It might not be an overstatement to suggest that the single biggest challenge facing Burning Man as it transitions to a non-profit is explaining what-the-hell-it’s-good-for without making it sound like a therapy weekend or an erotic spa.
Why do we need to do this? Well, one reason is that the Media Team frequently gets emails asking things like:
- “What bands are playing at Burning Man this year?”
- “How many stages do you have?”
- “How do I get my act in your lineup?”
Telling these people to look at our website and see what we really do only leads to return emails saying “I still can’t find the bands! Except, is one of them named Temple Burn? Are they playing at the Arctica stage? Is that the main stage?”
Actually, wow, “Temple Burn” is a pretty killer name for a band … I’m calling it. It’s mine. Get your own band. You can be: “Dust Storm.”
Actually, “Dust Storm” is a pretty good name too. I’ll need it when “Temple Burn” kicks me out for creative differences. Hands off.
Your band can be “Gift Economy.” It’s kind of a folk-rock thing, very 60s influenced, writes a lot of songs about peace.
Where was I? Oh yeah …
Walking these people through an explanation of Burning Man on the phone often doesn’t help either. People who start out convinced that Burning Man books bands are remarkably resistant to the idea that … no … it doesn’t.
“How can you have a festival without bands?”
“Well, you see, we don’t actually like to think of it as a festival … oh shit, here we go down the rabbit hole. Okay look, there are these 10 principles, and most people can only remember three …”
I hate this conversation.
Non-Burners I meet in daily life also frequently ask questions about Burning Man that they think should have easy answers. Questions like:
- What happens there?
- If I go, what would I do?
Well how the hell should I know? Because … because … you see … I don’t know. What do you like to do?
Often they don’t see. And sometimes they reduce it down to the simplest component, just to get their heads around it. “Oh, you’re camping? Okay, got it. Camping I understand. Are there any bands? Because you can’t have a festival without bands.”
Despite 25 years, multiple books, a small cottage industry of academic papers, several documentaries, and countless newspaper articles, we still have trouble talking about Burning Man in ways that aren’t clichéd.
People pick up on that. It’s why there are so many clichés about Burning Man.
But right now I want to place myself firmly on the side of confusion.
Because every bit as much as Burning Man is about saving the environment (yeah yeah), elevating human consciousness (really? Over a holiday weekend?), creating alternative social models (I suppose somebody’s got to do it), Art (if you squint right, I guess), sexual liberation (isn’t that what college is for?), Art (I heard you the first time), and a raucous party spirit (isn’t that what graduate school is for?) … Burning Man is also about a kind of epic confusion that is good for the soul.
We live in an efficiency obsessed world. An awe depleted world. A world that tries to quantify every shred of our humanity and throw away the bits that don’t fit. A world where kids and adults alike are often scheduled within an inch of their lives.
It’s hard to find things that are good for the soul in this world, in no small part because we’re never allowed to engage things we don’t understand. Emotions? Those are neurochemicals. A sense that you’ve been called to something greater? That’s a bi-product of evolution. An attachment to community? That’s an attachment disorder. Ecstasy? That’s either an illusion or a drug. Existential dread? You’re just depressed.
None of this is necessarily true, but it’s the shape we’re hammered into. We know all the answers. Nothing to see here.
Everything that expands our humanity – and our capacity to be human – is packaged, processed, and filed away, often because it isn’t good for productivity or it won’t fit on an insurance form. The contemporary mandarins of productivity say this is good for the economy … but human beings can’t prosper when we’re made to live like machines and think like the internet.
The cultural backlash against this soul-killing positivism is in full force, but much of modern spiritual culture is as vapid as a celebrity hairdresser who’s skimmed “A Course In Miracles” to get style tips. American spiritual culture is no less cocksure than the rationalists it opposes, yet no more helpful.
Seriously, can I just say: fucking hippies! The gospel of the New Age does little more than call upon us to feel good about ourselves just the way we are … and this does nothing to engage our capacity to be more human. The “secret” dogma that if you “set your intentions” the universe will respond treats the ineffable as an ATM and sets the ego at the center of life, exactly where it doesn’t belong. Most modern spirituality is poorly thought out junk food with a gloss of quantum physics. It, too, offers slick and packaged easy answers that are useless and wrong. The answer to Richard Dawkins is not Deepak Chopra.
We can get away from all this: we can live in a way that gives us room to breathe. But to do it we need to give up the constrictions of false certainty. We have to stop pretending that we know what the fuck is going on. Life is bigger than our rational minds and our imaginations both. Life will surprise us no matter how many systems and pat answers we box ourselves in with, so we’re frequently better off without the boxes. To admit we don’t know what the universe is, or who we have the capacity to be … to admit our own potential to surprise even ourselves … is the only way we can really experience the full range of our humanity.
To be confused – in the biggest sense – is to be firing on all cylinders. Without knowing the right answer ahead of time, you can be fully engaged in the moment.
Burning Man offers that. Burning Man is one of the few places in the world that makes it easy. I love Burning Man because I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen next from moment to moment … or even what’s happening right now. To be a part of that epic confusion is to be a part of something bigger than I can understand, and that challenge … that invitation … is one that I can meet with all the humanity that is forbidden by the corporatized, cookie cutter, metricized world.
To be confused, then, is essential to the Burning Man experience.
So let people be confused. In fact, cultivate the confusion. The harder Burning Man is to understand … and by “understand” I mean “put into a box,” the first step towards becoming a commodity … the more “Burning Man” it will be. Let the event surprise us.
The trouble is that non-profits don’t do well with surprises. Boards of Directors don’t like surprises; big donors like to be clear on what they’re funding. Non-profits have to justify themselves to the IRS, which HATES surprises. In fact, non-profits need to use terms that the IRS determines comform to standard uses. If that sounds like no fun at all, you’ve probably had fun before.
Developing the right way of talking about Burning Man has always been a daunting challenge, but now it is an essential one. We need a way to describe it that is both acceptable to the non-profit ecosystem while also good for the soul. Fail to do either one, and something goes terribly wrong. This is Scylla and Charybdis. (The IRS is probably Charybdis.)
The reward for success: Burning Man will be so much easier to take to a world full of people who think there have to be bands.
Are we up for it? To be honest, I don’t know.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com