I’ll let you on a secret. When I was invited to bring my Kink and Transcendence talk to Xplore Roma I accepted more out of a taste for adventure than else. My perplexity derived in part from past organization issues with the management, but mostly from how the event was described to me by previous participants. More than one person described it to me as «Basically, it’s a commune of hippies who are single-mindedly into orgies!» so you can imagine the enthusiasm of someone like me, obsessed with safer sex and with expressions of civilization like air conditioning and private bathrooms.
On the other hand, I also have several friends who still mourn the closing of Schwelle7, the Berlin laboratory where Xplore was conceived, and who now try not to miss one edition of this strange traveling festival. So, knowing all too well how common urban legends and nasty rumors are in the world of subcultures, I took heart and right in the middle of this June killer heat wave I left for Borgo Paola, the agritourism near Rome hosting the Italian leg. At worst, I could content myself shaking hands with Felix Ruckert who, besides being the soul of the event, had just won a ridiculous lawsuit for contempt against religion during the 2007 Venice Biennale. Where he brought on stage the Passion of the Christ as a BDSM ballet, if you catch my drift.
Felix is also the key to understand Xplore. An eclectic choreographer, he describes himself as a peddler of sex passed off as art, but also of art smuggled in as sex; more practically, for many years he has been busy investigating the no man’s land on the border between self-awareness, sensuality, philosophy, human relations and wellness. But not alone. His strategy is to surround himself with a constant stream of other explorers of eroticism coming from varied histories, each one of them contributing their personal interpretation of pleasure. Three or four times a year he then gathers some of them in these large traveling laboratories, in order to facilitate the exchange of experiences but also to allow everyone access to their wisdom.
The concept being to explore, the event philosophy is therefore to take part as much as you can to the over twenty workshops dotting the three days, really putting yourself into it and giving yourself a chance to try on your own skin – and in your own head – whatever other people ended up considering as “ways for a better living”. A wonderful idea made only slightly terrifying by the knowledge of how many weird forms pleasure can take for certain people… and for that initial comment about the hippy commune.
Reality, fortunately, turned out to be quite harmless. Although most participants actually slept in tents in the minuscule valley beside the service buildings, or in a sleepsack on the floor of a lab hall, the general atmosphere was much more healthy than I feared. As it often happens with this kind of event, everyone was much better civilized, polite, balanced and… clean than the average folk you meet in your everyday life. I didn’t see any overexcited freak nor any substance victim: even the sizeable tantric contingent was composed of pretty level-headed people, very different from the “exoteric” swindlers who often ruin this discipline.
And what about the orgies, you say? Nope, I didn’t see those either. Someone had sex as it commonly happens among adults and someone did it in public – especially at the closing party – but what I witnessed was more affection than lust. Among people who live their bodies and their sexuality without issues the physicality was definitely more marked than it is in your office, but we are talking about hugs and cuddles, not about the vulgar manhandling of skin clubs. Not even around the pool, where pretty much everyone neglected wearing a swimsuit out of sheer practicality. And nobody really cared.
Sure, because as anyone who ever visited a naturist resort knows, the shock of seeing naked bodies disappears in five minutes; after that you don’t even notice. One of the best things at Xplore was how this lack of judgment extended to every aspect of people. Even more than at other sex-positive events I frequented, age, gender, looks, sexual orientation, religion and so on were just ignored, and I came off with the impression of a sincere connection between souls and minds more than empty postures. Not even the notoriously self-righteous vegans preached their beliefs! To wit: somebody expressed their animal costumes fetishism without anyone batting a lid, and one day I only noticed late in the afternoon how Felix himself – who in person has the same unsettling presence of a younger John Malkovich – had been wearing all day an inexplicable… grandma outfit, complete with muted flower-print dress, large beads necklace and a widow’s shawl. You just didn’t give any importance to things like those.
Such freedom from criticisms and fixed roles allowed to actually enter the seminars with a very serene attitude. One example among many were the experiential laboratories about refusal management and about rape culture, during which two groups alternated between enduring or imposing ever more intense approaches. I might be wrong, but I have the feeling that even in a very open-minded setting like the BDSM Conference, very few would have let go so much as they did there, out of fear that “out of role” behaviors could damage their standing on the kinky Scene. While at Xplore nobody cared.
This spirit permeated every subject we touched. From bondage to shiatsu, from the scientific mapping of erogenous zones to tantric breathing, from the activism of Pussy Riot to the silliness of an indescribable “picnic for one”, from erotic storywriting to the sensual humiliation course. But also the meals together, the party I mentioned earlier and, in short, every other moment of the extended weekend.
Summing it up, all participants really learned a lot. Not just technical notions, but also small life lessons to integrate into your everyday life: it is not by accident that the program set aside several pauses every day to slowly digest whatever you had learned, and that one of the most frequent comment was «now I’ll need quite some time to metabolize all of this».
Having finally metabolized it all myself, I can now say that my initial fears were definitely undue. Although I have been told that each Xplore edition has a somewhat different feeling to it, I believe I will try and take part in the next festivals. Also because I am already missing the spirit.
One of the most memorable moments happened right after the closing ceremony: a quaint and rather naive collective ritual, during which dozens of people had big emotional tears in their eyes though. «That’s really strange,» I told Felix as he watched over the scene, exhausted. «We spent days doing the most incredible, intense things… and at the end of the day what most touched us was this moment of feeling so together, so simply akin to our fellow participants.»
«Heh… We’re all such an odd bunch, innit?»
Indeed we are, Felix. Odd and so fucking cool, if we can create events like this.