Posts by Caveat Magister

January 13th, 2014  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Wanna help John Law save some history?

They're not usually this colorful - that was an art thing. (Photo by Scott Beale)

They’re not usually this colorful – that was an art thing. (Photo by Scott Beale)

For decades Burning Man co-founder John Law has been one of a small band of pranksters bringing the historic Doggie Diner Heads to cacophony and counter-cultural events.  It may not have been at Burning Man, but it’s been a part of our scene for years.  I’ve seen them coming around the corner, parked on the streets – it’s magic.

Being John Law he’s done the work, logged the miles, paid for the gas, and everything else out of his own pocket, without asking for a thing.

But now, after all these years, the Doggie Diner Heads need repair, and restoring three vintage, 10-foot-tall, 300lb fiberglass and metal sculptures is a pretty big job.

If you’re interested in helping, check out the Doggie Diner restoration project Kickstarter page.

It’s a great cause, he’s offering some fairly astonishing rewards at the higher levels, and it will keep a delightful part of our San Francisco Bay Area weirdness going for another few decades.

Take a look.

ADDENDUM – I’ve just learned that the Doggie Diner Heads have been to Burning Man twice:  in 1993, and 1996.  Waaaaay before my time, but clearly a part of our history!

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the former mascot of a fast food haggis franchise that never made it big outside a neighborhood in Glasgow.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

January 2nd, 2014  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Burning Man is not a Meritocracy

Flaming Saucer

A bunch of merit goes up in flames.

Burning Man as a cultural force is getting more interesting, not less, as it gets more mainstream attention and access to discourses about self and society.  (Why yes, “Discourses about Self and Society” WAS a seminar that I took as a sophomore English major.  Why do you ask?)  No major cultural movement travels in a straight line, and no one can tell which aspects of Burner culture will be most challenging, or potentially revolutionary, as it catches on in new cultures and geographies.

The most interesting new challenge I see emerging comes as Burning Man is increasingly attended, referenced, and cited, by both academics and members of the tech industry – work cultures that, in their own ways, claim to be highly driven meritocracies.

Both are increasingly citing Burning Man as a model and a form of inspiration.  And yet Burning Man … fundamentally and unambiguously … is not a meritocracy.  Is, in fact, perhaps our most significant cultural movement at the present time to directly challenge the very idea that a meritocracy is the way we want to order society.

(Why yes, “The Way We Want to Order Society” was a post-graduate seminar I took during the summer for no credit.  Why do you ask?)

This isn’t an explicit challenge, of course:  one of the most interesting (and I’d argue effective) things about Burning Man is precisely that it doesn’t require anyone to sign a loyalty oath when they walk through the gate.  (Unless you count a spanking …)  Burning Man no more “calls out” a meritocracy any more than it calls out industrial pollution.  But just as there’s no question that, taken to their even vaguely logical conclusions, the principles of Burning Man – if followed – would prevent industrial pollution, it’s pretty clear that – if followed – the principles of Burning Man would dismantle the application of meritocracies. Read more »

December 9th, 2013  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Crowdfunding Art Conundrum: is money “participation” in any meaningful sense?

Andy Warhol thought this was art.  But is it participation?

Andy Warhol thought this was art. But is it participation?

The closest I’ve ever come to “crowdfunding” something was asking a room to tip generously.  But I’m told that web 2.0 and the “sharing economy” have revolutionized the process of funding theme camps and art for Burning Man.

Granted, we live in a time when “revolutionized” can apply to the way people shop for car insurance, so the word doesn’t mean what it used to.  But the number of successful camps and cars at this year’s Burning Man that used Kickstarter or another crowdfunding platform couldn’t be ignored.

And why should they be ignored?  These are all volunteers trying to create amazing things for the community’s enjoyment:  anything that makes their lives easier is all for the good.

But let’s play Indiegogo show-and-tell and see if something comes up, like a body floating to the surface.

Most of the premiums offered for supporting projects the Burn are of the “have a t-shirt!” or “get a piece of the art for your home when we’re finished” variety, and there’s really nothing to see here.

But when you reach the upper echelon of donations, a different kind of premium reward often emerges.  Can you spot the pattern? Read more »

November 22nd, 2013  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Burning Man and the psychology of the “exotic”

And this represents ... what ... to the stranger?

And this represents … what … to the stranger?

Having reached the point where any development from Burning Man provokes a media storm (we’re just a few years away from “Larry Harvey sneezes, stock market slides”), I can’t help but wonder:  what is the Burning Man shaped hole in the western psyche?

That might not make any sense.  I apologize.  It’s dark out all the time now, which adds a lazy, self-indulgent, streak to my writing.  Like this paragraph.  Completely unnecessary.  Yet here we are.  I know better.  Ah well.  What’re ya gonna do?  To fix this I’d have to edit the first paragraph, and who has that kind of energy?

Let me explain, in a drawn-out, round-about, kind of way, what I’m asking.  Those of you who aren’t charmed by unnecessary digressions might want to skip to this article about sex in the U.S. Senate.  Salaciously speaking, that’s the high point of this post.  I’m not going to mention fellating a U.S. Senator again.

In his magisterial new book “Anti-Judiasm,” historian David Nirenberg traces … not exactly the “history” of anti-Semitism, but the various shapes it has taken over the last 3,000 years.  What he demonstrates is not just that a lot of people have hated Jews for a lot of stupid reasons, but that the justification for the hatred has often taken the shape of whatever was supposed to be wrong with Western culture at the time. Read more »

October 17th, 2013  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

Burning Down the Library

Peruse it or Lose it LibraryIn 2003 posters went up around Los Angeles featuring cuddly dogs and the cutest of kittens.  Above them, in big block letters, were the words:

We will kill our pets to protest the War.

If President Bush didn’t pull out of Iraq, the poster went on to say, “We, the Raelian Pet Owners United to Stop War, will kill our pets.”  It listed a date and time.  At a dog park, of course.

It was hilarious … and actually generated a police investigation … but it was only so interesting.  Because of course the Los Angeles Cacophony Society (the poster’s true author) wasn’t really going to kill any pets, and of course George Bush wasn’t going to pull out of Iraq, and there was nothing any members of the public could do about it anyway.  So, yeah:  very funny joke, but nothing to see here.

Ten years later, two Arizona Burners may have just done Cacophony one better.

In July Admiral Fiesta and Sista Turtle Dove began work on the “Peruse it or Lose it Library,” which had its first shelf life at last weekend’s Arizona Decompression.  The premise is simple:  they built a library for Decompression, and at the end of the event they burned it – along with whatever books were left.

If you didn’t want a book to burn, you … yes, you, the person walking by … had to take it.  Otherwise it went up in flames.

“We were compared to Nazis on several occasions,” Admiral Fiesta told me.  “To paraphrase a friend’s argument on Facebook, the Nazis were burning books as an act of censorship – particularly censorship of deviant art and pornography.”

The Nazis, however, were not famous for willingly letting things go.  The “Peruse it or Lose it Library” was different:  practically begging passers-by to be their own Schindler.

“During the event I had many people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you really going to burn books on Saturday?’” Sista Turtle Dove said.  “My typical response was, ‘Only if there are any left…’” Read more »

October 10th, 2013  |  Filed under Participate!

Why does Burning Man seem so much like a political movement?

This is not Burning Man.  Not even close.

This is not Burning Man. Not even close.

As America convulses and political gridlock is on everyone’s mind, it seems as good a time as any to look closely at the facile relationship between Burning Man and politics.

I caught heat, back in 2011, for saying that Burning Man and Occupy Wall Street actually have very little in common.  I think time has vindicated me, but that heat shows that a lot of people see Burning Man as a kind of political movement … or something close to it.  They see Burning Man not just as something capable of influencing society, but as a movement capable of taking power – though they might not use that exact phrase.

And sure, watching people work on their art cars, build their structures, prep their costumes … and especially coming and going from Burning Man, it’s hard to shake the idea that Burning Man is a force that will change the world.

But is it a political force?  Is Burning Man a political movement?

The answer is:  No.  Obviously.  Fuck you.

But … if you disagree with me about this, you’re in good company.  A lot of people do.

Read more »

September 26th, 2013  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

What if my art project is a loaded gun?

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter My Art Project

It was Tuesday in the desert.  The hottest part of the afternoon.  I was sitting on my favorite couch in BMIR when a woman I’d never met before came in and asked for the Rockstar Librarian Guide.

“Box,” I told her.

“What?” she asked.

“Box,” I said again.  This was a little game we played:  when someone asked for the Rockstar Librarian Guide, sometimes we’d just keep saying “Box” over and over, until they realized it was in the box they’d already passed on the way in.

She got it fast.  Satisfied, she looked around and realized that there was no shadier spot to be found anywhere on the playa.

“Hey,” she asked.  “Can I sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.  She took her tool kit off from around her waist and sat down next to me.

I don’t remember her name now, but we got to talking.  She’s 23.  Third year on the playa.  I asked her what she’d seen so far, and she rattled off a list of art projects.  I asked her what she wanted to see, and she rattled off another list.  Mostly things I’d heard of.

“But what I really want to do,” she said, “is meet the poet.”

“The … poet?”

“Yeah.  There’s this amazing poet.”

That was interesting … but … “I have no idea.  I’ve never heard of that.”

She nodded.  “Some of my camp mates met him.  Nobody knows where he is.  I hope I can find him.  I’m looking.”

“Well, good luck.”

We kept talking.  Burning Man stuff:  how do you like the Man standing on a UFO?  What do you think of the theme?  Goddamn there’s a lot of cops around. That kind of thing.

Eventually Ken Griswa, the Mad Artist in Residence at BMIR, came over and wanted me to sing somebody a song.  For … some reason.  I can’t remember now and I might not really have known then.  It can be hard to tell with Ken.

“Sure,” I said, opening up my bag and pulling out a book in which I had a list of songs.  It was part of an art project I’d brought to Burning Man.  “Let’s see if I can find an appropriate one …”

“Wait …” the woman next to me gaped.  “YOU’RE THE POET!”

Ken and I stared at her.  I blinked.  “I … I don’t think I am.” Read more »

September 16th, 2013  |  Filed under Culture (Art & Music)

2013 was a great year for pranks, too

Subway token 1Is it just me, or is too much attention being paid to the Art at Burning Man?

Yeah yeah, I know:  it’s an art event, we love art, we love artists, fire is awesome, blinking lights are cool, and giant churches tilted at 45 degree angles are just what we were missing in our lives.

I agree.

But the fact that there’s art at Burning Man sometimes overshadows the fact that art is *one of the things* you find there.  And so far I haven’t heard nearly enough people talk about the whimsy.

You know:  The pranks, the tricks, the inspired moments of lunacy that make you fall in love with people all over again.  The stuff the Org doesn’t fund … because who in their right mind would pay for a guy to stand outside a party pretending to be security and searching people’s backpacks for stolen bicycles … but that we do for its own sake.  Because we want to live in a world where this happens.

2013 was actually a very good year for whimsy at Burning Man.  I saw a lot of creative, topsy-turvy, and otherwise insane human interactions that make me feel good about life.  Whoever these 68,000 people who came out to the desert were, some of them were high-caliber tricksters.

So I’m going to take this time to list some of my favorite whimsical events that happened at the 2013 Burning Man, and I hope you’ll use the comments space to mention all the hilarious moments I know I missed. Read more »