Little bit before I start: this blog post is only in reference to the Australian Rainbow Gathering from January 31st - March 1st. I am fully aware that there have been many, many other Rainbow Gatherings, and there is massive diversity in what a Rainbow Gathering can be.
Looking for another escape from the fetid, drunken, shrieking carnage of Sydney, I decided to go on my second trip to Tasmania. Tasmania is an impossibly stunning little island, brimming with pristine wilderness, easy to hitch around, and is host to everything from beaches to rainforests, from craggy cliffs to dizzyingly high mountains. It was also a perfect setting for my priorities of having some quiet time and read some books 1. Holding my own holiday to ransom, I had some demands: I wanted to be left alone but not completely isolated from company. I wanted somewhere calm. I wanted to be away from alcohol for a bit. And I didn't want to spend much money.
So I went to the first Australian Rainbow Gathering of 2014.
For the uninitiated: Rainbow Gathering began in Colorado in 1972 and inspired by a Native American prophecy of "one rainbow tribe" rising from a ravaged earth, the Rainbow Gathering has since exploded into an international phenomenon, with many gatherings occurring frequently all over the world. Temporary intentional communities based on non hierarchical collectivity and anti-commerce, organisers take over land in order to create a space for "spiritual and personal growth" and "healing" 2.
It's for hippies, basically.
Now, I enjoy a good pair of Thai fisherman's pants and the occasional chunk of yoga, but I also have a tendency for pre-morning coffee nihilism and post-morning coffee sarcasm. And I also listen to music that features people screaming about things that annoy them over aggressive guitars. Having known many people who've been to Rainbow Gatherings, I've always presumed them to be dens of remorseless optimism. In terms of attitude, Rainbow and I are definitely not good bedfellows. But I find it a bit difficult to be completely down on a space which is anti-capitalistic, anti-hierarchical and collectively organised. It is a space where people with broadly similar attitudes can get
together without being made to feel like lonely freaks. I think back to all the
punk gigs I've attended and organised, and how they provide exactly the
same function. And so, loaded with elitist anti-hippy prejudice and genuine curiosity, I hitched into the Tasmanian bush for my first Rainbow Gathering.
The site was beautiful. A huge open grassy space, bordered by bush and a highly swimmable river. The blazing Tasmanian sunshine almost immediately burning my stupid Anglo skin. A woman came up to me and asks if I've just arrived. I said yes. She joyfully greeted me with "Welcome home!" and gave me a hug. This, it turns out, is the traditional Rainbow Gathering welcoming. There are tons of hugs, snuggles and cuddles happening all the time. And while my inner Thai fisherman pant-wearer goes "awww", my inner cynical bastard just rolls his eyes at what looks like a bunch of sexy backpackers 4 trying to fuck each other. My cynicism was confirmed in part by overhearing a few conversations between seperate groups of men and women, where the main topic was who they wanted to fuck. This dynamic isn't exactly surprising, but a huge drawback to open community of Rainbow is that it aids the replication of hetero-normative environment with standard gender binaries. Rainbow's presumed intent is to create a space away from all the shithouse stuff that happens in the world. In this aspect, it fails. I'm not accusing Rainbow of bigotry. What I am saying is any space will preserve the status quo if there is no active challenge to it, the result being that, potentially, people who identify as queer or trans may not feel welcome. During a meeting, one guy stood up in front of a number of people and requested "ten or twelve blokes" to help carry some solar panels. As far as I'm aware, I was the only person who raised the point that "women can carry things too". This was subsequently ignored. But then, I didn't continue with the complaint either, mainly because I genuinely felt that everyone would think I was making a fuss about nothing. Me and my stupid "women can do stuff too" views.
Where this Rainbow succeeded was in creating a peaceful atmosphere, and fostering a culture that discourages drug use. While there was tobacco, alcohol and other drugs on site, it was (except for tobacco), never overtly present. One person held a discussion group on dealing with substance addiction. This is an often marginalised issue in radical communities. I have a friend who is in drug and alcohol recovery. She is a part of the anarchist community and a punk fan, and due to the circles she mixes in she is almost constantly in the presence of intoxicating substances. Her staunchness and courage humble me. At Rainbow, the discouragement of intoxication demands respect, and should be considered by other radical spaces. There is nothing radical about getting fucked up. There is everything radical about maintaining focus and encouraging it in others.
The self-organisation aspect of Rainbow is also hugely impressive. A seed camp - starting weeks before the official start date - arrive to set everything up. This includes shitpits, teepees and even a whole kitchen structure. Water comes from the river to taps via solar-powered pumps. There are several communal firepits. By the time I've arrived, there's a whole system is operation. Cooking is done collectively for breakfast and dinner. Frequent pass-it-on shouts of "HELP IN THE KITCHEN!" are heard, and people respond, chopping wood for the fire, prepping food and playing guitar to stave off the tedium of chopping 150 people's worth of the same vegetable. Thankfully, there were a number of very talented guitarists, where as I initially assumed the Rainbow soundtrack would be an endless, moping rendition of Hallelujah 5.
The centrepiece of each day is perhaps the food circle. Everyone gathers around the sacred fire (the fire lit at the beginning and kept constantly lit throughout the month-long Gathering. It's a Native American and Indigenous Australian tradition. More on this kind of thing in a bit), joins hands and sings songs. The food circle can be massive - it was pretty big at 150 people. I've heard tale of good circles with thousands of people in them. Boggles the mind. After the songs, everyone does a bow to the ground (this was never really explained, so I used it as an excuse for a decent stretch), then sits down to wait to be served their food. Then volunteer servers come dishing out the food, and everyone settles in.
I'm a huge fan of communal eating. Less a fan of cultural appropriation. There are specific Rainbow songs. Going through the song list at Rainbow's unofficial website, some are described as "Christian-orientated". In some of the songs, there were references to "the Lord", which baffled me, since this was not a Christian camp. However, Rainbow isn't fussy about where songs come from. They are taken or directly influenced by a huge variety of cultures: Rastafarianism, Native American, Jewish, Sanskrit... they even have a Beatles modification in there.
I'm not sure where most of the songs at this Gathering were from, but mashing up a load of different belief systems into the same singalong is just kind of weird to me. I guess, to the Rainbow Family, the origins of these songs, or even having consistency in what they sing about, doesn't really matter. What matters is that everyone is singing together and being happy. But seeming indifference to themes and origins threatens to rip certain songs from their roots. This Rainbow Gathering, for all its veneer of "openness", was almost exclusively made up of people from relatively privileged backgrounds. So if, say, a Native American chant is used, the Rainbow Gathering threatens to co-opt a song from a decimated culture. This process of co-option contributes to the further silencing and marginalisation of oppressed groups. There is potential for communities like Rainbow Gathering to be a factor in the mechanics of oppression. 6
Even more to the point, there was no acknowledgement at this Gathering of being on Aboriginal land. While in past Australian Rainbow Gatherings links have been established with Aboriginal people, on this one it clearly slipped through the net. Some other people I spoke to were also disappointed with this. I made a reference before performing a poem at one of the cabaret nights, but I wish I'd made more of a point of it. While the acknowledgement is often tokenistic etiquette, it is an important one. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that your awesome time is occurring on blood-soaked, stolen land, especially when your "tribe" is inspired by other indigenous cultures. Sorry for killing your buzz and everything.
This, and the Rainbow rituals generally, can be a little intimidating at first. Here's a huge group of people who all seem to know the whole shebang. They know all the words to all the songs. They even know some dance moves. All the social groups seem so tight. Arriving on my own, having never been to a Gathering before, was initially a little confronting and slightly isolating. However, after a few days I got used to the huge spectacle, and began to be more open to chatting with people. Most were very open, lovely and generous. This is another positive aspect of the Rainbow Gathering - it really does foster an openness in people which struggles in a more atomised environment. There was even a woman there who's partner in the UK is best friends with the leader singer of one of my favourite punk bands. I got to have chats with some people who'd visited Hackney and, like myself, had squatted there. I got to learn how to make a decent pot of chai. Away from the main spectacle of Rainbow, there were many camps into the bush to go and relax and chat the afternoon away. Even though politically Rainbow irks me, I found these times particularly gratifying - just time spent quietly, practising my dreadful guitar playing, practising my non-existent Spanish, practising my mediocre juggling, and swimming. I realised that, most of the time whilst travelling, I don't get (or make) very much time for just myself. Was very pleasant to rediscover my own company, even though I find myself quite irritating at times. 7
Like I say, it's difficult to be completely down about it all. But while it provided what I personally required from my time away, there is a bigger picture to consider. The problems I have with Rainbow are mainly anchored in its assumptions. The Rainbow Family seem to assume that because you have entered a Rainbow Gathering, nothing more needs to be challenged. Whereas I would argue that not organising structures to constantly challenge oppressive behaviours, wherever you are, mean that oppressive behaviours will doubtlessly - and did - rise to the surface. If all a community does is replicate the fucked up things in our society, how is it going to bring about any meaningful change? It assumes it is a tribe unto itself, implying that it is like an Indigenous tribe. If it is one, it is not the same as an Indigenous tribe. The Rainbow Gathering is not under attack from colonising forces, nor are the individuals who attend. How can this tension be addressed? How can we move forward to creating and defending spaces liberated of commerce? I don't claim to know the answers, these are huge questions. But I firmly believe if your belief system does not address the material effects it has on the world, and if it does not reflect on or challenge itself, then it will remain adrift from the real world. If that's what you want - fine. Just don't be surprised when grumpy, self-righteous punks write passive aggressive blogs about it.
1. My cheery holiday reads were Richard Adams' rabbity bloodbath Watership Down and John Kersey's nightmarish account of post-nuclear wasteland Horishima.
2. Rainbow Family Australia website http://www.rainbow.lickorish.net/
3. The best joke I heard at the Gathering: "What kind of tobacco does a hippy smoke? Your tobacco".
4. There really weren't that many Australians there. The Gathering was mostly comprised of backpackers.
5. This happened too. Why do people constantly insist on covering this song? Isn't everyone bored of it by now? There's tons of other great songs out there that not ever twat covers. And why, when people do it, does everyone listening go into a trance, quietly mumbling along, staring at their shoes or wistfully into the distance? Why, WHY?
6. I'm less bothered about The Beatles songs.
7. Irritating habits include: being too loud, constantly talking regardless of whether my opinion is needed/valid, making drinks for myself to sit down with and finishing them on the way to where I'm sitting down, eating too quickly etc.