Cubix Rubies and Rhythmic Mandalas The Om Festival
The sixth annual Om Festival took place this weekend. It is a smallish solstice festival of about 4,000 people, and it has been taking place for about six years in Southern Ontario. The festival features artists, DJs, and dozens of workshops and galleries. I had never attended before, largely because I lived in Boston for three years and was not aware of its unfolding existence.
I took my twelve year old son, Sam, and we had the pleasure of meeting a new friend, an artist in the visionary tradition by the name of Luke Brown. Luke had flown in from the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia and needed a lift up to the Festival from Toronto, so I took him up along with us.
The festival blew out a number of mental gaskets for me. A large number of the participants were artists, and so the festival was sort of a wooded, green Burning Man in the sense that many people, places and things were artistically wrought. Art installations were woven into the very fabric of the layout. The six stages or "sound villages" were set up in glades and groves within the rolling green spaces of the Ottawa valley. One stage, the Gnome Stage, featured a large wooded gnome with glowing blue eyes. At night all you could see were the eyes unless you flashed your light and saw the full gnomish shape. Immediately in front of the DJ alcove, a working television was buried in the earth, intermittently broadcasting esoteric cartoons and weird Poltergeist static. On the Friday night, the DJ inside was a full-on clown with a menacing, freaky quality.
Another stage, the Black Light garden, was lit at night by ultra-violets. Various art installations and chill-out areas were decorated with psychedelic black-light mobiles and paintings. The music at this stage was always trance, and the energy created in that black-lit, frenzied space was addictive. I found myself dancing in creative new ways, with an energy that I didn’t even know was within me.
One of the things that I notice about electronica parties versus jam band shows is the fact that the DJ has much less of a personal presence than musicians do. When you dance in front a DJ you can really face any direction, and many people do. At an outdoor party, especially a solstice party, you can face the moon, or the setting or rising sun. Or you can face your friends. It’s not so important to watch the DJ to see what she is doing, because you often can’t see what she’s doing at all. Not only that, but the speakers are often distributed around the room. So you can face the music any way you like.
Nobody threw any glow sticks at the DJs, either, I noticed.
Another thing is that people don’t collect the set lists or record the shows. It’s disposable music, meant to be taken in at the moment. You Are Here, is the message of Om; Be Here Now. When the moment is over, it’s over.
The glow toys were second to none. Many of the women and men [and children] had used black-light pens to draw Maori and Hindi designs on their faces and wrists. Until they went to the black light stage, or walked by ultraviolet lights [which were dotted throughout the site] the designs were invisible.
There was a strong ecological focus at the festival. We had speakers like Julia Butterfly Hill running workshops on activism. There was also a high degree of European style nudity; a lot of comfortable toplessness during the hot daylight hours, particularly at a nearby beach where we went to cool off.
There were also no vendors, or at least very few. Instead Om invites participants to drop off their donations at the Kind Kitchen, where 40 volunteers turn whatever they are given into meals which are served 24 hours a day. The resulting food was always vegetarian and often on the mushy side. But it was nutritious and plentiful and free, and nobody went hungry.
In my camping area, which was called the Fields of Drone, there were speakers along the tree-line playing ambient music throughout the day and night. There was also a stage where participants could go up at any time and either dance, do spoken word performances, or sing. With no headlining rock stars, and such a high degree of participation from the attendees, the festival felt like it belonged to everyone. There were no hierarchies, no "VIP" areas.
During the day many people lounged and slept in Tea Tents, which were open-sided, tented areas with pillows and blankets where people lay about, smoked from bongs and hookahs, chatted and slept. I fell in and out of asleep there one afternoon and in my fugue state, I overheard snippets of conversations about didgeridoos, tin whistles, the availability and posology of new unscheduled psychedelics, and the offering of tips on other festivals and workshops in the open air.
My new friend Luke occupied the role of an informal host for what was really a new kind of experience for me. It was like he bridged the two worlds of jam and Phish festivals and this other world of electronica and art. An accomplished psychedelic artist and tattooist, Luke has recently been traveling the world doing shows and workshops with such renowned artists as Alex Grey and Robert Venosa. We discussed ways of seeing as we drove up through the magnificent wooded terrain. He noted that the trees made a dendritic line against the sky, with the reverse image of the sky against the trees similarly dendritic; a palindromic landscape.
Luke has also been a Phish fan since 1992. As we traveled north in my car and listened to the Phish Nassau soundboards, Luke’s speech continued to approximate his artistic style; he speaks in the way the paints. He held up a fat, glistening strawberry, exclaiming over its intricate patterns, and then said of Phish, "they take your brain, work it into a hyper-dimensional Rubix Cube, and throw it back to you." The Rubix Cube then somehow later became Cubix Rubies. I blame the strawberries.
It was Luke who spoke to me of the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia where the rainforest and the mountains stretch down to the Pacific beach. He told me how the community was made up of artists, many of them the grown children of American sixties’ draft dodgers. He told me of various informal festivals planned there this summer.
At the nearby beach, Sam and I ran into an acquaintance of mine who was there with her daughter and her daughter’s friend, who were both eleven. Sam and the two girls spent much of their time together after that, and roamed the festival grounds freely. I took the three kids to the black light garden on the last night, and they drew designs on their arms and hands with black light pens and wandered through the installations. After they were finally tired, at about 1:00 a.m., we took them back to the tent and they fell into a deep sleep, with a cool breeze moving through the tent where they slept. It was the shortest night of the year, and already you could see pink edging along the east horizon.
I danced on at the main stage until dawn with two other mom-friends of mine while our kids slept. At 4:00 am a band from Philadelphia called Intergalactic Faerie Funk took the main stage and began an irresistible set of live house. Their lineup included a saxophone player, a bass player, two Mac computers, and a turntable. They were fun to watch, particularly the two cats in the middle, who were identical twins of apocryphal heritage; they looked to be Asian or Latin. I loved the fact that they were spawned from the same zygote, and wondered how it contributed to their musical telepathy. The mix of live instruments, turntables and software was fascinating to me, as well as the way they appeared to be chatting with each other as though they were at a poker game and not on stage.
"What’s the story with these guys," I said to my friend Shannon. "Do you think they get the chicks?"
"I think they probably get the chicks" said Shannon. She laughed, adding teasingly, "Look at you, always looking for the story…"
When the sun rose, there were at least 200 people still dancing and having a wonderful time. The costumes and outfits on the dancers were amazing; one girl danced up near the stage with a wild black afro wig, and a friend of ours wore a bear hat, welding goggles and an old bomber jacket. This is a look, by the way, guaranteed to steal any girl’s heart. Don’t ask why. It just works.
I finally went into my tent with the sun well up into the sky. When I woke up about three hours later, Sam had risen and gone to the beach with his new friends. I saw Luke outside the tent. "Hey," he said. "Sam chose two of my prints for himself."
What struck me the most about this festival were the aspects of psychedelia so completely divorced from the iconography of the Dead or the patterns of live music jams. The fact of it made me dwell upon all aspects of it everywhere; in the shapes of nature, in the art of Dali and Escher, in the pre-linguistic images of cave-dwellers, and the insistent lure of repetitive rhythms. Surely these reflect the heartbeats and prayer mantras that connect us to our ancestors and to all of life.