Adventures in (Burning Man) Writing: meet Marzipan Man and his “spines”

Artists rendering of a "Spine" book case.  (Image courtesy of Matthew Melnicki)
Artists rendering of a “Spine” book case. (Image courtesy of Tom Woodall )

Burning Man still doesn’t have a literary culture.  Not even the appearance of one, or the promise of one on the horizon.

But horizons are illusions, and there’s always something on the other side.

Wow … I feel like I’m writing a lost verse of “Rainbow Connection.”  Somebody get me a banjo.  (Burning Man happens to have a highly advanced banjo culture.  A theme camp will actually be sending the first banjo into space this September.)

But I digress.

Words may never adequately describe Burning Man, but words are a vital part of the human experience and the artistic impulse, and just because no literary style or culture has emerged doesn’t mean dedicated individual Burners aren’t out pushing the boundaries of the written word at Burning Man.

These are their stories.

(Dun Dun)

Oh crap, now I’m doing an episode of Law & Order.  How did this happen?  Somebody call forensics!

You see what happens when there isn’t a literary culture?  Words scatter across genres.

(Quick Fun Fact:  Burning Man is developing one of the most advanced party forensic labs in America, capable of detecting exactly who harshed your buzz up to 30 hours after the incident.  The technology is incredible.)

But I digress.

One of the innovators trying to push the boundaries of what words can do at Burning Man is Marzipan Man (Matthew Melnicki), who last year began placing “spines” – freestanding book depositories – on the playa, and placing his own hand-stitched books in them:  free to take, with the hope that someone will put some of their own work in to share.

The idea of placing a “free to take” gift on the playa isn’t in any way new, although Marzipan Man’s designs seem pretty cool.  The Burning Man library is already a well established presence, among many other examples of the form.

But Marzipan Man’s writings, which are a deliberate attempt to capture the Burning Man ethos in a literary style, is a different matter.

Marzipan Man takes other texts (essays, poems, blog posts) and puts them though a computerized “remixing” process that creates new art out of the old.

Here’s a description in his own words:

“The big question is content.  I tried to have a bit of a theme last year, involving ‘remix theory,’ which is related to an artistic concept I’ve been fascinated with for a while (the “variation form” of classical music).  I’ve really grown fond of using the computer software “text dissociators” that I used to facilitate the poem remixes, especially, as I’ve said in several places, I see this as a literary style that is well-suited for the commonly-encountered “ego-rebalancing” paradigm at BM.  But I don’t want to thematically focus on “remix theory” for the content this year.  That was my interpretation of “cargo cult” (re-sanctifying internet text detritus).”

For “Caravansary” he’d hoped to create more books on an expanded theme, or set of themes.  His ideal was to have  five “spines” located throughout Burning Man, each with its own focus:

  • “Throat,” which be located beyond the temple.  The books in it would focus on art and music theory.
  • “Heart,” which will be located between the temple and the man, and focus on conflicts, injustices, and disaspora.
  • “Stomach,” which will be located at … well, I’m not sure, actually … and focus on biographies, profiles, and culture.
  • “Gonads,” which will stand at the Center Camp portal, and the books in it will include remix culture, sex, and commerce.
  • “Sacrum,” which will stand at Center Camp, and will focus on histories, lands, and homelands.

Sadly-but-understandably, he’s decided that this is simply too engaged a process to follow-up on at this point.  “I am totally frightened by the thought of doing it in just a few months while I’m still in travel mode,” he told me.  “On the other hand, danger is funny.”

Instead, he’s planning to refurbish and improve his spines from last year, developing several volumes of new material on themes relevant to Caravansary.

“An important part of the project is to de-commodify the book as a mass-produced artifact,” he said.  “This is approached by giving each book its own unique (and often humorous) title on the book spine (playing a pun, as the cabinets are shaped like vertebrae), by obfuscating the concept of authorship, and by printing with a variety of papers and covers so that no two books are alike.”

Intriguingly, “decommidifying the book as an artifact” means putting a lot more work into it – somehow the end result becomes more less of a commodity as it becomes more valuable and unique.  A neat trick.

Tell me all this isn’t interesting.  A conceptually rich and interesting concept with a presence at multiple locations across the playa, offering unique literature on thematic elements?

I’m impressed.

That said, I’m not wholly convinced that remixed text is definitively a Burning Man literary style.  However, I think Marzipan Man has advanced the ball towards that eventual goal.

My own experiment with literature at Burning Man has a few things in common with Marzipan Man’s, and they’re suggestive.

  • Both involve serendipity – you don’t go to a camp or labeled area to find them, you just have to bump into them (or be told where they are by word of mouth).
  • Both involve some level of randomization … but both also involve the person involved making a choice … in this case what book to take (and whether to leave something in its place) and in the other case what song or story to experience … and that choice has consequences.
  • Both are hypothetically non-repeatable.  Even if you go back to the same spine later, the books may be different.

Within these statements, of course, there’s a lot of room for variation – Marzipan Man’s project is wholly unlike mine, and unlike any other literary efforts I’ve seen out there.  But that’s a good thing:  if a style is too tight it ends up crushing its own art.

Are these elements of an emerging Burner-wide literature?  Prrrrrrrrobably not, no.  There’s surely still more to be done.  But it’s an interesting next step.

Incidentally, Marzipan Man is actively looking for solicitations:  he’s hoping people will send him texts they’ve written about something relevant to caravansary, or one of the themes he listed above, with the understanding that he will put it through his remixing software to create a whole new text (that you’ll still be the “author” of) in order to put in one of his hand-created works of bibliographic art.  

He’s also looking for 2D, grayscale, art for inclusion in the books, which will be run as-is.

Interested?  Send a note to his gmail: mmelnicki(at)

Be part of the next wave of Burner literature.  Sometimes we all stand on backs of Marzipan.  Isn’t that right, Detective Brisco?

(Dun Dun)

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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