underneath my slumbering, raved-out partner.

As I turned pages I could hear the bass bins of the sound system down by the river and imagined the afternoon dance floor teeming with dancers who’d sporadically cool off with a dip in the river or another chilled beer from the cooler.

As soon as I saw the article “Improvable Feasts” I felt the flutter of a synchronic moment in effect—one of those nanoseconds where a glint of the hidden weave of the multi-dimensional cloth of life is revealed.

In this cleverly titled piece, Alain De Botton, ruminates on what greases the wheels of a well-functioning society. Feasts, he believes, were the origin of communal worship; once the average serf was well-fed he was disposed to think more kindly upon the societal strictures which bound him to both neighbor and god. Alain also favors the Judaic mechanism of Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement where a touch of confessional humility will win the man-god’s absolution from most crimes.

I agreed with Alain on the failure of modern social locales (restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries) to promote community or companionability while projecting a simulacrum of that potentiality, but I don’t agree with his analysis of The Feast of Fools. He argues that this festum fatuorum, The Feast of Fools, was like a doctrinal safety value for both the Church and the wider dominator society, where everybody got  to participate in sanctioned anti-social behavior. The priest was at liberty to cavort around with an outsize woolen phallus strapped on, the mothers got loaded and ran off to the woods and the donkey pissed on the altar — after the fest the populace settled back down to another year of medieval drudgery, apparently satiated.

Wild feasting in the name of god and community is a pleasing idea but I believe those early feasts, for example the Agape feasts of the early Christians had other components, perhaps more important than the fatted lamb on the menu. De Botton chooses to ignore the significance that Agape translates as love and that if the fare of these festivals was just food why did the Council of Laodicea in 364 A.D. ban them from the religious calendar? It was the free-form carnal exuberance of Agape that the early Christians sought to eradicate; the vestiges of our ancient pagan practices, our boundary-dissolving  goddess worship that they cleaned up and reinvented as the Eucharist. The medieval incarnation of the festum fatuorum might well have been presented to the peasants as a “chance to be naughty and get away with it” and this is clearly De Botton’s take, but I believe its roots were older and pagan and not anti-social at all. Terence McKenna, beloved of ravers, had a radical theory about human consciousness and societal evolution: he believed that psychedelic excursions on psilocybin and other plants were the catalyst for our adventurous step into language which then gave the means to create the ecstatic rituals, which like social glue, bound us deeply together.

Mckenna and Leary, and other counterculturalists made a point of alerting our raver generation to the importance of boundary dissolution and the nature of psychedelic experience: in the psychedelic landscape we are explorers stepping outside of our cultural programming, looking for usable ideas and perspectives to bring back to our dominant physical reality for consideration.

This lofty task, the heady territory of the ancestors, is a place that boundary-dissolving  ravers are equipped to negotiate, but this rite of dimensional passage is not necessarily for every brain.

Terence often referred to Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher and communications theorist who wrote prophetically in the year I was born that “the medium is the message” – he believed that our contemporary means of communication were the pertinent subject to study rather than what was actually being said.

Thus, as the DJ awoke, craving a vegan wrap and requesting a last late trip to the dancefloor, I grasped the essential idea that has kept so many of us endeared to rave.

The medium is dance and boundary-dissolution – the ecstatic building blocks of culture which has served us throughout time. These psychedelic tools held our early cultures together, in times when true loving kindness,  charity and selflessness were essential to survival.

So turn up the bass, brothers and sisters, we need real community in the face of our imploding dominator society, and the vibe we share on the dancefloor is the one to take home to Mama.

fabulous foto courtesy Alyson Kohn

The Chalice and the Burger

Adela and I were calling it a road trip, mainly because it made driving three hundred miles down through Central Valley in a car without air conditioning seem much more glamorous.
“Like Thelma and Louise,” my fellow pseudo-American mom enthused.
“Or Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo, or even Sal and Dean,” I suggested, thinking more of the extra curricular possibilities of the long drive back without our thirteen year old boys.
We were dropping our kids at skate camp in the southern Sierra Nevada on 4th of July weekend and we were ready for pretty much anything; we’d paid the AAA a pretty penny for a premium membership and knew we could get a tow for at least a hundred miles if the Honda happened to give up the ghost.

We weren’t far past Orinda when our “Free Palestine” and “No War On Iran” bumper stickers began to draw attention to our otherwise lo-pro ride. Several times mini-vans paced alongside us and slab-faced white women scrutinized us with meanly scrunched up eyes, as if to say “ We’ll recognize you bitches if you show up at Dennys”.

“Did you bring your card?” I asked Adela, envisioning the slabby ones calling the cops to alert them to hippy moms in the vicinity. “Of course!” she laughed as she raised her eyebrows in that fierce Czech way of hers, intimidating those provincial ladies who floored their Town and Country and sped off towards Modesto.

Modesto reminded me of the story of a more inspiring matron, Florence Owens Thompson, the famous Migrant Mother that Dorethea Lange photographed during the Great Depression. Florence was 32 yrs old when Ms. Lange spotted her sitting in the back of her truck with her seven fatherless children. Her portrait was so poignant that it not only became the emblematic image of that dreary era but also made Lange’s reputation as a documentary photographer. For years nobody knew the identity or fate of this sad and beautiful mama, but then in the 70’s Florence came forward and told her story: she was born on an Oklahoma reservation and drove out West with her husband in search of work, he died while she was carrying their seventh child. To feed her children Florence picked cotton and anything else, including peas, which was what she was picking in Nipomo, when her famous portrait was taken. I heard a crackly audio recording of Florence on the internet where she told of how she’d ended up in Modesto and landed a janitorial job at the new hospital where she worked sixteen hour days for eight years straight. For decades she had remained anonymous because she didn’t want to shame her children with their poverty. There was some bitterness over the fact that Lange had never recompensed Flo for the use of her image which is world-famous, but most importantly Mrs Owens lived eighty years, a grand old lady, happy in her mobile home, loved and cherished by her children.

What I remembered most from the recording was how Flo spoke of the other children at the pea-picking farm in Nipomo, “They all crowded round and asked if they could eat with us” she recalled,” I fed them all out of the pot, they were starving.”

Speaking of starving, our boys were howling hungry by the time we hit Chowchilla on that pot-holed two lane blacktop, Route 99. We ate at Carls Jr much to the kids’ delight, everybody else munched burgers while I slurped up Chili Cheese Fries which looked for all the world like dog food and chips. Our sons share the burden of foreign-born mothers but in Chowchilla those unfamiliar accents of ours worked like a charm and the obliging counterboy made a fresh pot of coffee for us. Why is it Carls Jr and not Carl Jr? something curious that I can’t be bothered to research, but it is noted in the hinterland of my brain where I store similarly useless information — like the fact that these franchised businesses are the cultural simulacra that I was once thrilled to read about in Baudrillard’s Travels In America. It all seems passé now, but truly, the homogenous attributes which link a disparate population with symbols and semantic underpinning are plain to see out here and even we San Franciscan sophisticates know the constituent meaning of a combo! There was a beautiful Indian girl with long loose brown hair who came in. She acknowledged us with a smile and began to text with a tranquil expression. The other interesting-looking customer was a Latino, clean-shaven and smart in his polished cowboy boots and pristine straw cowboy hat. He also sat in a booth but didn’t look at us, he seemed correct and humble and made me feel kind of sad.

As dusk came down and the headlights came on, the preservatives or the karmic contamination of that cheap burger meat got me thinking about the darker realities of these country towns strung out through the valley. The Norteno/Sudeno gang wars, the crystal meth culture, the scary aberrant social crimes committed out here in the dusty strip mall neon church land that upsets the urban sensibility so much. Parents still shiver at the cold calculated ransom desires of three middle-class white boys who hijacked a busload of schoolkids in Chowchilla in the 70’s. More recently the unassuming Tracy, Merced and Modesto have raised profoundly horrible murderers like the dreadful Melissa Huckaby, Cary Stayner and Scott Peterson. Its true that these crimes happen in big cities too but somehow the ordinariness of tract home settlements under the big sky seems to magnify the human horror.

We drove through the night and climbing out of Fresno into the dark mountains we finally found the Humming Bird cabins where the owner, true to her word, had left Cabin Two open for us. We woke to the smell of a joint being smoked around the side of our cabin. It was the friendly breakfast chef from the Humming Bird Café getting baked mid-shift. He loved Adela’s bumper stickers and filled us in on most of his life: he was a Kosovo/Gulf War vet, a father of four, and had a gimpy leg from dirt bike riding, its true to say his cooking wasn’t nearly as good as his stories.

After a greasy breakfast the boys were twitching to sign in at camp, throw their bedrolls and backpacks in their cabin and get skating. Suddenly childless, we moms spent the afternoon high up in Kings Canyon, swimming with the holidaymakers at Hume Lake, getting lost in a vast encampment of Christian Schools and marveling at the massive sequoias named inappropriately after army generals.
Only half done with our road trip we took the downward road back towards the valley as the afternoon wore on, it was still hot as we pulled into yet another Carls Jr, this time in a run-down Fresno suburb. There was no real sense of Independence Day celebrations here except for a stall in the parking lot selling fireworks and business looked slow. Mercifully there were none of those unfriendly white ladies to be seen on this side of town, just pleasantly indifferent Latinos who took little notice of us burger-munching stonermoms.

So much for the burgers, but what about the Chalice?

We had packed light, I only had my toothbrush, a spare pair of knickers, my swim-suit and a copy of The Chalice and the Blade, self-banned from reading fiction, I’d brought along Riane Eisler’s classic. Eisler’s theory is that our prehistory and early cultural development was characterized by lovely partnership societies, violence came in with the dominator cultures which have held sway up ever since. When The Chalice and the Blade was first published thirty years ago the endemic prehistoric cult of the Great Goddess was not acknowledged, but Eisler’s painstaking research and multi-disciplinary approach brought our peaceful, artistic, nurturing Neolithic age back into sight, our paradise lost. Much as  Orwell’s Ministry of Truth rewrote history in 1984 so did the conquering dominator tribes: the Goddess was replaced with fearful war-hungry man gods, at best the Great Mother was turned into a consort deity. This is how our natural gender equality was destroyed, women became second to men and this perverse trajectory of human culture has led us directly here.

Out of kilter, the burger and the blade rule us, our meat-eating is eroding the environment faster than our fossil fuel consumption and our war lust is so deeply ingrained to deny it is heresy to most.

As the land falls away, the warm air pours over us, the clear night sky is illuminated sporadically by momentary flashes of the municipal fireworks of the tiny valley towns. Mothers heading home dream of a magical paradigm shift that allows us to partner with fathers again.