[John Mosbaugh is a regular contributor to the Burning Blog, a former writer for Piss Clear, and author of the pamphlet “How to Get Laid at Burning Man”. A master of thoughtful stream-of-consciousness, and devoted connoisseur of Burning Man culture, some consider him the Jack Kerouac of Black Rock City. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
One year I was directed by a dear person for whom I have a great affinity to visit the Lunches in LUSH around 3 o’clock & Esplanade and bring tidings of the location of their nuptials-to-be. We were in Center Camp and a dust storm was fast approaching from the direction of the Man so I was offered the use of a scooter to hopefully beat the storm on my way.
With my goggles and respirator secured, I jumped on the scooter and zipped across the Esplanade towards the Man just as a playa wide wall of dust swallowed him whole and I soon found myself in that under dust world where visibility is reduced to no more than a few feet in any direction and I was like small fish in a fishbowl, swimming and making graceful curves “S” shaped on my way. We’ve all been inside that sea of fine particulate, where all you can see is the light powder moving in shifting columns about you. Where talc grit is sliding gently as an abrasive all pervasive never ending river flowing over your skin. It is like being underwater, but with oxygen and everything is swirling dust, a mask is a must and not to have one is preposterous. All was quiet and soft, sluicing over and past, pervading everything. It was beautiful, like swimming through a cloud. I knew I was near the Man, but I couldn’t see him. There is a dreamlike feeling one experiences as you move through a total white out, one that can easily turn on you if you don’t keep your wits about you, because there is absolutely no way to tell where you are. It was just then, as I was wondering exactly where I would end up, that a huge phantom shape materialized before me, slowly manifesting from the dust.
She was moving in a large circular curve, mostly obscured by the light brown of the alkaline powder, and as she turned, I beheld the closed eyes of her beautiful carved figurehead beneath the bowsprit; a woman holding a lantern aloft. The painted gun deck of La Contessa’s bow moved slowly, her tattered sails flapping in the wind. She was a silent ghost ship; a gracefully swimming demigorgon manned by a “heathen crew” of revelers “whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea” but they were below deck and all was quiet beneath the silicate ocean as she headed to port. As she turned fully and showed me her stern, I leaned into the headwind and found the Contessa’s lee side where I rode alongside her like some remora. For several moments we proceeded together, silent beneath the streaming onslaught, until I could make out a patch of clearing and could see the flapping flags and camps on the Esplanade around 3 o’clock. La Contessa turned again, this time towards the 2 o’clock end of the City and I continued on my assignment. The Lunches weren’t there. I had some drinks with LUSH. The dust storm abated and I made my way back to Center Camp eventually. That moment with La Contessa burned itself into my mind like so many other experiences we have on the playa. I’m not sure where else but in Black Rock City, you can be guided through a white out to your destination by a Spanish Galleon. For that matter, there are many, many other glorious things that you will only experience in our Temporary Autonomous Zone.
And speaking of the TAZ and Spanish Galleons, I sometimes wonder what would happen if our Big City with a Small Town Feel never tore down. Every year I hear someone say, “Why can’t this exist ALL THE TIME,” and what if Burning Man wasn’t held on public land and never tore down? Statistics prove that it is cheaper to keep people at Burning Man than it is to keep them in prison and with municipalities strained already by the economy, why should we not be all provocative and explore the possibility of a non temporary Burning Man?
Firstly, does that “Burning Feeling” really last all year as people say, if you bring it back with you and spread it like some intelligent virus invading the meme stream? Is there something to be said for all the mind blown Marco Polo’s who’ve traipsed Black Rock City for a week and brought back spice for the soul, and become evangelists for a place where you can participate in the best our species has to offer? Those spice routes traveling through our center of philosophy where tenets like Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Immediacy and Participation are practiced for real.
I will not flirt with a holy cow in sacred waters, but my understanding of how things came about involves a Zone Trip #4 introduced by a Ms. CG to the Cacophony and otherwise initiated by Mr. K. Evans. Mr. Evans was was at the time reading Hakim Beys’ 1991 T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone, ONTOLOGICAL ANARCHY, POETICAL TERRORISM and he enlisted his Cacophony friends Msrs. JL, M2, LB, Ms. P.S, CG et. al., who’s stories Mr. Beale has thoughtfully posted, to bring Mr. LH and his crew to the desert to burn their “most expensive & elaborate piece of firewood that would make a glorious conflagration” out there with them.
The rest is history and Mr. B. Doherty’s, This is Burning Man also elucidates in some delightful length and detail about how the Zone Trip came to be. Curious about what this Temporary Autonomous Zone is and how it relates to the current incarnation of Burning Man, I did some research and while I was certainly not part of that first Zone Trip, some concepts of the TAZ that seem to apply to the event include: The TEMPORALITY of the event, the fact that Burning Man appears then disappears quickly, allows us to fade from the memory of the POWERS THAT BE. In his essay, Mr. Bey discusses free enclaves created in the 18th century by Pirates who created these “Utopias” as remote hideouts from the British Empire. An example of these Utopias was called Libertatia according to Bey. Temporary Autonomous Zones were “intentional communities” where goods and services were exchanged, where people were “free from the ‘hideous’ benefits of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism, and intolerance.” The TAZ existed in “terra incognita”. And if the pirates were discovered, they packed up and left no trace. Bey believes the need for the TAZ exists due to “PSYCHOTOPOLOGY” which is a form of “psychic imperialism” which is to push the idea that “not one speck of rock in the South Seas can be left open, not one remote valley, not even the Moon and planets” therefore in theory that not a measure of land can go unpoliced or untaxed.”
Burning Man has found a place on the map and is revolutionary in what it brings to that particular location for a week a year. It is inherently subversive to build something so quickly out of nothing, to invite every party interested in our ethos to PARTICIPATE and to cross pollinate, then to disappear leaving no trace. The concept of “PSYCHIC NOMADS” be it artists, musicians and other free thinkers arriving and leaving nothing behind is central to this idea, even now, 20 years after the first time the Man graced the playa packed along with that Zone Trip. According to Mr. Bey, the TAZ is many things. It is a UTOPIA OF FERALITY where there is a return to “surfing the wave of chaos”. Gone Feral is a concept of embracing a “chaos or inchoateness which the adept would transmute into ‘gold’” as a reality and not a derisive or opportunistic force, but one that creates a miasma where change can occur. He cites the early American colonists in Roanoke who disappeared leaving only the message “Gone to Croatan” which was the name of the neighboring tribe of Native Americans. I can’t help think of the person who makes it to Burning Man from a place where their art or their being is openly questioned as being legitimate, and who finds a band of humans with which they can go feral. Then again,
Every year out there we create this swirling Petri dish of proto civilization complete with temples and city centers, with boroughs and villages, with burbs and a downtown. We build great projects and infrastructure to welcome the masses who come to share their ideas and art and to take part in this grand 21st century experiment in Immediacy. Every year the Black Rock City Boomtown rises like some rush to this year’s Art Lode with all the accompanying camps and infrastructure and citizens there to cash in on the decommodified vibe that pulsates from our gathering. Black Rock City is a city so strange, de and re arranged each season. What would happen if the event was on private land and wasn’t entirely disassembled every year? Would it become a center of Great Civilization, a City of columned pantheons and Salons, of pyramids glistening in the sun, all solar powered and entirely green with Think Tanks and all the Art brought out there that doesn’t leave, living in grand round city centers? Would anyone but the most insane want to live year round through the desolate winters in the Black Rock Desert? Would our citizens create the most radically self reliant community of survivalists, artists and forward thinkers the earth has seen in a long time? Or would Black Rock City even survive being Black Rock City all the time?
I imagine semi-temporary structures overrun and built by renegades, criminals and assorted pirates. Would it be a place populated year round with lunatic believers, runaways, misfits and artists, dreamers, creators, lovers and gurus, all policed by sadomasochistic clowns, and I mean real clowns, all painted up with round red noses. Would we need to put up a big sign for Burning Man Land with parking in Pluto or Goofy or Mickey or Minnie? Would we need a monorail? But.. would it really have to be like that and will we ever know? Every year we build a beautiful, intricate City from the collective toil of our volunteers, org and Participants who bring wondrous camps and art all to share and we enjoy it for a week or so, then we shake it clean like some gargantuan Etch-A-Sketch and it is only a memory. How much do we gain from that self imposed tabla rasa? All cities, no matter how permanent, are actually temporary in the grand scheme of time.
Could Black Rock City become a City worthy of Alexandria, or Rome, or New York? Or could it become a Playa Athens, Ayuthaya, Thebes, or Timbuktu? Or perhaps we would just build a new Libertatia. Someone once said, “like all great American adventures, this one has wilderness, struggle, a journey and an experience,” and that is something about Burning Man that will never change, but since we are already a Great City, is it not possible that not only pondering the concepts Temporary Autonomy but also looking forward to the possibilities of building something less impermanent, can do anything but serve to create a discourse that might in turn make the entire experiment of Burning Man stronger? And if none of this matters, perhaps we can at least see “PIRATES” as a theme. It really is a theme whose time has come.
 Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Bantam Classics, 1851) p. 167.  Kevin Evans. “it’s so empty it’s full” <http://laughingsquid.com/its-so-empty-its-full/> (1 January 2007). Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: the temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism (Autonomedia, Brooklyn NY, 1985/1991) — All Quotes other than the two above.