How I fell out of love with The Latitude Society – and what Burning Man can learn from it.

Latitude ID card (front)
A well worn Latitude Society ID card. It’s not just a prop – it could literally open doors.

I’ve wanted to write about a piece examining Burning Man through the lens of The Latitude Society (or vice-versa) for some time. But I’m the kind of old-school that believes that when you join a secret society you goddamn well don’t go around saying “Hey, have you heard about this cool secret society?” Because dammit, words mean things. Maybe not when they’re written on t-shirts, or bumper stickers, but, otherwise.

However, now that The Latitude Society’s architect has opened a series of meetings up to a reporter for and gone on record about his plans for expansion – because apparently it’s damn hard to expand your secret society if people don’t know about it – I consider honor satisfied.

(UPDATE: Between the time I wrote this and the time I’m publishing it, The Latitude appears to have also shut down. More on this at the end.)

So hey, what do you think Burning Man can learn from an experiential arts community centered in the same place, involving many of the same kinds of people (or the very same people in many cases), but that does everything almost entirely differently from Burning Man?

I don’t have any data on this (The Latitude is a secret society, after all), but I’d be stunned if a working majority of its hundreds of members weren’t Burners. Literally every member of The Latitude I know personally (myself, obviously, included) has been to Burning Man and has at one time been active in Burner culture.

So the appeal, to at least a sub-section of Burners, of an organization almost wholly unlike Burning Man is clear. This isn’t a problem, exactly: most Burners belong to some organization that does things differently from Burning Man. The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. The AARP. Harvard. The SEIU. Christianity – Burners belong to a whole host of cultural institutions that have little in common with Burning Man, and that’s fine. That diversity, in fact, is both a strength and a precious commodity.

But The Latitude Society is an organization that is, at some level, dedicated to the same purpose as Burning Man: creating extraordinary arts experiences that will, over time, change the world. That mission statement doesn’t fit either organization exactly, but it’s certainly close to the heart of both. And it is in that context specifically that The Lattitude takes a 180 degree swing from Burning Man’s approach to … well … just about everything.


Forget the legal questions about sandwiches – are Burners “consumers?” Or are we something else?

The Man burns at Burning Man 2015. 47 mins from start of fireworks to the fall of the man.After every Burn, there is a storm. A media storm.

After 2013’s Burning Man, the big media storm was about whether there were so many famous people at Burning Man that it was ruined. After 2014’s Burning Man, the media storm was over whether the existence of Plug and Play camps – one in particular – had ruined Burning Man. And now, in 2015, the big media storm is about whether a Pedophilic Sandwich Company running an advertisement has ruined Burning Man.

(I know, I know, you think Subway is the actual Pedophilia Sandwich Company. And that’s understandable. But it turns out that this sandwich company had a senior executive arrested for soliciting sex with a 13 year old waaaaay before Subway. So I think the name fits, and I encourage everyone to use it from now on. And if the Pedophilia Sandwich Company objects? Hey! It’s a parody! They believe parody justifies anything, right? No harm, right?)

I don’t know if going from “celebrities are destroying Burning Man!” to “pedophilic sandwich advertisements are destroying Burning Man” is progress, but I do think that under the surface these media storms are really all about the same thing:

The lines between “Burning Man Culture” and what we used to call “The Default World” are blurring into non-existence. All this is what happens when these cultures collide.  And not only has it gotten weird, it’s going to get weirder.

In fact, the weirder it gets, the more successful we probably are.

Weirdness is good because it means that the cultures are running into each other in unexpected ways, and unexpected is what we want because – let’s be honest here – the expected way that counter-cultures go is that they end up with high end boutique product lines at some of our nation’s hippest online retailers. Expected is quite literally buying the t-shirt.

“But isn’t that what’s happening now?” I hear so many people ask.

To which an honest and straightforward answer is: Dear God no! Where did you get that idea?

Since 2013 Burning Man culture has had an active discussion about how it can get fewer celebrities to come to Burning Man, and if they do come how to get them to shut the hell up. Now tell me: what other part of our world is clamoring for fewer celebrities? Who is planning events wondering: “How can we keep celebrities from taking their pictures with us?” Who else is asking “Can get celebrities to stop Tweeting about us?”


Seen today

"Mazu Goddess of the Empty Sea" by The Department of Public Arts, Dream  CommunityLast night I watched the Mazu Temple burn, a glorious shower of fireworks followed by a beautiful flower of fire that left a steel column holding a lotus blossom behind.

This morning, I saw the DPW finally – after a week of delays – use their trebuchet to launch a flaming piano into the air.

Then, on my way back to camp, I saw a grown man with a young girl who was holding a basket full of candy.

“Ice cold M&M’s!” the man called out.  “Get your chilled M&M’s!  All you have to do is take candy from a strange child!  Go ahead!  Take candy from a strange child!  It’s all right!  You can do it!”

Who says kids have no place at Burning Man?

I thought you would want to know.

Barking up a (Dust) Storm

“Ladies and gentlemen, put down your glow sticks and prepare to be dazzled by the light of adventure and discovery!”  The carnival Barker calls out from behind the counter set into a wall at the Midway.  “For tonight and tonight only you have the chance to experience not just the greatest game in the Midway but perhaps the most extraordinary art experience ever to come to Burning Man in all its long history!  I refer, of course,” he points to the sign above his booth “to:  Knock Out!”

His tone darkens.  “But beware, for while it is an experience of joy and whimsy never to be exceeded in a generation, it also has the terrifying potential to break even the hardiest man’s spirit!  Why, I’ve seen grown men cry, marines bleed from their ears, and boxers fall to their knees from the incredible pressure that comes not from failing, but from winning:  KNOCK OUT!  But step right up one and all if you dare …”

A small line forms.  As the game goes on … it’s mostly patter … the crowd grows bigger.

There are many ways Burners can participate in the Midway.  The Regionals were invited to create displays and experiences;  there was an open call for ideas;  there are two stages with performances going on all week (I took advantage of that one).  You can harass innocent, well-meaning, Burners as they try to make it through the maze (okay, that one too).  And then … then … there is “The Wooden Nickel Carnival.”

That’s my favorite.


Playa visions

Garlington's "Totem" appearing in the distance.He is having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. The wind whips at the back of his head, and he can’t even see what it’s pushing him towards.

He has left a camp where they said he was always welcome, to walk into the desert. Into a dust storm. There have been heavy dust storms for days, but this is a prolonged white out punctuated by moments of sudden clarity. He cannot see the Man. He cannot see the other side of the city he is trying to reach.

At sundown, a procession will leave the other side of the city to go to the temple and bury a friend.  He thought he had enough time to get there. He’s walked through dust storms before. He has cut through the open desert on foot many times.

He cannot see the temple. But for a moment there is a break in to the dust, and he can see a strange and intricate wooden structure. It is full of people. Someone on the second floor says something, and they begin to cheer. Then the wind picks up again, and they’re gone. Even the sound of them lost.

He isn’t sure that he’s walking towards the meeting place. He’s not certain that this is even the right direction. For a strange moment, he’s not clear that there even is another side of the city waiting for him across all this dust. The trip is taking longer than he remembered. He turns around. The wind stings his eyes. The place he came from has vanished. The people who said he was always welcome are gone.


The Burner in Her Labyrinth

HERO_BURNING_MAN_Sidney_ErthalThe Man is at the heart of Burning Man, and he is surrounded by the Midway. If you wish to reach him, you must walk down the stalls of games and tawdry prizes, past the sweatshop making low-end electronics, and avoid the museums of curiosities. You must not linger by the stages.

Then you must enter the maze of mirrors.

You will be surprised, at first, by just how few mirrors there are. The walls are a reddish orange, a funhouse color, and only a few walls, here and there, have mirrors. As you enter the first set of turns and decide which direction to go next, a man with a staff bracelet shouts “Dim your lights! Dim your lights!” before walking away.

About half the people around you do. The other half shrug. “He’s just fucking with us,” someone behind you says.

The maze around the Man is large. You wonder as you turn right, then left, then follow somebody who swears he knows where he’s going, just how long this can go on. But perhaps the man in front of you did know where he was going because you walk through another door and suddenly are in open air.


Playing with superpowers at the Midway

BM-2015-Carnival-of-Mirrors“OhWow,” said Kelly as we walked into the Midway. “This is nothing like what I’d expected.”

“What had you expected?” Kelly is a virgin Burner.

“I’d tried to keep an open mind,” she said. “But it wasn’t … this.”

She thought about it as we passed a man on stilts in an animal costume who seems to have escaped from a zoo. He was gently nudging, and then swallowing, other visitors.

“I think it’s all the playfulness,” she said as we stood in line for a fortune teller. “I don’t think I realized that it could all be so playful. But of course it could, it’s so obvious, but I guess this is why people say you have to experience it to understand.”

Kelly is an ethnographer who studies how artists connect with communities on social media. We’d just met an hour-and-a-half before. Now we were about to have our darkest secrets revealed. It would go badly for me, well for her. But the secret romance she has buried in her closet would become a running joke between us for the rest of the night.

The fortune teller was sitting in a wooden booth, dressed to the nines, her full lips highlighted red and black making them look thin and emaciated. She’d been taking a long time with the people in front of us, but that didn’t scare anyone away; on the contrary, the line behind us just got longer. Her process seemed baroque, involving bowls, crystals, conversation, and things we couldn’t recognize.

“What’s amazing,” Kelly said as we waited, “is how little this kind of thing is valued. Society values iPads so highly, even if they’re just small, incremental, improvements over the last iPad – we build whole industries around that. But an experience like this? Completely personal and unique? Outside of communities like this, nobody recognizes how valuable these experiences are. That’s ridiculous.”

The people ahead of us walked away, talking. The fortune teller interrupted us. “How you doing tonight?”


The Midway is calling, to you and to Burning Man

BM-2015-Carnival-of-MirrorsHundreds of art cars were circling the Man, shining in the dark. A thousand more bicycles were parked outside of his perimeter, covered in glow-wire. They formed a barricade around the Midway, late at night, as though watching the Man in case he made a sudden move.

I walked towards the Midway, maneuvered through the art cars, and entered through the giant mouth of what I can only describe as an evil clown. I was in the belly of a beast

Do you know what a midway is? It’s a carnival, it’s a con, it’s a chance for shady characters to offer you suckers bets on games of chance, it’s a place where strange museums trade in impossible curiosities. It’s an opportunity for you to be the farm and lose your shirt and see behind the curtain. It contains dozens of games ranging from warped ski-ball to impossible arcades. There are two stages where opera singers and fire dancers practice their arts. At its heart is a maze of mirrors.

It is as glowy and chaotic and blinky as anything else at Burning Man, but it is also something that, for a few years, people were wondering if Burning Man was in danger of losing: it is personal.

As Burning Man ticket sales have leaped and bound over the years, the playa experience has gotten bigger, louder, and grander. This is not a bad thing: did you see the Trojan horse burn? The sea of art cars and art installations have begun to reach out to deep playa. There was never anything like it on earth, and then more people came. (more…)