Here’s what I’ve been thinking about when I hear that sound camps are scrambling to find tickets for a bunch of prominent professional DJs; and that established burners who can’t make it in this year are suggesting that tickets be reserved for “hard core” burners who have put years in at the event:
The most counter-cultural thing about Burning Man is that it’s largely a production of amateurs.
The rest of it not only can be co-opted, but already has: nudity and art and face paint and fuzzy boots? Hell, you can get that on Cinemax. DJs and electronic music? That’s been so commoditized there are t-shirts of Che Guavara spinning beats. Environmentalism? That’s been going downhill ever since “save the whales” became a bumper sticker.
The vast majority of what happens at Burning Man can be replicated in a slick and professional way. Yet every time that happens the results come out tasting like instant coffee. McBurning Man is nothing like Burning Man, even if the french-fries are delicious.
It’s Burning Man’s rank amateur status that keeps it alive and interesting and challenging to the culture at large in a way that raves never were and TV can only dream of. After all, the mechanism of appropriation is to bring professionals in and have them do things to spec. Amateurs are unpredictable. They’re in it for the passion, not the money, and they’ll follow their passion way past spec: amateurs can’t be co-opted as long as they stay amateurs. Burning Man can’t be co-opted as long as amateurs are the one’s really driving the culture.
And they are: Burning Man’s “no spectators” ethos turns everyone at the event into an amateur impresario. If you can’t sit back and watch then you have to do something, and if you’re not getting paid for it you might as well do something you’re passionate about. That energy, that free-floating untamed passion to do something just-fucking-because, is what makes each burn vital and interesting. Burning Man’s professional employees will be the first to tell you that they get the port-o-potties set up and the road signs in the dirt, but they never pretend to be what makes the burn unique. That comes from 50,000 amateurs testing themselves against their own deviant muses.
The more spots you reserve for established burners simply because they’re established burners, the less of that you’re going to get. The more professional DJs play Burning Man, the more its sound camps are going to resemble a warehouse party (yawn) in LA or a hip club (… so tired …) in Amsterzzzzzzzz.
The attempt to determine who a “real” burner is has always been misguided, and the idea of reserving tickets for some people because they’re more “Burning Man” than others is toxic to what keeps Burning Man interesting year after year. Burning Man has a constant need for more people who don’t know what they’re doing, because they’re the ones most likely to reinvent the desert and surprise us.
This is no less true as Burning Man confronts ticket scarcity and begins the transition into a non-profit. In fact, it’s more crucial than ever.
Burning Man has a lot of tough decisions to make about ticket sales from here on out – but attempts to make it a game preserve for semi-professional burners will quickly leave Burning Man with all the cultural cachet of Sea World. Come see them perform!
No less delusional is the idea that going the extra mile to get tickets to professional entertainers will improve Burning Man. The most famous DJ in the world is actually far less valuable to Burning Man itself than a first-time Burner who has always wondered if she has what it takes to open an oxygen bar while wearing a whale costume.
The unspoken corollary of “no spectators” is “no professionals,” and it’s a big part of the reason Burning Man has gotten so big, and an even bigger part of what’s made it worth getting into an argument over. Whatever solutions we find to today’s problems, we must never privilege the professional entertainer … or Burner … over the amateur.
That’s going to be difficult: a lot of pressure is going to be put to bear. But it’s essential. Because, really now: why would we want to make Burning Man more like something we can already pay to see somewhere else?
Or already saw last year?
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com