It was late afternoon as I gazed upon the sky to the west. I'd scrambled up an embankment to join a charm of global trekkers whose uproarious numbers swelled all along the Old Ghan. No train had passed here for over twenty years, but we were expecting something far, far older. The day had darkened, and my elevated compatriots and I were soon in the grip of an uncommon delirium arriving in waves that accelerated in intensity upon each convulsion. We were waiting on the platform, standing on the threshold, 1,000 kms from anywhere, and yet positioned precisely in space and time. At some point the deafening rumpus was overtaken by a transfiguring grace. And as the Sun became eclipsed by the Moon, and the umbra swept all in its path, we passed into a duration that was beyond time and space.
That was early December 2002, at the Outback Eclipse Festival, near Lindhurst in the South Australian desert. It was my first total solar eclipse, but not for the last time would I fall in with cavalcades of cosmic cowboys, vanloads of visionary vixens and a pandemonium of party monsters to chart a course into the path of an occulted Sun.
Ten years on, and about 129 orbits of the moon later, I'm making preparations for another total solar eclipse in Australia as the cosmic express is expected near Cairns, Far North Queensland, on 14th November 2012. Evolving from faint rumours and fireside chats to a legitimate event, a week long festival will be held to celebrate the cosmic event: Eclipse2012 (10-16 November 2012) at Palmer River in the Atherton Tablelands three hours north-west of Cairns. Between 8-10,000 people from Australia and overseas are expected. Billed as a "Music, Arts & Healing Festival", and boasting an impressive global lineup of sonic and visual artists, the festival is the culmination of efforts from an international collaboration of event crews, principally Rainbow Serpent Festival (Australia), Glade Festival (UK), Symbiosis Gathering (USA), Mother (Japan), Psyclone Events (Australia), Earth Frequency Festival (Australia), including the input of many others.
One of Eclipse2012's directors, Marty, has spoken to me about the uniquely collaborative nature of this once off event. "Collaboration was always a reoccurring theme in the original planning talks" which had continued around the world for years in advance of the event. He emphasized that "the need for genuine collaboration was one of the strongest messages felt in this time of shifting paradigms". I met Marty at Earth Frequency Festival north of Brisbane last February, and he's subsequently offered some insight on the strange attractor drawing legions of talented people into its orbit to forge an experience rare in dance music and visionary arts festivals worldwide. It's a "powerful natural phenomenon that highlights the elegance of the universe", he said. Illuminating that which many won't speak to beyond the occasional mutterings of "wow", "magic" and "cosmic", he motioned that the total solar eclipse is "a catalyst for new thought whilst at the same time having the ability to dissolve boundaries".
The passage of the Earth's lunar orb across our galaxy's star, source of all life and illumination, has given cause for disparate reactions throughout history, from profound dread to that which might be described as cosmic joy. The eclipse of the Sun has been a cause of terror for some, miraculous for others. It has instilled fear and restored faith, been a time of calamity and redress, and received as a sign of disaster or hope depending on historical, religious, cultural and personal contexts. Its sudden occurrence has precipitated chaos and confusion, especially for those among whom the event has not been predicted (i.e. for most of humanity for most of history). And yet, especially in more recent times, the event has become something of a temporary cosmic interzone, an amnesty from crises, and immunity from concerns and conflicts outside its duration. The prediction of this planetary alignment unparalleled in our universe has buttressed the power of representatives of the divine on Earth, and yet the alchemical marriage of lunar and solar energies has catalyzed uniquely mystical experiences among multitudes who give expression to these experiences free from religious catechism.
An eclipse, then, is quintessentially liminal, a time in between, a transitional experience, which in the course of history has itself transited from a vehicle of cosmic anxiety to a realm of potential; from a moment of terror to a novel ingression in the evolution of consciousness. This shift is suggestive of why this event holds significance, especially among those who seek answers and solutions in a world of crisis, indeed in a world of transition. As a celestial event, social paroxysm and cosmic experience, the total solar eclipse is a realm of possibility.
An eclipse has been many things to many people throughout time, in the spheres of mythology, religion, science, art and tourism industries. Solar physicists and other scientists have been drawn to eclipses of the Sun from the 1700s and observations were made on deflected light during the eclipse of May 29 1919 dramatically confirming Einstein's general theory of relativity. Astronomers and other scientists, data gatherers and boffins number heavily among eclipse chasers who pursue the event year in year out, sailing often aboard ocean liners which have, since the early 1970s, steamed to intercept with the planetary congression. Eclipses have also been a boon for tourism industries regional to their occurrence. From the mid-1800s, populations are known to have travelled from locations outside the line of totality to observe the spectacle. Yet given that a total solar eclipse occurs on average every 300 years in the same place, this is hardly sustainable tourism.
But while a magnet drawing scientific, recreational and tourism interests, the total solar eclipse remains a visionary event, telling beyond measure in a way perhaps best identified in that old folk idiom: "you had to be there". The event is difficult and some would argue impossible to translate outside of direct experience, an inspiration for visionary arts and cultural events designed to optimize the experience.
Enter the eclipse festival. This idea goes back to 1970, a few months after Woodstock. In March that year, there was a failed attempt to stage a rock festival — "Eclipse '70" — in the line of the moon's shadow in a tiny fishing village in Suffolk, Virginia, called Eclipse (so named after a solar eclipse there in 1900). These were momentous times, but the townsfolk were having none of the momentum. Locals condemned the staging of a freak-out in their backyard, only months after a hippie avalanche filled Max Yasgur's dairy farm. As the first attempt to hold a music/dance event to celebrate the cosmic event, Eclipse '70 ranks among the greatest parties that never happened. It would be another 25-30 years before visionary dance music events manifested on the path of totality.
The first "Eclipse Rave" was held near Arica at the edge of the Atacama, Chile, Nov 2-3 1994. Held in the immediate years of transition from Pinochet, that event was organized chiefly through a Chilean-German partnership, and was sponsored by outfitters Pash and filmed by MTV. With no more than 300 freaks converging (many of whom had been travelling to Goa), the occasion featured Derrick May and for the first time in his homeland, Ricardo Villalobos. Subsequently global technomadic tribespeople have mounted gatherings across the world: Venezuela (1998), Hungary (Ozora, 1999), Zambia (2001), Australia and South Africa (2002), Turkey (Soulclipse 2006), Siberia (2008), Amami Island Japan (2009), Easter Island (Honu Eclipse, 2010) and Cook Islands (Black Pearl Eclipse 2010).
Over this time, psychedelic electronic music and visionary arts have evolved in collusion with the eclipse and a uniquely transformative and transnational visionary event has evolved whose frontier collaborations have been veritable congresses of diversity. During the course of this development, people and crews with diverse talents and aesthetics have channeled their skills, art and industry into making it happen; to enable the thousands who participate in these events to experience the this is it moment. A total solar eclipse can provide a curious spectacle for the many observers who pass into the path of shadow, and will surely provide a memorable experience to the many tourists who will travel north of Cairns on November 14. But I'll wager that their experience will compare poorly with that known by those who populate an event the optimized artifice of which is designed to maximize and amplify the experience.
Already in May 2012, I saw West Coast event outfit Symbiosis (who are involved in the organization of Eclipse2012) hold a massive gathering to celebrate an annular eclipse at Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Having trekked out beyond Reno with my friend Coach Ted, I shared that experience with 8,000 others, including many experienced with Burning Man, held annually just up the highway from there. Looking down upon the lake from the vantage of the Sun Stage dance floor during Perfect Stranger's set, I bumped into Lisa, the Eclipse Village Coordinator for Elipse2012. For her, a total solar eclipse "symbolises the natural beauty of our solar system and reminds us that we are constantly in motion, constantly shifting and growing."
From what I can tell, Eclipse2012 appears to represent a benchmark in this growth. The event will feature six stages with musicians and other artists from label houses and collectives like Zenon, Digital Structures, Iboga, Nano, Tribe 13 Artist Collective, CoSM and many others. While a great many applications have been turned down due to the sheer weight of interest and limited budget, the lineup appears stellar nevertheless. Music menus include the likes of Fat Freddy's Drop, Beat's Antique, Tipper, Random Rab, Emok, Dickster, Tristan, Solar Fields, Ganga Giri, SunControlSpecies, and Tetrameth. Art will be installed by the likes of Shrine, NAU Art, Art in Bloom and R Type L.
But this isn't simply a music festival. Lisa mentioned to me her intention to host a cultural zone for workshops, presentations, panels, kids space, healing area, indigenous space, and cinema. This idea has been realized in the Eclipse Village where many daily workshops are scheduled covering personal growth and activism, as well as sacred soundsphere workshops in the Healing Sanctuary. A visionary arts gallery will include works from Alex and Allyson Grey, Android Jones, Amanda Sage, Luke Brown, Izwoz, and many others. A guest speakers forum will include Jamie Janover, Chris Deckker, Charles Shaw, Rak Razam and Mark Heley among many others.
Over the eighteen years since the first eclipse party, somewhere between amusement park and cosmic temple, a novel transformational festival form has emerged. At these events, if the clouds are kind, the "headline act" is the cosmos itself, a phenomenon that, if plans for Eclipse2012 are anything to go by, lends to fellowship, fusion and collaboration.
So as we close on November and as the Atherton Tablelands come into the view of thousands of travellers from around the world, excitement and anticipation builds. I'm told by Marty that the festival site "has really taken shape over the last 12 months with safe roads, ample shade, swimming holes on site, plenty of shaded areas to camp, and nice open spaces just waiting to be transformed into dance floors". He cautions that the land "is incredibly powerful and sacred and we ask that people be mindful of this during their stay", adding "we are incredibly grateful to the Sunset (Western) Kuku Yalanji people and acknowledge them as the traditional custodians of this land".
Graham St John is author of Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality and
Psytrance (Equinox, Oct 2012).
Image: Outback Eclipse 2002, Lyndhurst Australia. Photo by Firdaus Emir [webgrrl.biz]