I had long believed this “Other World,” as Aldous Huxley once called it, a fantasy, yet here it was unfolding before my very eyes. Was this setting—in the case of Gem & Jam, an ex-slaughterhouse transformed into an outdoor music venue—a physical manifestation (however short-lived) of the state my stimulated subconscious was perpetually trying to reach, a fragment of that enigmatic realm of synesthetic wonder I had only glimpsed through so many veiled doorways since entering adulthood? Further investigation proved necessary.
As if following an endless thread to the source of its unraveling, my early journey into the electronic music and festival world took me from Gem & Jam and one-night shows to festivals in the mountains of Colorado and the valleys of California. Along each step of the way, I uncovered something fresh and inspiring, caught a bit more of the vibe that perpetuated this borderless scene, and felt my own inner radiance bubbling up to the surface.
As the island universe of my interior expanded and brushed up against others, I began to spy a blossoming community woven into the festival world. This amalgamation of modern and ancient cultures, where ritual dance and mystical art mingled with high technology and self-healing, seemed to draw upon the entirety of humanity’s endeavors on this pale blue dot we called Earth. Tribal roots, fiction and lore, traditional and modern arts, and even a taming of the elements were coming together on a multidimensional stage that transcended the physical sites in which they were housed.
Though perhaps loaded as a term, which suggests one might undergo some type of metaphysical transfiguration or ascend to a new level of awareness in a single weekend, there was certainly something “transformational” happening here compared to mega-raves and the seemingly-static reality from which I had embarked.
Since the dawn of civilization, people had used spectacle, music and images of the grandiose to evoke awe and wonder in their observers, building entire cities around centers of worship, monuments to higher forms, healing centers, and markets so that these states might be more easily attained… But never with the intention of dismantling it all after just a few short days. Yet, here it was all happening at festivals around the world, right beneath mainstream culture’s nose. Needless to say, the impact these observations had upon my psyche was profound.
Coming full circle, I returned to this year’s Gem & Jam—still a Tucsonan, but a far better traveled one—with a freshened perspective. This was no longer just about the music and the phantasmagoria of eye candy that had drawn me the year before.
I felt like I was peering through new eyes as I walked past the rebel vendors lining the roads, through the main gate, and onto the festival grounds. Though accompanied by friends, I hoped for a personal adventure. Only a journey inward could bring me closer to the well of creative energy I saw springing from this curious world.
Day 1: Enter the Lovely
I’m torn between scheduling interviews with musicians, seeking out artists and vendors I’ve reached out to online, synchronizing with the sea of friends I expect are still in line for their wristbands, and capturing photos before the sun slips behind the Tucson mountains. And of course, there’s the dancing…
The growth from last year’s Gem & Jam is almost overwhelming. I can’t put a number on how many vendors are here, but it has to be at least twice what last year garnered. Illuminated art installations recognizable from oh so many festivals, from northern Arizona’s grassroots Firefly Gathering to Burning Man, line the pathways, along with half a dozen cushy, LED-lit chillout spaces and gigantic mockups of glowing crystals. Art domes abound, and colorful sails streak the skies, supplying endless sights for the thousands of enchanted eyes beginning to fill the venue.
The warmth of late afternoon spills into the evening as the crowd in front of the main stage grows to the sounds of Saqi, whose trumpeted grooves I can’t help but sway to as I bump into my first friends. Introductions are made, hugs exchanged, and I snap my first photo of the festival. I’m feeling good, and though the brassy call of the horn summons me toward the dance floor, I’m determined to make a full lap of the festival grounds and capture more images in the fading light before giving into my baser desires.
As I explore the seemingly endless row of vendors, I’m fascinated by what each one brings to the table, from Palo Santo products and stealthy wirewraps, to glimmering crystal specimens and flowing garments fit for the characters of mythology. Sellers have traveled from around the country to attend Gem & Jam and the celebrated Tucson Gem and Mineral Show occurring outside its walls, giving attendees one of the greatest vendor selections in the festival circuit.
A Realm of Forms
I’ve never seen so much psychedelic jewelry in one place. Polished metals and precious stones unite as self-luminous talismans that bathe wearers and watchers with the same preternatural light that once dazzled eyes in the age of dust, duns and dirty whites. Though we have advanced in technology, our desire to gaze upon the Other World through all things shiny and ornamented remains fundamentally unchanged from that of our ancestors. Adorned with such creations—vision-inducing jewelry, exotic clothing and opulent headdresses—festivalgoers participate in the age-old arts of pageantry and spectacle, but here dance upon the stage of imagination rather than that of the theater. We are all playing dress-up and having the time of our lives.
In my hypnosis, I haven’t even noticed that Alex Grey and his wife Allyson Grey have taken the stage.
The role of entheogens—chemical substances used for spiritual or religious purposes—in sacred art is indisputable, and Alex Grey is perhaps the greatest authority on the matter. Retracing various forms of art through the millennia, he effortlessly lays out the network of ancient cultures that have shared an appreciation and respect for the power of mind-enhancing chemicals and ritualized their use. Recurrent images and symbols, archetypal roles, veneration of otherworldly entities, and concepts of universal energy are sewn into the art, architecture, and traditions of ancient peoples separated by entire continents. One need only look around at the canvases, moving images, and art installments scattered around the festival grounds to see that this tradition is alive and well today, and perhaps healthier than it has been in ages.
After linking up with more friends, only to lose them as one inevitably will at a festival, I eventually find my way to the indoor stage, which Alex Grey once half-jokingly remarked served as the actual slaughterhouse for which the venue is named. A considerate mind might wonder if we are here to transform the negative energy welled up within these walls.
The indoor stage is small, offering perhaps two thousand square feet of dancing space. As with the previous year, capacity limits mean the chance of missing out on the deep bass therapy transpiring within is high during big acts or unexpectedly bodacious sets.
I walk in during Psydell’s set, which quickly unfolds into a sonic concoction of layered glitchy and trippy beats that make my heart sing. This is dance central.
I stash my camera bag by the sound booth and dive in. Bass gushes from the speakers and transports me back in time as I realize this is the one-year anniversary of my first foray into ecstatic dance, and I’m on the exact same dance floor. My body is on autopilot, finding a perfect rhythm within the breakbeat madness that fills the room.
As my mind wanders into a memory of Treavor Moontribe’s scintillating DJ set from 2014, where I first surrendered to the music and released my inhibitions about dance, I feel a bridge form across the divide of time. Could I have been drawing upon this very moment during that experience, and am I now fulfilling my end of the deal by sending some of my energy surplus back? Time knows no bounds as I grin and laugh, for it seems that in the frenzy of dance, I am forever in this moment.
Day 2: A Feast for the Eyes
Having cased the joint sufficiently the previous night and fulfilled some of my networking goals, I enter the second night planning to document the art in its various incarnations as well as gather more hard content for my writing. I haven’t explored the art with a serious eye yet, and I’m eager to track down some performance artists I know before they hit the stage. I cross my fingers for an interview with a headliner, but I’m not holding my breath.
I’ve been around traditional art for as long as I can remember. The rich aroma of oil paints, the astringent fumes of cleaning agents, the spectral fragrances of the aesthete lifestyle… All are tied to memories tracing back to childhood explorations of my uncle’s art studio.
“Look, but never touch!” Like a mantra, this idea—using my eyes alone to absorb what the moment provided—had made me a visual creature before I could fathom the work that went into an ambitious piece of art. Who could ever make great art in a single weekend?
As I stroll around the Gem & Jam festival grounds, I find almost every artist tending her station. While some entertain onlookers with casual conversation, most, including Alex Grey on the main stage, appear passionately involved with their work. Acrylic, oil, pastel, spray paint, watercolor, ink, graphite, computers… There is no clear end to the mediums through which these artists reach for the Other World as they absorb the scenery and soundscapes around them.
“Live art” has found a welcome home in the festival world. Some artists seem to be everywhere, creating new works each weekend under open skies while surrounded by some of the kindest people around. Psychedelic landscapes, ethereal portraits, transcendent animals, textural energy abstracts, imagined dream worlds and mandalas of every fancy grace their canvases, screens and art paper. In each piece, themes of universal oneness, inner radiance and the visionary experience are manifest through archetypal images, fractal symmetry and brilliant colors.
Having seen many of these artists at other festivals, I’m not only joyed to watch their work unfold, but also excited by the simple idea that I’ve seen these strangers more times in a year than I have seen some friends and family. I’m especially joyed when one familiar artist gives me a completed print of a painting he was working on at a past festival I attended.
Johnathan Singer’s live visuals on the stage astonish me. There’s a level of collaboration happening with the bigger acts that is subtle and exquisite. His projected art features layers upon layers of synchronized, dancing imagery: endomorphic fractals and abstract textures, film clips overlaid with flashing stills of sacred geometry and cultural iconography, and at the perfect moments—darkness.
Dancers and acrobats materialize on the stage, Alex Grey methodically steps back from his canvas to plot his next stroke, and all around the music makers, coordinated eye candy dazzles as lasers and spotlights scan the crowd. I can only imagine the afterimages being impressed upon the retinas of the brave psychonauts around me.
After spending much of the evening wandering with two spontaneous companions, I’m thrilled to capture images of one, a flame-tamer named Vixie, as she takes to the stage with her fiery art.
Ancient myths and legends describe a being who stole fire—a symbol of the “boon” of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth; the transformational elixir of the hero’s journey—from the heavens and brought it to humanity. This fragment from the Other World thus illuminated the lives of man in the sun’s absence during the darkness of night and winter, spawning civilization and the world of arts. Without fire, which granted us the ability to illuminate caves, cook food, harden bricks to build shelters, and work metals to plow the land, we would still be animals.
It is with this respect that fire dancers so easily mesmerize. Those who wield the power of flames, both in the context of good and evil, posses unimaginable sway over those who do not. As with the visions provoked by art and pageantry, we are enchanted by the brilliance of those who manipulate fire, be it through dance, metalsmithing, or the firework-like display of a lightshow.
Night 3: The Relativity of Dance
Tonight, I dive into the music without restraint.
Not that I’ve neglected this critical activity on any single night, but I’ve been looking forward to the platter of sounds available to my ears tonight since the festival schedule was first released. Kaminanda, Phutureprimitive, Safi’s Lab… This is my slice of sonic heaven, and the dancing will be supreme.
There is something indescribably magical about coming together with friends and strangers on the dance floor. In the deepest throes of dance, we become so enthralled in our movements and the spectrum of sensations bypassing the normal reducing valve of our brain and nervous system that we sometimes forget we are not alone. However, upon opening our eyes and gazing around at the sea of twirling and flowing bodies that surrounds us, a very clear energy transfer begins to occur.
Like celestial bodies in orbit around one another, we succumb to invisible forces drawing us toward that which we desire most. One need only look by the front of any stage to see a constellation of figures moving without inhibition as they interpret the sensory fields that surround them in what at times resembles a coordinated dance party. The energy ecstatic dancers emit as they draw from their synesthetic environment comes in the forms of heat, movement, and shouts of excitement, which only continue to stoke the collective fire. In a sense, we become reactors—much like the center of any star—synthetizing matter and energy into an explosive display and visual language that transcends space, time and cultural barriers.
Every once in a while, a large form moves through the crowd, zapping energy from its surroundings. These “black holes of the dance floor” never cease to appear, often dressed in plainclothes and clutching drinks unfit for the gyrating landscape, but are quickly cast out by their luminous counterparts, who bend like starlight around a gravitational dip in the space-time grid and push them toward the darkness of outer space.
As Sunday night’s music enters its final hours, I meander toward the indoor stage once again, knowing Flagstaff producer Safi’s Lab is undoubtedly leading Arizona locals and visitors alike on a sonic expedition with his genre-hopping palette of funky noise. Running a medley of hip-hop, reggae, and world sounds—including that of his own voice—through a series of glitchy, tripped-out and at times old school electronic filters, he creates an undeniably danceable and almost universally accessible soundtrack for his audience to feast upon. Occasional downtempo interludes provide just enough breathing space for me to notice that literally everyone from my local crew is packed into the room.
Following the emotionally-charged and kinetic sounds of longstanding basshead Phutureprimitive on the main stage, whose hybrid audio landscapes have populated my playlists for over a decade, I’m left a bit shocked that it’s all over. Sure, there’s the afterparties, and I will be attending, but with the main event complete, I notice the same wide-eyed look of awe and something touching on confusion appear on the faces of countless friends and strangers as they walk away from the stage. As if still caught in the rapture of our experience, we cannot process that time has caught up with us and that we must soon return to the land of imperfect forms.
However, deep inside newcomers and veteran festivalgoers alike, I believe there is a freshly-stoked fire burning in a workroom of the mind where we each retire to in our deepest moments of contemplation to process new experiences, tinker with novel concepts, and forge new ideas to be expressed through art, music, voice and writing.
The Art of Finishing
Going into Gem & Jam, I knew I would be writing something about my experience—a “gonzo” piece of my own creation—but all I could envision was a vague blur, a jumble of ideas, and a few abstract concepts I still lacked the words to describe. It wasn’t until I stepped foot through the gates and took a few breaths to absorb the scenery that I realized that my inspiration would come from all directions as long as I did not chase it.
One major highlight of my weekend came from the downtempo master of worldly sounds and sunrise sets, Random Rab, who during our brief chat over a locally-brewed beer impressed upon me a simple but powerful idea: Whether we are in the studio, workshop, at a desk, or in the maelstrom of a festival, the people are always there with us when we create.
Whoever our audience, the consumers of our art remain with us even if we have never gazed upon their faces. This relationship transcends notions of past, present and future, for in the inevitable transpiration of time, there is no way of knowing who will reflect on our work and draw upon it for inspiration. Perhaps in doing so, they’ll bridge that temporal divide and send some of their own energy back to that very moment in which we find ourselves.