Chris Carlsson writes on the Burning Man festival for Processed World magazine.
by Chris Carlsson
“After a while, the festival’s emphasis on hedonism and overt displays of sexuality can seem like a hipster straitjacket and the overtones of New Age spirituality a gloss for a new type of vapid and self-congratulatory consumerism…. The essential point of Burning Man is not what it is now but what it suggests for the future, which is not just a new cultural form but the possibility of a new way of being, a kind of radical openness toward experience that maintains responsibility for community. Radical openness means no closure, perpetual process and transformation, and embracing paradox, contradiction, and uncomfortable states. Every instant becomes synchronistic, every contact a contact high.”
East of Sacramento on Interstate 80, I glance to my left as a pickup truck overtakes me. A blonde woman wearing devil’s horns is flashing me an electrifying smile, gesturing and mouthing: Are you going to Burning Man? I smile back, nod, and give her the thumb’s up. She pumps both arms triumphantly, and as they pull away, I’m left euphoric by the mysteriously powerful connection that passed from one metal box to another.
Hours later, having cleared the mighty Sierra Nevada not far removed from where starving Chinese coolies chiseled out the first transcontinental railroad tracks through howling blizzards, I passed the neon blandness of Reno’s unmajestic skyline, gassed up, and proceeded into the desolation of the Great Basin. Leaving the interstate behind, I entered the world of rural Nevada, Indian tacos and trailers scattered among riparian oases, separated by countless miles of arid but spectacular landscape. The road is crowded with trailers, buses, mid-sized sedans, usually carrying bicycles on the back, clearly all heading north to the playa. One dirt road leaves to the right, and under some rare shade a couple is busy spray painting bicycles light blue against the tawny, dusty ground.
The mountain range that marks the end of the state highway at the towns of Empire and Gerlach looms ahead. Dust clouds appear to the east, kicked up by arrivals preceding me. No sooner do I see them than my throat cracks, the taste of dust on my tongue. Twenty minutes later I’m crawling in bumper to bumper traffic completely immersed in gusting dust-filled winds, awaiting an inspection that rivals airport security as “Rangers” try to ferret out scofflaws and stowaways. License plates hail from New York, Illinois, Oregon, British Columbia, Minnesota, all points between. Newly legalized Black Rock City radio is pumping tunes into the car, interspersed with occasional warnings that impossibly well-hidden stowaways will not elude the Rangers.
Signs line the incoming roadway. “Barter is just another word for commerce.” “Don’t Trade it, Pay it Forward.” And dozens of others. After a brief search for the camp location, I park. The dust thickened on the car as I spent the next five days exclusively bicycling around Black Rock City.
Tuesday night: like a moth drawn to the light in the inky darkness of the desert, I pedal forward. Some kind of mad scientist has a keyboard hanging over his neck, attached to truck horns and bellows. As his fingers tickle the keys, flames shoot from tubes, pops and groans emerging from invisible holes and crevices. Three dozen cyclists surround the scene, smiling and pointing while background drum and bass machine add to the sound.
I take a ride in the 37-foot-high “Olivator,” a vertical chair ascent for a calm view of the lasers and neon lights chasing each other across the nighttime playa. A dozen pyrocycles ride by, each towing a trailer with an oil derrick on it, spouting flame at the top. Later I am nearly run over by a motorized float full of people peering out of a TV screen, labeled “Sony Tripatron”… Two bikes tow a three-piece percussion ensemble, bass and trap drum set… At the camp called Bollywood an unbelievable rock ‘n roll film from 1965 screens, Gumnaam or something like that… a blues band rocks the house at Hair of the Dog bar, a long-time installation at Black Rock City.
Another day, a dusty sun-soaked morning, early risers scurry about while others prepare to crash from the night’s endless party. Cycling about, I encounter on the playa a copy of Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead, spread open to a page on frictionless capitalism, awaiting the arrival of art cars to run over it. Returning to the city streets, I’m accosted by a guy with a bullhorn next to a late model SUV. On it a camping chair says “soccer mom.” He’s yelling, “If you love Burning Man, come and pee on this Soccer Mom’s SUV!”
One midweek evening we ride through gusting waves of dust to the “Man” to catch Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop-Shopping Revue; a big gospel chorus in gold lamé gowns swayed behind his syncopated sermonizing… it was funny and much more overtly political than the usual Burning Man fare. I particularly love their finale as they sing “We Ain’t Sponsored, we ain’t sponsored, we ain’t sponsored…”
I went to Burning Man in 2003 as a self-designated “Official Scrutinizer,” with a brief questionnaire offering passersby heavy or light scrutiny. “Heavy scrutiny” meant a 45-minute audio interview, “light scrutiny” quickly scribbled answers to a dozen multiple choice questions. My “performance” led to twenty-four quality interviews and countless fantastic conversations. I wanted to explore my assumptions about class consciousness among participants, to find out who they were, what they did the rest of the year, how they contextualized the experience, etc.
Those I encountered filled a range of occupations: health educator/social worker, transportation planner, teacher, math professor (retired), testing and counselor of street kids, homeless youth study coordinator, welder/metal fabricator, software tester, human resources manager, environmental biochemist, teacher, freelance high tech research/marketing, handyman/auto mechanic, community development and technology consultant, computer repairman and apartment manager, teacher/ex-dot.com content provider, political organizer, immigration legal aide, veterinary assistant, house painter, builder, president marketing services/open source software company, business/technology consultant.
They covered a full age range, too: 23-30: seven; 32-40: seven; 41-50: five; 51-63: five. Of the thirteen women and eleven men I spoke with, the vast majority believed there is a ruling class (20), while their own class identification was confused at best: 7 middle class; 5 working class; 7 both; 3 neither; 2 didn’t know. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the respondents were white (though a smattering of people of color do attend). And due to my approach, the group was a self-selecting subset of the larger population, people drawn to the notion of “scrutiny,” analysis, thinking, reflection. It is difficult to generalize about 29,000 people, and perhaps not worth trying. Also, many have abandoned Burning Man over the years for a variety of reasons. Thus, this inquiry is not an attempt to confront all the criticisms or objections to Burning Man that are held.
In fact, I am not trying to defend the institution at all—for an institution is what it has become! My own attempt to interact with the organizers of Burning Man led to a puzzling and ultimately absurd exchange with a self-designated media committee representative going by the moniker ‘Brother John’. I thought to communicate my intentions to this committee as a courtesy. Much to my surprise my first email led to a response “rejecting” my “request,” misunderstanding my own past attendance, and admonishing me to come to the festival to just experience it. According to Brother John, after I’d soaked it up for a year I could make a proposal the committee might “approve.” I was shocked and wrote back my rejection of their authority. Brother John then indicated that he realized it was a relationship based on mutual agreement and they could not regulate me if I didn’t accept it, but that the Burning Man Media Committee would expect me to submit to them anything I wrote PRIOR to publication! I stopped myself from responding that this policy violated all journalistic autonomy and was more akin to the Pentagon’s approach to war coverage than the ostensible free community of Burning Man. I held my tongue and chose to ignore them from that time on.
Other complaints about the allocation of money to artists, the occasionally heavy-handed exercise of authority by drunken Black Rock City rangers, the airport security shakedown at the gates to catch stowaways, the ever-rising price of entry, etc., have been noted elsewhere. While I am aware of the many ways to criticize the failures of Burning Man, my own goal in attending, interviewing and writing was different, as you’ll see.
Commerce-free Gift Economy
“If Burning Man is a cult, it is above all a cult of transformation.” —Daniel Pinchbeck(2)
“… The campsite counters the isolation in which most of the people we met live year-round…” —Margaret Cerullo and Phyllis Ewen(3)
The people who come to Burning Man would never say—or even think—so, but clearly the vast majority are part of the sprawling American working class. When they’re not at BM they have to go to work, mostly living from paycheck to paycheck and on credit. Once a year, for fun, they go on an expedition to the desert along with 29,000 others. And what do they do? They “set up” on the blank dusty slate of the white, flat playa. Then they live in a densely populated city and have a totally urban experience. But ita familiar and strangely different city life. The lack of infrastructure beyond porta-potties and the semi-circular layout of Black Rock City leaves room for the harsh nature of the desert to impose itself. Commerce is formally excluded (with the notable exceptions of ice and the Center Camp café).
I asked my scrutinees how they felt about the commitment to a cash-free “gift economy.” Most people were genuinely enthusiastic. Several emphasized that it was a major reason for their coming. “…I am so attracted to Burning Man because for close to a week I can exist without ever having to spend money, without ever having to worry about people asking for money—it’s just eliminated.” For a school teacher it is a “mental vacation, a sense of relief,” while a female metal worker thought it “kind of hypocritical,” mostly because of the espresso sales at Center Camp. One computer geek claimed “I would love to live in the gift economy 365 days a year!” Some of the lower wage participants, a handyman and a veterinary assistant, were adamant: “That’s why I come here,” and “I think life should be like this, it’s the only way to live.” A Berkeley apartment manager, who also fixes computers, described it as “a natural human impulse that is given free reign and encouraged here. It’s just a normal thing that people want to do.”
The commerce-free environment is “imperative. I wouldn’t come here otherwise,” said a street counselor, while a retired human resources staffer emphasized “it’s the thing that inspired me and drew me to Burning Man… Doing something because you love to do it rather than because you have to do it is always refreshing and wonderful…” For one person the commerce-free environment was a means to break down class assumptions based on consumption patterns. “Here nobody cares how much money I make because I have all these other things to offer. Also the people who have a lot of money are able to see people who maybe have almost nothing—they scrimp and they save every single penny they have to come here—[while] it’s just like another vacation for the wealthy.”
Not everyone “buys” the story Burning Man tells itself: “I don’t think it really is a commerce-free environment... it doesn’t mean much to me to have this contrived, one-week gift economy. I see efforts to create alternatives, or to transform the world we live in, [get] co-opted and integrated by the dominant society. There is a gift economy that already exists, the living culture in people’s daily lives, and Burning Man is a co-optation of it, selling it back to people. It’s a product, like ethical consumerism in some ways…”
Thousands of “alternative” people go to the northern Nevada desert and build a miniature Las Vegas. Neon light and techno-music and amenities of urban night life are trucked along. A lot of people bring everything they want: the RV, the pavilion, the sinks, the astroturf, the refrigerators and everything else. They lack for nothing and could almost be in the suburbs. Ironically, people come here to escape, but re-create a version of the world they left behind, down to the carpet on the floor and the wetbar in the corner.
“Family camping embodies many anticapitalist yearnings and a dream of a different life... It is a dream in which there are no great inequalities and in which the market does not determine human relationships. Yet paradoxically, these preindustrial fantasies tie people more tightly into the market. Mass production and mass marketing have made family camping possible for working-class people. Families go further into debt in order to make the investment in camping equipment. The experience of nature is mediated by commodities.”
—Margaret Cerullo and Phyllis Ewen(4)
Burning Man is a countercultural expression of the working class yearnings described in the 1982 article above (read it again, replacing “family camping” with “Burning Man”). The fabled nudity, wild art, rave music, drugs and sex are all manifestations of the specific subcultures that attend, but underneath the spectacular behaviors are regular people. Once away from the stifling conformity of “normal life” (especially work life), people are free to experiment with costume, identity, and group behaviors in ways that are difficult at home. For most attendees, Burning Man is a different world subjectively.
One way to see Burning Man is as a Do-It-Yourself World’s Fair. The much-touted freeing of imagination it embodies leads to entertaining and inspiring art projects from sculpture and installation to fire-breathing dragons and galleons with crowded bars inside. Moreover, the preponderant ethic of do-it-yourself art-making begins to permeate most interactions, deepening human connections in ways that are usually absent in daily lives. Art is alienated from everyday life by being commodified and separated, but Burning Man places art at the center of human activity. BM slips an exciting notion into the back of its participants’ minds: our greatest collective art project is living together. Every activity can be engaged artistically. One can find in anything a sense of aesthetic pleasure, communicative depth, and resonance with something true and passionate. The art of living becomes something tangible and reinforced by recurrent surprises of gift-giving and cooperation.
Burning Man is an enormous experiment in relearning to speak to each other directly, and reopening and using public spaces. It’s a hands-on, throats-on, tongues-on experience. You learn to meet strangers with an open heart. Participants practice trust in a practical context removed from “normal life.” Skill sharing, experimentation and appropriation of the techno-sphere for pleasure, edification and self-expression point to a deeper practical radicalization than what is usually attributed to Burning Man.
Like anything worth doing, Burning Man is fraught with contradictions. But within them are impulses and behaviors that connect to a wider social movement that exceeds the self-conceptions of its participants. Burning Man is a nascent attempt of the working class, not as a class per se, but as people who refuse to be mere workers, to recompose itself, and in so doing, to transcend class and the capitalist organization of life that stunt our humanity.
“These are people without any well-integrated social place. Their lives are characterized by job instability, geographic mobility, divorce and remarriage, and distance from relatives… If “getting away from it all” represented an escape, it was an imperfect one… If it was an industrial nightmare they sought to escape, it was the products of industrial civilization that offered themselves to aid and abet their escape. If it was an escape from work and the clock they envisioned, they found the very meaning and experience of leisure defined and circumscribed by the images and rhythms and moral valuations of work.”
—Margaret Cerullo and Phyllis Ewen(5)
America is in denial about class. This society insists that there’s no such thing (and of course there’s no history either, only nostalgia, the Civil War and WWII). Ultimately, class is about power. Some people make decisions about the shape of our lives and then there’s the rest of us. We have to work to survive. If you have to work, you’re in the working class. You might be making $65K/yr. but you aren’t in control of what you do, how it’s shaped, what technologies are used, nothing. You may live paycheck to paycheck, but because you are “well paid,” and have been told you are “professional,” you don’t identify as a worker. Big deal, they’ve always had well-paid workers.
U.S. politics tends to gravitate around claims of what’s good or bad for the “middle class,” a group that ostensibly includes everyone but the bag ladies and street homeless on one side and the Leer-jetsetting super-rich on the other. The most confusing piece of this puzzle in the past decades has been the gradual disappearance of the working class, replaced in some politicians’ speeches by references to “working families,” or in the rhetoric of leftist organizers as “working people,” but defrocked of its status as a class. Many people in blue and white-collar jobs think of themselves as middle class, a self-affirming status maintained by shopping properly.
The term “class” has lost a great deal of meaning in the United States. Does this collapse of meaning correspond to a disappearance of referents? Are we living in a classless society? Of course not. But the conceptual tools required to understand and make sense of this society have been radically degraded. The key missing arrow in our empty quiver is the one that pierces class society, that explains the systemic dynamics that produce a small group of extremely wealthy at one pole, and an ever greater number of impoverished at the other. Between the extremes of untold wealth and absolute immiseration(6) most of us live quiet lives, coping as best we can with the cards we’re dealt.
In the U.S., where even the poorest 10% are wealthier than 2/3 of the world’s population,(7) decades of cold war, consumerist propaganda, and a balkanized humanities curriculum have atomized the population into market niches and an endless series of personal crises. The notion that the vast majority of us, who have nothing to sell but our labor and are consequently utterly dependent on wages and salaries for our survival, are part of a broad class of people sharing a fundamental relationship to power and wealth in this society, is an idea that has been overwhelmed and dismissed.
When I asked my interviewees if they identify with the label “middle class,” “working class,” neither or both, I got wonderfully complex responses. A 63-year-old retired math professor explained, “I’m what they used to call déclassé. My parents were working class. I raised myself up to the middle class, and now … University professors—people with an upper middle class income and a sub-lower class mentality!” A 34-year-old social worker from Australia called himself “polyglot: I grew up in a string of mining towns and worked as a miner, but my parents were university educated and so was I in a country where that’s rarer than here.” The female metal worker put it bluntly: “I would say working class, definitely, I don’t make enough money to be middle class.” A mid-20s teacher, on his way from the east to the northwest, explained, “I work. I don’t really think about [class] for me. I think about it for my parents. My mom was a nurse, my dad was a firefighter. We were middle America, right down the middle.” A clown, who survives in San Francisco as a veterinary assistant, reinforced the resistance I encountered to questions about class. “I try not to think about it much. Like what class I belong to... probably working poor... It’s only an issue when someone else makes it an issue.” An NGO staffer in Berkeley in her late-30s characterized her own ambivalence and downward mobility thusly: “Absolutely I’m a middle class person. My parents were both lawyers. I was born into the middle class in Berkeley... But I am definitely the American working class. I live paycheck to paycheck. I don’t own my home. I’m a wage slave…”
A 35-year-old Canadian making his first trip to Burning Man had one of the more unusual responses: “Neither. Because I cycle [between] jobs that pay ridiculously well [and those that don’t]. For the least amount of work I’ve gotten paid the highest wage and for the hardest work I’ve gotten shit wages. I’m not middle class because I’ve been upper class and I’ve been lower class. I was the plant manager, so I had about 150 employees underneath me. Right now I’m working as an industrial cleaner at a ready-to-eat plant that makes sausages. I hose everything down with high pressure, high-temperature water, apply some chemicals that eat away at protein and then rinse it off and sanitize it. Then government inspectors inspect it. When people say ‘what do you do?’ I still say I’m a biochemist… [As a plant manager] I sat down and thought ‘why am I always tired?’ It’s because I’m not doing what I want to do. Which led me to other questions: ‘Well, what is it I DO want to do?’ I don’t know. ‘Well, how do I find out what to do?’ They don’t teach ethics in school. They don’t teach rational thinking processes in school. They don’t teach you how to survive on your own. They teach you how to incorporate into the system, how to be a dependent.”
After finding out how people labeled themselves I asked what the word ‘class’ means to them, and how people fall into one or another class.
“I tend to think that there’s only two classes: there’s the people that have the levers of power and then there’s the rest of us... I come here for the chaos and spontaneity to purposefully forget that manner of thinking.”
“Class means primarily the degree of economic self-determination that you’re able to exercise.”
“I think if you know someone’s class, you won’t know anything about them... I think [class is] what gets us into trouble.”
“Class to me is a relationship, like capital is a relationship… it’s usefulness as an analytic category has been somewhat deflated. At the same time that I think it is still a very real thing.”
“Smash it. It’s ridiculous, it’s horrible, it puts value on very few things and it’s all run by the almighty dollar.”
“Class is a strata, it’s a way of distinguishing groups so you know what boundaries to set for yourself… I think that class distinction is more important as you go further along and get higher up because you stand to lose more.”
“One definition is you are born into or enter as a result of your actions. Another is a sense of upbringing and education. Or your current circumstances. For example, my father is a taxi driver and I live in a neighbourhood surrounded by factories, sweat-shops and prostitution. My last form of semi-regular income was as a labourer on construction sites, and I am regularly un/under-employed. Seemingly working class. However, I also went to a pretty prestigious high school, have a bachelors degree in fine arts and currently work as a community service provider, pretty middle class.”
“It means access to resources... it’s also a way of recognizing excellence... There’s some people that I really admire and look up to and I consider them to be ‘higher class’ in a way.”
“Class means being able to walk out of your wind-blown, sand-blown domicile without a shower in five days, looking fabulous! That is class… My idea of class has nothing to do with money. It has to do with education… blue collar is class. These people know their shit. But those who know, and those who can teach and those who can show and those who just are by example, that’s class, heavy class.”
“All class distinctions are subjective, there are no objective class classifications.”
“I don’t understand class distinctions personally. I don’t need money to do a lot of things, so I feel wealthy.”
“Well birth is a lot of it... I don’t get the class thing, by the way. I think part of it is about self-imposed limitations, and that’s really tragic.”
“Largely birth. Birth, then education.”
The prevailing amnesia and confusion results from a complex set of overlapping dynamics. “Globalization” is the all-purpose buzzword describing the redesign of work, the relocation of production within and without national borders, the rolling back of unions and the welfare state, and the rapid and extreme concentration of wealth and power. Another way of stating it is that since the ebbing of profits in the mid-1970s, capital has carried out a worldwide counterattack. The “just-in-time” pace of work (some call it “Toyota-ism”8), the redesign and redevelopment of cities, the computerization of production, the huge increase of incarceration, the unprecedented wave of human migration within and across borders, all have contributed to a growing isolation for individuals. Where once there were stable communities, neighborhoods, and familiar faces at workplaces, where one might work for decades, now people move from place to place and job to job, whipped by unrelenting insecurity and the threat of being left behind.
The End of Community—Long Live Community!
“Long working hours, the breakup of long-term personal associations, and, most important, the disappearance of women from neighborhoods during the day have accelerated the decline of civil society, the stuff of which the amenities of everyday life are made. In the 1980s and 1990s membership in voluntary organizations such as the Parent-Teachers’ Association, veterans’ groups, and social clubs declined but, perhaps more to the point, many of them lost activists, the people who kept the organizations together. Labor unions, whose membership erosion was as severe as it was disempowering, became more dependent on full-time employees to conduct organizing, political action, and other affairs as rank-and-file leaders disappeared into the recesses of the nonstop workplace. The cumulative effect of this transformation is the hollowing out of participation and democracy where it really counts, at the grass roots.”
What we’ve lived through in the last 30 years is a radical decomposition of the working class. Of course two world wars wrought more destruction and unraveled societies more completely, but the reorganization of life and work since the late 1970s has broken down communities and ways of life that impeded profitability. Consequently, the world is now much more transient. Everywhere people are in motion in the greatest wave of human migration in history. Jobs have been exported, new people have arrived with different cultures, languages, memories and expectations. In the few places that are relatively stable, the influx rapidly alters labor markets, urban density, housing, transportation, pollution, and social tension. Even in the U.S., the chances of living at the same address for more than five years is fairly small. Then there’s the casualization of work, the rise of temporary employment, contract labor, and the breakdown of careers and permanent jobs. Nobody lasts at any given job longer than a few years anymore. And there is no future at a given job. Unless you are a nurse, doctor, or something like that, most people freelance. That fragmentary existence lacks a real sense of shared community, neighborhood, street life, or work life. The old ways of being in community have broken down.
This breakdown of communities and families is a result of the furious pace of life under contemporary capitalism. Conveniently for the needs of capital, it is precisely within those lost social networks that alternative knowledge and counter-narratives were kept alive and passed along. As the traditional communities of workplace and neighborhood have been ripped asunder by plant closings, urban redevelopment, and the new transience, the historical memories of communities that had organized and resisted unfettered exploitation in the past have nearly been lost too. Popular movements with memories of their own political power based on collective action, have diminished as the physical foundations have been kicked out from beneath them.
But this process is as old as capitalism itself. What we are living through is just the latest in a cycle that Italian theorists of the autonomist school have framed with the concept of “class composition.”(10) Since capital’s counterattack began in the mid-1970s, working class composition has been systematically altered, or “decomposed”. By the late 1960s movements across the planet had pushed for shortened working hours and increased pay, but crucially, had begun contesting the very definitions of life and work and the reasons why we live the way we do. The oil shock of 1973-74 was the first loud response of a world capitalist elite afraid of losing its power and determined to rein in an unruly working class by re-imposing austerity and fear of unemployment.(11) Historic wage highs were reached in the early 1970s in the U.S. and elsewhere. Since that time, working hours have been radically intensified and in the 1990s absolutely lengthened, while wages in real dollars have remained constant or diminished. In spite of an economy four times larger than it was in 1980 (as measured by the terribly inaccurate and misleading Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) in the early 21st century we are working more hours per year and working much harder, but life has not improved. Most people are just glad to have work and income in a world where “falling” is perceived as a real possibility, where one doesn’t have to look beyond the next street corner to see how abject life can be if you don’t stay in the good graces of ever-more demanding employers.
Burning Man promises its participants a reclaimed, revitalized, reborn sense of community. Upon arrival everyone is greeted with a hearty “welcome home” even if they’ve never been there before. I asked my scrutinees what the word ‘community’ means:
—“The opposite of feeling isolated and unsupported… a feeling of being able to lean on your neighbor.”
— “An investment looking for a payback.”
— “Where you can lean on and know your neighbors, you help each other out… You’re easy to control when you’re just one person with no strong community backing.”
— “Something that has its real and its ideal sides. The ideal is a lot of sharing and thoughtfulness and planning to make sure everyone’s ok. And the real one is knowing that that’s the best way to take it, but not always having the courage to do that.
— “The common ground constantly has to be renegotiated or re-evaluated… community here is interesting because of its temporariness… You can’t ever step outside how our societal relations are influenced by capitalism but you can certainly try, and I think Burning Man is a possibility.”
— “An environment, doing things and being… It’s a platform for playing with ideas about everyday life.”
— “All the parts dependent on each other, all working together, living and non-living.”
— “Shared purpose, shared values. Another type is based on geography, and is based on default… The most profound meaning is a sense of identity.”
— “Involvement, equality and respect, safety, love.”
— “Oh God. Such an overused word in the Bay Area, such a code word… drop the community in any speech and it shows that you’re a good person and that you value human interaction. It’s become the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ of the left... Community ideally is a group of people together whether by choice or circumstance, who feel a shared interest, a shared destiny, a shared responsibility... it’s so temporary and so tenuous [at Burning Man] and you can just leave if you want, which is not what real community is about. A real community, you can’t just pick up and go, it would matter if you left.”
The normal impulse in life is to cooperate and to do things together. The market and the capitalist economy seeks to break that. You are tacitly pressured to hold back so you can then sell to somebody, instead of sharing your skills and energy. Burning Man is a chance to experience unmediated cooperation. The deeper truth of living is somehow briefly tasted here as an extreme experience, but it’s actually quite normal. People seek community, to connect with each other in authentic ways, regardless of the contradictions inherent in the expensive Burning Man experience. BM provides a context to create trust, which leads people to envision other kinds of living and to share efforts to bring it about.
Making Technology Ours
One of the constituent elements of the emerging culture visible at Burning Man is a classically working class predisposition for tinkering, playing, innovating and doing things that are useful. And doing it with a real sense of rugged individualist independence: “I can fix that. I don’t need anybody to tell me how to do that, I can do it myself.” In spite of the individualist ethic, it’s always a collective process, handing down knowledge and techniques. Technology, gadgets, electronics—this is how a lot of Americans do art, albeit often unconsciously. At Burning Man people share machinery and electric light and urbanization in a heavily technological event. As one of the teachers I interviewed put it, “Everything here is technology, all these bikes, the flames, the domes, the pyramids, that’s all technology.” But people have very different ideas about technology, often independent of their own engagement with it.
An avid bicyclist, who got involved repairing bikes at her first Burning Man described herself as a technophobe. “When I hear ‘technology’ and ‘tinkerer’, I don’t relate that to fixing bikes for some reason.” Our biochemist, who is as high-tech as a person can be, explained, “Back in the ‘50s they said all this technology was going to save time. Well it didn’t. I’ve got less time than I would have even 20 years ago.”
A former software engineer hilariously characterized herself this way: “I’m pretty low-tech here, although I have a titanium computer, a color printer, a laminating machine and two 80 gig firewire drives and all the equipment. This is my low-tech year… I work, weld, and grind and I’m fabulously happy around tools… I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s great. I am not a trained mechanic. I am not a person who knows any of the crap that I’m doing. I love not having the idea behind me that says ‘no you can’t use this tool for that.’ I don’t know what you use this tool for, fuck it, this is what I’m doin’ with it!”
A social worker who does research on the street observed the same creative involvement: “One of the things I really like at BM is that you see this endless ‘we’re gonna take something and we’re gonna do something different with it, because nothing’s available that let’s us do this thing’. It’s one of the true joys and delights of being here.”
His colleague was repelled by the heavy dependence on fossil fuels at Burning Man: “…the whole idea of art cars that burn gasoline seems ridiculous. And these flamethrowers are all burning petroleum-based products. But on the other hand gasoline is also used in a lot of different, interesting, creative and beautiful ways… Obviously we couldn’t be out here in this godforsaken place without technology.”
The ability to appropriate the technosphere, make it part of you, make it do what you want, is an essential aspect of self-liberation. Gaining confidence by doing little things can lead to challenging and reshaping bigger things. The crucial part is how the material experience shapes one’s imagination. Burning Man reclaims technological know-how, withdraws it from market relations and reapplies it to activities and projects whose purpose is pleasure rather than profit. But more importantly, the same logic and practice of technological reappropriation potentially undergirds another life—a post-capitalist life. Radical change on a global scale depends on our cleverness and our skills—and our ability to use technologies in ways that enhance our humanity, our freedom, and are consistent with interdependence and ecological sanity.
Liberated Work vs. Useless Toil
“The historical emergence of a huge social surplus in industrially advanced capitalist societies, [permitted] a considerable fraction of the population to live outside the wage-labor system, at least for a substantial period of their adult lives. Many are marginals, hippies, freelance artists and writers, and graduate students who never enter the professional or academic workforces except as temporary, part-time workers. Rather than seeking normal, full-time employment in bureaucratic, commercial, or industrial workplaces they prefer to take jobs as office temps or find niches that do not require them to keep their nose to the grindstone, to show up to the job at an appointed hour, or to work for fifty weeks out of the year….”
Burning Man grew out of a subculture of people who recognized that a life worth living takes place outside of wage-labor, in addition to or instead of paid work. Its growth demonstrates a hunger for social experiences outside of the “normal” economic constraints of earning, buying and selling, as a way to deepen and extend human life. For many, it’s also an opportunity to do good work, unmediated by the twisted goals of economic life.
The female metal worker captured a typical approach to survival: “I go through phases, I work for a while, and then it’ll get to the point where I can take some time off… My life just goes on an as-needed basis. When I can afford time then I take time, when I can’t afford time then I make the money so I can afford time later.”
The ex-dotcommer would like to survive as a cartoonist, but expressed a dark realism, typical of many in her generation: “I’m not sure if I can get money doing what really lights me up. So I would rather do something menial with my hands, or work in a café or something, to free up my creative energy to work on my own projects.”
The veterinary assistant/clown straddles the split life: “Money is something I need to survive, and work is something I need to do to have money to survive, and I have a job that I don’t hate. That’s not what I am, that’s part of what I am, but I’m a lot more complex than that.”
An NGO staffer who emailed his questionnaire from Vancouver emphasized his different subjective experience when “working” at Burning Man. “There’s a considerably higher level of fun with these engagements—not only because of the type of work, but also because the knowledge of the end result, the work’s temporality and the personal connections that I have with the work.”
The apartment manager who also fixes computers admitted, “The experience of Burning Man makes my ache greater in my life... I go home, and I’m in planned time and I’m running on clocks, and I don’t know how to stop that cycle... I understand what the people who make the rules are telling me I should do with this green paper, but I just don’t know how to translate it into something that is fun and satisfying. By contrast, when you get ready for the Burn you work your tailbone off. And because you’re creating something different and new and you’re challenging yourself, even though it’s work, it has this bonus attached. You’re doing something that’s going to promote your survival, it’s going to help other people, it’s going to be something really unique.”
The handyman/auto mechanic clearly wants out of normal economic life: “I personally hate working for money. If I could work and not have to take money, it would be great. I love what I do. If I could somehow pull it off and not have to accept money, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Burning Man has a powerful effect on the imagination. It is not “real” liberation, but a temporary faux “escape” from the economy (that costs you hundreds of dollars). Nonetheless, it’s a real experiment, and a direct manifestation of yearning. People yearn to escape the limits of economic life, to be more than just “workers.” There aren’t many chances to experience a crowd of like-minded people, sharing a collective euphoria produced by artistic and technological self-activity. At Burning Man there is a taste of such a post-economic life, even if the sour aroma of the cash nexus is barely hidden beneath the playa.
1. “Heat of the Moment: The Art and Culture of Burning Man,” Artforum magazine, Nov. 2003
3. “Having a Good Time”: The American Family Goes Camping, Radical America, Spring 1982, Vol. 16 #1-2
6. “The richest 1% of people in the world receive as much as the bottom 57%, or in other words less than 50 million of the richest people receive as much as the 2.7 billion poorest.” from World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, 1999, cited in After the New Economy by Doug Henwood, New Press (New York: 2003), p. 132.
8. This term is fleshed out thoroughly in Modern Times, Ancient Hours by Pietro Basso. Verso: London 2003
9. How Class Works: Power and Social Movements, (Yale University Press: 2003). p.220
10. A thorough treatment of this tendency is presented in Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright, Pluto Press (London: 2002)
11. For a full analysis of the price of oil in combating working class militancy, first in the so-called First World, then turning the attack to the oil-producing workers themselves later, see Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 by the Midnight Notes collective, Autonomedia (New York: 1992).
12. How Class Works: Power and Social Movements, op.cit. p. 59.
Pyrocycles was a mobile pyrotechnic installation designed for, but not limited to, Burning Man 2003. The theme of the 2003 festival was Beyond Belief which invited the event-goers to look at the mysteries of faith and spirituality and that which is sacred. The dominant interpretations of this ranged from a return to a tribalistic neo-paganism to empty reflections on a lost spirituality to outright parodies of Christianity. Ours, however, differed in that it brought the reality of President Bush's political maneuverings in Iraq to the Black Rock Desert. The message is simply that the actual reality of the war in Iraq and the forces behind it must be not be forgotten in a festival where the participants are meant to look beyond our consciousness.
Pyrocycles built upon the propane-music technology used by the Octopus Car. Instead of a single vehicle with a centralized controller for the sequencing of the flames, it was a decentralized and kinetic system. There were eight units, each consisting of a bicyclist towing a trailer. Atop each trailer was an aluminum tower, over ten feet high, resembling an oil derrick witha constant small burning flame. Larger bursts of fire were controlled by the cyclist through an electronics controller on the handlebars. With the ability to modulate the frequency and the size of the propane bursts while riding the trailers around, the cyclists could orchestrate a unique visual-musical performance. Because we were on bicycles, we were a lot more approachable and friendly than most fire-based installations, which usually try to scare people with large fireballs.
The depiction of oil rigs in a desert environment was intended to evoke the landscape of oil-rich countries in the Middle East. By towing rigs behind human-powered vehicles, we were emphasizing the backwards nature of our society's dependence on fossil fuels, and the subordination of our energy and foreign policy to that dependence.
Reaction to the Pyrocycles project was mixed. Despite the explicitly political underpinnings of Burning Man, for many participants it is a determinedly apolitical space. For those seeking an escape from the politics of Iraq and the myriad of other unpleasantries they face, flaming oil rigs were a not-so-subtle reminder of the world they wanted to leave behind. Many other viewers, however, were struck by the appropriateness of the icons and their receptions ranged from amusement to deep appreciation of the piece.
On a purely aesthetic basis, the rhythmic effect of the flame and the clean lines of the metalwork were well received, and the bikes often drew a crowd that followed the riders around. Because of the control afforded to the riders, in many cases we were able to provide a pyromusical accompaniment to bands or DJs, which added an extra visual layer to their performances.
On a more detailed level, each of the trailers was adorned with the Pyrocycles logo as well as an individual icon representing a modern-day apocalypse. Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, each bicyclist spread its form of destruction from a different direction on the compass. The apocalypses are War, Media, Religion, Overpopulation, Environmental Pollution, Globalization, Corporatization and Oil.
Shown at: Burning Man, August-September, 2003 / Scott Kildall, [email protected]
Project designers: Brett Bowman, Scott Kildall, Sasha Magee, Mark Woloschuk