The Burner in Her Labyrinth

The 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

“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

Hundreds 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…)

Your Political Agenda Is as Boring as It Is Irrelevant

(AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I would rather be writing about theme camps.  I would rather be writing about the Midway.  But in classic Burning Man fashion, my ride is over 30 hours late … you know who you are … and so I’m writing about a magazine piece that annoyed me.  Hey, I’ve gotta keep busy, you know?  I’ll see you out there.  One way or another I’ll see you out there.)

Here’s a good rule of thumb: anytime someone tries writing a dry, humorless, assessment of people having fun, they will end up with an essay that is dry, humorless, and forgettable.

Knowing that, I’d like to make a few observations inspired by Jacobin’s essay on how Burning Man has betrayed us all by failing to be a socialist paradise, while there is still a chance that someone will remember having read it.

There’s a great deal of refutation and correction that I could offer to the piece – from its statement that “Burning Man’s tagline and central principle is radical self-expression.” (No, in fact there are 10 Principles, none of which are identified as superior to the others) to its assessment that a few theme camps run by rich people are fundamentally altering the experience of Burning Man (“Caravansicle” is a well established debacle, but almost nobody actually noticed it was happening at Burning Man itself: which is to say that it actually had no impact on most people’s experience.  In fact, aside from Caravansicle I challenge any Burner to think of a memorable theme camp run by the 1% – while I know that anyone who’s attended can think of dozens of experiences they had with camps organized by volunteers and n’er do wells, the people who have always made Burning Man what it is). But such refutation would be an exercise in defensiveness applied to pointlessness.

Because the central argument of Jacobin’s Burning Man piece has nothing to do with Burning Man specifically: rather, it is the implicit argument that the only “legitimate” experience a person can have is one which is in alignment with “correct” politics.

The piece, after all, gives absolutely no consideration to Burning Man as a lived experience, as a generator of art, or a source of fun. It does not consider Burning Man’s philosophy on its own terms, or what actual Burners get out of the experience. Instead, its sole focus is to condemn Burning Man because (based on estimates) just under 3% of Burners make over $300,000 annually.

Ironically, a piece championing the needs of the 99% utterly ignores their experiences of Burning Man, because we don’t count.  Zuckerberg, Tananbaum, Page, and other gazillionaires are all name-checked, but no Burners who aren’t gazillionaires are named, let alone quoted or talked to. Far from being independent actors with our own reasons for going to Burning Man, we are an undifferentiated mass of not-rich-people who may be building, running, and living in Black Rock City, but whose motives and experiences aren’t worth considering.

Thanks, champion of the people!


Amazing Burning Man audio journey through 2014!!!

This is amazing.

For the second year in a row BMIR station manager J Kanizzle and Jex of Subatomica have been taking field recordings of every live sound at Burning Man – from wind and bikes to construction, conversation, and live music – and putting them together into an “audible journey” through the past year’s Black Rock City.

Then they give it give it away as a free download.

Check.  It.  Out.  It’s riveting.

(And yeah, that is my voice, now that you mention it.  These bastards catch EVERYTHING.)



Tigger believed in us

I have a Tigger condom. A condom with a picture of the character “Tigger” on it.

It was a playa gift from a Burner named Tigger. A long-time Media Team volunteer organizer, a rock on whom the whole place depended. She gave it to me ‘cause she liked me. She didn’t give one to Polaris because she liked him even more.

We lost Tigger to cancer yesterday. We knew it was coming, she’d been fighting it for years. She was in hospice care. Media Meccans had been rushing out to New York, where she was a fixture in the Burner scene, to say “hello” and try to work around to “goodbye.”

But we thought we’d have more time. We always think we’ll have more time.

I don’t want to write this. So many people knew her so much better than I did. I was one of the people who didn’t handle her illness well. Se was so goddamn full of life – one of the most lively, energetic people I ever knew – that I simply couldn’t picture her sick. Couldn’t really process it. And so I was more quiet than I should have been during the last parts of her life.

Apparently death has loosed my tongue. Now I can’t help myself. Now. Fuck me.

Back at Media Mecca, I liked to call Tigger “the competent one.” Her shit gone done. Amazingly well. Done better than you or I could do it. She was intimidatingly good at whatever job she put herself to, and nothing seemed to faze her. She had this way of looking at you that asked, without her saying anything: “are you phoning it in? Even a little?” And then she’d smile.

I imagine that every camp that lasts for very long and does something at least moderately difficult has “a competent one.” More than one, if they’re lucky. But rarely is “the competent one” also “the party animal.” Over and over again, I saw volunteers meeting her go through the same transition: once you stopped being scared shitless of her she was a never-ending good time. (more…)

Burning Book Club (Chapter 1) – Let’s kill some myths about artists to better understand some truths about money

(This post is part of a series inspired by reading  Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

One of the things I like best about Culture Crash is the way it does away with the some of our more cherished delusions about artists. Delusions that make artists seem like bad-asses, but don’t actually help with the whole “being an artist” thing.

The introduction nicely dispatched with the idea that artists in the modern era are uniformly hostile to the bourgeoisie middle class: in fact they mostly were the bourgeoisie middle class. They might have been the last to tell you, but,it was true all the same.

Chapter 1 effectively kills the illusion that art scenes occur just because artists happen to live in the same place. On the contrary: a culture of art emerges (or doesn’t) as much from the way artists socialize together as work. However much Romanticism and Modernism celebrated “artists” as solitary geniuses who required peace and quiet lest their nerves be shattered, anti-social artists tend to be both outliers and un-influential on the arts as a whole.

Which means that a group of studios filled by working artists is not necessarily going to be more than the sum of its parts – especially if those artists don’t talk much, and absolutely if there is no particular conversation going on about their work outside of those studios.

That conversation is as vital, if not more so, as their proximity. Timberg quotes artist and critic Peter Plagens: “’You need criticism. You need some polemic – a negative commentary in a magazine here, a positive article there.” Conscientious criticism brings heat to the artists subculture, as well as corralling the public into the conversation, in a way that a-good-time-was-had-by-all cheerleading doesn’t. ‘Art criticism has gone hand in glove with modern art since the beginning,’ Plagens says.”

Questions of art are, therefore, in no small sense questions of community and communication. While Culture Crash is primarily focusing on economics at this point, the questions it’s raising apply equally well to the culture created by the proliferation of artists and the infinite babbling of the internet: Timberg makes a compelling case that artists of the past needed a strong critical infrastructure in order to coalesce into a meaningful scene, but what would that infrastructure look like now? It what ways can and can’t it be replaced by a thousand Twitter accounts about art? (more…)

Burning Book Club – The Consequences of Losing our Creative Class

(This is the second post inspired by reading the introduction of Scott Timberg’s Book-Burning-225x300“Culture Crash: the killing of the creative class.” Read all the book club entries)

In between the last post and this one, I’ve been reading a number of articles about how Amazon reviews are gamed – that authors will often purchase hundreds of fake 5-star user reviews to push their books up to the top of the Amazon search engines.

The result is that crappy books by people gaming the system push out legitimately good book – even books with good (real) reviews, just not hundreds of them. For people who want to find and read good books – never mind paying the authors, just finding out about the books in the first place – it is increasingly hard. A system like Amazon’s, that relies largely on the free market, claims to be a neutral arbiter but in fact supports the people who are gaming it rather than the artists struggling to do good work.

I can think of no better example of what Scott Timberg is talking about when he says that the “hollowing out” of the cultural structures has serious consequences.

Timberg isn’t referring specifically to artists here, though he includes them of course. When he refers to the “creative class,” he’s talking about people who support art and culture by serving as gatekeepers: people who help the “good” art distinguish itself from the bad. He’s talking about video clerks, radio DJs who do their own programming, arts journalists, and of course critics – among many others.

The idea of having “gatekeepers” has gotten a lot of bad press in the digital revolution, but the degree to which we need people to separate the wheat from the chafe has never been more clear: without gatekeepers who are not in it for the money, only the art with a publicity budget will ever be found amid the mass production that the digital revolution has unleashed. Sure we can all “vote” with our “likes” and our “tweets” – but these systems are not only easy to game, they exist specifically to be gamed. They drag all art appreciation down to the level of “American Idol,” which is great on its own terms but not really – not really – a serious way to evaluate music. As a result, the good work gets drowned out.

And let me be clear about this: a system that is agnostic about quality is actively against it. To say “our system of publicity shouldn’t care whether art is good or bad” is to dig good art’s grave. (more…)