Something you should know about me as I beckon you closer whilst reclining in my brightly patterned kaftan and coyly fanning myself: I’m not like all the other columnists.
That is, it’s super-mega-not my style to squander precious column space, typically reserved for explaining Why Twitter Is Bad This Week, in order to tell you What I Did on My Summer Vacation. So instead, I’m going to do pretty much exactly that and tell you all about the utopian queer techno festival I just attended in the woods of Pennsylvania (OK, maybe not all about it), but try to keep focus, instead, on what I didn’t do on my summer vacation.
Some quick background as we make our way down the winding, pocked-up dirt road that leads to the sun-dappled and slightly muddy sylvan center of Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pa., where the fifth installment of the Honcho Campout was held this past weekend — 50 years to the weekend of another storied clothing-optional back-to-nature communal (that invited 444 times more people).
The Campout itself is the offspring of Honcho, a regularly occurring rager for the dancefloor-oriented queerfolk of Pittsburgh. And while Steel City does contribute a large share of the event’s attendees and performers (on that note, for a good time go lose yourself in mixes by Fana, Davis Galvin, Huny, w00dy, and Boo Lean), the attendees (all 1,000 or so of them) represent a far broader and deeper swath of international queerdom than any one metric (or acronym) could capture.
Among them, the Venn diagram charting overlap between DJs, performers, artists, dancers, listeners, and highly skilled nappers would look like an overturned purse full of hoop earrings. (Full disclosure, I was there to perform with my musical project New Dad, which is beside the point.) The small city of tents, hammocks, canopies, and fire pits that formed overnight across the grounds of the retreat center amounted to a pop-up capital-Q queer community — a mix of bodies, orientations, sensibilities, genders, and general vibes that, in itself, felt like an act of defiance.
And while this community originated in the dark at small regional parties, underground micro-raves, and closer-quartered queer happenings around the globe, like many of today’s strongest queer subcultures, it was cultivated in the virtual queer commons of social media.
Attendees and performers pre-gamed the fest with online cram sessions into each other’s SoundCloud pages and Instagram accounts. An old-school message board sprung up to create a parallel digital space to prepare for the dirtier one. The festival launched an online “Queer Fam Fund” to crowdsource money for individuals and communities that required a financial lift to make it to the woods. Everyone tried their best not to Amazon their new water shoes and headlamps.
So in addition to being a four-day marathon of talent from a cross-section of the queer music underground, filling pockets of the dense forest with thudding kick drums and squirty 303 basslines — it was also an experiment in what happens when an Internet community takes to the woods and attempts to sign off from the forces that forged it and find itself, instead, by returning to nature.
The results gave me great hope for what a future could look like, where the tools of digital community-building are put toward the realization of actual-factual shared humanity. (And with only two shower-houses, that humanity was in full force by day two.)
Most everyone’s bars vanished from their respective devices upon crossing over the mounded meadow where our cars were parked/abandoned before we made our descent on foot into the shady lowlands. Thus you didn’t see a lot of the usually-ubiquitous camera phones (increasingly, and hearteningly, anathema in rave spaces). You didn’t see a lot of phone-zoning or selfie-snapping. People’s phones not only stayed in their tents, they were kept, like biohazards, in sealed Ziplocs. (It was moist.)
Left to their own deviceless devices, the crowd split and clustered on muddy dancefloors and stony embankments by the river at Hemlock Hole. They gathered at communal tables in the mess hall twice a day for beans, rice, meatballs, and salad. They gathered in swarms of silhouettes in the dark at Stone Circle — a ring of standing monoliths illuminated by sweeping red and blue lights and intelligent grids of rainbow tinted lasers cutting through a fog that itself was a mix of the real and the virtual. They assembled for morning talks about “queer utopic dancefloors” (check) and “queer psychedelics” (and check), and gathered for an oral history of the early days of disco from pioneer DJ Steve Fabus. They exchanged glances first, contacts later.
What I didn’t do on my summer vacation was have my daydream in a river interrupted by the tweets of a nightmare. I didn’t have to steady myself against a wall because a CNN notification found a lower low to deliver to my palm. The only vibrations were big booming ones, and subtle soul-replenishing ones — not the kind that tug on your leg and remove you from life. Technology was everywhere but nowhere — like the bugs and the birds.
Which is all to say there was a queer dichotomy at play in the woods at Honcho — one which can teach us a thing or two.
Without the Internet, none of us would have found each other — or our campsites, or this amazing fan-necklace I got. But without Internet, we found each other and a whole lot more. Technology was what made everything possible from the music, to the spectacle, to the RFID-chip payment system that paid for everything from your pizza to your ride home (a golf cart nicknamed “Ride Cher”) — but what a treat to get a reminder that it’s supposed to be here to help and not hurt.
How easy that is to forget, until the simple technological miracle of a headlamp against the darkness carves just enough light for each of us to find our way to the party.