Naked and spectacular
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2017

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2018-04-07

Confest Mud Tribe



When we meet for Confest twice a year, in NSW, by the VIC border, on the western side of the Great Dividing Range, the mud pit is always an integral aspect of our gathering.
One day, at my first gathering in this location, I simply emerge from my tent, eat my apple cider vinegar and gluten-free muesli, and walk down the path to whatever my day has planned for me. I bump into someone I shared a cuddle puddle with the previous night and she recommends I go to the Art Village for the Mud Tribe. Of course I accept the recommendation wholeheartedly.
I find many people gathered in and around a beautiful well-dug mud pit with ribbons hanging above it. I do not hesitate to take off my clothes and step, slip and slide into the thick mud. The mud is so thick that we can dip our flesh in as if we are dipping an icecream in chocolate, emerging solidly coated. In this way there are many people standing around in the sun, not wearing clothes but not naked due to a full-body mud suit. Some people have their faces exposed, others close their eyes and submerge themselves and so even their eyelids are brown with crunchy powdery mud. I submerge myself completely and surface with mud stinging my eyes. I crawl out of the mud pit with my eyes shut tight and my face tilted up helplessly, begging anyone in the vicinity to rinse my face. I learn the technique for submerging my entire face in mud without getting it in my eyes. I close my eyes as tightly as possible, immerse my head face-down, emerging and waiting for the excess mud to drip off.
Having sufficiently enjoyed the delightful perversion of my civilised education by rolling around naked in the mud with many other naked humans, I emerge into the warm sunlight and, like many others, wait for the mud to dry. Some, wet with mud, roll around on the earth to cover themselves in leaves and twigs, increasing their primitive power; others, with dry mud, are painted in variable and imaginative ways.
As we stand around in our mud costumes we collectively get into character. The complexity of language amongst the mud people deteriorates rapidly and grunts replace English as the dominant spoken language. We become playfully defensive and territorial. If I am challenged by some arrogant mud man I must defend myself with the strongest threatening ooga-booga. The energy starts to build, we all get more and more excited, and soon 100 of us, the Mud Tribe, are running as a mad primitive excited group through the gathering.
Though I couldn't possibly know it, I was surrounded by many who would become close friends in the years to come. The Swedish men with whom I would travel with in a few days time, the Estonian man whose family I would live with in Bondi a year later, the British man who would teach me to expand my urban food gathering skills and who would introduce me to two of the most beautiful young Australian men I would ever meet.
Of course we are not entertaining such thoughtful atemporal mental processes, we are tribal, primitive, hysterical and crazy in an environment in which joyous craziness is well supported and encouraged. As large metallic motor vehicles drive slowly down the dusty roads we leap upon them shrieking and grunting. We approach people's camps with curiosity, always on the razor's edge of being offended to the point of confrontation by any arrogant male. People gasp and laugh in delight, surprise, confusion and disgust as we investigate the strangely civilised environment of the festival, people and their strange foods and belongings, so many things not quite making sense to our purely human, culturally void, temporarily muddy minds.
There is a leadership crisis in our tribe. There is a staff of power and there is a muddy bra, an object so curious and foreign that it becomes an extraterrestrial divine artefact of great value. Arthur battles to retain his leadership against an uppity eight-year-old boy brimming with delight at the novelty of the encouraging attention. Tremors of effervescence and humorously-aware power emerge from within him like a volcanic eruption. My role in the tribe emerges intuitively. While almost everyone becomes a member of the crowd, following the tribe mindlessly, it is my role to contradict and undermine the dominant ideologies of the moment. When our leader gives a rousing speech of grunts and ground-bangs with the staff of power and the crowd cheers, I must weaken his speech with my own contrariness.
We enter the market place, where people are relaxing, buying food and not expecting to see 100 naked mud primitives suddenly in their lives. We are met with another mud tribe. A tribe of perhaps 30 people enter our space and confront us directly. A heavy dread quickly spreads across the environment, we group together, and our leader meets their leader. Our leader represents us with the staff, trying to dominate the other leader into submission with superior grunt-threats; the other leader grunts back and the confrontation escalates. I intervene, grabbing the staffs of both leaders in each hand. They do not let go of their staffs and the three of us bang our staffs in unison, faster and faster, until we are miraculously united, one tribe, with the benefits of peace, happiness and genetic diversity. We return to the Art Village, dive into the river and shed our mud and our characters into the flowing water that merges with the Murray River before washing out into the ocean.
There is a barge in the river that is usually occupied by the older children. It is suddenly taken over by us extremely excited post-Mud Tribe adults who leap on it until it almost sinks and channel our energy into play. Having been washed completely clean by the river, I sweat in the steam tent.
I was surprised to hear that Mud Tribe, what I had experienced emerging naturally and spontaneously from the genetic memory of the people and the mineral composition of the soil, was actually an event that happened at each gathering and was established by Peter, an inspirational man who also organises and supervises what he calls the Spontaneous Choir at the market place. I just happened to experience my first Mud Tribe when Peter was absent and so chaos reigned.
Eight months later – having set foot on the other side of the planet, having emerged from the bounds of a financially-limited lifestyle, having inspired and been inspired by 120 Swedish teenagers as a lädarer at a KFUM summer camp in Jönköping, fallen in love with two serious and sensitive young Scandinavian men, one with a thick beard, one with a smooth 18-year-old face, discovered the naked elemental shamanic dancing of my vocation around a tribal fire, having performed my confrontational spoken word to variously-responding audiences, learned and forgotten how to drum, and realised that the entire world and, quietly, other parallel worlds, were waiting for my powerful truth to emerge and would embrace me when the time is right – I returned to Confest and another Mud Tribe.
I had told many people about Confest and Mud Tribe and I was keen to do it again. We are all gathered at the Art Village, drying our mud in the sun, being painted by the local humans and getting into character rapidly. As we mingle and play with our primitive selves, rediscovered in our bellies, I notice these strange creatures wearing clothes and taking photographs of us. They are fake people. I don't understand their convoluted language, and I compress one of their sentences into the word I subsequently use to describe them. They who spectate and photograph instead of participating are the “tashymat”.
Peter, tall, with a long beard and a lot of years of creative joyful ideas to share, decides that the Mud Tribe should begin. He gathers everyone together with English into a circle where he explains exactly how it is all going to happen. I am appalled. Everyone listens attentively as he assigns the role of leadership, maps exactly the location and trajectory of the event and predetermines every outcome. I am appalled not only as Chris, but as Mud Man. Mud Man screams at him, realising he is the ultimate tashymat.
Tashymat!” I yell at Peter, pointing accusingly. “Tashymat!” People look at me, slightly confused. I expect some people to deflect and follow me but they remain in Peter's tight and controlled circle. “Tashymat!” I continue to yell at Peter, flustered by my confrontation. He says to me in an English I both understand and do not understand, “Please stop, this is difficult enough as it is.” I do not stop. On the fucking contrary. Arthur is designated leader and receives the symbolic painted staff, which I know I must steal. No one follows me and so I am alone, a mud tribe of one.
The tribe runs off on their pre-planned trajectory. I enter their performance at one of their early dramatic high points and steal the painted staff of power from the leader. Unlike the 100% playful nature of the previous battles for leadership, this is a genuine confrontation, and a genuine ripple of offense moves through the tribe. I am the heretic and I am suddenly amongst them and clutching their sacred stick. Their eyes are upon me and their alpha males are suddenly against me. I shriek at them in defiance and run faster than anyone, escaping more easily than expected with the staff.
I carry the staff across the back of my neck and my arms, like Christ carrying his cross. I am perhaps more rigidly in character than I have ever been in all my years of theatre, Mud Tribe, and a childhood and post-adulthood of role-play games. I go to the marketplace and interact with the locals as Mud Man, unnamed, unlanguaged, uncivilised and unsocialised.
At first I am constantly threatened by so many curious and confused people but I slowly learn to interact with them. The patient enjoy socialising me and teaching me language. I don't respond to their speech the way they intend, repeating their sentences as one muddled and contracted word, which I imbue with a meaning peripheral to what they intend.
A man has set up a soapbox and some facing chairs in the marketplace so willing people can sit down and listen to him rave about whatever is on his mind. When he sees me approach, bearing my desanctified staff, he stands down from his soapbox like John the Baptist and gives me the attention of his audience. I respond with immediacy and presence and no knowledge of the context of his sermons. They are all delighted with what they surely interpret as my performance, but what is actually the emergence of an aspect of my true nature that has never before been allowed expression.
The official Mud Tribe turn up at the marketplace for their planned community confrontation, Spontaneous Choir and unification of the two tribes. They see me with their sacred staff and again fail to retrieve it. For hours I continue to interact with the crowd. I learn about five or six words in this time, all contracted and out-of-context sentences from the most patient and curious people I meet. I am very thirsty from all this running around and I am taught the art of trade so I can buy myself a bliss ball and a lemonade.
Eventually it is time to run back to the river. On the path I meet a few guys from the official Mud Tribe and they look at me with an insecure curiosity. “That was intense, Chris.” They don't yet know how to respond to me, suggesting that I can emerge out of character now. I ooga-booga them and keep running to the river. As I wade into the water someone else speaks to me and I find I cannot respond as the civilised educated man who I know I will become in seconds. I dive into the cold rushing water of the river and emerge as Chris, now finding myself able to respond to his comment.
When I pierced the surface of the water I was alleviated of the persona of the Mud Man. Underwater I was nothing and nobody. When I broke the surface of the water again, reemerging into the atmosphere, I was Chris, the predominant persona I have occupied and developed for much of my waking life ever since. I threw the painted staff out into the water to float away to the ocean or wherever it might get stuck on the way. I washed off all the mud and moved on with my life.




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