June 19th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 (part 2) – Group Think and Aesthetics

Burning Books(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries, including the previous post on Chapter 2.)

One thing that is clear from reading this chapter is that Burning Man (the entity) has avoided the fate of the German Idealists in no small part by not creating an aesthetic.  (Air Freshener made a similar point in the comments of the last entry).  Creating an aesthetic grounded in spirit to heal society was, ultimately, the whole point of German Idealism

Burning Man (the Organization) takes a lot of heat from its critics for being top-down rather than bottom-up, but in fact nowhere can its “hands off” approach to Burning Man (the event and culture) be better seen than in the area of aesthetics.

Burning Man is notable for its lack of aesthetic requirements.  There is no dress code (and clothes are even optional);  there is no limit to musical styles;  you can make as much or as little noise as you want.  While they curate and place the art that they sponsor, there is no censorship of any given camp’s art or theme.  No body shape is celebrated by the Org more than any other;  you don’t need to be this tall to ride the ride.  For all the carping about how many rules the Org has imposed since Burning Man went “official,” there are in fact fewer restriction on personal aesthetic choice at Burning Man than there are at any other cultural event on earth.

Which is not to say there isn’t a “Burning Man” aesthetic out there – even a dominant one.  But the point is that it’s bottom-up.  The People of Burning Man themselves have decided to make fuzzy boots and hair extensions a signature style;  to make techno music a dominant form;  to make blinky lights a staple.  Ironically the “group-think” that Burning Man is frequently accused of is actually a democratic aspect.

People come to Burning Man, where they have more freedom than anyplace else on Earth, and choose to imitate each other.  Or, if you prefer positive language, to be inspired by each other.

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June 19th, 2014  |  Filed under News

Nevada Makes Burning Man An Official Event On Its 150th Birthday

For its sesquicentennial celebration, the state of Nevada has recognized Burning Man as one of its official events. It’s an honor to be a part of history, and we’re excited to hang out in Nevada’s future, too. From the Nevada 150 organizers:

Nevada’s Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of Nevada’s admission to the Union, will provide opportunities for celebration and reflection as we come together statewide to commemorate our shared history and build a foundation of cultural appreciation for generations to come. Nevada’s one of a kind and diverse history will be celebrated throughout the state for an entire year in order to promote pride in the shared heritage of all Nevadans. Nevada’s Sesquicentennial celebration will commence on Nevada Day 2013 and conclude with an expanded Nevada Day celebration October, 2014. For more information, please visit www.nevada150.org.


June 17th, 2014  |  Filed under Afield in the World

Afrika Burn Regional Grows to 9,000 Participants

The desert valley of the Tankwa, Karoo is a six-hour drive north from Cape Town, South Africa, and is home to Afrika Burn –  the world’s largest official Burning Man Regional Event. A well-paved highway dotted with the occasional police checkpoint gives way to a “tyre-munching” washboard dirt road. Over the final three hours, the drive goes from amusing to bone jarring.

Eventually, the dusty road – South Africa’s equivalent to Highway 447 – opens onto rolling hills, scrub brush and Stonehenge Farm — home to Afrika Burn. 2014 marks the event’s eighth anniversary, launched in 2007 by South Afrikan Burners most of whom first attended Burning Man in 2006.  Decompressing in Yosemite Valley, they laid their plans to bring Burning Man home and make it their own. In early May, 2014, over 9,000 people braved heat, washboard roads and overdoses of electronica to trek to the event.

Afrika Burn is organized by a lean production team with oversight from a sizable group of Members, which in the U.S. would be known as the Board of Directors, helping to steer the direction of the non-profit community-building event organization. Afrika Burn shows some of the hallmarks of the processes, departments, and organizational systems that developed in Black Rock City during the late 1990s: the city layout is reminiscent, there is a Greeters Station with a bell, they have a newly formed Rangers department, emergency medical services, a central effigy that burns on Saturday night, a temple that burns on Sunday night, they provide grants for art projects, there is a version of Center Camp, and The Ten Principles describe the city’s culture. But all of these elements have been adopted by the organizers and modified with a South African sensibility and sense of humor. Center Camp became “Off Center Camp” and there is no cafe beverage service.

The Clan emblem of Afrika Burn atop the greeter bells.

The Clan emblem of Afrika Burn atop the greeter bells.

The Greeters Station bears the event emblem of “the clan” or “San Clan”, an image found in ancient cave paintings in the area, and that embodies the interconnectedness of people and community.

The city plan for Tankwa Town.

The city plan for Tankwa Town.

An eleventh principle was added. The city layout has its own design tailored to the land, the street names are in Afrikaans, and the avenue names run from “2:00 ish” to “10:00 ish”.

AfrikaBurn - Trickster - 2014-97

Afrika Burn’s 2014 central effigy: The Trickster.

The central effigy sculpture changes entirely each year, with the presence of the clan emblem providing a sense of continuity from year to year. The 2014 event theme was The Trickster, manifested in The Interpreter, a 19 meter- (nearly 60 feet) tall robot sculpture with one arm raised and wearing a rabbit mask. Long-time central effigy builder and self-described troublemaker Brendan Smithers was the project lead behind The Interpreter. He describes the meaning of the sculpture as a representation of the duality of human nature, of technology and nature, of masculine and feminine. He shared that behind the mask is a slightly cynical commentary through the robot that speaks to participants adopting a sort of “Burner fundamentalism”, one where people allow themselves to be sucked into “group think” without discovering the opportunity for authentic expression, and eventually they develop a sort of inflexible attitude in what is supposed to be a very flexible environment. In the spirit of The Trickster, Brendan initially designed the robot with both arms raised, a nod and an irreverent poke at “The Burning Man”, but after Nelson Mandela passed away earlier this year, the sculpture design changed to one “fist” raised, an iconic gesture made popular during the African National Congress’s rise to power through the 1980s and early 1990s, led by Mandela’s commitment to equality in South Africa.

While Afrika Burn may be the largest Burning Man-inspired event in the world, it still feels young in a very vibrant, exciting way. Many people say that it feels how Black Rock City felt in 1998. The event is scaling slowly so that the organizers and community can support the spread of the ethos that is the spirit of Tankwa Town. To this end, Afrika Burn added an eleventh principle to the Burning Man Ten Principles: “Each One Teach One”, which states “All of us are custodians of our culture – when the opportunity presents itself, we pass knowledge on.” With a proposed planned growth rate of no more than 25% per year, and a possible self-imposed population limit, this event is being stewarded with great care and thoughtfulness.

One of the remarkable aspects of Afrika Burn is the noticeable family environment that is woven into the fabric of the city. There are families everywhere, people of all ages, all socializing and bonding in a most wonderful and playful way. There is a very tribal sensibility to peoples’ camps at this event, evident in how different families watch over each others’ children and how integrated they are in the activities of the event. A common sentiment among many of the youth is that they love Afrika Burn. This is a potential win for our collective future because, as with other Regional Events, it instills universally useful values in the people who could be the great artists, leaders, and creators of tomorrow.

As several of the Directors of Afrika Burn described, these types of events are a training ground for people to learn to be engaged. These experiences are an antidote to the insidious passive consumption that feeds on a life devoid of creativity, permission, and empowerment. Event Directors Liz Linsell, Graeme Allan and Monique Schiess all echoed that Afrika Burn is training people in “the Do-ocracy”. As Monique said, “If you see something that needs to be done, just do it. You don’t need to wait for some sort of authority to do it. You just do it.”

Afrika Burn is held annually in early May. More info may be found at AfrikaBurn.com.

Additional Contributions: Special thanks to $teven Ra$pa, the Afrika Burn production team, and the Burning Man Communications team.

 


June 16th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club – Chapter 2 – (Part 1) A Mythology Pro-Tip for Atheists

Book Burning(We’re basing this discussion on Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God.” Read all the book club entries)

My response to Chapter 2 – The German Idealists – was getting so long and convoluted that I decided to split it into a couple of short, convoluted, essays that I’ll post this week.  I should have known that no discussion involving the philosophy of Immanuel Kant could be kept to a sensible blog post.  This entire book club is a terrible idea.  I apologize.  

How many Burners are German Idealists and don’t even know it?

To find out, let’s read Terry Eagleton’s description of the German Idealist dream circa the 1800s, only replace the word I’ve bolded with “Burning Man.”

“The fractured bonds between citizens, as well as the threatened alliance between Nature and humanity, might be restored by a communality of image and belief.  Coterie ideas and common opinions, high theory and popular practice, would no longer be at daggers drawn.  Myth would serve as a mode of displaced religion, uniting the mystical and the mundane, priest (or philosopher) and laity (or common people) in a shared symbolic order.  The abyss opened up by the Enlightenment between a coterie who lived by the idea and a populace who lived by the image might accordingly be bridged.”

Convinced yet?  It goes on.  Replace “poet or philosopher” with “artist.”

“The poet or philosopher would be invested with the status of secular priest and art or mythology converted into a set of quasi-sacred rites.  The damage to the human spirit inflicted by individualism, as well as by a withered rationality for which Nature was so much dead matter, might thus be repaired.  A more organic ideology of everyday life would evolve, one which reunited the cognitive, ethical, and aesthetic domains.”

Admit it – you’ve heard a regional rep in a mesh body suit give this exact speech.  These are sentiments I’ve heard often (if less eloquently) from those Burners who believe Burning Man is more than a fantastic party, who see Burning Man as the next major step in the evolution of a sustainable global culture.

Which is a problem, because German Idealism didn’t really go anywhere.

Don’t get me wrong, it was HUGE in the 1830s, but it hasn’t appeared at any major festivals lately.  You only see it  popping up when somebody quotes Immanuel Kant in a high school debate tournament, or when somebody proposes a “science of history” to incorrectly predict what will inevitably happen next.

While the German Idealists’ critique of religion is every bit as trenchant as their critique of rationalism, as effectively as they identified “the problem,” their solutions ultimately satisfied no one and (if pressed too hard) tended to dissolve into mumbling about “spirit” with no substance.

To the extent Burners are closet German Idealists, we should take it as a warning sign to do better.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that Burning Man is waaaay more fun than German Idealism ever was.  We’ve got that going for us.

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June 11th, 2014  |  Filed under Spirituality

Sabbath on the Playa

sukkatshalom

Friday evening of my second Burn, I had one of the holiest meals I can remember. As the stars came out, a big group gathered at camp Sukkat Shalom, lit candles, gave blessings, drank wine, and fried up crispy, savory latkes for each other to eat. It was an ideal way to ground the frenetic energy of the week in preparation for the following night’s burn. The cross-section of Burners interested in gathering to welcome the Sabbath was unlike that of any other on-playa scene. The wine, talk, and song flowed late into the night.

In subsequent years, the scene has been crazy. An overwhelming number of people show up. While I think that’s a great sign, it overloads the camp, and food is scarce. No theme camp’s gift is inexhaustible. But this year, Sukkat Shalom is crowd-funding a blowout Shabbat dinner experience. Here’s why I hope you’ll support it. Disclosure: I know and love lots of the people who run Sukkat Shalom.

The next-level Sukkat Shalom Shabbat dinner will begin under a blinky dome with LEDs that respond to the group’s singing as it welcomes the Sabbath, the holy day of rest and reflection, which ends at sundown on Saturday before the Man burns. The multi-course meal will be served at a Bedouin-style communal table in a subtly designed sound environment. It will be a sacred celebration, but it will also be a full-spectrum stimulus any Burner will love.

Sukkat Shalom is not a religious camp. Its name means “shelter of peace” in Hebrew, which is a thoroughly Jewish concept, but surely it’s one that makes sense to anyone who’s ever been to the Black Rock Desert. The camp calls itself “Jew-ish” (emphasis on “ish,” a term I personally can’t stand), but it does so in the name of inclusivity. It’s a camp run by some Jewish people and some non-Jewish people, and it has no religious requirements or expectations, but it’s framed by some Jewish concepts that apply beautifully on the playa. Shabbat is, in my opinion, the most powerful. Who doesn’t feel the specialness of Saturday at Burning Man?

sukkat2

I think about religion the whole time I’m in Black Rock City. There are so many pieces of religious life there if you’re inclined to look at them that way. The annual trek out there can feel like a pilgrimage. One of the central architectural features of the city is its Temple. Over the course of the week, time is demarcated by a series of ceremonies and offerings, the burns being the biggest examples. The desert itself is a classic site of personal revelation.

But the most powerful part of Burning Man culture is that it’s not prescriptive. These components of the experience are not specific representations of religious ideas. They’re archetypes of them, there for participants to share through their own lenses of meaning, even totally unreligious — or sacrilegious — ones. Just like the Temple is for everyone on the playa, regardless of what it means to them, I think Shabbat can be, too.

So consider supporting Sukkat Shalom’s Shabbat dinner on Indiegogo and help celebrate the sacredness of Friday night at Burning Man.

Images courtesy of Sukkat Shalom


June 10th, 2014  |  Filed under Afield in the World

Charlie Dolman Keynote Speaker at the Project Management Institute Conference

Charlie speaking at the conferenceCharlie Dolman, Burning Man’s Event Operations Director, was recently invited by the Project Management Institute to be the Opening Keynote Speaker at their conference in San Diego. The Project Management Institute provides project management practitioners and organizations with standards that describe good practices and provides globally recognized credentials in their field.

Of course, the first question that comes to mind is what can attendees at a project management conference learn from Burning Man, and how could it make them better project managers? Well, Charlie asked the audience … what does it take to build a city in the desert? A lot of spreadsheets! overview

Organizing Burning Man requires monumental schedule, budget, legal, safety, and risk considerations. As Burning Man’s Event Operations Director, Charlie wanted to share his unique perspective and insights, from project management essentials to lessons learned in the dust.

The conference attendees wanted to hear about the Burning Man event itself and what it looks like from a project management point of view. So Charlie told them about the pre-event build process, including the Golden Spike ritual, surveying the city, and how building the 9.2-mile long trash fence is a cooperative effort, completed by a hardy crew in less than one day.

moop mapHe described the elements that go into creating Black Rock City, including the street grid with signs and addresses, port-o-potties, an airport, big art, a Department of Mutant Vehicles. He discussed the nuances of working with a volunteer workforce, the challenges of our mandate to Leave No Trace of Black Rock City after the event has concluded, and the prolific growth of Burning Man culture through the Regional Network.

What did Charlie think about this chance to share his experience with project management professionals?

“It was great to have the opportunity to speak to professional project managers about Burning Man. Sharing the thing you love with other interested and professional folks is brilliant fun. There were some great questions and some surprise curve balls too! Overall the experience was great!”


June 10th, 2014  |  Filed under Afield in the World

Burners Discuss Community Building in San Mateo [Full Video]

On Wednesday, May 14, the city of San Mateo, CA hosted a panel of veteran Burners as part of its San Mateo Innovation Week. The topic was how to build and inspire the community you envision. Here’s the full hour-long video for your enjoyment and edification.

The panelists were Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel; Karen Cusolito, Oakland artist and founder of American Steel Studios; Dr. Mike North, host of the Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! and founder of ReAllocate; and Ilana Lipsett, co-founder of Freespace. It was facilitated by Stuart Mangrum, Education Director of the Burning Man Project. More photos after the jump. Read more »


June 9th, 2014  |  Filed under Burning Book Club

Burning Book Club: what the hell is a “spiritual resource,” anyway?

Burning Books(Read all Burning Book Club entries here)

Since the book club’s taking an extra week to finish chapter 2 of Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God,” I thought I’d follow-up on a common line of questioning from last week’s entry.  Eagleton suggests near the end of chapter 1 that “Rationalized societies tend not only to impoverish their symbolic resources, but to pathologize them as well.”

A lot of people had questions about that.

I am going to try to address these questions, and to do so without mentioning Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero with A Thousand Faces” even once.  Although for many people I do think “Burning Man” functions as the “underworld” in Campbell’s much celebrated “Hero’s Journey.”

I should also note that this is only my own personal response to a text:  Caveat’s bullshit, not Burning Man’s bullshit.

If reading the last four paragraphs already has you bored, for god sake don’t keep reading.  Life is short!  Go kiss somebody you have a crush on!  Book Club will still be here next week.  Don’t waste your life the way I have.

(Ahem)

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