Last year I brought an art project with me to the playa – my first. It was a piece of “oracular playa magic” in which I would offer someone a personal experience: we would combine the serendipitous power of the playa with the deep insights provided by art to discover the person’s destiny and true nature.
It did not go the way I expected. Instead of being a fun little gift I could offer people, more often than not it stopped their burn in its tracks. I had people burst into tears; people go into deep conversations about their lives; one guy literally ran away. Other people told me, long after Burning Man, that they were still thinking about what I had “shown” then.
That was not supposed to happen. You can read about the whole experience here.
A number of people who witnessed this last year or read the story asked me if I was going to bring the project back for the 2014 burn. After a great deal of thought, I did. Unchanged except for the addition of a couple of new stories tacked on to the end.
The “divination game” was an immediate hit this year, and in my first few days I had a lot of people ask to participate, or bring me friends or people from their camps who were having various kinds of problems and therefore “needed” a reading.
But it wasn’t like last year: the effect was completely different. Instead of being an experience that stopped people in their tracks, my art project was a fun art gift that people really enjoyed and recommended to their friends. Which is great – I’m not complaining – but it made me wonder: why was it so different? Why was the exact same project getting a 180 degree response from the year before?
Part of it, surely, is just that no two years are alike – a fact that I gratefully acknowledge. But was that all there is?
A vital difference occurred to me after three days. Last year, nobody had known the game was coming, and most of the people I had first offered it to had been strangers: people who had no idea who I was and no context (outside of “we’re at Burning Man”) in which to interpret what was happening. This year, I was doing art divinations for people I’d known a long time or – more often – the people they were introducing me to. While technically strangers to me, these new people were getting a lot of contextual clues about who I was and what was going to happen. Someone told them some variant of “This is my amazing friend Caveat and he’s got this incredible gift where he tells your future, and it’s really good so you should do it!”
These people, in other words, were having me vouched for and explained prior to the art experience ever happening. Could that make the difference between an enjoyable art experience and a stop-you-in-your-tracks what-the-fuck-was-that moment?
There was one obvious way to find out. So on my fourth day at Burning Man (Wednesday … I think? …) I made a point of achieving escape velocity from all the people and camps where I was known and welcomed, and headed out into parts of Burning Man where to my knowledge I knew no one, following vague clues in the What, Where, When guide that never seemed to really pan out, and seeing what happened.
I met a bunch of strangers, and eventually came across moments where it seemed appropriate – natural and unforced – to offer them a piece of oracular playa magic.
It was just like last year. They stared at me, jaws dropped, asking what-the-hell.
This happened again, and again. The less someone knew, about me and the art project, the more likely they were to have an experience of the extraordinary through it, rather than just a good (and maybe even insightful) time.
The lack of any given context – the lack of a person saying “hey, here’s this guy, and he’s cool, and has this great thing you should do” – was vital. The fact that we were true strangers to each other a crucial distinction.
So I spent more time seeking out more strangers, and realized that it didn’t just apply to my art project: what I would call “Burning Man magic” (your term of art may differ) was generally must stronger, much more prevalent, and much more weird, when I was connecting with strangers than it was with people who knew me back in my various camps and homes-away-from-homes.
This may be no surprise to you at all, but it got me thinking about the way my burns have changed. The best way I can explain it is to describe something else that happened to me this year.
A friend kidnapped me from my home and took me to Burning Man over a day early this year, leaving me without a tent or access to most of my stuff. The person whose tent I was borrowing arrived over a day later than planned. So I was homeless at Burning Man for about three days.
Back at my first Burning Man? Or my second? This would have scared me to death. I would have had no idea what to do, how to get by. I had a hard enough time meeting people as it was – I had to push myself to go out and see things, do things. But I had to, because otherwise nothing would have happened.
But this year? C’mon. Not only do I know exactly how to keep myself alive at Burning Man, but there are a fair number of place where I can just show up and say “Hey, I need crash space” and they’ll roll out the red carpet. (Yes, some of them have an actual red carpet.)
Which is to say that the fierce intensity with which I needed to go out and meet strangers and experience new things my first few years was so much greater, even when I had everything set, than it was mu 8th year when I was homeless and destitute.
My first years, everything pushed me into new territory. Now, I have so many established bases of operation and places to crash that I can go to Burning Man and almost never leave my comfort zone.
What a difference that makes.
Not only is Burning Man more intense, more magical, more meaningful, when you get out of your comfort zone, but I have come to believe that the 10 Principles are at their most effective, most impactful, and most meaningful wen they are extended to strangers.
Radical Inclusion does not mean less when you offer it to someone you already have social or kinship bonds with, but it is adulterated by these other bonds, because the truth is that you were pretty much going to include these people anyway. But when radical inclusion is offered to a stranger? It takes on a miraculous quality.
So does radical self-expression. So does communal effort. Of course you were going to help your camp mates get your shade structure set up. But helping a stranger build a statue that you don’t understand? That’s a magical moment.
To the extent that the 10 Principles only replicate the way were were going to interact with people and the world anyway, they produce the same kind of effect we were going to get anyway. It is when they push us in directions we otherwise wouldn’t have gone, with people we otherwise wouldn’t have connected with, that they lead to amazing results. They are at their best when they don’t simply replicate the tribal and kinship bonds we already have.
Whether this matters to you is a question of personal opinion. But for me, it suggests a clear calling: that I need to make more of an effort to get away from my friends and loved ones at Burning Man in order to spend more time with complete strangers. Abandon my companions? Of course not. But I have spent too much time wondering what happened to the intensity of my early Burning Mans. In fact it was right beside me all along, just outside the borders of the rut I was walking in.
If you want to rediscover the 10 Principles at their most intense and relevant, seek out strangers and offer them something.
Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com