I had to impose heavily on a friend of a friend at this year’s Lightning in a Bottle. Fluids, an outlet to charge my cell phone, space for a nap … I was a pest. I apologized to him profusely, saying I hated to exploit his hospitality so much.
He gave me a puzzled look. “Well you’re a Burner, aren’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes. Yes I am.”
He shrugged. “Well then, all you have to say is: WHERE’S MY FUCKING GIFT, ASSHOLE?”
It’s funny because it’s pathetically true.
For all the good that it was supposed to accomplish, Burning Man’s “gift economy” frequently turns otherwise decent people into a plague of locusts with hair extensions and a sense of entitlement.
Some are just incompetent campers like me who never manage to get “self-reliance” right (I have to keep my produce cold?). But others genuinely believe they are entitled to your food, booze, and those crappy little plastic images of the “Man” you covered in glitter to make it “art” and are handing out like it’s something people might want.
If so many people think they can come to the desert without bringing sufficient water because somebody will “gift” it to them; if so many people think handing out glow-sticks with the word “Love” stenciled on them counts as “gifting” in a meaningful way, the whole notion of a “gift economy” may have gone horribly wrong.
But then the notion of the Burning Man “gift economy” might not have been so well thought out in the first place.
It’s not really an “economy” in a meaningful sense: it doesn’t actually generate wealth, the vast majority of which comes from outside Burning Man in the form of campers, tents, generators, and loin cloths. It doesn’t actually describe how resources transfer within Burning Man, because it can’t take into account the Center Camp Café, and Artica, and all those “pay for play” theme camps that hire people to cook their meals and wipe their asses.
(No offence, Ass Wipe Camp: we know you’re cool.)
If the “gift economy” doesn’t produce wealth or describe how resources move, what does it do? What is it for, besides fitting on a bumper-sticker?
Several crucial things, actually: but to appreciate what it does, we have to admit what it doesn’t do. The notion of a “gift economy” is too grandiose: we’re not there yet. Nobody makes it to and from Burning Man without either a day job or the suffrage of people who have day jobs. We’re nowhere close to describing, exhibiting, or participating in an “economy” that truly relies on gifting. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. A “gift economy” sounds great, and maybe we should try it sometime. But we still don’t know how to do it.
What we do have is a compelling gift “culture” – and it matters.
It matters most obviously because it is our affirmation of that culture, rather than any formal policy from the organization, that keeps Burning Man non-commercial.
Yes, the Org doesn’t accept sponsorships or commercial money – and God bless them for it – but the fact that there’s virtually no commerce on the playa happens because we … 50,000 individual Burners … have declared ourselves citizens of the gift culture. The social stigma attached to commerce on the playa is too strong to ignore: far stronger than any policing the Org could do, even if it had the resources. If you want to party with Burners, you put your wallet away when the party starts.
Keeping commerce out is a powerful thing, and incredibly valuable. But even more important, to my mind, is the impact that the gift culture … including, unfortunately, those stupid scrabble-piece necklaces … has on the way we treat one another during the burn.
I realized this, too, at Lightning in a Bottle – which has no gift culture. Walking from camp to camp, between tents and around RVs, was an unnervingly quiet experience. No strangers were stepping out to ask me if I wanted to play a game, or have a drink, or get my fortune told or … anything. And I had no excuse to step up to them and offer to read a story, or sing a song, or tell them a story about Chicken John.
Without that gifting culture there was no excuse to talk to anybody. If you wanted to meet new people, you pretty much had to hit on them. (Hi Victoria)
The gift culture, then, is most useful because it is a social lubricant – a legitimate way of reaching out to our fellow human beings that is non-exploitive and establishes a connection between people who have no other reason to talk to each other. It has nothing to do with an “economy” but everything to do with breaking down the barriers that isolate us as human beings.
Once you realize this, it ought to change the way you think about what a good “gift” is. An appropriate gift is not a trinket, a glow stick – or even food and water (though … thank you everyone who has kept me alive out there). An appropriate gift is tied to an experience: something that gives someone without friends a community, that connects unrelated biographies, that provides a story someone new can add to.
The people who hand out trinkets are better than nothing, but that’s weak tea. They’re thinking about *the things* they’re giving rather than *the people* they’re giving it too. It sort of serves the purpose, but it absolutely misses the point.
I, unfortunately, am a terrible gifter. But some people have been getting this right – brilliantly right – all along. If you’ve been to Burning Man, you probably owe them big-time. I know I do.
The greatest playa gift I ever received was a five foot tall copper staff hand made by Oakland artist Kenneth Griswack – a world-class copper smith (who I’d never met before).
Ken had originally created it as a communal staff for BMIR, something that would hang around the station and be used in dramatic moments. But I’d been coming by the station at night and holding impromptu sing-alongs, and somebody had pushed the staff into my hands while I was singing. From then on, whenever I came back, somebody gave me the staff when they wanted me to sing.
Finally, one night at 3 in the morning, I waved good-bye and started to put the staff back. “No,” Ken said. “You keep it. You have to keep it: it belongs to you, it just does, it’s obvious. BUT … this is the condition. You have to hold that staff high, and walk out into the desert, and sing your heart out. You have to sing to the desert, for as long as it takes – and then the desert will answer you. That’s the condition. ARE YOU UP TO IT? WILL YOU SING TO THE DESERT UNTIL IT ANSWERS?”
I lifted the staff high. I sang a war song. I carried it out into the desert. I marched through the phalanx of art cars, staff held high, now singing a song about ships lost at sea as I crashed into the darkness.
The voice came out of nowhere. “Caveat?”
The desert had answered.
The connections cemented that night have lasted. That’s the bar we should be aiming for.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at: Caveat@burningman.com.