Meet the Children of Black Rock City

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A city has no future without its children — and that goes for Black Rock City, too. Burning Man’s wee dusty denizens are as much a part of this community as their sunscreen-slathering parents, but they’re not always in full view (unless you park yourself by the trampolines in Kidsville). Photographer Zipporah Lomax wants to change that by capturing BRC’s “littles” in a new book called Dusty PlayGround, which has just five days left to reach its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. (more…)

Primal Screaming over Burning Man (and the war of cultural appropriation)

The_ScreamOne gets the impression that many Burners thought that when Burning Man got big enough for the forces of liberal consumer capitalism to notice it, that those forces would just roll over and plead for Larry Harvey to rub their belly. Or that the New York Stock Exchange would hang the 10 Principles on the wall and replace the opening bell with dub-step.

That was never going to happen. Burning Man’s entry into the world as a genuinely large scale movement was always going to be a complicated, messy, clash of ideas.

And now that Burning Man has grown big enough and popular enough to be co-opted by market forces, those forces are trying their level best.

Burning Man has been imitated – on the surface – by people trying to make money for some time. This attempt at full-on appropriation is beginning in earnest now, as opposed to 10 years ago, because without a merchandizing arm (which Burning Man has always refused to do, its recent asinine experimentation with scarves as donation premiums aside), it is difficult for appropriators to make money without scarcity. Not impossible, but difficult enough that the massive machine of the marketing/lifestyle complex didn’t really turn its sights on Burning Man.

Now that we’re living in an era of ticket scarcity, however …

Yet as the conflict is joined, the many Burners who talk about Burning Man as though it had “sold out” – as though it had been defeated – are confusing the ending with the beginning.   They are declaring that the civil war has been lost because shots have just been fired against Fort Sumter, when in fact this is a prelude to the massive conflict to come.

Burning Man culture and the Burning Man organization haven’t lost a fight against liberal consumer capitalism – they’ve only just begun it.

This – what Burning Man is going through right now – is what that looks like at the beginning. The early stages.   When market forces decide not to care that we have 10 Principles or that some people put their life into a theme camp for others to enjoy and now can’t get tickets.

What’s happening now was not only inevitable, but predictable: from Walter Benjamin to Theador Adorno to every fucking post-structuralist some of us were forced to study because we took an English class in the 90s, there is a huge body of literature and research showing that yes – yes indeed – when a counter-culture gets big enough, the forces of liberal consumer capitalism try to appropriate it for their own ends. And, so far, they have been successful every time. That’s how Che Guavara ends up on T-shirts made in third world factories and sold to college students whose dorms are cleaned by immigrants making minimum wage.

The fact that it’s happening is why discussion about Burning Man has largely transformed from a dialogue into a primal scream. (more…)

Envision, Burning Man, and Beyond: One Worldwide Movement?

There’s something special happening in Costa Rica.

I recently participated in my first Envision festival on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, just outside of the small town of Uvita. Now in its fifth year, Envision came into being in 2011 as a gathering of about 100 people in the nearby town of Dominical. This year, population neared 6,000 and tickets sold out several days before the gates opened.

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Envision event site (Photo by Aerial Media Costa Rica).

For those that planned ahead or were lucky enough to score a last-minute ticket, the experience was well worth the trip.

Envision offers a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and learning opportunities: stellar musical artists, yoga classes, workshops, a series of talks and panels, large-scale works of art, and delicious organic food and bevies. All set in the lush Costa Rican jungle, on a protected wildlife preserve owned by a local family. And yes, there’s a beach.

At Burning Man, we go to great lengths to distinguish ourselves from other ‘festivals’. We don’t allow vending or have corporate sponsorships – Burners are not passive recipients of an experience; they are active co-creators. And we are proud of this. But some events are starting to blur this line, and sometimes in quite powerful ways.

For its part, Envision seeks to encourage people to take stock of themselves – materially, emotionally and spiritually, to think about the impact of their lifestyle on the world around them, and to make very deliberate choices about consumption.

By bringing people together through music, art and sacred movement Envision presents opportunities to celebrate our spirits, heal our bodies and minds, and revitalize our souls to face the challenges and realize the opportunities of our rapidly changing world.” [From the Envision website]

 

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Luna stage design by Tigre, Hoodie, and crew. (Photo by Luke GS)

Envision places a strong emphasis on sustainability and eco-consciousness. With deliberate messaging and design, the festival encourages participants to consider their use and disposal of resources. Single use is decidedly out. Everyone is asked to bring a water bottle and reusable cutlery of their own. Those that don’t can participate in a dish rental program (for a $2 deposit you’re given a plate to use at any of the event’s vendors and return to a dish washing station when you’re done).

I was deeply impressed with the way people at Envision took responsibility for the environment around them, and for the experience had by themselves and others. I didn’t see a single piece of out of place trash on the ground (also called ‘MOOP’ by Envision-ers). I saw people jumping in, helping out, and bringing what they had to offer the collective experience.

While there were goods available for purchase in the tasteful marketplace and food stalls (no huge corporate banners, here), everywhere I turned I witnessed people genuinely enjoying acts of gifting. At times I found myself searching for price listings only to realize the activities didn’t cost any money – these included a face painting booth, a place to immerse yourself in blue clay, and a treehouse slide made of bamboo straight out of some kind of Swiss Family Robinson jungle paradise.

 

Fire performance on the beach (Photo by Andrew Jorgenson)
Fire performance on the beach (Photo by Andrew Jorgensen)

The connections between Envision and Burning Man run deep. One of Envision’s 6 Co-founders, Stephen Brooks, has been attending Burning Man for the past 14 years (his father has been ten times!), and you could see and feel the connection between the two communities everywhere.

Village Stage schedule (Photo by Zac Cirivello)
Village Stage schedule (Photo by Zac Cirivello)

There’s a strong theme camp presence – leadership from Fractal Nation, Sacred Spaces, Abraxas, and others are interwoven into the fabric of Envision. Members of various on-playa departments work as Envision staff and volunteers – DPW, Gate, Rangers, Café, Media Mecca, ESD – they’re all there, putting to use the skills they’ve mastered on the playa. In the Costa Rican jungle.

It’s not a tough sell, really. “Sort of like Burning Man? But on the beach?” Say no more.

Being at Envision gave me the immediate sense of being part of a large family – similar to the sensation I often have on playa, it truly felt as though we were ‘all in it together’ and that the actions of one affected – and mattered – to the many. It is also a decidedly kid-friendly affair. Everywhere I looked, the little ones were laughing and playing, taking in the sights and sounds around them. And, like Burning Man, there was also a strong element of whimsy. People were consistently engaging each other in playful and spontaneous interactions, such as carrying nonsensical signs just for the heck of it.

But Envision isn’t just about having a good time. Like Burning Man’s year-round nonprofit efforts, the intention is clearly to have an impact beyond the event.

The event organizes beach clean-ups, boasts several banks of compostable toilets, and for those who signed up ahead of time, the Polish Ambassador (a favorite artist at Envision and many music festivals) led an Action Day – a hands on opportunity for festival goers to learn about permaculture through participating in a day of community service at a local school.

"Designing our Future" panelists Klaudia Oliver, Daniel Pinchbeck, Burning Man's Megan Miller, Stephen Brooks, Elias Cattan and moderator Katherine Berglund (Photo by Zac Cirivello)
“Designing our Future” panelists Klaudia Oliver, Daniel Pinchbeck, Megan Miller, Stephen Brooks, Elias Cattan and moderator Katherine Berglund (Photo by Zac Cirivello)

And on Saturday of the event I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion titled “Designing our Future” along with Stephen Brooks, Daniel Pinchbeck, Klaudia Oliver and Elias Cattan. I was inspired by the work these incredible activists, authors and thought-leaders doing for our global community.

Burning Man has been referred to as a ‘permission engine’ or a ‘container of possibility’. It gives people opportunities to realize dreams that previously seemed unachievable.

But we are certainly not the only one.

In Costa Rica people are waking up to their own potential. They’re building community, collaborating on powerful projects and enabling each other to accomplish more than they thought possible. They are radically expressing themselves. They are setting aside differences in social and economic status in order to connect human to human. They are tapping into the creative potential of the collective whole. It’s pretty special stuff, really.

Unlike Burning Man, the Envision experience is intentionally curated. While there’s plenty of room for exploration, the speakers and the teachers, the food, the music, and the artists are carefully selected to take people on a journey, to open their eyes to new things and to give them a new lens through which to see themselves and their relationship to the world around them.

While I take great pride in the fact that Burning Man doesn’t book acts or build a ‘main stage’, at Envision I came to have a new respect for events that have more intentional focus. This gives Envision the ability to educate and challenge participants in a particular direction, in contrast to the completely Choose Your Own Adventure experience of Black Rock City. And I truly believe we – the big we – are stronger with both kinds (and all types of personally transformative experiences. We are more together than we are apart.

There is a hunger for this kind of community, for ritual and connection, and for time away from the ever-growing insistence of electronic communications. Different events may have their own unique flavor and focus, but there is strength in this diversity. To build the resilient communities of the future we need all kinds – all skills, all people, all points of entry. Taken together, this ecosystem of events is helping lead us to that brighter future. We have a long way to go, but I see evidence of progress everywhere.

 

Emancipator on the main stage (Photo by Cody Edwards)
Emancipator on the main stage (Photo by Cody Edwards)

As the sun rose on the last morning of Envision, I looked out over the joyous crowd and the gravity of the work we all are doing suddenly washed over me. The impact we are making collectively on thousands, arguably millions of lives. They are waking up. They are reaching out. They are connecting the dots and encouraging each other to dig deeper, reach further, and become more than they thought possible. We are all helping to build what might become a truly global cultural movement.

From Burning Man to Envision, we tip our dusty hats to you.

The therapeutic power of Radical Self-Expression

Embrace by The Pier GroupChip Conley, a member of Burning Man’s board, frequently likes to say:  “The more digital we get, the more ritual we need.”

I thought of that when I read about a new strategy for fighting depression – one that involves no pills, no brain scans … virtually no technology of any kind – and is incredibly affective.  In some studies, 94% of patients report an end to depression in six months or less.  In other studies, 97%.

What is this miraculous new cure?  This brain-hacking innovation?  It’s getting people to talk with each other.  Essentially peer lead group therapy.

The research is being conducted in the developing world, in areas where mental health treatment options are extremely scarce … and so far it’s focusing on women, because it’s possible to circumvent the cultural proscriptions against seeking mental health treatment by telling them that having their symptoms addressed is good for their children.  So the sample group is limited.  But the staggeringly good results strongly suggest that it is our approach to mental health in the first world … our privatizing organic “social networks” and replacing them with network of insurance providers dictating terms to health care professionals who emphasize the pill popping for mood adjustment at the expense of actually talking to people … that gets it all wrong.

With depression rates rising significantly in much of the modern world – even as more and more mood altering drugs are prescribed – it may be that it is modern culture itself which has so degraded our ability to have routine, deep, in person connections with one another, and that this is creating a crisis in mental health.

(The other option – that we have not lost the capacity to have deep, in person, connections with one another in the developed world, but that life here is so toxic that the only way masses of people can tolerate existence in the industrialized world is through medication – actually scares me much more.  But while possible (brrrr) I think that stretches past what the research so far is telling us.  Still, makes you wonder.)

Thinking of this, I am reminded of the way so many people believe that Burning Man … a camping trip that costs excess money and includes a higher chance of being run over by a mechanical octopus … is a crucial part of their mental health regimen.    Kinda ridiculous –  but people swear by the therapeutic power of Burning Man so much that I’ve had to write entire screeds reminding people that Burning Man is not “therapy Disneyland” and that it’s okay to be unhappy when you’re here.

Yet it may very well be … humanistic psychology has often said so … that what we call “radical self-expression” is in fact a vital component of mental health.  While the public perception of creative genius ties it to madness and mental illness, research actually suggests that it is human beings who lack an outlet for their creativity – in whatever form is meaningful to them – who are at a higher risk of depression and mental illness. (more…)

Margaret left a trace

DumpsterWe always think of the principle of “Leave No Trace” as applying to things. To garbage. To left over zip ties. To empty cans on the ground.

But does it apply to people?

Do we want it to?

I was struck, this week, by an email that “This is Burning Man” author Brian Doherty sent out encouraging people in the Bay Area to see a show produced in large part by burners this Friday at the Castro Theatre.

The show is about a woman of whom there was no trace. Whose life was, literally, thrown in the garbage.

While hunting for a place to illegally dump some trash at three in the morning, an old-time Burner (Chicken John) found a magnificent leather scrap book at the bottom of a dumpster. It was, all but literally, the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker. It had her birth certificate, pictures of her life, clippings from news articles about tragic things that befell her, and excerpts from poetry magazines of verse she’d had published. It ended with her death certificate.

It was all there. At the bottom of a dumpster. If he hadn’t found it, it would have been destroyed.

What happened? He had no idea. Nobody knew. For maybe 15 years he carried this scrapbook around with him, read from it, shared it with people – put on shows devoted to Margaret’s poetry and the mystery of her life.

No answers. Except insofar as we all know, deep down, that people are disposable. That at some point all we are will be left in a trash bin. That no trace will be left. (more…)

The Bay Lights Will Blink On as a Permanent Installation

Image courtesy of thebaylights.org

The Bay Lights, which first started sparkling across the Bay Bridge in March 2013, just hit its funding goal and will now be a permanent installation. The 1.8 mile-wide, 500-foot-high LED sculpture is the world’s largest, made of 25,000 white LEDs whose patterns glow from sundown to sunrise and never repeat. It will stay lit until 2026 at least.

In an email to supporters, Ben Davis, founder and CEO of Illuminate the Arts and big-time Burner, says that the $2 million raised so far was matched by philanthropist Tad Taube, bringing the organization to the $4 million baseline goal.

The Bay Lights installation is the brainchild of Leo Villareal, a world-renowned artist with many equally dazzling installations under his belt. He’s also one of the founders of Disorient, which is a Burning Man camp that, even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve definitely heard. You know the blinky orange-y camp on the 3-o’-clock side of the Esplanade? Used to rock a giant orange traffic cone-looking thing? Yeah, them. Leo joined the inaugural Burning Man Board of Directors in 2011, and he re-upped after his initial term ended, continuing to serve on the Board today.

Villareal has been coming to Black Rock City since 1994, and he brought his first blinky installation in 1997 to solve a clear, simple problem: he had trouble finding his camp at night. That drove him to build his first large-scale piece in New York in 2003, and it just got more ambitious and beautiful from there. As a Burning Man veteran, Villareal is surely used to having to take apart his art and pack it up, but now he’s built the largest LED sculpture in the world, and the people have raised the money to keep it lit.

The piece has to be taken down for bridge maintenance next year, but the New York Times arts blog reports that the piece will be up again by January 2016.

Thank you to everyone who donated to keep this beautiful piece alight in the cities from which the global Burning Man culture has spread.

Tyler Durden Invented Burning Man

Perhaps you’ve still never heard of the Cacophony Society, Burning Man’s parent group.

Pardon the cliche, but for history’s sake, we’re going to have to talk about fight club.

Fight Club is a book written in 1996 and then turned into a movie released 15 years ago this fall (we won’t provide any spoilers if we can help it). Author Chuck Pahlaniuk confirmed at several book-release events last year the “Project Mayhem” group in Fight Club’s story is indeed the Cacophony Society in real life … a wackier bunch of people, without the men-only Iron John subplot or all the property destruction and violence. (Well, serious violence, anyway.)

“But Larry Harvey invented Burning Man,” you may be saying to yourself. No, he and his homeys Jerry and Dan brought the statue to a “Zone Trip” the Cacophony Society had already planned to take to the Black Rock Desert.

The rest of the event didn’t spring, Godlike, from one man’s mind, and materialize like so much ganja in Shiva’s dreadlocks. Cacophony built Black Rock City. It was a group whim — a hive-mind good time which snowballed and splintered, glittering, like breaking mirrorglass.

art by Kevin Evans from Tales of the SF Cacophony Society
art by Kevin Evans from Tales of the SF Cacophony Society

Even if you don’t know it, Burning Man is and will always be the Cacophony Society’s yearly extended-family check-in and show-and-tell. It’s a fight club convention where old-timers don’t make a big deal about showing up to tweak and observe the city they created. This product of new collectivist activity reads like a neotribal Kumbh Mela which embraces chaos as spirituality. The event requires, and has always required, a dark army of dirtbags to make it all go flash bang boom.

Burning Man’s blank slate started as an anarcho-cyberpunk paradise away from the squares, on the moon. A living, breathing Internet, this equalizing Paper Street Soap Company in the dust churned art, analog, digital, fire, lust, danger, meetings, and magic into a whirlwind of construction and yelling. (more…)

Art Beyond Burning Man – Making, Thinking, Understanding

Building art for Burning Man always seemed to be part of my yearly cycle. I love what I have been a part of creating in Black Rock City; I have grown up and cut my teeth building art out on that remarkable desert canvas. Over the last several years, though, I’ve found myself bringing more art to life out here, “beyond the fence.” Thanks to the efforts of so many, we can now cite several instances of Burning Man art in many cities around the world.

Zoa Crew Photo by Kim Sikora
Flux’s Zoa Crew Photo by Kim Sikora

At FLUX we have created 12 works of art in our 4 years of existence. This is something we are truly proud of. We’ve successfully made interactive art accessible to a wide audience, and we use this art as a platform to engage people in the core values we have cultivated as Burning Man artists. Our works have been experienced by people in Oakland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and now, San Francisco. Sometimes, we are so busy building we forget to take a moment to celebrate and share what we’re creating. In this case, we are celebrating our newest interactive sculpture, Carousel.

Flux Building Carousel
Building Carousel Photo by Jess Hobbs

Inspired by the shared experience and wonder of the swing rides of childhood carnivals, Carousel uses a variety of materials, a playful color palette and communal interaction to create an immersive environment. In this space, people will contribute to a cumulative visual expanse, reflect on inspiration, and engage in conversation. Participants will return to a sense of wonder as they sit beneath and contribute to its creation.

Flux Building Carousel
Building Carousel Photo by Jess Hobbs

Carousel has been commissioned by the Abundance Foundation and built for Making, Thinking, Understanding, a conference created by Harvard’s Project Zero. The conference will start tomorrow, October 10-12, 2014 at Lick Willmerding High School in San Francisco. (more…)