Counterculture and Alternative Media in Utopian Contexts: A Slice of Life from the Rainbow Region




utopia, counterculture, alternative media, Rusty Miller, Rainbow Region, Byron Bay, Aquarius Festival, Nimbin

How to Cite

Dutton, J. (2014). Counterculture and Alternative Media in Utopian Contexts: A Slice of Life from the Rainbow Region. M/C Journal, 17(6).
Vol. 17 No. 6 (2014): counterculture
Published 2014-11-03


Utopia has always been countercultural, and ever since technological progress has allowed, utopia has been using alternative media to promote and strengthen its underpinning ideals. In this article, I am seeking to clarify the connections between counterculture and alternative media in utopian contexts to demonstrate their reciprocity, then draw together these threads through reference to a well-known figure of the Rainbow Region–Rusty Miller. His trajectory from iconic surfer and Aquarian reporter to mediator for utopian politics and ideals in the Rainbow Region encompasses in a single identity the three elements underpinning this study. In concluding, I will turn to Rusty’s Byron Guide, questioning its classification as alternative or mainstream media, and whether Byron Bay is represented as countercultural and utopian in this long-running and ongoing publication.

Counterculture and Alternative Media in Utopian Contexts

Counterculture is an umbrella that enfolds utopia, among many other genres and practices. It has been most often situated in the 1960s and 1970s as a new form of social movement embodying youth resistance to the technocratic mainstream and its norms of gender, sexuality, politics, music, and language (Roszak). Many scholars of counterculture underscore its utopian impulses both in the projection of better societies where the social goals are achieved, and in the withdrawal from mainstream society into intentional communities (Yinger 194-6; McKay 5; Berger). Before exploring further the connections between counterculture and alternative media, I want to define the scope of countercultural utopian contexts in general, and the Rainbow Region in particular.

Utopia is a neologism created by Sir Thomas More almost 500 years ago to designate the island community that demonstrates order, harmony, justice, hope and desire in the right balance so that it seems like an ideal land. This imaginary place described in Utopia (1516) as a counterpoint to the social, political and religious shortcomings of contemporary 16th century British society, has attracted accusations of heresy (Molner), and been used as a pejorative term, an insult to denigrate political projects that seem farfetched or subversive, especially during the 19th century. Almost every study of utopian theory, literature and practice points to a dissatisfaction with the status quo, which inspires writers, politicians, architects, artists, individuals and communities to rail against it (see for example Davis, Moylan, Suvin, Levitas, Jameson). Kingsley Widmer’s book Counterings: Utopian Dialectics in Contemporary Contexts reiterates what many scholars have stated when he writes that utopias should be understood in terms of what they are countering. Lyman Tower Sargent defines utopia as “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in time and space” and utopianism as “social dreaming” (9), to which I would add that both indicate an improvement on the alternatives, and may indeed be striving to represent the best place imaginable.

Utopian contexts, by extension, are those situations where the “social dreaming” is enhanced through human agency, good governance, just laws, education, and work, rather than being a divinely ordained state of nature (Schaer et al). In this way, utopian contexts are explicitly countercultural through their very conception, as human agency is required and their emphasis is on social change. These modes of resistance against dominant paradigms are most evident in attempts to realise textual projections of a better society in countercultural communal experiments. Almost immediately after its publication, More’s Utopia became the model for Bishop Vasco de Quiroga’s communitarian hospital-town Santa Fe de la Laguna in Michoacan, Mexico, established in the 1530s as a counterculture to the oppressive enslavement and massacres of the Purhépecha people by Nuno Guzmán (Green).

The countercultural thrust of the 1960s and 1970s provided many utopian contexts, perhaps most readily identifiable as the intentional communities that spawned and flourished, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand (Metcalf, Shared Lives). They were often inspired by texts such as Charles A. Reich’s The Greening of America (1970) and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), and this convergence of textual practices and alternative lifestyles can be seen in the development of Australia’s own Rainbow Region.

Located in northern New South Wales, the geographical area of the Northern Rivers that has come to be known as the Rainbow Region encompasses Byron Bay, Nimbin, Mullumbimby, Bangalow, Clunes, Dunoon, Federal, with Lismore as the region’s largest town. But more evocative than these place names are the “rivers and creeks, vivid green hills, fruit and nut farms […] bounded by subtropical beaches and rainforest mountains” (Wilson 1). Utopian by nature, and recognised as such by the indigenous Bundjalung people who inhabited it before the white settlers, whalers and dairy farmers moved in, the Rainbow Region became utopian through culture–or indeed counterculture–during the 1973 Aquarius Festival in Nimbin when the hippies of Mullumbimby and the surfers of Byron Bay were joined by up to 10,000 people seeking alternative ways of being in the world. When the party was over, many Aquarians stayed on to form intentional communities in the beautiful region, like Tuntable Falls, Nimbin’s first and largest such cooperative (Metcalf, From Utopian Dreaming to Communal Reality 74-83).

In utopian contexts, from the Renaissance to the 1970s and beyond, counterculture has underpinned and alternative media has circulated the aims and ideals of the communities of resistance. The early utopian context of the Anabaptist movement has been dubbed as countercultural by Sigrun Haude: “During the reign of the Münster (1534-5) Anabaptists erected not only a religious but also a social and political counterculture to the existing order” (240). And it was this Protestant Reformation that John Downing calls the first real media war, with conflicting movements using pamphlets produced on the new technology of the Gutenberg press to disseminate their ideas (144). What is striking here is the confluence of ideas and practices at this time–countercultural ideals are articulated, published, and disseminated, printing presses make this possible, and utopian activists realise how mass media can be used and abused, exploited and censored.

Twentieth century countercultural movements drew on the lessons learnt from historical uprising and revolutions, understanding the importance of getting the word out through their own forms of media which, given the subversive nature of the messages, were essentially alternative, according to the criteria proposed by Chris Atton:

alternative media may be understood as a radical challenge to the professionalized and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media. Alternative media privileges a journalism that is closely wedded to notions of social responsibility, replacing an ideology of “objectivity” with overt advocacy and oppositional practices. Its practices emphasize first person, eyewitness accounts by participants; a reworking of the populist approaches of tabloid newspapers to recover a “radical popular” style of reporting; collective and antihierarchical forms of organization which eschew demarcation and specialization–and which importantly suggest an inclusive, radical form of civic journalism. (267)

Nick Couldry goes further to point out the utopian processes required to identify agencies of change, including alternative media, which he defines as “practices of symbolic production which contest (in some way) media power itself–that is, the concentration of symbolic power in media institutions” (25). Alternative media’s orientation towards oppositional and contestatory practices demonstrates clear parallels between its ambitions and those of counterculture in utopian contexts.

From the 1960s onwards, the upsurge in alternative newspaper numbers is commensurate with the blossoming of the counterculture and increased utopian contexts; Susan Forde describes it thus: “a huge resurgence in the popularity of publications throughout the ‘counter-culture’ days of the 1960s and 1970s” (“Monitoring the Establishment”, 114). The nexus of counterculture and alternative media in such utopian contexts is documented in texts like Roger Streitmatter’s Voices of Revolution and Bob Osterlag’s People’s Movements, People’s Press. Like the utopian newspapers that came out of 18th and 19th century intentional communities, many of the new alternative press served to educate, socialise, promote and represent the special interests of the founders and followers of the countercultural movements, often focusing on the philosophy and ideals underpinning these communities rather than the everyday events (see also Frobert).

The radical press in Australia was also gaining ground, with OZ in Australia from 1963-1969, and then from 1967-1973 in London. Magazines launched by Philip Frazer like The Digger, Go-Set, Revolution and High Times, and university student newspapers were the main avenues for youth and alternative expression on the Vietnam war and conscription, gay and lesbian rights, racism, feminism and ecological activism (Forde, Challenging the News; Cock & Perry).

Nimbin 1973: Rusty Miller and The Byron Express

The 1973 Aquarius Festival of counterculture in Nimbin (12-23 May) was a utopian context that had an alternative media life of its own before it arrived in the Rainbow Region–in student publications like Tharnuka and newsletters distributed via the Aquarius Foundation. There were other voices that announced the coming of the Aquarius Festival to Nimbin and reported on its impact, like The Digger from Melbourne and the local paper, The Northern Star. During the Festival, the Nimbin Good Times first appeared as the daily bulletin and continues today with the original masthead drawn by the Festival’s co-organiser, Graeme Dunstan. Some interesting work has been done on this area, ranging from general studies of the Rainbow Region (Wilson; Munro-Clark) to articles analysing its alternative press (Ward & van Vuuren; Martin & Ellis), but to date, there has been no focus on the Rainbow Region’s first alternative newspaper, The Byron Express. Co-edited by Rusty Miller and David Guthrie, this paper presented and mediated the aims and desires of the Aquarian movement. Though short-lived, as only 7 issues were published from 15 February 1973 to September 1973, The Byron Express left a permanent printed vestige of the Aquarian counterculture movement’s activism and ideals from an independent regional perspective.

Miller’s credentials for starting up the newspaper are clear–he has always been a trailblazer, mixing “smarts” with surfing and environmental politics. After graduating from a Bachelor of Arts in history from San Diego State College, he first set foot in Byron Bay during his two semesters with the inaugural Chapman College affiliated University of the Seven Seas in 1965-6. Returning to his hometown of Encinitas, he co-founded the Surf Research accessory company with legendary Californian surfer Mike Doyle, and launched Waxmate, the first specially formulated surf wax in 1967 (Davis, Witzig & James; Warshaw 217), selling his interest in the business soon after to spend a couple of years “living the counterculture life on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai” (Davis, Witzig & James), before heading back to Byron Bay via Bells Beach in 1970 (Miller & Shantz) and Sydney, where he worked as an advertising salesman and writer with Tracks surfing magazine (Martin & Ellis). In 1971, he was one of the first to ride the now famous waves of Uluwatu in Bali, and is captured with Steven Cooney in the iconic publicity image for Albe Falzon’s 1971 film, Morning Of The Earth. The champion surfer from the US knew a thing or two about counterculture, alternative media, advertising and business when he found his new utopian context in Byron Bay.

Miller and Guthrie’s front-page editorial of the inaugural issue of The Byron Express, published on 15 February 1973, with the byline “for a higher shire”, expressed the countercultural (cl)aims of the publication. Land use, property development and the lack of concern that some people in Byron had for their impact on the environment and people of the region were a prime target:

With this first issue of the Byron Express, we hope to explain that the area is badly in need of a focal point. The transitions of present are vast and moving fast. The land is being sold and resold. Lots of money is coming into the area in the way of developments […] caravan parts, hotels, businesses and real estate.

Many of the trips incoming are not exactly “concerned” as to what long term effect such developments might have on the environment and its people. We hope to serve as a focus of concern and service, a centre for expression and reflection. We would ask your contributions in vocal and written form. We are ready for some sock it to ya criticism… and hope you would grab us upon the street to tell us how you feel…

The mission of this alternative newspaper is thereby defined by the need for a “focal point” that inscribes the voices of the community in a freely accessible narrative, recorded in print for posterity.

Although this first issue contains no mention of the Aquarius Festival, there were already rumours circulating about it, as organisers Graeme Dunstan and Johnny Allen had been up to Main Arm, Mullumbimby and Nimbin on reconnaissance missions beginning in September 1972. Instead, there was an article on “Mullumbimby Man–Close to the Land” by Nicholas Shand, who would go on to found the community-based weekly newspaper The Echo in 1986, then called The Brunswick Valley Echo and still going strong. Another by Bob McTavish asked whether there could be a better form of government; there was a surf story, and a soul food section with a recipe for honey meade entitled “Do you want to get out of it on 10 cents a bottle?”

The second issue continues in much the same vein. It is not until the third issue comes out on 17 March 1973 that the Aquarius Festival is mentioned in a skinny half column on page four. And it’s not particularly promising:

Arrived at Nimbin, sleepy hamlet… Office in disused R.S.L. rooms, met a couple of guys recently arrived, said nothing was being done. “Only women here, you know–no drive”. Met Joanne and Vi, both unable to say anything to be reported… Graham Dunstan (codenamed Superfest) and John Allen nowhere in sight. Allen off on trip overseas. Dunstan due back in a couple of weeks. 10 weeks to go till “they” all come… and to what… nobody is quite sure.

This progress report provides a fascinating contemporary insight into the tensions–between the local surfies and hippies on one hand, and the incoming students on the other–around the organisation of the Aquarius Festival. There is an unbridled barb at the sexist comments made by the guys, implicit criticism of the absent organisers, obvious skepticism about whether anyone will actually come to the festival, and wonderment at what it will be like. Reading between the lines, we might find a feeling of resentment about not being privy to new developments in their own backyard. The final lines of the article are non-committal “Anyway, let’s see what eventuates when the Chiefs return.”

It seems that all has been resolved by the fifth issue of 11 May, which is almost entirely dedicated to the Aquarius Festival with the front page headline “Welcome to the New Age”. But there is still an undertone of slight suspicion at what the newcomers to the area might mean in terms of property development:

The goal is improving your fellow man’s mind and nourishment in concert with your own; competition to improve your day and the quality of the day for society.

Meanwhile, what is the first thing one thinks about when he enters Byron and the area? The physical environment is so magnificent and all encompassing that it can actually hold a man’s breath back a few seconds. Then a man says, “Wow, this land is so beautiful that one could make a quid here.” And from that moment the natural aura and spells are broken and the mind lapses into speculative equations, sales projections and future interest payments.

There is plenty of “love” though, in this article: “The gathering at Nimbin is the most spectacular demonstration of the faith people have in a belief that is possible (and possible just because they want it to be) to live in love, through love together.” The following article signed by Rusty Miller “A Town Together” is equally focused on love: “See what you could offer the spirit at Nimbin. It might introduce you to a style that could lead to LOVE.”

The centre spread features photos: the obligatory nudes, tents, and back to nature activities, like planting and woodworking. With a text box of “random comments” including one from a Lismore executive: ‘I took my wife and kids out there last weekend and we had such a good time. Seems pretty organized and the town was loaded with love. Heard there is some hepatitis about and rumours of VD. Everyone happy.” And another from a land speculator (surely the prime target of Miller’s wrath): “Saw guys kissing girls on the street, so sweet, bought 200 acres right outside of town, it’s going to be valuable out there some day.”

The interview with Johnny Allen as the centrepiece includes some pertinent commentary on the media and reveals a well-founded suspicion of the mediatisation of the Aquarius Festival:

We have tried to avoid the media actually. But we haven’t succeeded in doing so. Part of the basic idea is that we don’t need to be sold. All the down town press can do is try and interpret you. And by doing that it automatically places it in the wrong sort of context. So we’ve tried to keep it to people writing about the festival to people who will be involved in it. It’s an involvement festival.

Coopting The Byron Express as an “involved” party effects a fundamental shift from an external reporting newspaper to a kind of proponent or even propaganda for the Aquarius festival and its ideas, like so many utopian newspapers had done before.

It is therefore perhaps inevitable that The Byron Express should disappear very soon after the Aquarius festival. Fiona Martin and Rhonda Ellis explain that Rusty Miller stopped producing the paper because he “found the production schedule exhausting and his readership too small to attract consistent advertising” (5). At any rate, there were only two more issues, one in June–with some follow up reporting of the festival–and another in September 1973, which was almost entirely devoted to environmentally focused features, including an interview with Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal).

Byron Bay 2013: Thirty Years of Rusty’s Byron Guide

What Rusty did next is fairly well known locally–surfing and teaching people how to surf and a bit of writing. When major local employer Walkers slaughterhouse closed in 1983, he and his wife, social geographer Tricia Shantz, were asked by the local council to help promote Byron Bay as a tourist destination, writing the first Byron guide in 1983-4. Incorporating essays by local personalities and dedicated visitors, the Byron guide perpetuates the ideal of environmental awareness, spiritual experimentation, and respect for the land and sea. Recent contributors have included philosopher Peter Singer, political journalist Kerry O’Brien, and writer John Ralston Saul, and Miller and Shantz always have an essay in there themselves. “People, Politics and Culture” is the new byline for the 2013 edition. And Miller’s opening essay mediates the same utopian desires and environmental community messages that he espoused from the beginning of The Byron Express:

The name Byron Bay represents something that we constantly try to articulate. If one was to dream up a menu of situations and conditions to compose a utopia, Australia would be the model of the nation-state and Byron would have many elements of the actual place one might wish to live for the rest of their lives. But of course there is always the danger of excesses in tropical paradises especially when they become famous destinations.

Australia is being held to ransom for the ideology that we should be slaves to money and growth at the cost of a degraded and polluted physical and social environment. Byron at least was/is a refuge against this profusion of the so-called real-world perception that holds profit over environment as the way we must choose for our future.

Even when writing for a much more commercial medium, Miller retains the countercultural utopian spirit that was crystallised in the Aquarius festival of 1973, and which remains relevant to many of those living in and visiting the Rainbow Region. Miller’s ethos moves beyond the alternative movements and communities to infiltrate travel writing and tourism initiatives in the area today, as evidenced in the Rusty’s Byron Guide essays. By presenting more radical discourses for a mainstream public, Miller together with Shantz have built on the participatory role that he played in launching the region’s first alternative newspaper in 1973 that became albeit briefly the equivalent of a countercultural utopian gazette. Now, he and Shantz effectively play the same role, producing a kind of countercultural form of utopian media for Byron Bay that corresponds to exactly the same criteria mentioned above. Through their free publication, they aim to educate, socialise, promote and represent the special interests of the founders and followers of the Rainbow Region, focusing on the philosophy and ideals underpinning these communities rather than the everyday events. The Byron Bay that Miller and Shantz promote is resolutely utopian, and certainly countercultural if compared to other free publications like The Book, a new shopping guide, or mainstream media elsewhere. Despite this new competition, they are planning the next edition for 2015 with essays to make people think, talk, and understand the region’s issues, so perhaps the counterculture is still holding its own against the mainstream.


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Author Biography

Jacqueline Dutton, University of Melbourne

Jacqueline Dutton is an Associate Professor in French Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has published widely on contemporary French and Francophone literatures and cultures, utopian studies, travel writing and French-Australian cultural relations.