Rural Pennsylvania. An expanse of rolling hills and changing leaves, that, over the past 4 days, has played host to two distinct events demonstrating the failure of the liberal imagination to comprehend America's fraught political environment.
The more visible of these events was, of course, the election of Donald Trump. On Tuesday night, voters hailing all the way from the Susquehanna Valley to the Allegheny River defied the polls and the pundits and voted for Trump, the first time a Republican presidential candidate has won the state in decades. A combination of weak turnout in liberal bastions like Philadelphia and an unexpected surge of voters in rural and suburban areas was responsible for delivering the Republican candidate his shocking win—one replicated in swing states across America, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire.
At least, it felt shocking to me. I'm from the Bay Area, I'm white, I live in New York, and I work in the media, surrounded by progressives. I know a few Republicans, but not a single Trump supporter. For the last six months, I've only been aware of them as an unseen force amassing on polling maps in places where people like me have few connections. Their opinions don't enter the cocoon of my social media feed, where Facebook's ad servers index me as "very liberal," and where ideological battles tend to rage between the center left and the far left.
When Trump's victory actually came to pass, my response—and that of everyone I know—was disbelief. How could someone with demonstrably racist and sexist views—views that have no place in the modern world as we've imagined it—be the man we elect as president in 2016? After the shock wore off, Trump's victory raised a frightening thought; these voters who'd emerged seemingly out of nowhere have been here along, and we just haven't been able or willing to see them. The election felt like a repudiation by middle America of the liberal media itself, and of the wider bubble of thought that media exists within; we felt like our hashtag activism and eloquent think-pieces were getting our points across, but as it turned out we'd been talking to ourselves all along.
In his 2016 documentary, HyperNormalization, British filmmaker Adam Curtis posits that "we have retreated into a simplified and often completely fake version of the world," one where social media and internet echo chambers allow us to construct curated, utopian versions of reality that have nothing to do with the reality around us. He has a point: over the past year, "Unfollow me if you support Trump" emerged as a recurring refrain on our newsfeeds. At first, it felt like a justified response: if you hate something and it makes you feel unsafe, why engage with it? It's an approach that works just fine until the things you've tried to lock away strike back when you're feeling most secure—like Tuesday night, when coastal liberals watched in disbelief as a sea of red swept across the electoral map.
But for a certain contingent of music lovers—namely, those hailing from the small, hyper-liberal bubble of experimental electronic music—it felt like deja vu. This past weekend, Boiler Room and Ray-Ban teamed up to present the first ever Boiler Room Weekender at the Split Rock Resort in rural Pennsylvania. The festival put up some 3,000 festival-goers for free in the resort's luxurious sprawl of cabins and villas and offered them two days of stacked programming, with headliners like Blood Orange, Virgil Abloh, and Kamasi Washington alongside a selection of buzzy GHE20G0TH1K affiliates like MikeQ and Kamixlo.
On Saturday night of the festival, police arrested a young woman who was allegedly attempting to bring what a police report would refer to as "a small amount of marijuana and suspected cocaine" into the GHE20G0TH1K stage; a crowd gathered, people began filming, event security tried to take their phones, and then the festival shut down early. As night rolled into morning, social media erupted with allegations of racist policing. What promised to be a fun weekend quickly turned into a rude awakening. Days before the election we'd found ourselves in the middle of Trump country, and a phrase I'd heard some festival-goers use to describe the event—"this feels like a weekend at the end of the world"—suddenly felt apt.
I felt an air of surreality the second I stepped off the bus at Split Rock Resort. The hotel and water park follows in the grand tradition of eerie Poconos vacation destinations; beige carpets, long hallways, elaborate chandeliers hung above grand ballrooms with peeling walls, and so on. Inside the festival—which took place in a large building called the Town Center, wrapped in tumescent water slides that looked like colorful snakes—the vibe was 70s kitsch. A six-foot plastic toucan loomed over the water park. The cafeteria offered a full Thanksgiving dinner. A sign in an arcade warned, inscrutably, "Big Bass Wheel Pro is now a ticketless game." Through the woods behind our cabin, a golf course stretched into the hills, bounded by stucco McMansions whose yards were dotted with a mix of Trump signs and for-sale signs. As the sun began to go down on night one, I noticed packs of deer and wild turkeys crossing the links in the fading light.
Cameras were everywhere at the Ray-Ban Boiler Room weekender. Spherical 3D cameras faceted with lenses like fly eyeballs sprung from poles planted in the middle of crowds. GoPros lurked on tables next to CDJs. Video techs roamed the space with shoulder-mounted units on gimbles. At most festivals, the relationship between the audience and the performer is straightforward—their performance is the product, and you are the consumer. At the Boiler Room weekender, that relationship was complicated by the presence of a second audience—the thousands of spectators tuning into the event from home.
As I bounced from room to room throughout the maze-like resort I felt like a character in a play, performing the role of audience member before a phantom crowd I couldn't see. I knew that over on the Boiler Room website, live-streaming cameras were transforming the dim mezzanines and arcades around me into virtual multi-media environments. Standing there, I could almost feel my body extend through the cameras and into bedrooms and living rooms across the world.
One of the central theses of the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord refers to the rise of spectacles in place of real experience. "All that once was directly lived has become mere representation," he argued, describing the trajectory of human civilization in terms of "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." Here, though, Boiler Room seemed to be replicating the logic of the spectacle in service of a utopian aim. The Weekender brought together a selection of underground performers, including a broad swath of queer and POC artists; all sets would be streamed and recorded in lush 3D, giving kids around the world the chance to experience cutting-edge performances as if they were there and exposing artists from tight-knit, homegrown scenes to an international audience. Every moment would be preserved through 3D cameras to create a permanent digital archive—and the artists would get paid. Little did they know that this ambitious attempt at world-building would bring performers and guests into an unexpectedly hostile environment.
Friday night culminated with parties in a building called the Lodge that started at 2 AM; a house party atmosphere reigned across four separate rooms, which were hosted by crews ranging from NAAFI and NON DJs to New York dance duo Wrecked. The audience featured a diverse range of people, from hardcore techno lifers to streetwear-clad kids. In a way, that inclusivity felt like a justification of the Weekender's utopian project; since the festival was free and underwritten by Ray-Ban, Boiler Room didn't have to worry about using big names to sell tickets and could instead focus on niche acts and promoters from deeper in the scene. The party stretched on and on; Wrecked ended their set to cheers from a packed room around 7 AM.
Saturday kicked off in the festival's cavernous waterpark. NYC label Mixpak supplied dancehall DJ sets and acts like New York MC Lil Haiti performed as hundreds of people splashed in the pool and enjoyed the water slide. The afternoon offered a moment of childlike tranquility ahead of what promised to be a nail-biting week.
On the first day, security around the festival had seemed pretty minimal—people mostly came and went from rooms as they pleased, with occasional bag checks at the larger rooms. By the afternoon of the second day, though, the resort was crawling with police and additional security. They swarmed the entrance to rooms, creating bottleneck checkpoints where they searched wallets, bags, pockets, and waist bands.
The security was by far the tightest outside the large upstairs ballroom, where the GHE20G0TH1K lineup was taking place. As some spectators would later allege, people of color were subject to additional checkpoints. One of those people was Kaylan Jones, a young black woman who allegedly tried to enter the party with a small amount of weed and another controlled substance; cops took her drugs, cuffed her, and began leading her down the stairs to a cop car (some eyewitnesses claim she suffered a panic attack en route). People gathered around, and the situation escalated. A friend of Jones' tried to open the door of the cop car, and several attendees began filming. One reported that her phone was taken away by security guards, then returned to her smashed; another said that she was "Grabbed at, threatened and hit for filming these monsters handcuffing and parading a young black girl." Nearby, I watched half a dozen police restrain a young man with a bandage on his head in the back of an ambulance, as he screamed, "Let me out! Let me out of this car!" Here's a photo he posted of his face afterwards. By the end of the night, the police report would later attest that 18 people had received citations.
Just moments before, crowds had danced in front of Boiler Room cameras to raucous sets by Kamixlo and Venus X. Now the surveillance dynamic shifted—attendees pulled out their phones and posted footage of the arrests online, adopting the strategies of social justice movements like Black Lives Matter. Elsewhere people walked around as if in a dream, unsure if what they were seeing was real, and unable to believe the festival was over.
For all the levels of surveillance going on at the Weekender, the events of Saturday revealed a giant, gaping blind spot in Boiler Room's plan: it took place in an area where black and queer youth were being perceived as a threat, and where law enforcement was seemingly ready to pounce at the first sign of provocation from anyone they viewed as other.
Whether or not the festival organizers were aware of the risks to the queer people of color for they brought in doesn't matter—the fact is, their attempt at creating a utopian space came into conflict with the underlying attitudes that still define a majority of America. "We need to organize ourselves better if we really value safe spaces," said representatives from Boiler Room in an interview. Ultimately, the event demonstrated the limits of what can happen when we try to uproot safe spaces—spaces that emerged in a specific geographic and cultural context—and transplant them into the wider world, a world that necessitated their existence in the first place.
But the Weekender also pointed to the frightening limits of technology, limits that would reveal themselves even more alarmingly on Tuesday night. As we wrap ourselves tighter in the mantle of our imaginations, using technological filters to shape the world in gleaming virtual environments, brutal realities can begin to seem more like inconveniences than immovable facts of modern life. What the shock of this week's election revealed was that up until a few nights ago, we'd been proceeding as though people outside of our liberal thought bubble didn't exist, and as though they didn't need to be involved in our calculus of how to build a better society. Hillary Clinton dreamed of a cosmopolitan, diverse coalition sending her to the White House; Boiler Room imagined a cosmopolitan, diverse festival showcasing queer, black, underground music. Both of those ambitions died in the forests of rural Pennsylvania, leaving those of us who hoped for a tolerant future to stumble, bleary-eyed, into the vicious glare of an apocalyptic reality. Next time, if we're lucky, we won't be so naive.
Ezra Marcus is on Twitter.