I saw the eBay auction, and I dreamt of Vikings on the playa.
Art Vikings, who sail across Burning Man to pillage their natural enemies, and possibly steal their meat.
By now, many of you have seen the eBay auction too (it’s old news). For $95,000 a group of 10 can be given the “ultimate Burning Man experience,” renting campers, an art car, and staff members to pick up after them … effectively outsourcing the values of “self-sufficiency” and “creativity” to hired help.
This automatically creates comedy. One has to laugh when the auction notes that the company will provide:
- 5 RVs
- 5 Staff members to set everything up, remove trash, remove black and gray water, and lay down Astroturf
- Food and water, along with a grill;
- An art car
- 3 bottles of Dom
- Generators (maintained by staff); and
- 10 mountain bikes …
And then goes on to say “You will have to decorate your own bike to stay with the Burning Man spirit.”
That’s brilliant right there.
“Your bike,” it adds, “is YOUR identity!”
One wonders if this is some master satirist at work.
But no matter how hard we laugh, it’s not a joke. If anything, the outsourcing of key elements of Burning Man by people who want to come to the desert without leaving their comfort zone is the next great struggle for the spirit of the Man.
Every counter-culture phenomenon gets appropriated at some point – all you have to do is be noticed. Now that the conglomerate that owns the subsidiary that manages the chain of “independent” clothing boutiques has heard of Burning Man, the wallets are coming out.
What do we do as it becomes increasingly common to have hired help set up camp and keep it clean? How do we handle scalpers buying up cheap tickets and selling them at an obscene mark-up ($95,000 for TEN?) as part of “package vacations?”
Most of the sensible people I know … in the best sense of the word … say “nothing.” We can’t start deciding who’s “worthy” of going to Burning Man, or pretend we can fully understand someone’s intentions, or judge them purely by the size of their wallet. And they’re right, of course.
But I propose a more pro-active response: Art Vikings.
Camp Art Vikings will send our Viking scouts across the playa to find package tour camps and paid labor. Then we will send our war parties, on Art Longboats, across the dust to Art Raid them. We will take their meat and their women and their best alcohol, deliver them to a random camp, and celebrate together.
Whenever someone complains, we will remind them that if radical self-reliance means anything it has to mean protecting yourself from Viking attack. Didn’t they read the 10 principles? Besides, when you get down to it, this is all a giant performance art piece. Have you got something against art? What are you, un-Burning Man?
I love the idea of having that argument almost as much as I do the Viking raid itself.
My sensible friends are appalled by the idea. Isn’t the very act of deciding that someone’s camp should be raided petty and vindictive?
It’s a fair concern: It’s already too easy for people to get petty and judgmental at Burning Man – to think “I’m riding a bike and you’re not!” or “how about getting a REAL costume?” – attitudes hazardous to a creative event’s health. But what if the Art Viking raid is actually an invitation to people to come out of their prepaid bubble and party with us? A means of living out the creative, fun, participatory spirit we want the event to express?
That’s an approach that treats Burning Man’s ability to attract people different than us as a challenging strength, not an Achilles heel. Which is exactly right.
Burning Man is going to increasingly attract those who want to have a chauffeured experience of the playa … to window shop for chaos. And it’s a good thing: the ability to attract people from all walks of life to a socially radical event is exactly what makes Burning Man a serious cultural challenge to the status quo … as opposed to more conventional radical cultures (like, say, in San Francisco) which actively try to punish anyone who isn’t “radical” enough, thereby marginalizing themselves.
Burning Man says “Come in! Have a great time! Participate!” and therein lies its strength.
But to think that “participate” means “just show up” is to let greater participation dumb us down. Alongside “inclusion” in Burning Man’s values is the commitment that there are no spectators, which means you can’t expect to have a safe distance between yourself and the playa around you. It says explicitly on the ticket that you might die. If you come to Burning Man and don’t understand that you could die, you haven’t been paying attention – it’s right out there. If you come to Burning Man and think that you won’t be challenged, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s right out there.
You are always welcome to come as you are, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll leave as you came.
In this sense, the best way to protest trends we don’t like at Burning Man is not to put forward prohibitive rules or ignore with scorn or contempt, but to create something fun, chaotic, and hopefully artistic (in admittedly the loosest sense) that pops bubbles by making Burning Man more interesting, not less. Maybe “Art Vikings” doesn’t get the balance right … that’s fair … but it’s the kind of response that I love to see people put forward. If Burning Man is threatened with commoditization, with people creating bubbles of privilege, the appropriate response is something fun as hell that makes them glad to see those bubbles go.
Say what you will … raiding someone’s camp is participatory. It gets them involved with new people, and offers them a scenario to engage with. Instead of scorning them and refusing to party with them – effectively what it means to ignore them and hope they go away – we’re engaging with them in a very direct manner . And if we’re silly enough, chaotic enough, and having enough fun … that is, if we do it right … they’ll go home and think: ”God, life was so cool when we were being raided by the Art Vikings. But next year, goddamit, I’ll be ready for them: next year we’ll have an inflatable moat!”
Tell me that doesn’t make you excited for next year.
It’s sure the Burning Man I want to be part of.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com