Graham St. John (ed)
FreeNRG: Notes from the Edge of the Dance Floor

(Vancouver: Common Ground Publishing, 2001)

Review by Sean Albiez

The mid-late 1990s saw the arrival of numerous published accounts of the preceding decades' electronic dance music scenes. The initial focus of this work was British acid house and rave culture. As rave cultures developed across the European and global context, further research explored the French and German 'techno' scenes, the origins and contemporary developments in US dance music culture and documented the growth of electronica and its associated dance cultures.

Graham St John's edited collection documents the further proliferation of global rave culture in the Australian context, and like much previous work on dance music, aims to explore the political and cultural implications of 'freeNRG culture' rather than the electronic musical forms at it's centre. In the Foreword, Ken Gelder identifies the Australian remix of rave culture as the 'punk-hippie marriage' of diverse Australian activists 'committed to social justice, ecological sustainability, self-expression, 'anarcho-mysticism', affiliations with Aboriginal causes, ethical good practice, and the fashioning of sound systems that answer in volume and clarity, the urge to go out there - into the Australian outback, mostly - and dance' (p. xv). The book goes on to explore how local and 'universal', political and spiritual themes are prevalent in the activities and discourses of freeNRG. This exploration takes the form of contributions by activists, organisers, artists, academics, journalists and fanzine writers who have an investment in the scene, or in investigating the implications it has for contemporary Australian culture and politics.

The collection has four themed sections. Part One, 'Post-Rave Australia' historicises rave and post-rave developments in Australia from the late 1980s to the millennium, introducing the term 'Doof!' that describes 1990s rave-oriented dance events and spaces, and explores the 'alternative' media networks and communities that form the infrastructure of the doof environment and its 'ideologies'. Part Two,' Sound Systems and Systems Sound' explores the connected history of sound systems in Jamaica, the UK and their emergence in Sydney and the political-ecological dimensions of the work of Vibe Tribe and Ohms not Bombs. Part Three, 'Techno-Ascension' documents the 'psychedelic spiritual', Trance Dance and potentially post-New Age dimensions of freeNRG culture that attempt to square an engagement with 'recycledelic' modern industrial sculpture and entheogenic [practices related to states of altered consciousness induced by natural substances] traditional cultural rituals. Part Four, 'Reclaiming Space', expands on the overt direct political action of groups such as Australia's Reclaim the Streets movement and anti-capitalist protest at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000. This section attempts to explain how the carnivalesque aspects of such public demonstrations result in a profound merging of cultural play and political action, and ends with a cautionary study explaining the limits of the democratising potential of new electronic music technologies.

In attempting to construct an overview of the collection, it becomes very apparent that what is documented is a diverse set of cultural and political activities and perspectives that are often contradictory and inconsistent. The central factors that seem to constitute the freeNRG scene are a commitment to DiY activities and a shared counter-cultural dissatisfaction with contemporary Australian society and its colonial history. Beyond this, there is a contingent commitment to both ancient and modern technologies, to the politics of self(-indulgence) and the vague but committed sociality of Reclaim the Streets protest, and demonstrations of creative agency while the scene is informed by a sense of its own impotence. Gelder best demonstrates this in his claim that freeNRG culture is a 'program for cultural therapy' (p. xv). Which particular cultural traumas are being treated by such therapeutic activity are unclear, but Gelder implicitly suggests Australian youth are victimised by contemporary Australian society and its colonial history, and have to withdraw into the autonomous spaces of the outback to find ways of coping. This both diminishes the potential of human agency in the present and runs against the weight of evidence in the collection. FreeNRG culture has many committed and creative agents, albeit without a central political project. This does lead us to consider if what the collection documents is a radical lifestyle choice rather than radical politics.

One of the central weaknesses of this collection is that it is often the voice of the committed activist who we find defining the scene. The reader is left to presume that those dancing and attending these events are equally committed to the 'refusal to see 'party' and 'protest' as conventionally opposing terms.' (Iveson and Scalmer, p. 234). How do we know that in the Reclaim the Streets movement, participants equally party with a purpose and '... [shun] ... [o]ld forms of political dissent - the demonstration, the march, the rally ... which reduce 'passive observers of a "spectacle"'. (Luckman, p. 218).

Another issue is that in the avoidance of fully engaging with the music in this scene, pithy but problematic statements on electronic dance music go undeveloped. For example, 'The sound system culture which is at the core of the party and protest scene has come full circle in its recreation of carnival - reclaiming technology for the benefit of the community. Folk music for the dot com generation [my emphasis] (Murray, p. 69), and 'Techno music contained the raw energy of punk' (Strong, p. 73). It would have been interesting to understand how Murray views electronic dance music as having cultural continuities with the folk tradition (in whatever terms), and how Strong views Techno's connection to punk, particularly as both folk and punk are obviously central to 20th century notions of popular political protest.

The final concern with the collection is whether it really does fully represent FreeNRG cultural activists as 'utopian postcolonials' producing 'affiliations of such density and intensity that a proper sense of settler belonging to this country automatically (or 'magickly') follows.' (p.xvi). For example, whether drug induced, 'magickal' self-knowledge can be translated into sophisticated social activism in the contemporary world is debatable. It is more likely to induce a dense and intense impotence in the present, with participants escaping into primitivist fantasies, placing impossible expectations on aboriginals' history and contemporary experiences.

However, despite such broader reservations with some of the underlying themes in the book, as contemporary social history this is a valuable addition to the field of dance culture studies, giving an interesting insight into the connections between Australian and European rave, and the idiosyncratic aspects of freeNRG in the context of global dance culture. Although the book doesn't manage to fully convince in it's attempts to politically square 'party' with 'protest', it does provide evidence of an admirably engaged and dissident set of voices in the present that find expression in this milieu.

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