Two Psychedelic Conferences a World Apart
Over the course of two consecutive weekends, I flew between Entheogenesis Australis (EGA), Australia's premier gathering of psychedelic pioneers, and Cartographie Psychedelica, a California-based conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). These are some of my observations.
My plane landed at the airport in Melbourne, Australia on Thursday, December 1, after a 26-hour journey that began after I finished teaching my undergraduate class "Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience" the previous Tuesday. I was somewhat jet lagged but, more importantly, I was extraordinarily excited: this was my first trip to Australia, and I was coming to present at the conference, thanks to generous grants from both EGA and my school, the University of Pennsylvania.
Thursday night I stayed with Martin Williams and Kate Lee in their Melbourne home. After casually asking Martin how many EGA's he'd been to, I learned that he'd been with the organization from the very start, when a small Victoria-based interest group decided to chart a more conscious and intentional direction, leading to the incorporation of Entheogenesis Australis as a non-profit association in 2008. This would be its eighth conference.
Unique in the world of psychedelic conferences, EGA alternates between a more traditional indoor event at the University of Melbourne and a larger outdoor conference in Swanpool, Victoria, at a remote location about two hours outside the city. The organization is 100% volunteer and the core crew of Kath Williamson
(assistant director), Brad Izwoz (art director) and Jonathan Carmichael
(director) worked with around five dedicated others for over nine months to
bring this year's outdoor space together. Martin, Kate, and I would carpool to the latter location along with Sean Leneghan the following day.
We pulled into EGA on Friday afternoon just in time for the opening ceremony: a crowd of about 200 people was already assembled on an open lawn, honing their collective excitement for the coming weekend.
As its remoteness would suggest, the outdoor versions of EGA are live-in events, with conference attendees split between a bunk-style dormitory and pop-up village campground. I opted for a bunk bed so as to avoid the necessity of shipping over a tent.
The campground would continue to fill in as the night progressed, dotted increasingly with campfires, lawn chairs, and prayer flags. The campground in particular highlighted the peculiar, liminal nature of EGA: part academic conference, part psychedelic festival, EGA managed to unite a broad spectrum of psychedelic enthusiasts for a shared purpose: to create a supportive environment that would foster mature, open discussion about psychoactive plants and chemicals.
In a world away, I have never felt more at home.
In the words of Rak Razam, an EGA speaker and author of Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey, "EGA is more than a conference, more than a festival. It's a meeting of the minds of the Australian entheo-tribes, a corroborree in the Aboriginal vernacular, a gathering and sharing of energies that goes beyond words to the deeds and the soul. It's a meeting of the family, old and new, to camp on the land and renew our energies and commitment to the world-song we carry in our hearts, the message of the plants and the All-Is-One they connect us to. It's coming home, and you're all invited." Razam would spearhead the Sunday night "Be-In," where 30+ shamanic facilitators held space for "a sit in, a ritual, a meditation space, a sacred space…where the tribe can just be, to nurture the GROUP MIND."
Over the course of the weekend, an array of lectures, workshops, sweat lodges, discussion panels, cinema, performance, and art explored ways to assess societal impacts and examine the positive applications of plant-based psychoactives and entheogens. According to Jonathan Carmichael, the conference's director, "EGA has a large experiential component at its core, whether it be psychedelic art, workshop facilitation spaces, Q&A after a lecture or the simply the nuance and beauty of the landscape itself. EGA aims to provide a deep resonance and help the community come together to celebrate our culture, our place in the tribe. We hope that all that attend will take their knowledge and experience gained in EGA space with them back into the larger mainstream community and continue the growth in the following weeks and beyond."
I presented my lecture on the inception of psychedelic studies as an interdisciplinary academic field past 10 PM on Friday night. Although perhaps a strange time for a traditional academic conference, the established darkness meant that I could make use of powerpoint slides, which were obstructed during the day: rather than a traditional conference hall, the outdoor lecture stage rested inside a geodesic dome, which opened out to a carpeted lawn sheltered and decorated with nets, flags, and floral lights. A veritable fairyland.
The stretch of lawn leading up to the main conference dome was lined with vendor stalls representing a range of products and services: clothes and crystals, massage and energy work, herbs and tinctures, visionary and fractal-generated art. EGA's official sponsors -- Happy High Herbs and Koda Phytorium, both health stores focusing on herbs and other natural products -- were among those represented. During the day, friends would gather on blankets and around market stalls between events, giving the strip the feel of a genuine community marketplace.
At the other end of the marketplace, opposite the main conference dome, loomed a majestic, suggestively extraterrestrial dome encircled by visionary art and overhanging lanterns. The appropriately-named "Sensorium" is described on the EGA website as "a community-based mobile arts project, a multidisciplinary collaborative gallery, created to exhibit interactive media, visionary art and sculpture." Arranged along the exterior were masterpieces by leading figures in the international visionary and interdimensional art movements, including Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffman, Amanda Sage, Adam Scott Miller, Chris Dyer, and Izwoz. Two sculptures of alien beings, both draped in black, guarded over the entrance to the Sensorium. Holding lanterns and sacred geometrical forms, they invited passersby into the dome's interior, where otherworldly sounds emanated from behind a drawn curtain. Passing into the dome, participants were instantly immersed in an expansive space with six video projectors that covered the entire inner surface combined with surround sound and motion sensor technology. The Sensorium was home to a range of naturally boundary-dissolving activities over the course of the weekend that sought to provide insight into the creative process and performatively demonstrate how art has the ability to influence reality.
Past the Sensorium and over an art-bedecked brook, the main path opened up onto a series of fields, home to two smaller domes for workshops on topics including Tibetan yoga, energy healing, tincture making, and plant grafting. Located between these was a psychedelic library and an intricate, metal light sculpture surrounded by a mandala of flowers and stones. The path continued on towards the cabin, leading past a ring of organic and natural food and tea vendors with elaborate seating areas of tables, cushions, and carpeting. From this central location, the campsite branched off to the right, completing the main elements of the conference layout.
The lectures proper ranged from ivory-tower academic, complete with meticulous citations, to the humorously speculative. The extensive lineup of speakers included some of the most dynamic psychedelic figures from Australia and abroad, including the keynote speakers Keeper Trout and Earth and Fire Erowid in addition to Mitch Schultz, Des Tramacchi, Rak Razam, Margaret Cross, Steve McDonald, and Mauro Santili. During summertime Victoria's chilly evenings and nights, people listened while lying down with pillows and sleeping bags, creating a cozy air reminiscent of bygone childhood story times.
Despite its scope, one explicit concern with the lineup related to the relative gender representation of the speakers: of the 44 lecturers, only 6 were women -- an improvement over last year's conference, at which only one woman presented a lecture. In fact, EGA's call for speakers initially came to my attention due to a message forwarded to me by Brian Wallace of MAPS back in June, detailing EGA's interest in leveling a divide that existed onstage but not in the general attendee population: "Fwd: EGA 2011, We know you're out there, and we want to hear from you -- presentations by women." The email stated: "At the last EGA conference in Melbourne 2010 it was noted by several people that there was a distinct shortage of presentations by women.... EGA encourages all women interested in this field to submit proposals for presentations for consideration in the EGA lineup for 2011.... It's about time we realized just how much our experience, viewpoints and perspective were desperately desired and needed." The upward trend is encouraging, but there is clearly still more work to be done on this front.
After the equivalent of an epic download over the weekend, I was driven back to the airport in Melbourne to catch a flight in time to teach my class in Philadelphia the following Tuesday morning. After three days home, time enough to grade a suite of final papers, I caught a plane to Oakland, California the following Friday to reunite with my Stateside community.
I noticed immediately that Cartographie Psychedelica had a radically different vibe from EGA, which was to be expected: instead of a bush paradise, the MAPS conference would take place in a downtown urban Marriott hotel, more typical of academic conferences. And unlike EGA, which was something of a gathering of the tribe for the tribe's sake, MAPS would need to navigate -- delicately -- a panoply of tensions and competing motivations from attendees.
The two conferences were roughly the same size: EGA was capped at 450 attendees plus around 250 artists, speakers, workshop facilitators and volunteers, and the Oakland Marriott saw over 700 attendees from over 30 countries -- not including the participants of the Medicine Ball, Saturday's Saturnalian late-night electronic dance party. (It is perhaps notable that EGA contained no such dance party, in spite of its "festival" feel.) In addition to musical acts by such luminaries as David Block, Michael Garfield, Sugarpill, Mochipet, and MiKHAL, the Medicine Ball featured tea lounges, interactive projections, the acclaimed "Phadroid" collaborative performance by Andrew Jones and Phaedra, and live painting by Michael Divine and Michael Garfield, among others.
I was particularly struck by the radically polarized structure of Cartographie Psychedelica, especially in direct succession to the integrated experience of EGA. The cerebral lectures all took place in a large hall with rows of perpendicular chairs, a podium, a faded carpet, and fluorescent lights. Meanwhile, down an extensive hallway, was the exhibitor's hall, home of the "Merchants & Scholars Marketplace," a visionary art gallery, and Saturday night's party space. Vendors and educators ranged from Erowid to Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps to the Telluride Mushroom Festival to Dr. Nick the Holistic Pharmacist, and products including beaded necklaces, shapibo designs, leather belts, and Himalayan rock salts were available for purchase.
The presence of psychedelic culture at MAPS events has been an item of contention at conferences past. Some researchers and political advocates see it as an ingression of the extravagances of the '60s into psychedelic science, an academic field that is only now beginning to recover from nearly four decades of political obstructions. But there are others, equally adamant, who see the culture and community as vital components of the integration of psychedelic experience into contemporary culture. And hence the symbolic bicameral split.
The MAPS lectures focused on the developments in psychedelic science over the past 25 years, predominantly featuring MDs and PhDs with considerable contributions to the field: among those represented were Rick Doblin on the history of MAPS, Michael Mithoefer on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, Donald Abrams on medical marijuana, and Ethan Nadelmann on constitutional freedoms. All of these are available to stream on the MAPS website.
One hallmark of Cartographie Psychedelica was an array of pre- and post-conference, full-day workshops, which catered to topics that could not be addressed in the conference proper for time limitations or thematic reasons. On the science side, Michael and Annie Mithoefer led a workshop on principles of psychedelic psychotherapy; James Fadiman and Tom Roberts on a new era of psychedelic research and therapeutic practice; Donald Abrams on the science and politics of medical marijuana; Beatriz Labate on ayahuasca healing; and Matthew Baggott and Nicholas Cozzi on psychedelic neuroscience. Psychedelic culture was represented by a workshop on visionary art led by Alex and Allyson Grey, and an examination of the importance of defending and documenting psychedelic culture by the Women's Visionary Council, led by Annie Oak, Maria Mangini, and Carolyn Garcia. Each of these had additional fees beyond standard access to the weekend conference. Also available for extra charge was a special tribute dinner for Stan and Christina Grof and a Sunday morning brunch cruise around the San Francisco Bay.
Despite the disparities, one commonality in particular united the two conferences: the palpable theme of celebration. In an email exchange, MAPS Communications Director Brad Burge remarked that "Culture -- art, music, performance, dance, and just general creativity -- brings communities together around shared ideas and practices. We wanted to generate energy for the research that is happening through celebration, and what better way to do that than to encourage participation and engagement with psychedelically-inspired art? ... [P]sychedelics have inspired more than medicine throughout history, and MAPS supports all forms of creativity and expression surrounding the psychedelic experience -- so long as it falls within legal boundaries." Although future MAPS conferences will be more oriented towards medical and therapeutic professionals (i.e., the lecture hall), Cartographie Psychedelica sought "to bring the community together -- all the strongest supporters, respected leaders, and all the thinkers and doers who have made psychedelic research what it is today -- to show how strong we've become as a scientific community."
All of which suggests the question: for those of us interested in cultivating psychedelic culture and the tribal hyperspatial global village, where do we go from here? I like to joke that on a galactic scale, the real purpose of MAPS has always been to serve as a beacon for uniting the psychedelic community around the world; the codified scientific research has just been an excuse. Although hyperbolic, this paradigm shift serves to remind us that there's more going on than the public face of psychedelic politics, and there are heaps of people gradually assembling who are eager to find out what. The front lines of consciousness are not debated on a committee floor.
The EGA brochure stated that the next conference would be scheduled in late 2013, and there were whispers that this year might be the last of its kind. The outdoor events in particular are massive undertakings, and it is common knowledge that the organization doesn't break even on its operating costs. The core EGA team is also turning much of its attention to developing PRISM, Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine -- Australia's equivalent to MAPS -- which aims to have its own MDMA/PTSD clinical trial underway within the next 6 months with MAPS' support.
Entheogenesis Australis is a tremendous service to the psychedelic community, and it is unique around the world. Subsequent to the closing community banquet on Monday, the EGA facebook community bubbled over with appreciation for being reconnected with family and reinvigorated with hope for a compassionate future, free of stigma and persecution.
Now that so many psychedelic pioneers have found each other and come together, one the eve of 2012 --
What's the Next Step?
Neşe Lisa Şenol is a doctoral graduate student of visionary art and psychedelic culture at the University of Pennsylvania.