[Olivier Bonin, filmmaker, responds to a prompt from excerpts from Susan Sontag's seminal essay, On Photography (1977) and from the Burning Man website, to reflect on documentation on the playa. This post is part of the Digital Rights Blog Series.]
Susan Sontag, American author, artist and literary theorist, lived from January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004, but her work lives on in art schools around the world. In 1977, Sontag wrote the essay On Photography, which continues to provide media students and scholars an entirely different perspective of the camera in the modern world.
We sent Olivier the following prompt to respond to:
“Review these excerpts from On Photography by Susan Sontag (1977):
1. To collect photographs is to collect the world.
2. Photographs furnish evidence.
3. That age when taking photographs required a cumbersome and expensive contraption — the toy of the clever, the wealthy, and the obsessed — seems remote indeed from the era of sleek pocket cameras that invite anyone to take pictures.
Review this excerpt from Burning Man’s Ten Principles:
‘Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.’ Burning Man Website (2010)”
Yes, there might be a problem on how we try to document every single thing we see, but that problem is sourced in the way we consume, in the way we are as a society: it is entrenched into our contemporary culture. To change the way we photograph, is to change the way we live almost. It’s all inter-connected… a giant neurosis, that we need to work on all together. And of course I think Burning Man is part of the solution if it demonstrates a bigger interest in the method of doing art together…
Burning Man prides itself not to participate in consumerism, but to go to Burning Man is to consume. Each person that goes to Burning Man has to spend a lot to be self-reliant for one week in the desert. To create a city in the desert, is to transport everything to this environment. To truly reflect on our consumerist society would require minimizing our exposure to it, but that’s not what a deserted dry lakebed calls for.
I would even go further, and say that escaping consumerism was never was part of the original intentions. The need to escape the traps of our larger society was definitely there, but I believe the original intentions of the Burning Man project were to create a temporary site to simply relieve us from the constant attack on our senses of the mainstream cultural Act. It was a place to create our own reality, and express ourselves freely in the rawest manner possible without the need for it to be judged worthy of any value by our society’s standards. It was only later than Burning Man started to be associated with an anti-consumerist alternative, but the resistance to consumption has ever only been expressed through the lack of commercial sponsorship, transaction or advertising, and not necessarily through deeply dealing with the consumption that occurs pre-event.
In the depth of the event, you can of course find a real call from its participants to recreate a world where community is more important than capitalism. There are many examples in the artists’ group, and the theme camps, but these examples need to become the driving principles behind the event in order to effectively alter the consumerist reality. Where Burning Man really thrives is in offering an open stage for anyone’s artistic expression. And that is the single reason why Burning Man is still an important event today. The event has produced important artistic content, and truly inspires people to create! Let’s focus on this aspect to create a community with strong and deep artistic values, and the rest will follow.